Thursday, January 27, 2011

Research Reading Challenge: Napoleon: The Final Verdict

As I mentioned about a month ago, one of my reading vows for 2011 is to read at least a dozen research books already on my shelves, physical and virtual, before buying any more. You see, I have this jam-packed and overflowing research bookshelf that makes me feel all erudite merely by existing--until I count how many of those books are just sitting there looking pretty, never having been opened since the day I browsed through them at Powell's.

I decided to begin with Napoleon: the Final Verdict (Philip Haythornthwaite, ed., 1998). It's a set of essays by various military historians covering the course of his career.

My hands are bugging me enough tonight to keep me from going into as much detail as I'd like. (Spending 30-45 minutes per night watching TV with packs of frozen corn on my wrists and elbows obviously is helping, since skipping it last night meant more pain today.) So I'll just say I'm glad I read this book. I'm no admirer of Napoleon's, and I doubt that's going to change. My historical allegiances lie elsewhere--I carry my library books in a "Team Wellington" tote bag, even. But the book was a good reminder what an incredible mind and will Napoleon had, and that no matter how little I condone his ambitions and conquests, you've still got to shake your head in awe over how much he accomplished in so short a time.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Old Skool Favorite: Amanda

SB Sarah invited blog readers to re-read our Old Skool romance favorites--the books that introduced us to the genre lo these many years ago--and see how the genre and we as readers have changed.

As I've discussed before, my gateway romance drug was the Sunfire YA historical series from the 1980's, all of which feature a girl of 16 or so finding True Love at a critical juncture of American history. I have many fond memories of buying the latest ones with my allowance at the mall bookstore and curling up in my room for hours on end to read them.

So for Sarah's challenge, I tracked down five Sunfires that stand out most in my mind, and I started with the inaugural book in the series, Amanda, by Candice Ransom.

Check out that cover! Isn't it 80's-a-licious? I try to avoid too much public snark about current covers because for all I know I'll be with that publisher and/or cover artist someday and I don't want them to hate me just because I don't share their taste in cover design. But this book is from 1984, so I think I can safely say...

What the heck? This book is set in 1846, but Amanda is wearing a Regency-style high-waisted dress with Charlie's Angels hair and blush just like Seventeen was teaching junior high me to apply it! Even as a 7th grader I knew something wasn't quite right about that cover.

An actual fashionable lady of the mid-1840's would've looked more like this:

With that bit of pedantry out of the way, I'll say that the story itself actually holds up quite well. The heroine, Amanda Bentley, is a Boston society girl whose father is dragging her alongside him to Oregon as he flees his creditors after gambling away his fortune. She never wanted to leave home and doesn't have the first clue how to do all the cooking and cleaning expected of a woman on the Oregon Trail. For the first half of the book she's a spoiled, bitchy little snob, but she gradually thaws toward the rest of her wagon train and turns her stubborn, temperamental nature to surviving the hardships the journey throws at her and helping others do the same.

As a mark of how much this book stuck in my mind as an adult, the very first time I drove through Oregon on I-5 after moving to the Northwest myself, I thought, "This is the Willamette Valley? Where Amanda and Ben from that Sunfire finally ended up? Cool!"

Thursday, January 20, 2011

What shall I name my new computer?

One thing I forgot to mention in my previous post is that I'll be getting a new computer to improve my ergonomics, replacing my laptop with a desktop system. I've almost decided to make the transition from PC-land and get an iMac. Time to stop swearing about my Dell and try something different.

Which brings me to the all-important question of what to name the computer. (I love naming things. Naming my characters is one of my favorite parts of starting a new book, and while I never wanted a large family, I kinda regret not having 6-7 kids just so I could use up all the names I love most. And maybe by Kid #7 I could've worn down Mr. Fraser and got him to admit that Malcolm Arthur is just the most splendiferous boy's name EVER.)

