Eleven Questions for: Rebecca Chastain

Magic of the GargoylesWell folks, we are in for a treat today, because not only is Rebecca Chastain awesome, but she tells us how to make “healthy” chocolate turtles! This enables you to make a whole tray of them and eat them all at once at your desk, because they’re not bad for you. Naturally I tried this as I was putting together this post, in the name of research.

Rebecca’s got two great urban fantasy series going right now, Gargoyle Guardian Chronicles and Madison Fox, Illuminant Enforcer. Here’s the description of Magic of the Gargoyles, to whet your appetite:

To help a baby gargoyle, Mika will risk everything.
Mika Stillwater is a mid-level earth elemental with ambitions of becoming a quartz artisan, and her hard work is starting to get noticed. But when a panicked baby gargoyle bursts into her studio, insisting Mika is the only person she’ll trust with her desperate mission, Mika’s carefully constructed five-year plan is shattered.
Swept into the gritty criminal underworld of Terra Haven, Mika must jeopardize everything she’s worked so hard for to save the baby gargoyle from the machinations of a monster—and to stay alive…

 
Now on to the questions!
 
Q:
You’ve recently released the third Gargoyle Guardian book, and a new Madison Fox book is coming this fall. Do you have trouble changing gears between series, or do you find the variety energizes you?
A:
Six months ago, I would have told you that bouncing between series was energizing, but then I wrote Curse of the Gargoyles and Secret of the Gargoyles back-to-back, and it was heady stuff! A whole bunch of ideas for other adventures in that world started filling my notebook, but I have an obligation (and desire) to get back to the Madison Fox series and couldn’t pursue them (at least not yet). I think I’m better off sticking with one series until it’s done, or at least a major arc is wrapped up.

Q:
I’m a plotter like you, and I could not write without an outline. What can’t you write without?
A:
I definitely couldn’t write without my main outline. I also need my scene outlines, which are short, jotted notes to keep me on track hour by hour. I suppose if I were trapped on a desert island but could still publish books, I might be able to get by without Scrivener or my ergonomic keyboard, but I wouldn’t want to.

Q:
You get to pull one literary character through the fabric of reality to stay with you for a week. Who do you choose, and why?
A:
Any dragon from Anne McCaffrey’s Pern series. I would love to pick the brain of a telepathic dragon, and if he or she were so inclined, go for a ride. I can’t think of a more thrilling experience than being dragonback in flight! I imagine it would cause hysteria among the people (and dogs) in my neighborhood, but it’d be worth it.

Q:
You’re a gamer. Madison Fox is not a fan. What game would you introduce her to to win her over?
A:
You know when you eat MSG-filled food, and when you start thinking about it later, you drool? If my brain could drool, it would at every mention of Portal. It’s a super-fun first-person puzzle game that I find absolutely addictive. Madison would enjoy the fact that the game isn’t sexist and doesn’t involve complicated button sequences. After she was hooked, I’d introduce her to Chariot, a great one- or two-person side-scroller that involves way more timed jumping than I’m qualified for but is so much fun.

Q:
In a sea of vampires and shifters, elementals and gargoyles stand out. What drew you to these characters?
A:
Before I wrote Magic of the Gargoyles, I had never read a book where the magic system was based solely on the elements. The idea actually came to me when I was trying to feng shui my house. Balancing the elements in each room was a frustrating task, and I thought it would be so much easier if I could distill the elements into their essences—and the magic system was born. I don’t remember what made me consider gargoyles as a main fantastical creature, but the moment I pictured a baby gargoyle, I knew I had a story to write. Gargoyles ended up being so much fun, too. I could make them any shape I wanted, and once I decided on quartz for their body types, I could make them almost any variation of color. The possibilities were endless!

Q:
Best dessert of all time?
A:
Chocolate turtles! They’re very easy to make: take half a medjool date, stuff it with walnuts, drizzle it with melted dark chocolate, sprinkle it with sea salt, and then put it in the refrigerator until the chocolate hardens. It’s snack-sized and almost healthy.

