Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Talking Shop

Op-ed • "Building the Right Protagonist," By Eric Dontigney


I’m an organic writer. Mostly that means I don’t outline my novels. It’s not because I’m too good for outlines. Honest. I tried outlining several of them. It’s because the books always drag me off in some direction I never expected. The thing I do try to pin down before I start writing is the nature of my protagonist. Just as importantly, I don’t generally start with character details. Here’s why. 

If you make your protagonist a teenager wizard, for example, you’re largely stuck with coming of age issues. A teenager can struggle with identity, but only in a context of self-discovery. The fluid nature of teen identities means we don’t set a high bar for personality consistency. The pitfall is that it cuts off narrative avenues like an identity crisis.

An identity crisis really only works when it happens to someone with a stable, defined personality. Give Harry Potter an identity crisis, and we chalk it up to growing pains. He’s still figuring himself out. Now, give Dumbledore an identity crisis. That’s a very different animal. It’s potent and jarring because we expect Dumbledore’s core identity to remain essentially stable. What we hand-wave away as growing pains for a Harry functions as a full-blown existential crisis for a Dumbledore.

You also bump into limitations on moral quandaries if you make your protagonist a hardcore hero or anti-hero. Heroes set a pretty high bar for what’s moral. I like to think of hero morality as idealized or amplified everyday morality. They act in the ways we think we should or wish we would in the clutch. There’s not a lot of wiggle room to make a hero act immorally in an acceptable way.

Look at all the flack Man of Steel took for having Superman kill Zod. It’s not like he was a sympathetic villain, either. That dude was insane, bent on wiping out humanity, and actively trying to murder innocent people. If there was ever a good candidate for a public service homicide, Zod was the guy. Yet, despite it being a literal act of last resort, we expected Superman to find a better way.

Anti-heroes pose their own challenges because they’re basically villains. It’s tough to put them into a plausible moral quandary because they see violence, intimidation, and crime as viable solutions to problems. Wolverine is a hyper-violent mass murderer when you get down to it. For all his suave charm, James Bond is a blood-soaked hitman on a government payroll. These characters only work because they’re a shade less awful than the people they fight. They can’t process tough moral questions because they’ve largely rejected normal morality.

All of those challenges contribute to why so many authors select everymen or everywomen for protagonists. They sit in the moral middle-ground between hero morality and villain morality. You can plausibly push them in either direction with the right circumstances. They are simply more malleable than a full-on hero or anti-hero.

After reading all that, you might think it’s an absolute necessity to know the plot details before you start. I’m sure it would help, sometimes, but it’s not a requirement. What you really need to know ahead of time is what kind of journey the main character will take. Once you know that, you can build the protagonist who will be the most interesting on that journey.

Let’s say, for example, I want to play around with a loss of faith. That defines key attributes of the protagonist. The protagonist is probably younger. People who hang onto some kind of faith into their 30’s and 40’s tend to keep it. That faith must be misplaced in some fashion. It must be crucial to how they live their life and make choices, otherwise its loss is meaningless.

I’ll grant you that’s a pretty bare bones character profile, but it does some important things. It’s enough to help structure how this character will think, talk, and act on the page. People who believe in what they’re doing treat it differently than people going through the motions. They’re more passionate and often a little blinded by the light.

It’s also enough to tell me the character can’t be an established hero or anti-hero. If they were locked into one of those two roles, a loss of faith journey wouldn’t track. A hero has already been through that crucible and come out the other side stronger for it. An anti-hero has been through it and found the world fundamentally wanting.

Building the right protagonist must start with knowing what kind of journey the character will go through. It tells you critical things about who the character can be. Not to mention putting some bounds on what they can or can’t do in the opening act. Once you know those things, you can start layering on the details that make a character distinct.

 Eric Dontigney is the author of the Samuel Branch urban fantasy series and the short story collection, Contingency Jones: The Complete Season One.  Raised in Western New York, he currently resides in Memphis, TN. You can find him haunting obscure sections of libraries, in Chinese restaurants or occasionally at ericdontigney.com.

Eric’s last appearance in our pages was “Memory Makes Liars of Us All,” in Stupefying Stories #13, his next will be “Lenses,” in Stupefying Stories #21, and later this year we’ll be releasing his paranormal mystery novel, The Midnight Ground. Watch for it! 


“Talking Shop” is an ongoing conversation in which writers talk about the craft of writing, the business of writing, and what it takes to make it as a writer here in the 21st century. If you’d like to join the conversation and write an article, please send a query first to Bruce Bethke at submissions@rampantloonmedia.com.

Friday, March 23, 2018


Fiction • “2018: The Year in Review,” by Kersley Fitzgerald •

Hey, it’s Roshni, and this is Organech, the podcast about where life meets technology.

