December 19, 2012

The 13th B'aktun

The Internet seems abuzz with the Maya calendar and 2012, but it's rare for that buzz to include anything factual about the Maya.  I contemplated a long ramble, but decided to direct you to David Stuart's succinct explanation here.

For anyone boarding themselves up on the 21st, the correlation between our calendar and the Maya calendar is still a debated issue.  The PARI Journal just published a paper that advocates for a correlation that would push the much-anticipated date to Christmas Eve (link).  That paper's kind of technical, so here's a more general explanation of correlations and the complications of the Gregorian Calendar, which favors the 584285 correlation (link).

However much I'm not worried about the world ending, I am excited to see a b'aktun complete.  I will not be alive for the next one in 2407.  So I'll be celebrating how we celebrate most things around here: treats and boardgames.

See you all next year!

ETA: And, of course, as soon as I post this, David Stuart's blog pops up with an accessible-yet-detailed explanation of  the breadth of the Maya calendar, here.

December 4, 2012

Galaxy Trucker vs. Mondo

Galaxy Trucker, by Vlaada Chvatil from Rio Grande Games:  In a galaxy far, far away... they need sewer systems, too. Corporation Incorporated builds them. Everyone knows their drivers -- the brave men and women who fear no danger and would, if the pay was good enough, even fly through Hell.

Now you can join them. You will gain access to prefabricated spaceship components cleverly made from sewer pipes. Can you build a space ship durable enough to weather storms of meteors? Armed enough to defend against pirates? Big enough to carry a large crew and valuable cargo? Fast enough to get there first?

Of course you can. Become a Galaxy Trucker. It's loads of fun. --Description from

Mondo, by Michael Schacht, from Z-Man Games: In Mondo, players compete against each other while also racing against the clock. Each player has a small world board with empty spaces on it, and all players simultaneously pick tiles depicting different animals and environments from the middle of the table and place them on their world board, trying to create complete areas of the same environment. A new tile must be placed next to an already placed tile, but the environmental borders don't have to match. (These errors will earn negative points when the board is scored.)

When the timer runs out, players score bonus points for each animal and each completed environment and score negative points for volcanic tiles, empty fields on the world board and mismatched tiles (for example, a tile with a forest border connecting with a tile with a water border).

Mondo includes three degrees of difficulty, in addition to additional goals and ways to achieve (and lose) bonus points, as well as rules for solo play. --Description from

I'm partial to both of these games.  Each uses a similar mechanic...which I don't have a name for.  Tiles are placed face-down (or face-down-ish) in the center of the table.  Players can pick up one at a time, then decide to either add it to their board, or pick another one.  Everyone does this in a jumbled hurry, working against the clock and each other.

In Galaxy Trucker, players have to line up the various kinds of connectors, and grab the right kinds of pieces to make their ship fly.  After the ship is built, players face a randomized stack of cards.  Sometimes there will be asteroids (hope you built shields into your ship), sometimes pirates (you'll hurt if you don't have lasers), or cargo pick-ups (for which you'll need cargo spaces).

There's something exciting about playing through this phase of the game with the ship you've built, but it's also occasionally frustrating.  If you finish your ship first, you play first, and many cards affect players in order.  So, pirates start with attacking the first player.  If the first player defeats them, he or she gets a bonus, and no one else gets the chance to fight.  First player gets their choice of cargo first, too.  I've found that playing with a group of people who know how to put a ship together, going first is usually a huge advantage.  It's possible to pass someone and take over the first position, but it depends on what cards appear.

In Mondo, your objective is to build an island, matching habitats to habitats with their animals.  There's something my control-freak-self really likes about this.  I know, when I put down certain tiles that I'm going to get certain points out of it.  The cards deliniating bonus points also change every round, so the game doesn't get stale.

Mondo also has a nice check on runaway leader syndrome.  Usually players are only docked points for active (red) volcanoes on their island, but the winner of a previous round is also penalized for dormant volcanoes, which makes putting together a high-scoring island rather difficult.

I enjoy the puzzle-like play of putting space ships or islands together.  Galaxy Trucker is a bit more random, but there are space pirates.  Mondo lets me be meticulous.  My tastes lean towards Mondo, but I can't pass up a game of Galaxy Trucker, either.

Has anyone played a game with a similar tile mechanic?  These are the only two I'm familiar with.

November 20, 2012

Date Flatbread from Vessel

Liyana helped herself to the flatbread that cooled by the fire.  It was Aunt Andra's recipe with roasted dates.  Each bite melted in her mouth and triggered a hundred memories of birthdays and anniversaries and other celebrations for which Aunt Andra had made her special bread.
       --Vessel, by Sarah Beth Durst, Chapter 27

Mmm.  Date flatbread.  Vessel is full of great food descriptions, but as soon as I read that paragraph, I knew I'd be cooking this.

Hard White Wheat: Yummy!
Some thoughts on bread first.  Most whole wheat flour in the US comes from hard red wheat.  Everything it touches tastes like wheat.  Which is great for things that want nutty, caramel flavors, but I thought it would overpower the dates.  So I used my favorite stuff: hard white wheat.  Nutritionally, it's the same as hard red wheat, but the taste is far less aggressive.  My local Wal-Mart sells whole white wheat flour, so I don't think it's too hard to find.

