The Unified Doyle and Macdonald Arisia Schedule

Or, where we’ll be and what we’ll be doing this coming weekend, while we’re attending the Arisia Science Fiction Convention at the Boston Park Plaza.

My Panels:

The Sidekick Lounge

Cambridge     Sat 11:30 AM

Where would our protagonist be without a trusty sidekick? Sidekicks are an invaluable part of storytelling, serving as everything from an audience stand-in to comedic relief. Let’s talk about the roles sidekicks can play, why they’re important to protagonists, and clever inversions of common sidekick tropes.

Giving Characters Big Damn Hero Moments

Beacon Hill      Sat 5:30PM

Achilles in front of the gates of Troy. Hurin in the Battle of Innumerable Tears. Daenerys and “Dracarys!” Speculative literature often includes moments of mind-blowing awesomeness where a character uses combat, skill, or persuasion to save the day. Panelists discuss favorite moments in literature with Big Damn Hero moments, but also techniques to bring these moments to their full epic potential.

Siblings in SFF

Winthrop   Sun 8:30 AM

Let’s explore fantastical siblings! Join the panelists as they talk about everyone from the general harmony of the Weasleys to the conflicts of Ender, Peter, and Valentine Wiggin. We’ll discuss our favorite sibling rivalries, sibling bonds, and when it’s obvious that the author writing a story was an only child.

Writing About a Future That’s Already Here

Cabot      Sun 10:00 AM

Has enough attention been paid to the way our world has changed in the past decade? How has the ubiquity of cell phones, social media, and on-demand manufacturing already made standard tropes of speculative fiction obsolete? Panelists will consider which technologies writers need to be aware of and how they impact characters and plots.

The Past in Present Tense: Escaping Flashbacks

Cabot    Sun 2:30 PM

Whether through flashbacks, exposition, or time travel, speculative fiction often needs to travel backward before it can go forward. How have authors handled the question of backstory besides writing a flashback? What are the advantages and disadvantages of introducing elements of the past through other means (fragments of written records, fever dreams, reality gem illusions, etc.)?

Jim Macdonald’s Panels:

Freddy, Friday the 13th, and Fangoria

Franklin      Fri 8:30 PM

In the 80s and 90s, nerd culture was less about superheroes or space wizards, and more about invincible masked murderers hunting and killing large numbers of teenagers through increasingly ornate and unlikely means. These were the glory days of Fangoria, a magazine that covered and celebrated the world of horror on film for decades, and was due to make a triumphant return in 2018, its 40th year. We’ll look back on the slasher genre, and the way Fangoria helped build a culture around it.
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100th Anniversary of the Great Molasses Flood
Whittier     Sat 5:30 PM

On January 15, 1919, the Purity Distilling Co’s molasses tank burst, sending a flood of molasses that killed 21 people, injured 150, and killed a large number of horses as well. What were the scientific and engineering reasons that caused it? And why has it (thankfully) not happened since?

Writing Fights That Matter
Newbury    Sun 1:00 PM

Fight scenes take many forms in speculative fiction–space battles with improbable physics, wizard duels, and your classic bar scene dust-up, but at heart, a fight is an argument fought without words. This panel will focus on convincing readers that no matter what form your battle takes, the stakes are clear, enormous, and compelling. How can a writer make every fight not just plausible, but memorable?

Kitchen Archaeology; or, The Return of the Lost Recipe

In our current quest to organize the kitchen, the other day I ordered a baker’s rack from Amazon†, and today we moved it into place. This involved relocating the bookshelf full of cookbooks about a foot and a half to the right, which in turn involved first taking all of the cookery books and magazines off of the shelf.

In the course of the relocation, we found the old black-and-white composition book that I first started recording recipes in, right after Jim Macdonald and I set up housekeeping. To our delight, among the recipes was the caramel apple recipe of Macdonald’s childhood, which I had carefully copied into the notebook from the index card I got it on.  We eventually lost the index card, to our sorrow, and after that there were no more caramel apples any more, because the black-and-white composition book was buried under a decade or more of other cookbooks and cooking magazines.

But now we have the recipe again, and I have entered it into my computer’s recipe folder and passed it along to all of our offspring, and now I’m passing it along to you.

Caramel Apples

(from Sister Mary Rose of Our Lady of Good Counsel, via Mrs. W. D. Macdonald)

Combine in sauce pan:
1 and 1/3 cups sweetened condensed milk
1/2 cup white corn syrup
1/2 c. granulated sugar
1/3 cup packed brown sugar

Stir constantly until 234 degrees F over medium heat, or until mixture forms soft ball when dropped into very cold water.

