This week in “Random Cooking Questions” . . .

I have a tasty recipe for linguine with a sauce of bacon, shallots, and sun-dried tomatoes in cream — but my sister dislikes creamy things. She suggested doing it as a butter sauce instead, and I’m debating the best way to approach that.

Current recipe: cook chunks of bacon for six minutes in olive oil over medium heat, add chopped shallots for 1 minute, add cream and bring to boil, turn off heat and add sun-dried tomatos and parmesan.

Butter variant: should I just cook the bacon in butter and otherwise proceed as before? Or brown the butter for a while before adding the bacon? Or something else? Does this subsitution even work? (It’ll obviously create a different texture overall, but that’s the goal: my sister isn’t lactose-intolerant, just anti-creamy texture.) I could just experiment, but in the interests of winding up with an edible meal at the end, I thought I’d see what the commentariat advises.

Spark of Life: Joshua Palmatier on THE THRONE OF AMENKOR

When I decided to title this blog series “Spark of Life,” I didn’t expect that the moments where the characters and stories came to life would involve literal sparks. But in the case of Joshua Palmatier’s novel The Skewed Throne (the first book in The Throne of Amenkor omnibus), it really was the White Fire that brought things to live — or rather, his heroine’s response to it.


Joshua says:

cover art for THE THRONE OF AMENKOR omnibus by Joshua PalmatierThe “Throne of Amenkor” series—my first published trilogy—has a special place in my heart. The obvious reason is because THE SKEWED THRONE, the first book in the series, was the first novel I ever sold. But more importantly, it was because of its main character, Varis. In essence, she is the entire series. So I thought I’d talk about how and when Varis “came to life” for me.

The idea for the novel came from two sources: First, while writing another novel (unpublished), I had to will an ancient museum with interesting artifacts, and one of those artifacts was a throne that appeared warped in some way and those who approached it heard voices; this became the Skewed Throne. Second, I had an incredibly strong visual in my head of a young girl on the rooftops of a city, staring out over a harbor, with a wall of white fire approaching from across the ocean, stretching across the horizon. This became the White Fire, and was the catalyst for the story.

The woman in the visual was Varis, of course, but she hadn’t come to life yet. There was no spark at that point. Both of those images were static. The spark that brought her to life came almost immediately when I sat down to start writing. I began with the typical “portentous prologue” that seemed to be at the beginning of all fantasy novels in the 80s. The White Fire seemed perfect for this, after all. It was monumental in scope, affected everyone, would change the culture of the world. Perfect for a portentous prologue. So that’s where I began.

But then a magical thing happened. After a few paragraphs of this portentous prologue, that ponderous, powerful voice that everyone hears when reading such prologues got interrupted. By Varis herself. She cuts into it with a scathing remark. The interruption is jarring, and with a single line—“Fire, my ass”—you get an instant characterization of Varis herself. The contempt and self-reliance that comes across with those few words is what suddenly and immediately brought the entire book—what would become a trilogy—to life for me. The moment I typed those words, I drew in a sharp breath, because I knew that this character that I had yet to become familiar with had a life and depth that I would want to explore. She was going to be a powerful character, one that could sustain a series, someone who was strong and resilient and yet who had hidden hopes and vulnerabilities.

That moment was when the character—and thus the story—took life for me. Varis bloomed in my head, and while the plot centered around the White Fire and the Skewed Throne, that plot would have been empty and meaningless without the voice of Varis to tell it. That is how all of my novels get written: when a character or characters suddenly speaks and comes to life inside my head. It’s always about the character.


From the cover copy:

The Throne of Amenkor Trilogy omnibus brings together The Skewed Throne, The Cracked Throne, and The Vacant Throne for the first time.

One young girl holds the fate of a city in her hands. If she fails, it spells her doom—and the end of her world.

Twice in the history of the city of Amenkor, the White Fire had swept over the land. Over a thousand years ago it came from the east, covering the entire city, touching everyone, leaving them unburned—but bringing madness in its wake, a madness that only ended with the death of the ruling Mistress of the city.

Five years ago the Fire came again, and Amenkor has been spiraling into ruin ever since. The city’s only hope rests in the hands of a young girl, Varis, who has taught herself the art of survival and has been trained in the ways of the assassin. Venturing deep into the heart of Amenkor, Varis will face her harshest challenges and greatest opportunities. And it is here that she will either find her destiny—or meet her doom.