Q:
What books most influenced you to want to become a writer yourself?
A:
Anne McCaffrey’s Pern books (no surprise, since I want her dragons to come to life), Piers Anthony’s silly Xanth books, and Robert Jordan’s epic fantasies. I loved getting to experience their magical worlds, and it seemed almost a foregone conclusion that I’d write down my extensive daydreams. I got serious about writing in the seventh grade, and since then my school and career decisions were all geared toward becoming a full-time author. (I didn’t achieve my dream for another two decades, which shows how powerful my desire was…or how persistent I can be.)

Q:
For fantasy writers, the old adage “write what you know” isn’t always something you can take literally. What do you have in common with Mika and Madison?
A:
When I wrote Magic of the Gargoyles, I was in Mika’s position: trying to leave a dead-end job (in the corporate world, not a quarry) to pursue my dream job (being an author), and I was doing a lot of freelance editing to make the transition. I intimately understood Mika’s dream of freedom, and I’ve been pleasantly surprised with how readers have empathized with her plight, too, especially when she has to put all her hard work and her dreams on the line.

Madison and I have a lot more specific life details in common. I wrote the first draft in a month for NaNo WriMo, with only the sketchiest of outlines, so I didn’t have time to do world building. Which is why Madison lives not only in my hometown, but also in my old apartment. She works in the same building I used to, and her cat’s vet is my cat’s vet. However, that’s where the similarities end. She’s got that whole “I can use my soul as a weapon” thing going for her, and I’ve got “I can hide really well from the UPS guy” thing going for me.

Q:
Is there a genre you don’t write in, but have considered trying?
A:
I don’t know that I could write a book that didn’t have magic in it. The closest I came was Tiny Glitches, and that still is heavy with magical realism. I have a tentative idea for a paranormal romance, but I feel like the line between urban fantasy and paranormal romance is blurring, so I don’t know if that counts.

Q:
Music while writing, or silence?
A:
Music, but only songs I know.

Q:
After the third Madison Fox book, what comes next? How far ahead do you plan?
A:
I plan to write through book 5 in the Madison Fox series before turning to something else. However, while I plot individual novels with a manic obsession, I plan series like a pantser, so I have no idea where that’ll leave the series right now. If it feels like a natural pause point, I’ll turn to one of three other series ideas I have. If not, I’ll keep going with Madison Fox.

 

RebeccaChastainRebecca Chastain is the internationally bestselling author of the Madison Fox, Illuminant Enforcer series and the Gargoyle Guardian Chronicles, among others works. She has found seven four-leaf clovers to date, won a purebred Arabian horse in a drawing, and once tamed a blackbird for a day. Writing stories designed to amuse and entertain has been her passion since she was eleven years old. She lives in Northern California with her wonderful husband and three bossy cats.

Website: http://www.rebeccachastain.com/
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/rebeccachastainnovels
Twitter: https://twitter.com/Author_Rebecca
Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/5660379.Rebecca_Chastain
Amazon author page: http://www.amazon.com/Rebecca-Chastain/e/B00MW89XB0/

One Last Time

MAJOR SPOILERS for The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, both movies and books.

CORRECTION: My apologies for getting the subtitle of the first movie wrong. What can I say, there were a few iterations during production, and I’m a forgetful old lady. That part’s been removed.

 

The subtitle for the second Hobbit movie made no sense. The Desolation of Smaug didn’t happen in that movie. But The Battle of Five Armies is aptly named. The battle is the movie. The whole movie.

It’s to Peter Jackson’s credit, then, that despite all that (great) action and all those (great) special effects, this was really a character movie. This is what I was missing from the second installment: it rang a little hollow, because it was just a bunch of action scenes mashed together without enough room for the actors to, you know, act and stuff.

That doesn’t happen here, and ultimately, it’s Jackson’s cast that carries this trilogy to a triumphant end. So I’m going to say nice things about them first, before I do any scolding.

Among some very stiff competition, Luke Evans and Richard Armitage were the standouts. Armitage played Thorin’s descent into madness beautifully. Sure, Thorin was a bit over the top, but if you haven’t come to expect that from Peter Jackson’s direction by now, you haven’t been paying attention. And it was the quiet moments, the flashes of the real Thorin coming through, that made the whole thing work. Armitage is what I always think of as a face actor; his performances are as much about his expression as the delivery of his lines. And when you can pull that off under all that hair and makeup, that’s saying something.

