Reality is Unrealistic: Or, what if Gavrilo Princip was a wizard?


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The problem with reality is that it doesn’t have a plot.

We like to imagine it does. After all, what are we but the protagonists of our own lives? But anyone who’s ever taken a course on “The Causes of (insert war here)” or had passionate, possibly drunk late-night arguments about “What if X thing happened instead of Y” knows that life is messy and full of inconsistencies. Tiny mistakes change the course of history. Random coincidences and singular bad decisions snowball into giant disasters.

The Chernobyl meltdown is a good example of this. There’s no “plot” to the Chernobyl story: no arc, no theme, no single protagonist. There wasn’t even a villain, unless you count state bureaucracy and inefficiency. Many small, independent issues added up: a delayed safety test, an inexperienced night shift handling a procedure they’d never done before, a flaw in the system they didn’t even know about, cost-cutting here and there. A few details here and a few details there until KABOOM, and you’re left picking pieces of radioactive debris off the roof and wondering what happened.

In a book or a movie, something like Chernobyl would need a more coherent through-line. We’d need a structure, acts, a theme to focus on and keep us going. Stories have to have a point.

The recent “Chernobyl” miniseries managed to get through the problem by focusing on individual character arcs. “Lies” and “bureaucracy” were the overarching enemy, the symptom of a system rotten to the core. The character’s arcs were about discovering what happened and making a public statement, to counteract the lies.

But that wasn’t quite enough to make the story work. They needed a temporal villain, a man with a face that we could hate: “lies” are too abstract for something like this. So the series creators wrote shift lead Anatoly Dyatlov as a bad boss who pushed his stressed subordinates to the breaking point and thus shouldered much of the blame for the disaster.

When you’re writing fiction, being too realistic is a bad idea. Readers need plot and structure because those things make a story satisfying: they have logic, B follows A, and we get the enjoyment of setup and payoff. If we tell a story where everything is chaos, nothing makes sense, the real villain doesn’t appear until the last minute, and the whole thing snowballs simply because a few too many people made a bunch of unconnected mistakes … well, it’s realistic, but it’s also unsatisfying.

Which brings me to “Dragon Age 2.”

These days, DA2 is pretty much considered the redheaded stepchild of the Dragon Age franchise. Which is fair: the game was a rushed sequel that didn’t seem sure what it was doing, where it was going, or what its focus was. Pieces are missing; B doesn’t always follow A; and your protagonist actually has very little effect on the outcome of the story, barring which of the factions they support. Environments are limited. The story is small.

But I will go to bat for this one, because Dragon Age 2 may be the most realistic video game I’ve ever played. The jumbled approach and nonsensical plot accidentally ends up mirroring many real-world historical scenarios. And I find it very interesting to look at, if only as an illustration of the difference between plotted fiction and plotless reality, and how reality is unrealistic.

Note: You don’t have to be a Dragon Age fan to read this essay. Believe me, I will explain everything in exhaustive TL;DR. Spoiler warning!

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Craft Tutorial: Cheap & Easy Face Cast


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Halloween is coming, and that means masks!

The face is an integral part of any character look, and a well-chosen mask or a set of facial prosthetics can really be the final touch on turning yourself into someone (or something) else. And for some cosplayers and LARPers, covering your face comes with an additional bonus: shielding those of us who are otherwise shy. A mask can be your passport to a character and protect you if you’re otherwise awkward in social situations.

Unfortunately, a good mask can be pricey, and a lot of premade masks don’t fit every face. If you’re a woman with a larger-than-average nose, for example, then you’re out of luck. And if you resort to making your own masks, then you quickly run into other problems. (Ever had to pick papier-mâché out of your eyebrows? Ow.)

The solution? Plaster! With a few supplies and a couple of hours, you can create a plaster cast of your own face — which will then be your model for customized masks! A cast like this guarantees a homemade mask that fits your face and opens up a lot of possibilities for awesome costumes.

Skill level on this one is … pretty low, to be honest. I am NOT a sculptor, and I’ve never made a flawless cast. You don’t have to create a perfect likeness, just get the shape of your face right. And it’s cheap: I made mine for about twenty-five dollars.

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Dispatches from Under the Shoulder Devil


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Every year, I feel like I ought to write something during Mental Health Awareness Month. And every year, I put it off until Mental Health Awareness Month is over. This is partially because I’m disorganized, but also because my particular mental illness—depression, one of the stereotypical illnesses for the bougie artiste—isn’t that entertaining to read or write about.