But back to computers. For years all ours had sports-related names from schools we or our family members had attended--Buffalo, Quaker, War Eagle, and the like. Eventually, we ran out of mascots and branched out. Mr. Fraser has Niehaus, for the late, beloved Mariners radio announcer, and he calls his iPad Precious, because it is his Preciousssss.

Naturally I name my machines after my historical interests, and I am currently the proud owner of Wellington the Laptop, Napoleon the Netbook, and Austen the Kindle. So I'm thinking the iMac might be Blucher or Ney. Or maybe since it's a home system, I'll name it for one of my people's houses. Apsley, or maybe Malmaison.

What do you think?

Hand prognosis

I came away from the hand doctor yesterday with better news than I expected. I have carpal tunnel syndrome in both wrists and elbow cubital tunnel syndrome on the left side.

The carpal tunnel issue is in theory fixable by surgery, but we're going to try a month or two of occupational therapy and sleeping with my wrists in splints before taking that step. If it does come to surgery, I could be typing again within days, but would have to avoid heavy lifting or putting pressure on the palm for much longer. And frankly, I'm not all that eager to have my hand sliced open.

For now, the doctor advised me to "use common sense" about keyboard time. So I'm going to take a couple weeks away from my WIPs as a sort of sabbatical. I think they need more time to stew in my head anyway--I'm not the type who outlines or prewrites, but before I was published I used to think about each story for months or even years before I started writing them. I can't afford that long of a process anymore, but I think I've been pushing too far in the opposite direction by trying to write my ideas as soon as I have them.

As for other things, I'm not going to keep to a strict blog schedule with Favorites Monday, Research Wednesday, and so on, but I'll do short posts as I feel like I have something to say and generally hang out online if I can do so without making my hands worse. I'll be doing considerably less recreational netsurfing, though.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Welcome, Delilah Marvelle!

Today I'm welcoming Delilah Marvelle, whose 2011 is off to an exciting beginning: the three books of her Scandal trilogy are coming out back-to-back in January, February, and March. Prelude to a Scandal is available now, and Once Upon a Scandal and The Perfect Scandal are just around the corner.

She'll be giving away a signed copy of Prelude to a Scandal to one lucky commenter.

Here's Delilah:

You have three books coming out one month after another. How did that come to pass...and how long did you have to write them?

The back to back books were offered to me by my publisher, HQN. I accepted the offer, knowing it was a great opportunity to build my readership in a three book sweep, but was rather nervous about whether I could pull off. Turns out, I could, lol. I wrote all three books in 10 months, not including revisions. I basically wrote 7 days a week 8-12 hours a day to make sure that I not only finished them but that they were the best that they could be.

Your Scandal series is set in 1829--post-Regency and pre-Victorian. What drew you to that time period? (Was it the puffy sleeves? The big hats?)

Yes, I write in the Romantic Period and it's by far my favorite era because it isn't quite Regency or Victorian and it allows me to bring together both sides of the era together. What drew me to the period was knowing that it was years after the Napoleonic wars and how the war rippled through and impacted people. People wanted change and it was coming in the form of the industrial revolution and so much more. So much was happening between 1820-1829, I just stick with that era and the more I learn, the more I realize I want to not only stay within that era but get to know it really well.

You've been on a book tour--can you tell us a little about what that's like? Any fun travel stories or bookstore adventures?

Touring is amazing fun and yet surprisingly exhausting. It isn't so much the traveling but having to be "on" the whole time. Talking about myself and my books makes me feel awkward sometimes but the enthusiasm of the readers allows me to feel more at home with the idea. Omgosh, there's always stories when you're on the road and meeting people all the time. I'm actually putting together a video blog of my book tour adventures with Lisa Hendrix (author of Immortal Champion). I'll be posting the video on my video newsletter and on youtube in the next week, so everyone will be able to be part of the fun!

Who are some of your favorite authors?

Almost all of my *favorite* authors are actually dead. Sadly, lol. Would have loved to have met Edith Wharton, Hemingway, Bronte sisters, Sienkiewicz, Dickens, and Austen. They shaped a lot of what I write. Of course, I should share that the one person who got me started Romance reading was Judith McNaught herself.