Luke Evans, on the other hand, actually manages to deliver a performance with restraint in a Peter Jackson movie, which is also saying something. He hits all the right notes with Bard, without ever crossing over into melodrama, and gives us an understated hero who despite his unlikely acrobatics and even more unlikely, for a fisherman, weapon skills, is completely believable.

And speaking of face actors, Dean O’Gorman is an unsung hero of these movies, because Aiden Turner’s Kili (also well played) gets all the spotlight in that brotherhood. But Dean O’Gorman? Is awesome. Peter Jackson is a great storytelller, and watching Fili and Kili growing from immature, innocent, plate-tossing goofballs into brave and battle-hardened men (or, well, grown dwarves) has been one of my favorite stories to watch.

The dwarves in the book aren’t really characters, except for Thorin (who himself only has one note, and that note is jerk). The others are largely indistinguishable from one another, a string of funny names. It’s quite an accomplishment for the writers and the cast that they managed to create thirteen actual, distinct, sympathetic people. I will never again read the Moria scene in Fellowship without tears, because Ken Stott made Balin real. Also a special round of applause for Graham McTavish, who succeeded in making me see Dwalin again, when I was pretty sure I’d only be able to think of him as Dougal from now on (and thus want to punch him).

It’s always, always a pleasure to see Ian McKellan and Cate Blanchett. I’d watch them read their grocery lists and be riveted the whole time. I can’t with this weird Gandalf-Galadriel thing, but still. Nice to see you guys!

And then we have Martin Freeman. Crikey. I really think this is the single best piece of casting across all six movies, and this performance right here is how you take a movie full of pointy elf ears and swords and dragons and make it real for people. And incidentally, while I got emotional several times, I did not cry until Bilbo started crying over Thorin’s body. (Then I cried the whole rest of the time.)

Okay, enough gushing. I have a bone to pick. There’s pretty much no point anymore in book comparisons. The Hobbit movies especially are more “inspired by” than “based on,” and that’s okay. Unlike a lot of other book fans, I like Tauriel just fine, and I like Evangeline Lilly in the role. But all that said, the worn-to-death star-crossed lovers routine is, frankly, a piss poor replacement for how Fili and Kili really die. It’s just one little line in the book:

Fili and Kili had fallen defending him with shield and body, for he was their mother’s elder brother.

But that image of them, fighting to the death over the mortally wounded Thorin, has stuck with me since I was seven years old. Because all that courage and loyalty and sacrifice make a tragic, fitting end to the House of Durin. And it’s so much more compelling than what we got.

I’ve expected to have my heart broken by their deaths since they first came to dinner at Bilbo’s. But, nope. I was properly shocked and dismayed by the abruptness of Fili’s, but Kili’s was so strongly telegraphed, and in such a cliched way, that when it finally came it was almost a relief. I was sorry they were dead, but the actual deaths did not make me cry. And they should have. That should have been one of the most memorable scenes in all six movies.

On a lighter note for the darkest of the Middle Earth movies, it’s clear to me that either Peter Jackson, or someone on his team, plays Word of Warcraft. First they put dwarves on rams. Then Beorn does a textbook bear bomb. Coincidence or conspiracy?

I’d like to end with a hat tip to the genius who came up with the “One Last Time” marketing campaign. Because I spent the last, I don’t know, maybe twenty minutes crying, and by the end it had nothing to do with the story and everything to do with my knowledge that we were leaving (movie) Middle Earth forever.

Only the rights to The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings were ever sold, and if memory serves, Christopher Tolkien has been very clear that he has no intention of selling the rights to any of Tolkien’s other work, ever. Peter Jackson already did some mining in the appendices of Lord of the Rings for the Hobbit movies, and I don’t think there’s much more story to be wrung out of the material he’s allowed to use.

Then again, “not much more” isn’t the same thing as “none,” is it? #OneMoreTime?

Pie, Revival, and telling me my butt looks fat

Finally coming up for air after all the holiday festivities. I hope all my American peeps had a great Thanksgiving! Do you still have pie? I still have exactly one piece of pie, which I’m strongly considering having for breakfast. But that’s just because I made my mom make another pie right before she left. Was that mean? Otherwise I’d have been out, despite having a 2:1 person:pie ratio at the table last Thursday.