In fact, it’s downright depressing to read about depression. Given that all we’ve been hearing this past year is about how NOT to spread disease, blogging about my depression would probably get me shut down by the CDC.

But that’s the lazy way out. It’s easy to find reasons not to do something and stay in your safe rut. So get your hazmat suits ready, guys! I’m going to share my story of ongoing mental illness: how it works, how it’s affected my life, and the ways I’ve found to cope with it.

Before we get into it, a disclaimer: This is not everyone’s experience of depression. I’ve been extraordinarily lucky in some ways: thanks to a loving family and some bitter experience, I’m able to manage my depression (mostly) and get along in life. Others haven’t been so fortunate, or have been hit much worse than I have. Your mileage may vary.

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Stories of Hope


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In difficult and frightening times, writers can do something. We can write stories about how things could be better … or worse.

Stories of hope.

I began thinking about this yesterday, when the lovely folks over at Thinklings asked what books I’d recommend to others. I was in a funk, as I often am these days, and I was grateful for the distraction. I started making my list, which began with Poul Anderson’s “The High Crusade” and Edgar Rice Burroughs’ “A Princess of Mars.” Books from 1960 and 1912 respectively, when things on the world stage were often darker than they are today. I looked at the list and thought: seriously? Do I want to include throwbacks from an even more difficult time?

And I decided yes, I do. Because so many of my favorite stories, even the outdated and dark ones, are stories about hope.

Old genre fiction and pulp, especially sci-fi, is inextricably of its time. Nothing ages as fast as yesterday’s idea of the future. And the social attitudes are, by our standards, utterly inexcusable. But they are still stories about moving past limitations: breaking the atmosphere, advancing the frontier, exploring the furthest reaches. People from different backgrounds (why do so many people forget that Captain Nemo was East Indian?) come together to overcome terrible challenges.

Genre fiction is great for this. Even dystopian fiction is, in its way, hopeful. In the far future of A Canticle for Liebowitz, where so much has been lost, there are still individuals who work to help others and to preserve ancient knowledge. And in the grim darkness of Warhammer 40,000, a universe so unremittingly bleak that it’s literally given us a new word for depressing fiction, there are still stories of great heroes … or just those who make the best of things.

We don’t read dystopian fiction because we want them to come true. We read dystopian fiction because we want to see the dystopia fall, and to see what not to do. And I find that hopeful.

Writers, we have a wonderful gift. We can write stories of hope. We can imagine ways that we all sort out our conflicts … or simply manage to temporarily ignore them in the face of a greater threat (aliens! Gods! Ancient monsters!). Or we can spin a yarn to make someone smile during difficult times.

Right now, I have two manuscripts going. One is a story about strange murders at a renaissance faire; the other is a sequel to Painter of the Dead. There’s some weird, dark stuff in those (especially the first one), but to me, they’re always about hope. Characters will come out the other side wiser, better, or simply tougher than they went in. Depressing endings? Those are for Shakespeare, and I ain’t no Shakespeare. I just want to tell a good story.

Happy writing! Let us be hopeful.

“My love has lasted longer than the temples of our gods”: Love, eternal life, and The Mummy


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More than any other monster in the horror pantheon, the Mummy is a fool for love.

If you had to choose the biggest romantic in a lineup of literal monsters, you probably wouldn’t pick the Mummy. (In fact, you’d probably say “What am I doing here? Why is this happening? Can I leave now?”) But if you look at the history of the Mummy in film, you’ll see certain plots and ideas cropping up again and again. Dracula may have better publicity as a seducer and Frankenstein’s Monster wants a woman made to match him, but the Mummy suffered eternal death for love … over and over again.

This Valentine’s Day, let’s take a look at the Mummy’s softer side.

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RIP: An unsacred cat


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Pippin (2002-2020) engaging in his favorite activity: nothing at all.

Dogs are supposed to be man’s best friend. I disagree. Dogs, bred and cross-bred and designed by generations of breeding to fulfill certain roles—dogs are man’s best creation. Cats? Are man’s best roommate.

On November 24th, 2020, two days before Thanksgiving, I lost my best roommate. His name was Pippin. He came to us from the Chicago Anti-Cruelty Society in November of 2003, when he was estimated at a year old. A short-legged, long-bodied, vaguely Maine Coon-ish little goofball, he would go on to be my four-legged sidekick for the next seventeen years.