A professor of mathematics at SUNY College at Oneonta, Joshua Palmatier has published nine novels to date—the “Throne of Amenkor” series (The Skewed Throne, The Cracked Throne, The Vacant Throne), the “Well of Sorrows” series (Well of Sorrows, Leaves of Flame, Breath of Heaven), and the “Ley” series (Shattering the Ley, Threading the Needle, Reaping the Aurora). He is currently hard at work on the start of a new series, as yet untitled. He has also published numerous short stories and has edited numerous anthologies. He is the founder/owner of a small press called Zombies Need Brains LLC, which focuses on producing SF&F themed anthologies, the most recent being Submerged, The Death of All Things, and All Hail Our Robot Conquerors!. Find out more at or at You can also find him on Facebook under Joshua B. Palmatier and Zombies Need Brains, and on Twitter at @bentateauthor and @ZNBLLC.

Winchester (the film)

Saw the movie Winchester last night, for two reasons: 1) I have a yen to set either a story or a game in a structure like the Winchester Mystery House and 2) Helen Mirren.

Mind you, about three minutes into the movie I was asking my husband “why am I here, again?” Me, I’m not much of a horror movie person. I loathe the cheap “jump moment” approach to film-making, where you know something horrible is going to flash briefly into the frame, and I am beyond done with victimization as entertainment, especially female victimization. So every time we had a fleeting shot of some spectral monstrosity, I was both agitated and annoyed.

By the time the film was done, the agitation was gone, and the annoyance had morphed. Winchester has a pretty good story at the heart of it: Sarah Winchester’s conviction that she must build a house for the spirits of the people killed by her husband’s rifles, the company’s attempts to oust her by having her declared mentally unfit, the personal troubles of the doctor sent to assess her state of mind. The script does a nice job of weaving these things together in some interesting ways — and, I’ll note, it does so without ever making you watch the victimization of Sarah Winchester, her niece Mary, or Ruby, the doctor’s dead wife (whose story is sufficiently complex that I wouldn’t consider her fridged). They may be frightened, but you never have to see them weeping and bloody and begging for mercy. The least effective parts of the movie were the ones where the screenwriter and director seemed to feel compelled to follow the standard horror formula, making you sit there and wonder how much longer it will be before the person wandering around the creepy old house at night is made to shriek or fall down at the sight of a spectre. The most effective parts are the ones where the characters just talk to one another, unfolding their histories and personal demons, building suspense of a richer kind.

It makes me wish we could have had a film that was all that part, without the stupid jump moments.

Better late than never

I forgot to make this post on the first of the month, but that’s okay, because it gives me a semi-clever hook for starting it: “better late than never.” That’s just as true with tikkun olam as it is with blog posts. It may be preferable to do things right away . . . but it’s easy to talk yourself into thinking that because you didn’t do it then, there’s no point in doing it now. Which isnt true. It’s never too late to do something to repair the world; the world is never made better by deciding to pass on some action that might improve it.

You know the drill. Share in the comments what you’ve done lately, however small it may be, however old hat. If you volunteered, helped a family member or friend or neighbor or total stranger, donated goods or money, changed your life in ways that make you a better citizen of this planet, or otherwise did something good, share it here. You’re not alone, and seeing other people’s stories may inspire you to new actions. Do what you can, even if it comes a little late.

I have run out of clever names for the latest iteration of the Month of Letters

Last year I titled this post “Return of the Revenge of the Bride of the Son of the Month of Letters, Pt. Whatever: Quantum Boogaloo,” which pretty much uses up all the clever sequel references I could make. Maybe call this one: “Month of Letters: Letter Harder”?

Anyway! The point is that I am doing the Month of Letters again!

Years ago, Mary Robinette Kowal declared February to be the Month of Letters: a time to send actual letters through the actual mail, like, with paper and stuff. As part of this, she invited readers to correspond with Jane, the protagonist of her Glamourist Histories — and, inspired by her example, I did the same with Lady Trent.

So this is your annual heads-up that February will be your opportunity to write a letter to Lady Trent and receive a reply, in my very best cursive, written with a dip pen, and closed with a wax dragon seal. I’ve gotten some incredible letters in the past — some of them very funny, some of them deeply moving — along with more casual notes. If you’d like to participate, all you have to do is send some kind of handwritten missive to:

Marie Brennan
P.O. Box 88
San Mateo, CA 94401

Make sure to include your return address! I will reply as quickly as I can, workload and pile of correspondence permitting. I’ll answer anything postmarked within the month of February, though it may take me until March to deal with the last few, depending on how many I get and when they arrive.

Because I’m writing a sequel to the Memoirs, this will probably not be the last year I do this. The book won’t be out until after next February (I’m still writing it), so you’ll get another Month of Letters next year, and then possibly one the year after that, giving you a chance to write to Audrey, Isabella’s granddaughter. So enjoy them while they last!