What are you working on now?

I'm working on a new trilogy for HQN which will be set in London and New York City in the 1820's. Since I haven't officially signed any contracts, I can't disclose any details, but I'll be posting it to my website as soon as I'm able to! But I plan on giving readers a new spin on historical romance. Which is always my goal.

Anything you'd like to ask my readers?

Yes! I would love to know what they would love to see and what they do or do not want to read. I'm always curious about digging into the heads of readers, because I think too much like a writer.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Tendinits Part 2

So, that tendinitis I thought I had beaten, or at least on the retreat?

It's back. It flared up a bit toward the end of last week, my second full week back at work after a two-week Christmas break, but it was manageable. Still, I called my doctor and got a referral to a hand specialist, whom I'll be seeing Wednesday afternoon. I also got an appointment with a massage therapist for yesterday evening, the same one who'd done wonders when I had lower back pain last year.

I don't know what she did and I'm sure she meant only the best, but I walked in with discomfort and walked out in PAIN. And 24 hours later, it's not much better.

I would love to ignore the pain, push through it, and write anyway. I don't like to admit weakness or ask for help. But I had a Tough Love conversation with Mr. Fraser this morning wherein he convinced me I must listen to my body. That my day job is legally obligated to accommodate this kind of issue, whether with an ergonomic consultation, voice recognition software, letting me take time off to rest the hand, or whatever. That my writing is a marathon, not a sprint, and that the world won't end if I have to take a few weeks or even a month or two entirely off to heal. That if I have to go to voice recognition software, I'll find a way to adapt to it, even if it slows me down.

So I'm trying to feel hopeful, even though it's hard and I'm beyond frustrated with this pain. And I'm also announcing that my blog is going much quieter again, at least until I've seen the hand specialist and can get some kind of prognosis.

I'm a bit down, because I was going to write and write and write over the three-day MLK weekend, and instead I'm just reading and reading and reading and judging my Golden Heart entries (don't worry, I'm not letting the pain impact my scoring--of the three entries I've judged so far, I thought two were fabulous, potential finalists, and scored them accordingly). So...if you've got a hopeful story of someone who suffered from tendinitis and got better, by all means tell me. But if you know of someone who was never able to use their hands again or they thought it was tendinitis and it turned out it was really something far worse...I really don't want to hear about it right now. Please. Allow me what optimism I can summon that the hand doc will be able to help me.

In happier news, the lovely and talented Delilah Marvelle will be visiting on Tuesday, so please stop by then to comment for a chance to win one of her books!

Thursday, January 13, 2011


I just got the cover for my April 11 release, A Marriage of Inconvenience:

Isn't it pretty? Yet another win for the Carina art department! I love how it echoes the look of The Sergeant's Lady while clearly showing that Marriage is a civilian story with a pastoral setting. And so far I'm two for two in heroes wearing clothes. Boo-yah! (I know some people love the shirtless covers, but to me historical clothes are so hot it's a shame not to use them. And I trust my writing and my readers' imaginations to show what the guy looks like nekkid when the proper moment comes.)

Buy and Read Challenge: Cordelia's Honor

One of my resolutions for 2011 was to buy at least one leisure reading book per month, and to READ at least one book purchased in 2011 each month.

I started out with Cordelia's Honor, another entry in Lois McMaster Bujold's masterly Vorkosigan series. I've already gushed about them at length, so I'll just say that this volume is an excellent entry point for newbies to the series. It's an omnibus of two prequel novels, Shards of Honor and Barrayar, about the meeting and early marriage of Aral Vorkosigan and Cordelia Naismith, parents of the series' main character, Miles Vorkosigan.

OK, I'll say a little more. As much as I enjoy Miles, it's Aral who is my latest Fictional Secret Boyfriend. They're both intelligent, decent men who serve causes larger than themselves. But where Miles is mercurial and a master manipulator (because that's the only way someone with his physical limitations can succeed in his world--I don't blame him for being sort of the good-intentioned Napoleon of the Wormhole Nexus), Aral is all steady and stalwart and kinda taciturn but with desert-dry wit. Hot.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Research Wednesday: My philosophy of historical fiction

This week instead of talking about what I've researched lately, I'm going to say a little about why I research, and my goals when I sit down to write historical fiction.