Around the time I read Vessel, I also began cultivating a sourdough starter.  Given that the people in the book wouldn't have access to commercial yeast, I went ahead and leavened the bread with my starter.  I was pleasantly surprised with the results.  The bread had a sourdough tang interspersed with bursts of honey-date sweetness, along with a smokey char from the pan.  It made a great meal by itself, though I'm looking forward to pairing this with a spicy curry in the near future. 

I know not everyone has sourdough starter handy, or even a desire to make bread dough.  If you still want date flatbread, try roasting dates as in step #1, then knead them into store-bought pizza dough.  Let it rest, covered for at least half an hour, then proceed with step #5.  (Caveat: I haven't actually tried this, but I think it would work well)

Date Flatbread
3/4 cup sourdough starter
3 1/4 cup freshly ground white-whole wheat flour*
1 teaspoon salt
3/4 cups dried dates, about seventeen
1 1/2 cup room warm water
Butter, for greasing

 *OR use 3 cups and 2 tablespoons commercial white whole wheat flour, plus 2 tablespoons vital wheat gluten.  Make sure to whisk the flour and gluten together before using, or you may get gluten lumps.

1. Finely chop the dates.  Add to a cast iron pan over medium heat, and cook until aromatic and slightly charred.  And you may want to chop finer than I did.  At this size, they had a tendency to try to tear the dough when it came to pat out the bread.

2. Let the dates steep in the water for half an hour.  After that half hour, the water should be lukewarm, not hot.

3. Mix the starter, flour, salt, dates, and yeast together in a large bowl.  You can do this with your hand or a wooden spoon.  Kneading isn't required; just bring it together into a tacky dough.

4. Let the dough rest, covered, in a warm place for about four hour, or until the top flattens.  If your kitchen is colder/warmer than mine, the time may vary.  At this point in time, the dough can be refrigerated until you want to use it.  It will stay good for several days.

5. Preheat a cast iron pan over medium heat.  Meanwhile, tear off knobs of dough and pat into rounds.  I do this on a silicon mat, but it's just as viable to dust a counter with flour and roll them.  They don't have to be super-thin, and you can make them as large as your cast iron pan allows.

6. Grease the cast iron pan with a small amount of butter.  Lay the bread round in the pan and cover with a lid.  When the dough bubbles and no longer looks raw, flip and let it cook briefly on the other side.  Cooking time will vary by the thickness of dough and how much char you like.  I don't have specific times.  Just watch it -- after the first round, it should be easy.

7. Repeat step #6 until all the bread is cooked!  This makes about two pounds of flatbread.

October 26, 2012


Hexaflexagons have been rolling through my brain.  Fun to say, fun to watch, fun to listen to my kiddos try to any case, there will be hexaflexagon projects in the house this afternoon.  Involving tortillas if we're extra-ambitious.


October 17, 2012

What Quenya Taught Me

My post, What Quenya Taught Me, is up over on Gem State Writers.  Linguistics.  Tolkien.  Good times.

Also, Cucurbital 3 is now released and available in book and ebook form.

October 11, 2012

Sharbat, from Shadow Spinner

When I turned around, Zaynab was looking at me; she quickly averted her eyes.  A pigeon sat on her shoulder, pecked at her gray hair.  Her robes were mottled with telltale white streaks.  "Would you..." Again she seemed shy.  "Would you like a cup of sharbat?"
                    --Shadow Spinner by Susan Fletcher, Chapter 7

This is one of my childhood favorites -- one of those now-battered books I read in a corner over and over again.  I'd been planning all summer to make sharbat in honor of this book, but summer slipped away from me.

From what I've read, sharbat has meant a few different things over time and space, but one common meaning is a syrup, diluted by water or milk, used to create a drink.  The context of the scene matches that.  No specific flavor was mentioned, though.  I first tried to use fresh fruit, but alas couldn't get the flavors concentrated enough.  That meant I grabbed nectar instead, which, on the upside, makes this recipe super easy (it is, essentially, a simple syrup).

Apricot-Clove Sharbat
1 1/2 Cup Apricot Nectar (or an 11 ounce can -- I used the Jumex stuff available on the cheap at Winco, if you're lucky enough to have a Winco nearby)
15 cloves
1 cup Sugar

1. Combine all ingredients together in a small sauce pan.  Heat on low until sugar dissolves.  If you boil it, you're on your way to making candy instead of syrup.

2. Remove from heat.  Refrigerate. This makes about 1 3/4 cup of syrup.  The longer it sits in the fridge, the stronger the clove taste will become.  I like it at about three days.

3. To prepare, strain the cloves and mix 1/4 cup of the syrup in 3/4 cup water. Or, instead of water, milk.  Or, to completely deviate from the book, club soda.  Yum.  This makes a pretty sweet drink, so dilute further, if desired.

*Special thanks to Chris for help with my broken camera problems!

October 1, 2012

Counting Pumpkins: A Candy PnP

I originally invented this simple print-and-play (PnP) game to play with Swedish fish, then realized Halloween is coming.  The new version works with most any candy.  This would be fun to play with kiddos, or to print and hand out with candy on Halloween.

The PDF below has all the rules and the playing mats on it, 2 per page.  But here's the whole thing in blog format:

Counting Pumpkins

Equipment: Candy, 1 six-sided dice, printed mats for each player. 