On Tea

I’ve never been much of a tea drinker.

. . . but I’m getting there.

It started with my sister introducing me to what she calls “tea of life” — more properly known as Kirin’s Gogo no Kocha Lemon Flavor. It’s a cold bottled black tea sweetened and flavored with lemon, and lemme tell you, on a hot day, it’s glorious. Then I started drinking Oi Ocha, which out here in California is mainstream enough that you can buy it at CostCo, because on the whole I tended to like green tea better than black. From there I branched out into a few others — genmai cha, Ayataka, mugi cha (which isn’t actually tea if you’re pedantic, but I’m going to lump herbal infusions in under that term for the purposes of this post, so just deal with it) — which all shared one thing in common.

Well, two, but the Japanese part isn’t that significant. No, what they had in common was that I was drinking them all cold and pre-bottled.

I mentioned to Marissa Lingen in email that part of the reason for this was, I find the drinkability range of hot tea to be very narrow. They’re too hot to drink; then they’re cool enough that I could drink them but if I do they’ll mostly register on me as hot water rather than any flavor; then there’s the drinkability zone; then they cool off too much and get unpleasant to me. And even when they’re drinkable, they often taste . . . thin? If that makes sense?

Marissa recommended a particular herbal mix to my experimentation, so I thought, why not. I bought some. And then, when I went to put it into our cabinet — well.

My husband used to drink hot tea every so often. But he fell out of the habit years ago . . . except there was a span of time where he hadn’t quite accepted that yet, and kept buying tea. Plus I had bought a few, or had them bought for me, during previous stints of experimentation. The result was that, for a household which doesn’t drink tea, we sure did own a lot of it.

Thus began the Great Tea Craze of 2017-2018. I decided to taste-test my way through the cabinet, and my husband decided to resume his old habits. And I’ve learned some interesting things.

  • MY GOD was some of that tea old. We celebrated when my husband finished off the box of cinnamon apple spice that had expired in 2009, and could move on to the box of cinnamon apple spice that actually dated to this decade. (Still expired. But only by a few years.)
  • Mostly we’re drinking the old tea, because it’s just weaker and less nuanced, not actively gonna hurt you. But the untouched 48-count box of Lipton that, judging by the packaging (featuring a message from Mary Lou Retton), probably dated back to the ’90s? Yeah, that went in the compost.
  • Joulies, which we’d received as a Christmas present years ago, are really helpful for keeping tea in a drinkable range of warmth for a longer period of time.
  • Although one of the reasons I’m interested in drinking tea is because I like having beverages that aren’t sugared . . . well, I like tea better when I apply a moderate amount of honey.
  • Also milk. In fact, I like many teas better with milk, not because that obscures the flavor, but because I can taste the tea’s flavor more clearly when there’s milk to give it body. It helps address the “thinness.”
  • I’m fine with English breakfast, Irish breakfast, Ceylon, maybe Keemun (just started on one that’s Keemun and a bunch of other things, so it’s hard to say for sure), rooibos, and some herbal things.
  • I don’t like darjeeling (too astringent) or Earl Grey (too floral). Also, contrary to what I had thought during previous tea stints? I don’t like fruit teas very much. Most of them are much too sour or tart for me.
  • My husband, however, likes Earl Grey. Or at least, he decided that he did, because Captain Picard likes it (“Tea. Earl Grey. Hot.”), so that should be good enough for him, right? We own a *lot* of Earl Grey, much of it untouched.
  • . . . yeah, I can see the appeal in the whole ritual of the thing. Heat your water, get your tea bag or infuser, pour the water, wait a few minutes, add the various things (honey, milk, joulie), go back to your desk with the cup.
  • Also, hot tea = very nice in the winter for somebody like me who gets cold easily.

The most interesting thing will be to see whether this truly becomes an ingrained habit. Right now it has the energy that comes from I HAVE A PROJECT as we drink our way through the Cabinet of Ancient Tea. At this point we’ve disposed of most of the boxes and bags that had actually seen activity in the past; now we’re into the things that were basically untouched. Deprived of the feeling of progress that comes with clearing things out, now we’re going to find out how much I actually enjoy drinking hot tea for its own sake. More than I thought I did! But enough to do it habitually, especially once winter ends? We’ll see.

I know I have tea drinkers among my readership. Share your own preferences, your thoughts and suggestions for a novice in the comments!


I’ve lost my ability to concentrate.

I think a lot of us have. We live with countless electronic devices that are constantly demanding our attention, beeping alerts and notifications and even without that there’s a little niggling part of our minds that wonders if we have any new email or anybody has posted something to that forum or surely we ought to take a look at Twitter, don’t pay attention to that thing, pay attention to me. But only in bite-size doses, because there are a hundred other things you could be checking and probably should.