Thanksgiving was late this year, which means if you celebrate Christmas and left it until after like I did, you’re already behind on your holiday shopping. Luckily for you, Kindle books are so easy to buy and give, and Ghost in the Canteen is just 99 cents all week long!

Speaking of which, I’m not that author who lets her mom write a review. Or her sister, or her best friend, or even her beagle. I do know some of the people who’ve left reviews so far, but they’re real people who’ve really read the book. (Or at least I’m pretty sure they’re real, although I’ve only ever met them online.) And they are not those people in your life who would hesitate to tell you your butt looks fat, you know? The upside is that I know, and you can rest assured, that my reviews are legitimate and honest.

The downside? I don’t have enough reviews. So if you’ve read Ghost and enjoyed it, please consider leaving an honest reader review on Amazon.

My own honest reader review, thus far, of Stephen King’s Revival is this: Revival is on my Kindle. The new WoW expansion is on my PC. In my scant bit of unwinding time before I go to bed each night, I look from one to the other. And I choose WoW pretty much every time.

I’d say I can’t remember the last time I was this unengaged in a King book, but I can: it was the last one, Mr. Mercedes, which was, if it can be believed, even worse than The Tommyknockers. So a bad streak here. Revival is better written than Mr. Mercedes, and the characters are interesting, but maybe I’m just not clicking with it. I’m about 35% in and it just lacks momentum. There’s nothing keeping me coming back. If it was almost anyone else’s book, I’d have put it down by now. But since it’s King I’ll probably tough it out. It is creating a backlog in my TBR pile, though.

So that’s my update. I KNOW YOU WANTED AN UPDATE. You can go back to stimulating the economy now.

The North remembers that winter is coming in April

Goodness, but April is a busy month, what with the launch of ESO and Camp NaNoWriMo. I haven’t got much to say about either. Yes, the launch is buggy, because that’s what a launch is. The bugs aren’t what matters. What matters is, how many more times am I going to create, delete, and recreate my character because I change my mind about her hair?

As for NaNo, this is my first year at camp. I set my goal at 30k because what I’m doing is really more of an extended outline than actual writing, full of things like: And then she arrives in town. Describe town. And sees the ghost. Describe ghost. But that’s okay. My goal for April is just to get the story straight in my head from beginning to end, work out what my characters would do or how they would react to certain things, and flesh out some scenes if and where I can. I’ll actually write the thing, um, later.

But none of these activities, nor the activities of normal non-April life, can compete with what happens on Sunday:

Game of Thrones is back, and the North remembers, bitches!

Obviously some lemon cakes are in order, at the very least. The ones in A Feast of Ice and Fire are delicious. (I use the traditional recipe because frankly, the modern one looks harder.) If you haven’t got A Feast of Ice and Fire, time is running out to get it before you have to make something icy and/or fiery for Sunday, so you’d better get going on that.

Am also considering making a pie of a certain flavor, even though this isn’t the season for it. That may make no sense to some of you, but the book readers, they know.

Will you be watching? Are you doing anything special for the premiere?

Emphasis on Elder Scrolls, not on Online

I had a lot more fun with this past weekend’s beta test of The Elder Scrolls Online than I did with the previous one, and not just because I was promised a monkey. (Although the monkey, obviously, did not hurt.) People kept saying to stick with it until level ten or so, and then the game would really “open up.” I can say for sure that’s not what it was, plus I still don’t know what they mean by that, because I never got any character past level seven. It’s okay, that’s what I do with betas; I’m a lot more interested in a horizontal sampling to get a feel for things than I am in the vertical progression of a character who is doomed to deletion in a few weeks. And it’s a good thing, too, because it took me several characters in various combinations to figure out that my MMO mindset was causing me to do it wrong. And that is why I had more fun this time.

I knew going in, having experience with Skyrim, that the class and skill systems in ESO are very different. But even with that knowledge, I was still starting characters by picking a class first. And why shouldn’t I? Since the age when such things were conducted with dice rather than keyboards, class has always defined your character. This has been reinforced all the way through MUDs, to WoW, Rift, and countless others. GW2 made weapon choice important too, but it still took a distant back seat to class.