I know there are readers and writers out there who love historical fiction, especially historical romance, for what I'll call the "once upon a time" factor. For them it's not so much about 1315 or 1815 or 1865 as escaping to a world unlike ours, and probably one with better clothes and manners and far more hot single dukes.

I get the appeal of that, I really do. And I hope that anyone who picks up my books looking for an escape gets it. I always try to provide a full dose of romance and adventure. Granted, I haven't written a hot single duke yet, but I like to think Will of The Sergeant's Lady could hold his own in more aristocratic company. (Way before I sold, I used to pitch the book to my friends as "Nathan Fillion in a Rifle uniform, ammirite?!") And A Marriage of Inconvenience has a viscount who looks a bit like Ian Somerhalder.

But as both a reader and a writer, I'm not looking for "once upon a time." (Not in a historical novel anyway. It's just right for certain kinds of fantasy.) If the logline atop Chapter One says "1815," I want it to BE 1815. I write Regency/Napoleonic era because I'm fascinated by all the upheaval of that specific quarter century. Many of the key figures of the era feel as real to me as anyone in 2011. In some obscure way I feel like I owe it to them to respect their time and their culture and to write it as accurately as I can--and when I do something as off the wall and unlikely as pairing an heiress with a common sergeant, to not make light of the degree to which my hero and heroine are breaking the rules. I know I can't recreate the past perfectly. But I feel obliged to try.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Welcome, Keri Stevens

Today I welcome my fellow Carina author Keri Stevens, talking about a subject that's near and dear to my heart lately: all the lessons we new authors learn AFTER our first sales:

Clich├ęs in the Happy Ever After

1. Be Careful What You Wish For

Before “The Call” I knew how it would be. I’d thank Angela James with quiet dignity, and save the squealing for later. Birds and butterflies would flutter between us as my agent, Jill Marsal and I ran to each other in a field of flowers. In one cinematic cut, I’d find myself in convertible, waving my pageant wave at adoring readers while confetti cannons shot their loads into the air.

And then I did get the call. And do you know what I remember about that week? The shaking. The inability to eat. The random tears. No one (not ONE of you published author friends, you!) told me I’d be scared spitless, because my Precious Baby Manuscript was the object of contracts and a saleable entity. I had choices to make where there had been none before—including potentially poor choices.

(For the record, after several months I’m convinced I made the right choices. Whew!)

2. The End is Just the Beginning

They love your Precious Baby Manuscript. They believe in it. And then they say “But.” Quietly, implacably. Your PBM isn’t good enough yet, and industry experts know it.

My editor, Deborah Nemeth guided me through three rounds of edits. We bent, changed and worked Stone Kissed to take it from what I thought was fabulous to…well, fabulous. Although “stetted” some things I felt strongly about keeping, I took most her “suggestions” and let a few thousand words and a couple characters go. In the process, my PBM grew up and became a Book.

3. Give ‘Em an Inch…

Even after signing off on the final round of edits, I wasn’t finished. Readers are tech-savvy and connected—and they want to know the woman behind the curtain. I couldn’t go all Salinger and bury my head in the typewriter. Through twitter, facebook and blogs--

STOP! Look back at that almost-sentence. Ten years ago, it would have made absolutely no sense. Okay—back to your regular blog post…

….much like this one, I participate in the romance reading and writing community. How I participate may change from one day to the next since publishing resembles the Tower tarot card-- everything in chaos, falling apart and coming together as something new. But people are still people. So I ask daily, “Where’s the party?” and come out to play. It is a constant daily challenge, however, to balance social networking with, you know, writing.