Rules: The youngest player goes first, taking turns in clockwise order.  Every turn consists of a dice roll.  If the player rolls their lowest uncovered number, they place a candy on top of that number.  The game ends when one player has filled all five pumpkins; everyone may then eat their candy. Example: Jan has filled her #1 and #2 spots.  Nothing happens on her turn if she rolls a 1, 2, 4, or 5, but if she rolls a 3, she places a candy on her #3 pumpkin. 

Young Child Variation: When a player rolls a 6, they may eat a candy from the supply. 

Older Child Variation: When a player rolls a 6, they may select one other player and force them to eat their highest-numbered candy OR the player may use the 6 as a wild for their lowest uncovered number for 1-4 (but not 5).

I came up with this game because my 4-year-old is very good at telling me how many there are of something ("That's six!"), but he has a hard time actually counting numbers in order.  He has an uncanny sense for overtly "educational" things, but this passes his cool test.  For little kids, it's a good way to learn taking turns, rolling a dice, and cause-effect rules.  I hope the older variation throws in a nice touch of strategy.  Enjoy! 

Click here for the PDF. 

*If you're interested in more complex games, Board Game Geek has a cool section of PnP games for Halloween.

*I can't actually draw pumpkins; my thanks to the public domain clip-art at OpenClipArt.

September 19, 2012

Guest Posts x2

Yesterday, I joined Matt Mikalatos' week-long celebration of Tolkien with a post called All the Villains Gets a Second Chance.

And I'm up today on Gem State Writers, with some nostalgia about the first time I met and connected with other writers (click here).  I guess this technically isn't a guest post as I'm now a once-a-month regular, but "Guest Post and Another Post that Isn't Quite That" seemed an unwieldy title.

September 12, 2012

Potpourri, for 200

It seems like a lot of things have been happening, so here's a mash of news and updates:

1. I announced this on Twitter, but I'm now represented by the Ashley Grayson Literary Agency.  Needless to say, I'm thrilled.

2. My short story, "Under Warranty," will appear in the upcoming Curcurbital 3 (press release here).  All the stories in this anthology use the same prompts -- madness, darkness, and mattress.  I decided to "write what you know," so my story features baby poop.  Enjoy!

3. The bloggers at Gem State Writers generously invited me to join their ranks, so I'll be posting there once a month.  I'll link to those posts from here.

4. My camera is a zombie.  It died, the internet reccomended banging it on a surface, and now it kind of shambles along.  This is why there's been a dearth of fiction-recipes of late.  Hopefully I can remedy this soon.

5. Likewise, I haven't had the chance to play many new board games recently, and thus have had few boardgames to blog about, but that's gradually changing.

6. And so long as I'm listing things -- I finished a draft of a new book!  My first drafts are usually a mess of notes and holes, but this one's readable enough for my writing group to chop up.

September 4, 2012

Short Story Primer, Part 4: Submit the Story

This post is part of a series:

1. Write and polish a short story.
2. Research the short story market.
3.Make a list of appropriate markets, and begin a submissions record.
4. Submit the story to the first market on the list, and keep submitting.

Here's the most important thing: read the submission guidelines.  If anything I say here contradicts the submission guidelines, follow the submission guidelines.

Submitting manuscripts is easier than it's ever been, thanks to electronic submissions.  There's no rush to the post office, no SASE...just a few clicks of a button.  Some magazines have an online form to fill out, but if they ask for an e-mail, here's roughly what it should look like:

SUBJECT: Submission: Story Title

Dear Editors,

I've attached "Story Title," a 3,000 word science fiction story.  Thank you for your time and consideration.

My Name

If you have any fiction sales, you should include that ("My fiction has appeared in X, Y, Z").  Most magazines ask for attachments as a .doc or .rtf, with the story in manuscript format or some stated variant of manuscript format.

After submitting the manuscript, I highly recommend trying to forget about it.  Write something new.  Keep going.  When the response comes, you can either cheer or submit it to the next market on your list. Why submit it again, someplace new?

Editors have different tastes and different needs.  Once upon a time when I was reading slush, we got two zombie stories at the same time.  We published one.  We didn't take the other, because we already had something similar -- not because it was a bad story.  There may come a point to stop and edit the story again (which would be an entirely different post), but rejection letters are normal.  They are common.  And they never seem so bad, when there's another market to submit to.

August 29, 2012

Short Story Primer, Part 3: Make a List

This post is part of a series:

1. Write and polish a short story.
2. Research the short story market.
3.Make a list of appropriate markets, and begin a submissions record.
4. Submit the story to the first market on the list, and keep submitting.

After you've read up on markets for short stories, make a list of markets that buy stories of your genre and wordcount.  Put what you consider the best market at the top of the list, and end with the last place you'd be happy to submit to.  What's "best"?

I can't tell you that.  Maybe there's a magazine you love and have always wanted to be published in.  Maybe you want that short response time, because waiting three months sounds like torture.  Many writers start with pro-paying markets both for the pay and the wider exposure.

Once you've made a list, you need a way to keep track of your submissions.  Unless a magazine asks for a revision, the etiquette is to only submit a story once.  Record keeping is also important to avoid an accidental multiple or simultaneous submission.