Here is my tip for other MMO veterans who may approach ESO the same way: don’t. First pick a playstyle. Then a weapon. Then a race. Then a hairstyle. Once you’ve got those really important details worked out, pick a class.

Okay, maybe it’s not that trivial, but it’s certainly not more important than anything else. Let’s say you want to be a mage, and by mage you mean, you want to stand back and fire off magical pellets of badness. What makes you a mage in that sense is one thing: holding a staff in your hand. That’s it.

And here’s why: because the class skills you put on your toolbar are not basic attacks that are meant to be spammed. If you start a sorcerer and then immediately look around for your fireball or shadow bolt or mind flay, you’re doing it wrong. Same with weapon skills, for that matter. The things you put on your toolbar are not part of a rotation or set of casting priorities as such; they’re geared toward a specific purpose – crowd control, finishing moves, DoTs, escape maneuvers, and so on. That’s why they only give you space for five. And that’s why your resource pools will not be sufficient to spam them non-stop.

Your basic attacks, the spammable ones you will use as filler when you haven’t got something specific to cast, are your light and heavy weapon attacks. And because of this, your weapon, more than anything else, determines your playstyle. You want to do ranged damage, all of the time? You will need a destruction staff or a bow. You want those ranged attacks to be sneaky? Only the bow will work for that. Which class you use these weapons with is a matter of preference and flavor; sorcerers make great archers, and dragonknights make great fire mages. Some classes have more in their toolkit for certain roles than others, but any class can be a tank, a healer, a stealth-attacker, a caster, a melee face-smasher, or any combination thereof (unlike other games, hybrids are okay, even welcome, here). What those roles do require is specific weapon choices.

So my advice is: figure out what you want to be. Then pick the best weapons (you can swap between two) and armor types (you can mix and match as you like, so have a look at the skill lines for all three) for the job. Then have a look at the options for class, weapon, and other skills, and decide what you want on your various toolbar sets – do you want to be extra slippery, like a lot of burst, prefer DoTs, need lots of panic buttons, enjoy kiting and CC? Let those things determine your class selection. As soon as I started doing it this way, I had a lot more fun coming up with combinations, and I was a lot more successful at the gameplay itself. (And who doesn’t have more fun when they’re crushing enemies and not dying?)

The other bit of MMO baggage I had to leave behind to have fun here was simpler and more basic: I had to have a Skyrim kind of attitude. In a single player game, you don’t rush. You do not want to level quickly. How is a game worth sixty bucks if you’re through it in a week, right? An MMO is the opposite: endgame is the game, and leveling is a chore to be completed as quickly as possible. When I tried playing ESO like an MMO, going from one quest to the next with a constant eye toward progression, I was bored and frustrated. As soon as I stopped thinking about leveling and just started playing – literally playing, like a toddler who isn’t trying to reach anything or do anything particular with that toy truck, but merely wants to goof around with it for a while – I started having fun. The way I have fun in Skyrim. I don’t feel like doing this quest? No problem. I’ll just run around over here for a while instead, and something is bound to happen.

I think the game needs more somethings of that nature: more to explore and collect, less gating behind specific quest chains. (Especially when the gate is bugged, so you can’t move on to the next zone, ever, because the quest is broken. I’m looking at you, Abomination of Hate.) So don’t rest on your laurels, ZeniMax. I am still going to need a house. Soon.

Ok then

I asked for pets. I asked for something cool to collect. And ZeniMax has answered my call. I get a monkey!

Well why didn’t you say so before? I am in, Elder Scrolls Online.

I actually mean that, because I am like a small child and easily distracted by fun shiny things. But for the more serious gamer, I should also note that TESO has some great changes being implemented by launch, including collision detection, which I’m pretty excited about. You know, not monkey excited. But still excited. Some highlights of the changes:

  1. NPC collision detection. I know some people were hoping for more, but I think their reasons for not including it between players are sound.
  2. Players will be transported directly to their starting city after the tutorial, rather than being trapped on an island.
  3. More animations. This may sound like a small thing, but I think it’s a big deal. Combat felt so bland in the build I played. Having things spiced up a bit, combined with collision detection, will be a huge improvement.