4. You Can’t Win ‘Em All

Now STONE KISSED is out in the hands of reviewers and readers. Most really like it, a few really don’t—and usually for the exact same reasons. Oddly enough, I’ve found the process of being reviewed rather freeing. I’ve got textual proof I can’t please everyone, so I no longer feel I have to. I’ll find my readers and they’ll find me and together we’ll travel to happy-ever-after.

Don’t get me wrong: I don’t ignore valid critiques. I use them when I’m in an analytical/editing frame of mind, taking what reviewers have to teach me and applying some of it to the next book.

5. A Watched Pot…

I waste plenty of time checking Amazon, Goodreads and When someone tweets, “I just read STONE KISSED,” I exhale and think, “There’s one more.” In my other job, I work X dollars a week and charge Y dollars per hour. In this job, I’m still months away from a royalty check with no idea what to expect.
And guess what? Multi-published authors with years of backlist don’t know what to expect either. So—head down and write the next book.

6. ...And They’ll Give You A Mile.

But the biggest surprise has been readers who say to me, “I want more. I want to know what happens with this character. I want to know more about the history of Stewardsville. When is your next book coming out?” Those moments are worth the fear, the uncertainty and the work. They motivate me to get my butt in the chair, because the readers are waiting.

STONE KISSED ISBN: 978-14268-9101-4
When Delia Forrest talks to statues, they talk back. She is, after all, the last of the Steward witches.

After an arsonist torches her ancestral home with her estranged father still inside, Delia is forced to sell the estate to pay his medical bills. Her childhood crush, Grant Wolverton, makes a handsome offer for Steward House, vowing to return it to its former glory. Delia agrees, as long as he’ll allow her to oversee the restoration.

Working so closely with Grant, Delia finds it difficult to hide her unique talent—especially when their growing passion fuels her abilities.

But someone else lusts after both her man and the raw power contained in the Steward land. Soon, Delia finds herself fighting not just for Grant’s love, but for both their lives…

KERI STEVENS was raised in southern Missouri and has lived in Germany, Arizona, North Carolina and Kentucky. Along the way she acquired degrees in writing and German, a romance hero of her very own, three sons, two miracle cats and a mutt who licks her when she speaks German.

Her husband gave Keri her first romance novel to read, which unleashed a passion. Several years and a couple thousand novels later, Keri took up her laptop and began writing her own books.

By day, she is a mild-mannered yoga and Oriental dance instructor. By night she creates mayhem and magic in small-town paranormal romance novels like her award-winning debut, Stone Kissed.

Find Keri online at:
Main site and blog:
My Friends Yahoo group:
Twitter (@KeriStevens)
eHarlequin community:

Monday, January 10, 2011

Favorites Monday: The Princess Diaries Series

Last week I blogged about the YA series that got me into historical romance back when I was actually a teenager. This week I figured it's time to talk about a YA series that didn't even even exist till I was an adult but is way too fun to limit to the kids.

The books in question? The Princess Diaries.

You wouldn't think they'd be my type of read. After all, they're lacking in epic scope, grit, and being set either 150+ years in the past, in a fantasy world, or in space.

For those of you not familiar with the series (which is quite a bit different from the movies, from what I understand), it's the story of a Greenwich Village high school student, Mia Thermopolis, who discovers that she's the heir to a European principality (fictional, but reminiscent of Monaco). So on top of the usual adolescent angst, she now has to deal with fame, paparazzi, and princess lessons from her autocratic grandmother. Mia is an engaging narrator, and the books are hilarious, effervescent fun.

In a strange way, they remind me of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, another favorite of mine. Sounds goofy, I know, but work with me. Both take normal adolescent concerns and make them larger than life. BTVS amplifies the sense of danger and peril inherent in growing up by adding vampires and apocalypses, while The Princess Diaries takes that sense that you're living under a microscope and whatever you do is going to be picked apart by gossip and makes it paparazzi and tabloids instead of just those four nosy, talkative girls in your algebra class.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Writing Weekend: Before You Hit Send Workshop

I'm in the midst of an online course in self-editing taught by Carina's executive editor, Angela James. She covers everything from the most basic basics of punctuation and word usage to more advanced topics of voice and craft, with a goal of helping both published and unpublished authors submit more polished and professional manuscripts.