So, it’s almost the new year, 2019, and we’ve seen some big changes this year, haven’t we? Heroin addictions are down, as well as addictions to other prescription pain killers. Suicides are lower than they have been in years, and still falling. Deaths by heart disease, down. Domestic violence, nose dive. Weirdly enough, pet ownership is up, as are musical instrument purchases and rentals.

But that’s not really what we talk about on Organech, so here’s some stats more relevant to tech and how it influences our lives. Hours of computer games played was cut in half around the world. The number of social media users is up slightly, but obsessive use, you know, where people are on Twitter and Instagram all day long—nonexistent. E-books are selling like wild, including my book, Security in the New World, so thank you very much for that. More strangely? ISIS recruitment on Twitter is nil.

But here's something we’re just beginning to understand—all of this, the drugs, the domestic violence, the video games—they’re all related. And that relation is the continuation of a story we’ve talked about before.

I’m sure you remember the podcasts we’ve done on Cambridge Analytica over the last couple of years. They were a division of the British company Strategic Communication Laboratories Group, a company that uses studies in human behavior to tailor-make online ads for people, you know, like how you “like” a post about your friend’s new boots and all of a sudden every page has ads for boots. Unless, of course, you’ve downloaded Privacy Badger to make your surfing experience a little more anonymous.

Anywho, Cambridge Analytica is the more political arm of the SCL Group. You may remember they promised to push undecideds to vote for Brexit in the UK and then worked on the presidential campaigns of Ted Cruz and Ben Carson before briefly working with President Trump. They couldn’t quite deliver what they’d promised, which was nothing less than in-depth analysis of every voter in America as well as the social media tools to sway their vote. They claimed they didn’t have the time to complete a full workup, but we all knew it was just a matter of months before they had American voters in their sights.

Until the Big Hack. Of course, the data from your Alexa, Cortana, Siri, and Google Home were supposed to be secure, but we all know what happened in January. I really wonder where North Korea comes up with such good hackers. For at least a couple of weeks, we tossed all our voice-command systems and avoided social media except to say how we had all changed our passwords and used checks to pay our bills.

It was mid-February when Yoyodyne Cybernetics released Valet. The ad campaign didn't focus on turning lights on and off, or writing a grocery list, or telling you if your outfit was on-trend. It was all about the security. And when neither the Ukrainians, Israelis, nor the North Koreans could hack into their databases at the annual Zero Play hacker competition, Valet became the electronic butler of choice.

The great thing about Valet is that it combined all the Big Brothers into one. Off the bat, Yoyodyne had contracts with Apple, Google, Amazon, and even Facebook. Convenience without the push of a button for the low, low price of your privacy.

But it worked. This thing is so sophisticated it can help with homework in a bedroom, make suggestions for a grocery list for a diabetic in the kitchen, and not order that toy from Amazon that your toddler really wants in the den. There have been no security breaches. And since the data is held in server farms in Europe, for ten Euros and a nicely-worded letter, you can have a copy of your own profile.

Not that there’s much data to be stored. Valet works on algorithms. It analyzes what it tracks, finds the patterns, then turns those patterns into mathematical formulas without saving the raw data. When someone’s actions match a formula, it responds with a corresponding formula that meets your needs.

By March, Apple, Google, and the others were benefiting so much by Valet, they were paying Yoyodyne. By April, the owner of Yoyodyne, Mr. Francisco A. Truist, had the cash to make another big move.

He bought Cambridge Analytica.

Surprised? Not very many people knew. We tried to get an interview with Mr. Truist, but we’re told he’s a very private person—ironic, no? We did get a nice letter. By mail. It reads:
Thank you for your interest, Roshni. I've been a fan of Organech for many years. [Aw, that's sweet. Or possibly stalkerish. Not sure.] I’m afraid I can’t give interviews, but I also don’t want any ambiguity about the purpose of Yoyodyne, our Valet, or Sociology Research Operations ("Cambridge Analytica" was so pompous!).

We simply exist to make the world a better place. We believe in privacy, efficiency, and good will. We do not believe in political pandering, gratuitous commercialism, or emotional manipulation. I think we’ve made a pretty good start, but we plan on getting better. Look out for our next venture: Solid Truth, an algorithm that will verify accurate news articles.

Keep up the good work,
So, we asked you, the listening audience, what you thought. Do you have a Valet? How’s it been? Are you going to keep it?

Charlie from Portland, Maine, wrote in. She said she got a Valet in August to help her eight-year-old son with homework. Within a week, she started seeing Facebook ads and articles on dyslexia treatments. So, she brought it up to the doctor at her son’s next appointment, and guess what? After three months of therapy, his reading has improved a full grade.

Pablo called us from New Mexico. His wife was recently diagnosed with Celiac disease. She was so sick that he had to do all the shopping and cooking, and he had no idea how to feed her. She had already used Valet for her shopping, but he noticed the program started making its own lists with recipes attached. The dishes were mostly what they ate regularly, but the more he follows Valet’s instructions, the healthier his wife gets.