I, at least, can't keep track of this in my head -- especially not for a dozen short stories.  There are a variety of ways to keep track of submissions (, I believe, has a tracking method online), but I just use Excel:

Date Sent
Date Expected/
Word Count
Story Title
Market 1
Potential Market A
Market 2

Potential Market B
Market 3
2nd round; R

Potential Market C
Market 4

Market 5
2nd round; R

Market 6
Personal R

Market 7

 I changed all of these from actual market names, of course, but this is essentially how I keep submission records.  Under the story title, I list markets that the story could be sent to if the current market rejects it.  This makes turning a story around fairly easy.  I italicize any potential markets I have another story out at, so I don't accidentally send a multiple submission.  I bold the market a story's currently at, so it's easy to find.  It's also nice to have a quick reference of the date I should query if I haven't heard back from the market yet.

During this process of submitting, I occasionally check the listings again.  Sometimes a magazine that was closed for submissions will open.  Anthologies also crop up.

August 22, 2012

Short Story Primer, Part 2: Research the Short Story Market

This post is part of a series:

1. Write and polish a short story.
2. Research the short story market.
3.Make a list of appropriate markets, and begin a submissions record.
4. Submit the story to the first market on the list, and keep submitting. is arguably the easiest place to research the short story market (ETA: Duotrope went behind a pay wall., though, is still a good resource for SF/F markets).  Enter the genre of your story, the wordcount, and payment, and a lists of markets will appear.  Here's a list of terms you'll come across:

Wordcount: The breakdown between flash, short story, novelette, and novella are in Part 1.

Payment: Short stories are most often paid for by the word.  Professional is deemed to be five cents or more per word; semi-pro is more than one cent, but less than five; token is anything less; for-the-love markets don't pay at all.  In general, professional magazines generally have a larger number of readers than semi-pro, and semi-pro generally has more readers than token.

Some markets offer royalties, meaning a percentage of every sale goes to the authors (these are usually anthologies).  Be aware that if a market offers only royalties, you might be paid very little if the magazine/anthology sells poorly. 

SFWA-Qualifying: SFWA is the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America.  To be a market that qualifies a writer towards membership, the magazine must pay pro rates, must have been publishing consistently for one year, and have circulation of at least 1,000.  For the fine print, and a list of SFWA-qualifying markets, click here

On Acceptance/On Publication:  Some magazines pay on acceptances (when they tell you they want to publish your story), others pay after the short story has been published.

Response Time: How long the magazine will take to reply after you submit.  Often magazines have an average response time, and a maximum response time.

Query: An e-mail or letter asking a question sent to a publication.  If you haven't heard back from a magazine after their maximum stated response time, it's acceptable to send a short, polite e-mail asking the status of the story.  Sometimes manuscripts do go astray.  If the magazine doesn't have a maximum stated response time, wait at least three months before querying.

Normally, it's completely unnecessary (and annoying to editors) to query for permission to submit a short story.  If you have something outside their stated guidelines -- longer than their upper word count limit, for example -- you could query and see if they're interested in seeing the story anyway.

Multiple Submissions: Submitting more than one story to the same market.  Magazines usually don't allow them.

Simultaneous Submissions: Submitting the same story to multiple markets.  Magazines usually don't allow this, either.

First Rights/No Reprints: Many magazines are looking for "first rights," or the right to be the first person to publish a story.  If you've already thrown a story up on your blog, first rights are gone (sorry!).

Despite all the helpful information on, one of the best ways to research a magazine is to read it.  Does your story fit with what they publish?  Would you be happy to see your story published here?

August 14, 2012

Short Story Primer, Part 1: Write a Short Story

I recently had someone ask me a bunch of questions about how to submit short stories.  This is old hat for a lot of people I know, but I thought a series on the subject would be helpful for someone looking for straightforward information.  There's more than will fit neatly in one post, so here's the points I'll be covering:

1. Write and polish a short story.
2. Research the short story market.
3.Make a list of appropriate markets, and begin a submissions record.
4. Submit the story to the first market on the list, and keep submitting.

Write a short story.  Really, it's the most important part.  So...what's a short story?  In a general sense, "short story" means prose fiction that's shorter than a novel.  But in that wide range of word count, there are a number of divisions:

     Flash Fiction: Usually defined as less than 1,000 words
     Short Story: less than 7,500 words
     Novelette: between 7,500 and 17,499 words;
     Novella: between 17,500 and 39,999 words

There are markets for all of these lengths of fictions, though it's generally easier to find markets for the shorter lengths.  Back in the days of typewriters, there was a complicated process for estimating the word count of a story, but today the word count generated by whatever word processor you use works great.

But first drafts are rarely ready to send out as-is.  There's a multitude of advice on how to polish a short story, and plenty of disagreement.  I'm a big fan of critiquing and blogged at some length about it last year (Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6).

Why not just throw the first draft out and hope it sticks? Unless a market specifically asks for a rewrite, they don't want to see any given story twice.  If you submit a sloppy rendition, you don't get another chance.  Also, if you're trying to use editors as first readers, you're likely to re-revise the story after every rejection and waste a lot of time.


August 8, 2012

Results: Twitter & Politics Survey

I recently participated in a survey on politics and Twitter from Emily's Reading Room.  The questions were:

1. Which of the following describe you: reader, author, blogger, teacher/librarian, publishing professional?

2.Does it bother you when an author tweets about or retweets a link that is political/partisan?