It's hands-on, so we're encouraged to apply the lessons to our own manuscripts. Though some of the basics aren't really issues for me--Mrs. Denney and Mrs. Atchison taught me well back in my school days, so I rarely struggle with grammar, punctuation, and capitalization--I've already learned MS Word tricks I'd never heard of before. And there's nothing like the executive editor of your publisher telling you to read your manuscript out loud to make you actually DO it and discover what a useful tool it is.

I strongly recommend Before You Hit Send to beginning and advanced authors alike--and you can take it beginning tomorrow at Savvy Authors (membership required). It's $35, but well worth the price of admission.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Friday Find: Late to the Zoe Archer party

Right at the beginning of September, my Twitter feed was buzzing about Zoe Archer's new book, Warrior. I flagged the title for future reference but didn't rush straight out and buy it.

I ended up putting it on a list for my daughter to take to Barnes & Noble to get me a Christmas present. She wanted to get me a book and actually go to the store to buy it, so I picked out a few titles that were recently released and not terribly obscure (and therefore likely to be in stock). She picked Warrior because she liked the cover and title best. That's my kid for you. She's 6, but she's already all about the adventure stories. (The others on the list were Emily and the Dark Angel, by Jo Beverley, and several nonfiction titles.)

Anyway, I picked up the book with some trepidation, because so many times I've tried a book the majority of readers seem to love and I just don't get it at all. But this book works. It's historical fantasy romance with a good balance of all three. The deviations from the timeline and expected historical behavior feel justified by the fantasy aspects, which are well thought out. And unlike in a lot of books merging romance and adventure, I neither felt the characters were letting their love distract them from High Stakes and Mortal Peril, nor that the love story was tacked on at the end.

Warrior is first in the four-book Blades of the Rose series, which were released one per month through December. I bought the series as a Kindle bundle, and I'm saving them up for my next plane ride or when I'm stuck and need something reliably good to read.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Research Wednesday: A Story I'd Like to Learn

I am inordinately fond of the 1822 David Wilkie painting "Chelsea Pensioners Reading the Waterloo Dispatch." It's so happy, you see. I don't think it's Great Art, but I find it impossible to look at without catching at least a tiny bit of the characters' jubilation. A quarter century of almost continual war is over at last, and even the dogs and the baby are thrilled.

Lately what catches my eye the most is the black man near the center of this detail from the painting:

He's there in the midst of the action, celebrating with the rest, and there's no hint I can see that he's relegated to any kind of lesser status. His features are possibly somewhat caricatured in that he's got a bit of a receding forehead, but so do some of the whites in the painting, so I'm inclined to give Wilkie a pass.

There were somewhere between 5000-10,000 blacks in London in the early 19th century, all of them free, and it stands to reason some of them must've been Napoleonic War veterans. There were also black soldiers on the French side. I recall reading that when the French army was in Egypt in the late 1790's and needed more manpower, one of the things they did was buy Sudanese slaves and offer them their freedom in exchange for military service--and that some of them fought in the Grande Armee for the duration of the wars.

There's a fascinating story waiting to be discovered...but I don't think I'm the one to write it. I'm not of the school that believes authors should be limited to their own ethnic groups for protagonists. But for someone like me who's not just white but eligible for the Daughters of the Confederacy (though I'd never DREAM of joining) to take it upon herself to tell the story of a black soldier under Napoleon or Wellington feels...presumptuous, to put it mildly. But somebody should do it.