Even without that, we’ve got a society that encourages multi-tasking — despite the mounting pile of evidence that it isn’t good. Multi-tasking does not, contrary to what we’ve been told, make us more productive. It makes us less so, because we’re devoting less of our attention to each thing, and we pay a cognitive cost every time we switch our focus. And part of that cognitive cost is that not switching gets harder, even as it drains us.

(True fact: just now, my phone rang a soft little alert. It’s taking effort not to look and see what that was for.)

I can tell this is taking a toll on me because I can feel it in my work. Writing is not, in its ideal conditions, something you do for five minutes here and ten minutes there. It benefits from sustained attention, from getting myself into the state psychologists refer to as “flow,” where I stop thinking about the world around me and instead sink into the zone for an extended period of time. I can’t get there if I’m tabbing over to look at my email every time I pause to consider my next sentence, if I’m keeping a portion of my mind attached to the discussion I’m having on a forum or whatever and breaking away to update that. It’s an exaggeration to say I’ve lost my ability to concentrate . . . but I know it has declined, and substantially so.

That’s why I’m taking steps to fix it.

My steps are twofold, at least so far. The first is to get back to meditating: I got into the habit of doing that for a while in 2015 (true fact again: I made myself just drop some square brackets there and check the year after I finished typing this post, because I needed to check my email to find out which year it was, and that threatened to distract me from this), but I fell out of it after a while, and now I’m working to make it regular practice again. Meditation, mindfulness, learning to let go of all the little dancing monkey thoughts that want my attention NOW NOW NOW — that helps.

The other, weirdly, is to watch TV.

TV as a tool of concentration? Yes — when you put it in the context of what I was doing before. See, I’ve gotten into the bad habit of only really listening to TV, while I play solitaire or sudoku or something on my tablet. The result is that I only give the show maybe half my attention.

But when I started watching the Chinese drama Nirvana in Fire, the combination of subtitles + intricate politics meant I couldn’t get away with that. If I tried to focus on something else at the same time, glancing up to catch the subtitles as they skittered past, I wound up not even knowing who half the people were and what was going on. The only way to understand that show, let alone appreciate it, was to put things down and devote my full attention to the screen.

Subtitled shows are great for this, but I’m managing to extend that habit to English-language TV, as well. And you know what?

I’m enjoying it more.

And it’s getting easier to leave the tablet closed.

What other tricks do you all have for encouraging yourself to pay attention to one thing at a time? What helps you keep your ability to concentrate? I know some people shut down their internet connection entirely while writing, and there are lots of programs out there which exist to block other programs so you can work, but I’m also interested in the non-technological tricks — the things that are just about structuring your life in ways that help you focus.

New Worlds + tribute at Book View Cafe

I have two posts up at BVC today. The first is an expansion of my post in response to the passing of Ursula Le Guin; with the benefit of a little more distance, I have additional things to say about the effect she’s had on my life and career.

The other, of course, is my New Worlds post for this week. Completing our tour through certain features of the natural world, I discuss deserts: not always hot, not always filled with sand, but very interesting for stories.

Kaiju, Tuckerization, and tornadoes

Strange Horizons is running a prize drawing as a fundraiser for the magazine. Enter for a chance to be Tuckerized in the book I’m writing right now, the sequel to the Memoirs of Lady Trent! Given the nature of this book, the most likely prospect is that you’ll wind up being some kind of expert on the Draconean language or other such nerdy topic, but there are a few other possibilities as well.

The Kaiju Rising: Age of Monsters II anthology is nearly halfway to goal. If you missed it before, this anthology will feature a short story from me based on the micro-setting I wrote for the Mecha vs. Monsters expansion for the Tiny Frontiers RPG, which took that concept and smashed it full-speed into the idea of high school science competitions. The story is one of the most gonzo things I’ve ever written, and you can help it become a published reality!

This is a very long article, but very worth reading if you want to get a sense of how terrifying tornadoes can be. I’m lucky that I never experienced one, despite living in Dallas for eighteen years; I did experience huddling in the back hall of our house, waiting to find out if we’d lose that particular game of meteorological Russian roulette.

(Juxtaposing that with the previous item: gonzo as my story is, it doesn’t come close to approximating the sheer destructive force of a tornado. But it’s also meant to be a moderately funny story, and there’s nothing funny about annihilation on that scale.)

Finally, not so much an item as a teaser for something upcoming: stay tuned to this space for some exciting news on February 6th!