3.Have you ever not read a book by an author because of a political comment made on twitter?

4. Have you ever unfollowed an author because of a political comment made on twitter?

An interesting set of questions.  Some hundred people from Twitter participated, and the results are up on Emily's Reading Room here.  When I took the survey, questions #2-4 seemed so similar as to be almost redundant, but it was interesting to see how the answers fluctuated.  There's some portion of people who state that political tweets don't bother them, but that political tweets have, in fact, caused them not to read an author's books.

Any thoughts from all the reader, author, blogger, teacher/librarian, and publishing professional out there?

July 31, 2012

Grand Tetons

I've been away from the computer.  So, instead of a post, I have a picture for you this week.  Yes, I miss it -- the Tetons are gorgeous.  It was wonderful to spend some time just playing or thinking, without a computer or dishes to keep every second occupied. 

July 24, 2012

Talent vs. Skill

I ran into yet another post arguing that writing isn't about hard work and persistence -- it's about inborn talent.

That argument drives me nuts.  Not only do I think it's untrue, but the talent-or-nothing paradigm hurts writers.   If writing is about inborn ability, the writer has no accountability.  It's out of your control.  Good writing is something that happens to you...or not.  Bad prose?  Nothing you can do about it -- it's in the stars.

On the other hand, if writing is a skill, then improvement is in the author's control.  You can write another story.  Gets some critiques.  Revise, rinse, and repeat.  You can take action.  When learning is a possibility, you can ask, "What can I do to improve?"

I don't think anyone succeeds as a writer without a lot of hard work.  Maybe a bucket of natural ability will get you there a little faster, but it won't get you there.

As evidence that writing can be learned, I submit this episode of Writing Excuses (click here).  This is the opening of Brandon Sanderson's first, unpublished novel.  It's...umm, well, the Writing Excuses does a great job ridiculing it.  Between that and Elantris, something changed, and I'm sure it took a lot of hard work, practice, and skill-honing.  Brandon Sanderson's now one of my favorite authors.

As a footnote, in my experience, the best writing teachers are those who learned something the hard way.  The author whose lecture taught me story structure?  He used to fumble with it.  The author with brilliant posts on point of view?  I asked her -- and she struggled with POV.  Because they didn't do these by instinct, they can happily articulate their skills to others.

Yes, writers likely have something they're naturally good at -- maybe someone has an ear for dialogue, or a knack for description.  But dialogue and description can still be learned. 

July 17, 2012

A Comparison of Deck-Building Games

I adore deck-building games.  The combination of skill and luck makes for plenty of puzzling and adrenaline.

If you're not familiar with this kind of game, here's the basic idea: everyone starts with a few cards.  You shuffle this deck and draw a hand (often five).  You use those cards to buy other cards (or take other actions), then discard the whole lot.  When you run out of cards, shuffle everything that's discarded, and go again.  As the name indicates, you "build" the deck that you use to play the game -- trying to secure strong cards and thin out weak ones while keeping a balanced deck that will yield, on average, good hands.

Here's some great deck-building games.  I've played about twice as many deck-building games as this, but I figure there's not a lot of point in drawing attention to games I don't jump at the chance to play.

Dominion (from Rio Grande): This is the game that invented deck-building.  The other games I list here, I enjoyed because they deviated from Dominion in some incredible way.  The game itself is fairly quick, which means it's easy to pull it out and play several games in a row.

I actually had a hard time picking up the rules because no one bothered to explain them to me -- they were too eager to play and I had to learn by watching.  But, being a new player isn't a huge disadvantage.  The cards available to buy change every game, so there's not one master strategy to victory.  The downsides?  The cards have a decent bit of text on them, which means pausing for people to read and re-read cards.  Also, there's lots of shuffling.

Puzzle Strike (from Sirlin Games): It's shiny, pink, and adorable.  Also, it's about violently destroying your opponents.  This is my favorite deck-building game...which is technically not played with a deck, but with pog-sized chips.  No shuffling.  Toss the chips into the bag, shake, draw.  I love fiddling with them until it's my turn.

Like Dominion, the chips change every game, keeping things fresh.  Everyone also gets a character with their own special chips.  But there are no victory points.  It's a last-man-standing, get-your-opponents-to-crash kind of game.  It also plays super-fast.  Multiple games are a must.  Added bonus: you draw more chips the closer you are to losing, so it's quite possible to catch up from the brink of despair.

ETA: The 3rd edition has made some major changes to the game, changes that I think sadly steers the game into randomness and kingmakers and away from a kind of balanced chaos.  I'm very happy I have an earlier edition.

Nightfall (from AEG): Scary horror creatures and a dark art scheme usually aren't my thing, but Nightfall just plays so well.  Everyone gets a private supply of cards, chosen draft-style, in addition to whatever ends up in the middle.  The unique chaining mechanism means that you often get to play cards on other people's turns...which is complicated to explain without the game in front of you.  But trust me, it's neat and engaging balancing what to play when -- a few cards here and there?  A huge chain on your own turn?  Buying cards isn't just about the best thing you can afford, but what's going to chain with your deck.  Ah, choices.

At the end of the game, the player with the fewest wound cards win.  Part of the game is thus also trying to look like you're not winning so your opponents attack someone else.  I know a few people who find this frustrating, but the back-stabbing fits the game.