Remove from heat and stir in:
1 T butter
1 and 1/2 tsp vanilla

Dip apples; does 8 medium apples. If mixture thickens too fast, place sauce pan over hot water. Be sure apples are washed — a waxy coating makes the caramel slip off sometimes.

(Blogger’s note: skewer the apples on thick wooden skewers or popsicle sticks before dipping them.)

Amazon may be an Evil Empire, but at least it’s an evil empire that provides goods to the north country that would otherwise require a visit to a specialty store down below.

(Seasonal) Thought for the Day

A word of warning to anybody contemplating the acquisition of offspring: Be aware that anything you do for Christmas just once instantly becomes a Hallowed Holiday Tradition, and you fail to do it again every year thereafter at your peril. By the time all your kids are teenagers heading for college, you will inevitably be dragging a whole sled-load of Tradition behind you as you head into the joyous season.

And a further, happier thought:  If you’re still stumped over what to give as a holiday present to the writer in your life (even if that writer is you), remember that my seasonal sale of editorial and critique services is ongoing through Twelfth Night (5 January 2019.)

An Unsolicited Endorsement

Breathe easy . . . it’s not political.

We live in an old house, by American standards; the core of it — the part where the basement has a dirt floor and the basement walls are granite rocks that probably came out of the ground the basement was dug in, and the support beams are essentially whole logs — was built sometime around 1850, and is, ah, somewhat more permeable to the world outside than your standard suburban no-basement house set on a concrete pad. This means that over the years we’ve played temporary hosts to a variety of local wildlife, including squirrels, chipmunks, and — one memorable winter — an ermine.†

And of course, we always have mice. Most of the time, our cats keep the local rodent population within acceptable limits, but this year, between the long winter and the wet summer and — for all I know — the Trump administration (because lord knows, the orange-haired vulgarian is responsible for most of the rest of this year’s horrors), the numbers have gone beyond what two hard-working cats could be expected to handle.

This isn’t just a problem, we said to ourselves; this is an infestation. Time to call in reinforcements.
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So we’ve gone high-tech. Not for us the cheapie spring traps, or the glue traps . . . we’ve laid out serious money for a Victor Multi-Kill Electronic Mouse Trap. Because damn, this thing works. We’ve had it in place for around a week now, and the score currently stands at Victor Multi-Kill 21, Mice 0.

Highly recommended.


We only saw him once, heading across the kitchen floor at speed and disappearing under the closed basement door, but our house was remarkably free of other vermin while he was in residence.

Where We’ll Be This Weekend

We’re going to be at Scintillation, a science fiction convention in Montreal. Except for being in a different country and all that, Montreal is actually more local to us than Boston, or even Manchester. (Reminder to self: Must go to Montreal more often.)

Scintillation is more or less a successor-state to Farthing Party, the convention that Jo Walton ran for eight years from 2006 to 2013. Jim Macdonald and I made all of them — even the year when we had to do the con as a Saturday day trip because we were moving our younger daughter into Simmons College in Boston on the following Sunday — and we were sad to see it go. When we saw that Jo was running a Kickstarter to bring a convention back to Montreal, we jumped onto the bandwagon right away.

(If you’re going to be at the con, don’t miss Jim’s presentation on A Century of Dead Magicians, which looks at the history of modern stage magic through the lens of a succession of magicians who had some really bad days.)

A Thing to Do With Gift Tomatoes

One of my brother’s friends cleared out her garden in advance of the frost, and as a result we ended up with a large bag full of fresh tomatoes — more tomatoes than we could possibly put into bacon-lettuce-and-tomato sandwiches, or add to salads. Letting them deliquesce in the refrigerator until they could be thrown out as inedible would be tacky, but neither did I feel like doing any of the things that would involve peeling and coring and scooping the innards out of that many tomatoes, either.

Then I found a recipe for marinara sauce in the instant pot that called for pureeing whole tomatoes skins, seeds, and all, and said to myself, “What’s the worst that could happen?”

And myself replied, “Well, the recipe could turn out to be a total failure even if you execute it correctly.”

“Yes,” I said, “but even if it is, these aren’t tomatoes I’ve paid out actual money for . . . so what do we have to lose?”

“You’ve got a point there.”