Click here for more about the changes. (The linked video has been authorized by ZeniMax and does not violate the NDA in any way.) These changes will not be part of this weekend’s beta event, as they’re still going through private testing.

Many of my criticisms of the game still stand, but it’s going in the right direction. Combined with a recent dip in WoW excitement, it was enough for me to preorder. I’ll switch over my sub for a month or three, enough to make the initial investment in the game worthwhile. Maybe even longer if it can pull me in; it seems like they’ll be making changes right up until launch, so you never know. But my prior points about the pitfalls of a subscription game still stand. If they want to keep my attention long term, I’m going to need a house.

And a stable! For my horses! Which I hear we get to name! It’s all in the details, folks.

ZeniMax, please inspire me to give you my money

Well, now that ZeniMax has lifted the NDA for The Elder Scrolls Online, I’m free to tell the world how I feel about the beta. If only I knew how I feel about the beta.

I was deeply excited for TESO, because Skyrim! Plus MMO! My two favorite gaming experiences, mashed together. It’s got to be like chocolate and peanut butter, right?

Well, sort of. Except not really.

The graphics are beautiful. I love active combat systems. The lack of traditional class boundaries, and the resulting freedom with which you can build your character, is refreshing and intriguing. Overall, this is a good MMO. But it’s also a bit… bland. Lacking in personality.

By necessity, it lacks the immersion of Skyrim because it lacks the interactivity. The NPC’s never accuse me of being a milk drinker or discuss their histories with arrows to the knee. I can read books, but I can’t take them with me. If I see a cool vase, I can’t pick it up and bring it home. In a massively multiplayer environment, this is all understandable. My issue isn’t that these things are missing, it’s that they haven’t been replaced with anything.

Skyrim always made my character feel alive. Here, my character isn’t really a character in the true sense of the word. There are no ways that I’ve encountered yet to develop her as more than just a means of killing things. I want cool, fun things to work on. A house I can customize and use to display my books and trophies of battle would be best. Lacking that, pets. Unusual mounts. Cool rewards for achievements. Titles. Personality.

Because without those things, I’m not invested. I’m not attached. And it also leaves a decided lack of things to do. So far the game promises questing, PVP, crafting, and then if you want, more questing. I’m sorry to say, I’m not finding this to be enough. I’m sure they’ll tack on something raidy, but even then. We’ve seen all this before. Maybe if I say it a third time, I can conjure it up Beetlejuice style: where’s the personality?

Maybe – almost certainly – my expectations were too high. But there’s a reason for that: they’ve invited my expectations to be high by placing themselves in direct, mutually exclusive competition with mature, feature-rich MMO’s. People always defend launch titles by reminding us that such-and-such game didn’t have a lot of features at launch either. Which would be a valid point, if it was 2004. But they’re not competing with the launch versions of other games; they’re competing with them now.

The subscription model has a lot going for it, and it’s not bad in and of itself. But in this market, I think it’s a poor business decision. At least, unless you’re going to offer a one-year subscription at an extremely deep discount to anyone who pre-orders, say, or some other means of making it negligible until you’ve had time to ramp up the game. Because there are a lot of people out there right now who’ve been playing MMO’s a long time, with a core group of friends and/or family, and the fact of playing with those people is more important than the game itself. So either the whole group will play something, or none of them will.

As an example, in my house gaming is a family activity, and there are four of us who play. Which means when you offer a game for the industry standard fifteen dollars a month, you’re not actually talking about fifteen dollars a month, you’re talking about sixty. The upshot of this is, we’re not budgeting for more than one sub game.

Currently we’re playing WoW. (Yeah yeah, I can hear your game snobbery from here.) I’ve been a WoW player on and off for eight years, and right now my subscription is active for one simple reason: there’s just a lot to do. Without even getting into the standard endgame PVE and PVP, I’ve got pet battles (you have no idea), collecting mounts, collecting achievements, my little farm, various activities around the Timeless Isle, leveling alts. My experience is varied and fun and doesn’t get boring. And soon, with the addition of garrisons in the next expansion, there will be even more to do.

So what is ESO offering me that can compete with all of that? Why should I spend my sixty dollars here instead? This is what I’m asking myself. If you’ve got the answer, by all means, enlighten me in the comments. I haven’t pre-ordered it yet. But I’m still rooting for it. I’m hoping the next beta event will knock my socks off.