Quarriors (from WizKids): The shortest of all the games listed here.  And probably the one with the most luck.  It's played with dice instead of cards.  The dice you buy to build your hand might give you that giant dragon you need to defend yourself...or it might just give you money to make another purchase.  This game has the most luck of any of the games listed here, but it's also the shortest, and custom dice are fun, so it balances out.

The version I played did have a runaway leader problem, but I've been told the rules have been adjusted in the newest edition.  The changes made a lot of sense and would smooth out the problem.  Even with the problem, I still enjoyed the game.  It was short enough that if I was doomed to loose, I could wait ten minutes for the game to end, then jump back in again.

Eminent Domain (Tasty Minstrel Games): In some ways, this game makes me think of Race for the Galaxy in deck-building form.  It contains a bucket of cool mechanics that would be difficult to explain without the cards laid on the table.  But, in short, the more you use an ability, the more your deck fills up with that type of card.  And, like Nightfall, you can play on other people's turns.  The gameplay here runs a bit longer (tied with Nightfall at 45 minutes), allowing for more long-term strategy.

The only downside is the set cards.  The card available never change, meaning you only have to adjust your play to what's in your hand.  Often, I don't like expansions (they tend to add fiddly-bits without increasing my enjoyment of the game), but I hope Eminent Domain comes out with one to increase replay value.

Any favorites that I left out?

July 3, 2012

Bookshop Talk: Throne of the Crescent Moon

My review of Throne of the Crescent Moon is up on Bookshop Talk (click here).  This book kept me company on two overnight bus trips -- it's fantastic.

June 26, 2012

Sticky Toffee Pudding from Making Money

"He'll be like this for fifteen seconds, then he'll throw the knife straight ahead of him, and then he'll speak in fluent Quirmian for about four second, and then he'll be fine.  Here -- " she handed Moist a bowl containing a large brown lump "--you go back in there with the sticky-toffee pudding and I'll hide in the pantry.  I'm used to it."
--Making Money by Terry Pratchett, Chapter Four

I read Terry Pratchett's Going Postal this week, and I have to say, it's my favorite Discworld book so far.  Unfortunately, I've only read eight of them; it took me too many years to pick up these books.  I'm halfway through Making Money, the sequel, but paused to bake.

I'd never made sticky toffee pudding, but it sounded old-fashioned and delicious.  Only one of these is true.  The history of the dessert is somewhat muddled, but generally, Francis Coulson is credited with creating it in 1960 -- making it a century more modern than I thought.  The recipe below is based on Coulson's original.

Sticky Toffee Pudding

For the Pudding:
1/4 cup unsalted butter
3/4 cup sugar
2 eggs
6 ounces chopped dates
1 tablespoon baking soda
1 cup water
1 1/3 cups whole wheat white flour*
pinch of salt

For the Sticky Toffee:
1/2 cup unsalted butter
1/2 packed dark brown sugar
2 tablespoons milk

1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.  Cream together the butter and sugar, then mix in the eggs.

2. Bring the water to a boil and add the chopped dates.  It's possible to get pre-chopped dates that are covered in some kind of powdery substance.  They tend to be hard and bland.  Whole, pitted dates are sticky and taste like honey.  Winco (if you have one) sells them cheaply in bulk.

3. Add the baking soda to the date mixture, then add the dates mixture, flour, and pinch of salt to the creamed mixture and stir until smooth. So, yes, the date-water goes in, too.  All sweet and delicious.

4.  Butter and flour a 10-inch cast iron skillet.  Pour the batter into the skillet and bake for 20-30 minutes, or until just set. All right.  You could use some other kind of 10-inch pan, but given the toffee-flavors, and the way cast iron caramelizes the edges of cakes and brownies...well, yum.  Though, if you choose another type of pan, it will probably take longer.  Coulson's recipe calls for 30-40 I'm glad I checked my cake part-way through.  It finished at 22 minutes.

5. Meanwhile, make the toffee sauce.  Put a small sauce pan on medium-low and add the butter until melted.  Then add the brown sugar and cook for about five minutes, or until the brown sugar is thoroughly melted.  Add the milk, stir, and set aside.  This one takes some explanation.  All the toffee sauce recipes called for heavy cream.  I didn't have any on hand.  But to make toffee, you take 1:1 ratios of sugar and butter and boil it to a hard crack (well, roughly that's how it goes).  Surely I could just undercook it?  Unfortunately, the sugar and butter never emulsified.  But the bit of milk at the end worked to bind it together into something fantastic (it also spluttered at first, so you're warned).  I plan on making this again and seeing if adding the milk at the beginning works just as well -- I'll update this post when I do.**  The finished sauce should make soft balls when dropped into a cup of ice-cold water.

6. Pour the toffee sauce over the hot cake and return it to the oven for 2-3 minutes, or until the toffee is bubbling.  Once the pudding's out, you could either eat it warm with some icecream or refrigerate it.  It's summer.  I went for the fridge.  The toffee sauce penetrated the top of the cake, making a moist-sticky top that was perfect for the hot day.  The toffee at the edge of the pan turned into a chewy toffee collar that's my favorite part of the whole thing.  We will be making this again.