So I limbered up the food processor, and then the Instant Pot pressure cooker, and I’m pleased to report that the recipe was not, in fact, a failure. The end result definitely counted as tomato sauce under the meaning of the act, and it now sits in my freezer in zippered freezer bags, awaiting the day when they’re needed.

All that being said, I’m not such a committed foodie that I’ll be going out of my way to purchase tomatoes to do this thing again. But now I know what to do the next time I’ve got a veggie drawer filled with somebody else’s tomato crop.

(Obligatory writing reference:  Sometimes your subconscious presents you with the creative equivalent of a pound or so of gift tomatoes.  Even if you don’t have a use for them right now, it’s always a good idea to preserve those ideas in some fashion — a scrapbook file on your hard drive, or a printout stored in a physical folder and kept in the bottom drawer of your desk, whatever works for you — to keep your subconscious happy and willing to serve you up ideas when you need them.)

A Meditation on Stuff

For about the first decade and a half of my post-undergrad life, I moved house on a regular basis, progressing first through a series of progressively less crappy apartments and then through two stateside and one overseas Navy billets.  This did a great job of keeping the accumulation of Stuff down to a tolerable minimum, since every time I — later, we — moved, a certain amount of Stuff would be deemed not the worth the trouble to transport and recategorized as Trash.

There were idiosyncratic categorizations, to be sure (my class notes from two semesters of Gothic at UPenn have been permanently classified as Important Stuff, even though I don’t think I’ve looked at them since I got the degree back in never-you-mind) and some equally idiosyncratic and regrettable losses (there was a nice silver necklace from Arizona that got lost somewhere between Philadelphia and Newport News, back in 1980 or so, for example), but by and large a certain equilibrium was maintained.

Then we moved to northern New Hampshire, and raised four kids, and put them all through college, and haven’t moved anywhere since we got here.  And the Stuff keeps trying to take over.

Never mind the fact that more objects come into the house than leave it purely in the natural way of things.  There are also those four kids.  And one by one, they all went off to college with Stuff every year in the autumn, and came back every year in the spring with Stuff Plus, most of which stayed behind like sand and gravel after a receding glacier when they went back again to college with New Stuff in the fall. Four kids.  Four years each — five, for one kid, because of weird required course scheduling — of undergrad, and then four years or so combined of grad school for two of them.  That’s something on the general order of twenty-one kid-years’ worth of Stuff, almost all of it remaining in residence.†

And yet sometimes, I still wonder:  How did I get from arriving in Philadelphia with one suitcase plus two footlockers to be sent along later, to this?


Because you know that as soon as something gets thrown out, that bit of Stuff will suddenly turn out to be the one thing that’s desperately needed for some new project in their current life.

Where We’ll Be This Weekend

This weekend, Jim Macdonald and I are going to be at Albacon, in (surprise, surprise) Albany, New York.  This will be the first convention we’ve fully attended since Arisia, back in January — Readercon was a bar-and-lobby con for us this summer, for one reason and another, so we didn’t get the full experience with that one.

Albacon isn’t one of your big crowded conventions that sells out its hotel room block within 24 hours of reservations opening up, and then goes on to fill an overflow hotel or two.  It’s a pleasantly-sized regional con that won’t overwhelm a newcomer.  So if you’re in the area, why not swing on by?  Jim and I will be wearing name badges (and so will everyone else) — if you greet us, we’ll say hi.

(Well, I’ll probably squint at your name badge and try to remember exactly where I know you from, because I suck at remembering names and faces.  Just say, “I read your blog,” and that’ll be introduction enough.)

Because It’s Been a While

A recipe!

This is one of my go-to seasoning mixes for things like pot roast or beef stew, or even roast chicken. File also under “Useful Things I Learned from Folk Songs.”

Scarborough Fair Seasoning Mix

Mix together in equal parts (how big the parts are depends upon whether you’re planning to use all of the mix on your current project, or planning to make a larger batch and store most of it for later):

Dried parsley
Dried sage
Dried rosemary
Dried thyme
And a bay leaf (because you always need a sheriff at the county fair.)

Whiz them together in a spice grinder or grind them up in a mortar and pestle, or just mix them together as-is. I like to grind them up because that solves the rosemary problem: Rosemary makes stuff taste delicious, but the little needle-like sprigs don’t soften very much during cooking.

I use more or less equal parts of all four herbs, but there’s no reason you can’t tweak the proportions to suit your own preferences. Store any extra in a clean glass jar with a tight lid.