Things writers can learn from Skyrim

Video games aren’t known for their high quality storytelling. They tend to be derivative and clichéd and trope-embracing. You want to give people something familiar to work with as they jump in to play, and while you’ve got to have both story and backstory, you don’t want any of it to be particularly hard to figure out. Nobody wants to spend more of their gaming time trying to work out who Jon Snow’s mother is than actually killing stuff. Or, in the case of me and Skyrim, decorating their house, because I really only kill stuff in support of my search for a really good vase to put between the shelves in my library. Stop judging me!

But plot and characters aside, setting is where video games like Skyrim shine. Forget that it’s a story about killing dragons by scolding them really loud. That world feels real. And yeah, because graphics. But also because a lot of effort has been put into making you feel like your story isn’t even most of what’s going on in that world, let alone all there is to it.

Very few of the NPC’s in that game are nameless. They have more specific and personal things to say than “Death to all who oppose us!” when you click them. (Not that I object to “Death to all who oppose us!” I always answer my door with either that or “The reckoning is at hand!”) They have histories and petty arguments with their neighbors and quests of their own to deal with.

Same goes for every town and city. They’re not just sets you’re passing through so you can sell all the junk you’ve picked up. (Or, you know, stolen. From corpses.) They’ve got politics and threats and complicated histories. Okay, and sometimes also vampires, which annoy me as a story element, but I’m not saying the game is perfect either.

The point is, Skyrim always feels like a place that was living before you came along, is continuing to live all around you as you go through your storyline, and will keep right on living after you leave. And I wish I saw this done more often, and better, in novels. I don’t mean high fantasy – people who write high fantasy pretty much know they’ve got to create a whole world – I mean everything. Horror. Romance. Thrillers. I wish the authors of stories about accountants drinking coffee set them in meticulously constructed worlds.

Not that it’s easy. It can be very hard to toe the line between providing enough detail to make the reader feel like they’re there, and boring the stuffing out of them by spending two paragraphs describing a chair. And every reader has a different threshold. But I love reading about what they ate at the Hogwarts Halloween feast and Joffrey’s wedding feast. I love all the bits of history Tolkien scatters around. I love Derry and Castle Rock and the way Stephen King takes the time to flesh out even the most minor character, and I love everything Jasper Fforde does, ever. I love Tom Bombadil. There, I said it.

The common thread there is that I don’t want to read your book, I want to fall in. And nothing kills immersion like shrinking your world down to the size of your story.

Fall is for fantasy

51io0QNtvmL._SX260_PJlook-inside-v2,TopRight,1,0_SH20_Maybe because the Renaissance Festival comes to my region in the fall, or because the weather gets cooler and it’s a great time to curl up with a book, or just because of Halloween and haunted houses and witches. Whatever combination of these factors makes it so, this is a time of swords and sorcery and castles and stuff.

And not just books either. All sorts of things, including food. Back when more of my family played WoW together, we’d have Azeroth themed nights in which our adventures were preceded by some Westfall stew (because fall is also for stew) and homemade cherry pie. Come to think of it, why hasn’t anyone written a Warcraft cookbook? Or have they and I just don’t know about it? We need one of these.

And then sometimes we do a Harry Potter thing at Halloween, with pumpkin pasties and cauldron cakes and so forth. Harry Potter is great for the sweets. Not much in the way of stew though.

For this year, I just ordered A Feast of Ice and Fire. I’m thinking: October. Crisp air, crunchy leaves. And lemon cakes. Then more lemon cakes. I haven’t got much farther in my planning than that. Because when you think of Westerosi food, lemon cakes is the first thing, right? Come on. THEY’RE HER FAVORITE. Fiery Dornish peppers comes a close second though. I’d actually like to see some stats on how often these phrases are mentioned.

According to the description, one of the clever things about this cookbook is that it includes both medieval and modern versions of many recipes, and suggested substitutions for those things you just don’t tend to stock in a normal kitchen in the real world. I kind of wish there’d been something like that when I was making those gooey spider cakes.

More on A Feast of Ice and Fire when I’ve actually made one.