*Whole wheat white flour is flour milled from hard white wheat berries, as opposed to the hard red wheat berries that's standard in the US, at least.  Whole wheat white has all the healthy goodness from being a whole grain, but its taste is much milder than hard red wheat.  Unfortunately, not all grocery stores seem to carry it.  If you need to substitute, trade it out for all-purpose white flour.

**I tried adding the milk at the beginning.  It meant I needed to cook the sauce longer, which gave me an over-caramalized, almost burnt taste, instead of toffee deliciousness.  So, stick with adding the milk after the brown sugar's thoroughly melted. 

June 20, 2012

On Short Stories

I've had a request to put up some advice on writing short stories.  I think one of the biggest challenges with short stories is that there are so many ways to do them right. Short stories can read like mini-novels (try Eric James Stone's  "Rejiggering the Thingamajig") but they can also explore avenues that novels typically eschew.

For example, Terry Bisson's  "They're Made Out of Meat" is written completely in dialogue.  Nancy Fulda's "Movement" utilizes a unique point of view.  Short stories can also hide crucial information from the reader until the very end, like in Terra LeMay's "Dark Wings".  After investing hundreds of pages in a novel, I expect something to be different at the end, but short stories can leave us exactly where we started -- like in Frank Stockton's "The Bee Man of Orn".

All of these viable options actually makes writing a good short story difficult.  So, if you're working on short fiction but you're stuck, here are some ideas.

1. Start with traditionally-plotted stories.  If you're having difficulty being decisive or getting started, limiting your options can help.  Write a murder mystery.  Retell a fairy tale.  Plot a heist.  Using an existing framework can help get a story down.  Writing, I'm convinced, is the best way to learn about writing.

2. Critique short stories.  I learned buckets about what does or doesn't work from reading slush at Leading Edge for years.  Given that most people don't have a magazine handy to volunteer at, I'd reccomend signing up for and regularly critiquing stories there.  Reading finished short stories is great...but analyzing stories in their rough form teaches you how to fix stories, not just what the polished end product looks like.

3. Have others critique your short fiction.  There's a lot of writing advice, much of it polar opposites.  How do you know if you're bombarding the reader with too many setting details, or if you suffer from white room syndrome?  Are you trying to cram too many plot points into a short story, or is nothing much happening?  Good critiquers will tell you what their reading experience was like, allowing you to pick out a story's weaknesses and improve your skills.

June 13, 2012

Books aren't Babies

It always makes me stop when someone call a book they've written their "baby."   Books aren't babies. One is a string of symbols that creates meaning in our minds.  The other is a human being.  I read one such article recently, and instead of rambling at my poor husband, I made a list.  I decided to post it here, because I thought my readers might get some amusement out of it.

So, to clarify...

1. Hugs and kisses have never made my manuscript all better.

2.Manuscripts should be edited ruthlessly, their every fault exposed under a red pen.  I try to encourage my children not to color on themselves -- in red, or any other color.  Also, we say "I love you" a lot more than "You're dangling a participle!"

3. There's nothing in a manuscript that I didn't type.  I'm still not sure where the kids came up with the idea of having an imaginary pet purple zombie dog.

4. Manuscripts can be polished over and over and over.  You only get to raise any given kid once.

5. If a problem with a manuscript is keeping me up past my bedtime, I can turn the monitor off, enjoy a shower, and retire for the evening.  If a problem with a child -- say vomiting -- is keeping me up, there is no off button.  I will also smell considerably worse.

6. Manuscripts only work as an alarm clock if someone drops a printed version on your head. Babies are naturals at it.  The older model, toddler, comes armed with hugs and demands for apple juice.

7. I can throw a frustrating manuscript in a drawer and ignore it for months or years.

8. Manuscripts don't poop and then giggle about it.

9. Manuscripts don't say "love you mommy", either.

10. Manuscripts can be completed, finished.  I'm all grown up, but my mommy still watches out for me.

June 8, 2012

Guest Post at Gem State Writers

I have a guest post up at Gem State Writers, entitled Smell the Sagebrush.  Some thoughts on using the familiar in writing, research, and the beautiful state of Idaho.

June 4, 2012

Write Up on "Blank Faces"

IGMS keeps up a cool blog where authors talk about where their stories came from.  If you're interested in the story-behind-the-story for "Blank Faces", you can check it out here.

May 31, 2012

"Blank Faces" is live at IGMS!

I've very happy to say that my story "Blank Faces," a Steampunk/Western, is now up at Orson Scott Card's Intergalactic Medicine Show.  You can check it out here.

May 30, 2012

Sour Cream and Onion Ice Cream from Searching for Dragons

     Near the end of the meal, Cimorene leaned over and whispered, "Don't take any dessert."
     "Why not?" Mendanbar asked.
     "Ballimore's using her Cauldron of Plenty," Cimorene said, "and it doesn't do desserts very well.  So unless you like burned mint custard or sour-cream-and-onion ice cream..."
-- from Searching for Dragons by Patricia C. Wrede, Chapter Eight

When I was a kid, we used to play a game we called "two great tastes that don't go great together."  We were especially fond of coming up with things involving ketchup and Jell-O.  As it turns out, ketchup and Jell-O sound pretty gross together.  Sometimes we brainstormed on car trips.  More often we played at the dinner table, when people were trying to eat.  Extra points if you get someone else to gag.