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CONTEST: Books and amulets!


As of today, “Painter of the Dead” is now 99 cents on Kindle! This is a limited-time thing, so check it out now!

To celebrate (and have some fun, because I LOVE shopping for giveaway prizes), we’re gonna be running a little bit of a raffle.

Two winners will receive a brand-new print copy of “Painter of the Dead” and a beautiful handmade necklace from an artisan jeweler. To win, all you have to do is comment below! If you could tell me your favorite monster or mythological figure, that’d be great too. 😉

We have two prizes available:

The scarab prize, which is a copy of “Painter of the Dead” and a laser-cut wood-and-acrylic scarab necklace from BIRCHpleaseHQ

… and the ma’at prize, which is a copy of “Painter of the Dead” and a silver “feather of truth” Egyptian necklace from Silverspot Studio.

These are both artisans I’ve purchased from before and their work is absolutely beautiful. I’m so happy to be able to share these things with you as I celebrate this book and the amazing efforts of the people at Thinklings Books!


This raffle runs until midnight Central time on Sunday, November 15th, 2020. Shipping is only available for the United States right now, particularly as cross-border authorities are worried about COVID. These items will be shipped from a COVID-free home. The jewelry pieces have not been removed from their original packaging, and the books have been rewrapped in clean new tissue. Winners will be decided by a random number generator and the results posted on November 16th, 2020.

And if you’ve read this far, thank you for being thorough. 🙂

Craft Tutorial: The Mummy’s Hand


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I love Halloween. When I was a kid, it felt like the one day when I could really let my creative urges out—inventing characters and finding ways to bring monsters to life. Nowadays, I don’t have to wait until Halloween to have an excuse for creepy crafting and scary storytelling, but this is still my favorite time of year!

As I’m also an ancient Egypt fanatic, there tends to be more than the fair share of mummies cropping up in my Halloweens. However, I’ve never been a fan of store-bought mummy props, which tend to just be plastic skeletons wrapped in gauze. If I want a mummy, I make it myself.

To celebrate the release of my paranormal mummy romance tale Painter of the Dead, here’s a gift for my fellow Halloween fanatics! This is an easy DIY for turning basic fake skeleton pieces into creepy, withered, half-fleshed monstrosities. The great part about doing this is that you can alter the basic ingredients and create a huge amount of variation with very little effort—and not much money.

Now let’s make some monsters!

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“Painter of the Dead” Sample Chapter(s)


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A museum is a place for things from the past. But in one museum, dead things are preparing to come alive again … And one artist, who was only looking for her next inspiration, will find herself caught up in a conflict older than empires.

Click “Read More” to dive into the Prologue and Chapter 1 of Painter of the Dead, available October 6th from Thinklings!

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The art of living forever: “Painter of the Dead”


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It’s almost here! Coming this October, an updated release of a tale as old as time (or as old as the First Intermediate Period, anyway): Painter of the Dead.

Theodora Speer, museum artist, brings the lost worlds of history back to life in her work. She calls herself dedicated; her best friend prefers “obsessive.” But the past and the present collide when she meets Seth Adler, a museum donor with an unusual interest in the Egyptian collection. He works to preserve ancient treasures, but seems almost wary of them, and Theo can’t figure him out.

Seth is hiding a secret of his own: a long, long life. Now, as he searches for the artifacts that will keep him safe, he finds himself up against – and drawn to – the intense Theo, whose art gives her a power not seen on this earth for thousands of years.

This story has been with me for a long time, and I’m delighted to be able to bring it back to you! It features my own original take on a classic monster, a chance to explore behind-the-scenes in an unusual setting, and a pair of characters with so many more stories to tell!

When we get a little closer to time, I’ll be launching a promotional contest to get copies (and some neat prizes!) out to a few readers. Watch this space!

In the meantime, check out a few of my other posts on monsters in general and mummies in particular.

Radziwill’s Mysterious Mummies: A New Translation – A post exploring the origins of the mummy-as-monster. Combing through texts in Latin and French, we uncover the testimony of a traveler from the 1580s, who found himself caught in a storm and apparently bedeviled by … ghosts?

Gods and Monsters I: Ancient Roots – The first post in my “Gods and Monsters” series, following the evolution of the mummy in cinema. Beginning with Boris Karloff in bandages and taking us right through Tom Cruise versus CGI, we look at how mummy films built on each other and got lost in translation.