That man in the painting and what I think he represents fascinate me so because I've been quietly following the discussions of the Confederacy, the Civil War, and their continuing repercussions in American society on Ta-Nehisi Coates's blog. And one of the recurring topics is black soldiers--how black regiments were established in the Union army, what whites on both sides thought of them, debunking the false claim that substantial numbers of blacks fought for the Confederacy, and so on. Given the rampant racism of the time, there was considerable shock, even on the Union side, to discover that blacks made just as good soldiers as whites. Even though there were presumably plenty of Frenchmen and Englishmen still in living memory who wouldn't have been surprised in the least.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Favorites Monday: Sunfire Romance

I cut my romance-reading teeth on the Sunfire YA historical romance line as a teen in the 80's. They were so much more fun than the regular YA romance of that day that just had girls going to school and finding boyfriends. I mean, I went to school. I even briefly had a boyfriend despite being by no stretch of the imagination one of the popular kids. Why would I want to READ about something so mundane? Sunfires were so much more fun, because I got to imagine what it would be like to travel the Oregon Trail or sail on the Titanic or live in Jamestown...AND get a boyfriend who was much more interesting than any quarterback or lead in the school play.

Any other Sunfire fans out there? My favorites were Amanda, Sabrina, Nicole, Marilee, and Emily.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Writing Weekend: On Formulas

Recently while about a third of the way through a romance novel that shall remain nameless, I thought, "I know exactly where this is going, and I really can't bring myself to care enough to read another couple hundred pages just to watch it get there." So I closed that file on my Kindle and picked something else, because life is too short to read books that aren't working for you.

A few days before, Mr. Fraser and I had taken advantage of free babysitting and an AMC gift certificate (both courtesy of my mother-in-law, while we were visiting Oklahoma over the holidays) to go see The King's Speech. It's a delightful, intimate period piece...and I knew exactly where it was going from the very first scene and enjoyed every step of the journey.

Both stories followed a formula. I think that's a good thing. I don't always or even usually want to be surprised by what I read or watch. I want good to triumph, whether that means a couple finding true love and committing to a lifetime together, or a murderer being brought to justice, or a tyrant being overthrown, or even a king who stutters figuring out how to give his subjects an inspiring speech. What makes a story stand out is how well it executes its particular formula, in the form of good acting, writing that makes the characters come to life on the page, little surprises in the plot twists on the way to the good side's triumph, and so on.

So what went wrong with the book I didn't finish? Lots of little things. On several occasions, I found myself questioning the author's research. She may well have been right, but she didn't make her world convincing enough that I believed her when characters acted contrary to my expectations. The hero and heroine seemed more like types than people, with the actions chosen to convince me they were sympathetic striking me as a bit too obvious and paint-by-numbers. And they were both the type who spent more time navel-gazing about their feelings than doing anything about them or just doing something, period...which obviously pleases enough readers to make it common in the romance genre, but annoys me to no end.

What made The King's Speech work for me? Again, little things. Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush's performances. Bertie's quiet determination to do his duty even when he HATED it and looked like the worse possible person for the job, in contrast to his older brother's feckless irresponsibility. The wry humor throughout. And the formula--the comfort of knowing it'd all turn out OK in the end.

What about you? How do you feel about formulas? When do they work or fail for you?

Susanna Has Too Many Cookbooks (an occasional series): Chili Madness

As I mentioned in my 2011 resolutions post before I took a break for the holidays, I have way too many cookbooks, some of which I've never cooked from, others that are kept on hand solely for the sake of a single recipe. So I thought, what the heck, why not try to at least use each cookbook once this year? And I'll make something other than pumpkin bread from the West Point Officers' Wives Cookbook, something other than Pakistani kima from More With Less, and something other than that sweet potato and spinach salad from Food Matters.

And why not blog about my culinary experiments, even on my mostly writing-related blog?

The Cookbook: Chili Madness: Second Edition, by Jane Butel.

What's it like? Assorted chili recipes, mostly from cook-offs.

What recipe? Chocolaty Chili. A pretty standard veg-beef-and-bean chili, with the addition of semi-sweet chocolate.

How was the cooking experience? OK. Not challenging, but too time-consuming for anything but a weekend dish.

Will I make it again? No. I thought it was OK but wasn't blown away. And Mr. Fraser is an Okie with purist ideas about chili, and he didn't finish his bowl.