I thought of this bit from Searching for Dragons right away when I first considered blogging recipes.  It's actually part of the reason I decided to press on with the idea.  I've seen some fiction-inspired recipes on the web, but I could bring my own tastes -- reading and culinary -- to the party.  And, to my knowledge, no one's ever made sour-cream-and-onion ice cream before.  I thought about doing burnt mint custard, but I'd end up making a mint creme brulee, and that felt like cheating.

But I also hoped I'd be able to make it taste good.  I'd made sour cream ice-cream before, and while it was a bit strong for my tastes, it was fantastic over apple crumble.  Perhaps if I lovingly caramelized the onions, I'd end up with something buttery and caramel-like.  I took a cue from this recipe and used brown sugar to enhance those flavors.

And here's the disclaimer.  It turned out smooth, luscious, and the tang of the sour cream was softened by the sweet onions.  But, true to what it's supposed to be, it tastes like onions -- lovely, caramelized onions to be sure, but still onions.  It's edible, but I'd much rather have Ibarra ice-cream.  But, sour cream isn't exactly my thing to begin with.  My husband, on the other hand, adores sour cream and onions.  He loves this recipe.  He's having dreams of opening an ice-cream parlor now.  So be warned: your mileage may vary.  But if you like sour-cream-and-onion ice cream...this is for you.

Sour Cream and Onion Ice Cream
1 cup diced onion
2 tbps butter
16 ounces sour cream
1 1/4 cups milk (I used 1/2 cup of whole and the rest 2%)
1 cup brown sugar

1. Put a wide, flat pan over medium-high heat and add the butter, then onions.  Cook for a few minutes, then turn the heat down to medium-low, add a pinch of salt and continue to cook for about half an hour, or until the onions are brown, slippery, and smell delicious.  Caramelized onions.  Yum.  I was tempted to just eat them all straight and skip making ice cream. 

2. Meanwhile, thoroughly blend the sour cream, milk, and brown sugar.  I used a stick blender, my favorite power tool.'s hard to convince the kids it isn't a toy when I'm so happy about it.

3.  Add the onions to the sour cream base.  Put this in the fridge and let it steep for at least four hours.  This is a necessary step in ice-cream making, even if onions aren't involved.  Putting the base in the fridge for a while allows it to get cold, and you want a cold base when you go to churn.

4. Strain out the onions.  I'm pretty sure little bits of onion would freeze up nasty, but by now, there's lots of onion flavor in the base.

5. Churn according to manufacturer's directions.  You can eat this right away -- it'll be soft-serve consistency --  or stick it in the freezer to "ripen" to regular ice-cream consistency.  It's stayed nicely hard, but still easy-to-scoop.  I always hold onto those plastic Blue Bunny ice cream containers, because they're the perfect thing to put home-made ice-cream in.

May 23, 2012

Princess of the Midnight Ball and Lost Cities: Book and Boardgame Match-up

The Book (by Jessica Day George):
Princess Rose and her sisters Lily, Jonquil, Hyacinth, Violet, Daisy, Poppy, Iris, Lilac, Orchid, Pansy, and Petunia are trapped in a curse. Every third night, they have to dance at the Midnight Ball with the twelve sons of the King Under Stone, who lives in a realm below the earth. The curse prevents them from speaking of it, and every prince who attempts to learn their secret in hopes of marrying one of them and inheriting the crown ends up dead by the next full moon.

Galen Werner is a soldier who is returning from the Westfalin-Analousia war. On his way to the city of Bruch to live with his mother's sister Liesel Orm, Galen meets an old woman. After he shares his food with her, the woman gives him white and black yarn and an invisibility cloak, saying that he would have to use them when "He" tries to get to the surface.

When Galen meets Rose, she knows that he can try to break the curse, but will he succeed despite the complications they come across? --from

The Game (from Rio Grande): In Lost Cities, a card game from the Kosmos two-player series, the object is to mount profitable expeditions to one or more of the five different lost cities. Card play is straightforward, with a few agonizing moments sprinkled through what is mostly a fast-moving game. If you start a given expedition, you'd better make some progress in it, or it'll score you negative points. If you can make a lot of progress, you'll score quite well. After three rounds, the highest total score takes the day. --from

It's been a while since I did one of these posts!  The book is my favorite of Jessica Day George's.  I'm a sucker for retold fairy tales, but there's always the trick of making them seem fresh while drawing from well-known material.  One of the things I love about Princess of the Midnight Ball is that the setting isn't generic fantasy; yes, it's set in a fantasy nation, but it's one with a distinct German flare.  The hero, a returning soldier, also knits, which always made me smile.  I learned that historically, knitting was a male-only occupation.  It was common to send skeins of yarn to a war front instead of pre-made socks; then there was no need to fuss about what sizes to send.  Reading this book was simply delightful.

Lost Cities is a two-player card game that likewise takes the familiar and makes it exciting again.  The mechanics are simple -- you're trying to place numbers from low to high -- but there are a few interesting tweaks that keep it fresh.  There's the lovely artwork.  Five suits.  And a risky bidding option that keeps things interesting.  This is an easy one for non-gamers to pick up because the mechanics are simple, but it still holds enough challenging decisions to make it a quick, fast game for someone who's played a hundred card games.