We have about four-hundred of your letters, emails, and calls. Each one brought me a little closer to getting my own Valet—you remember the disaster last year when I tried a Google Home for a week! Most of your stories were about the little things. Like, prompting you to reschedule a meeting to make your son’s band concert, finding that perfect gift for your mother-in-law, or posting a link that shows how you can actually do something about the cause du jour instead of just talking about it.

But it was Sherry from Tulsa who convinced me. She had cut off all her social media after the Big Hack, which doesn’t sound so bad except that she suffers from depression and uses Facebook to connect with her friends, family, and a support group. The day she took too many pills, Valet called her husband at work. He got there in time. When she came home, she opened Facebook for the first time in months. It was a while before she realized all the posts, all the Tweets, and all the Instagram photos she saw were positive and personal, as if they’d been hand-picked just for her. And she’s doing much better.

So, I jumped in. I got a Valet. It connects to my Apple Watch and my husband’s Android phone. So far it’s notified me when my son was choking in the other room, reminded me that my dinner guest is a recovering alcoholic, and tracked the GPS on Rex’s collar when he ran away. Twice.

It’s a weird kind of privacy, isn’t it? Instead of our personal data stored somewhere, it’s like Valet is inside our heads.

Right now, it’s a privacy I’m willing to share.

Kersley Fitzgerald has been a member of the Stupefying Stories crew since before the beginning. She wrote this piece in response to the 12/22/17 Friday Challenge, and given recent events, we just had to publish it now. We stand by all attendant ironies.

Kersley writes that this piece was “totally inspired by Manoush Zomorodi and her podcast Note to Self. It’s awesome. But she had nothing to do with this.”

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Talking Shop

Op-ed • “Worldbuilding in Urban Fantasy,” by Eric Dontigney •


Worldbuilding is the bane of science fiction and fantasy writers. Whether you construct one from scratch or adopt the world-next-to-the-world approach of urban fantasy, you must confront this hurdle. It’s a hurdle that many writers stumble over. 

For some writers, worldbuilding becomes an exercise in an overwhelming recitation of details. It’s not urban fantasy, but go take a look at the early Wheel of Time novels for a good example. Jordan spends a staggering amount of page space on details about the world. It doesn’t make the novels intrinsically bad, but it did make them longer than strictly necessary to tell the story well.

For many urban fantasy writers, the solution is to pick a real place and assume people know the geography. I cite for you most novels set in a big city. This is problematic. Even people who live in those cities often lack a good handle on the geography. Unless you’re a cop or a cab driver, you probably spend most of your time in one neighborhood.

That assumption of understanding makes it’s easy to fall back on shortcuts that deprive readers of important details. For example, let’s say I set a novel in the Los Angeles area. It’d be very easy to set a meeting at Dodger Stadium and write, “We drove to Dodger Stadium.” Easy as pie, right? Well, not so much.

If my characters were hanging out in Pasadena, they’re probably looking at a 30-40 minute drive depending on traffic. They might pick up 134 West and then California State Route 2 South. If they’re coming from Compton, on the other hand, it’s more like an hour of driving on I-710 North and I-5 North. These might not look like hyper-salient details, unless your bad guy sets the meeting for 15 minutes from the call.

There is no realistic way your characters can make it there on time. Now, you’ve got some choices for building tension. Your characters can negotiate for more time. Your characters can try to make it on time but at the risk of interference from law enforcement. They can arrive late and find a grisly consequence. All of this gives you a chance to shed light on your characters motivations, decision-making process, and history. You get all these narrative gifts from not taking the shortcuts.

A related problem is when writers pick cities they don’t live in and make basic errors. The early Dresden Files books were reportedly bad about this. That annoys people who know better, though casual readers won’t care. Getting the details right when you do this is no mean feat. I once spent a couple hours staring at maps, doing real estate searches, and reading news articles so I could write one accurate paragraph about Chicago. You have to make your own judgment call about how important accuracy is going to be in your book.

The flaw in world building that I notice in most novels is what I call the vacuum setting. The entire story happens in a place seemingly disconnected from the rest of the world and from personal histories. That’s a jarring failure in a time of high geographic mobility, social media, and instant communication.

Look around at your circle of friends. I’d bet you that many of them have moved at least once in their life. Most of them have probably moved at least once or twice as adults. You’re probably still communicating with people who moved away or that you moved away from. You probably get random text messages and Facebook chat messages from friends or family. I like to think of these things as the salt and pepper of daily life.

Yet, so very often in urban fantasy, we hear about the protagonist’s past but see no evidence of it. He or she never gets random text messages from a sibling, friend, business associate, or parent. They never call someone in another time zone. Police databases never seem to reach beyond the county border. Residents never seem to be transplants to the town or city.

It’s like the protagonist stepped through a dimensional curtain at the town border. Unless that’s a plot element, though, it leaves readers wanting.

So, how do you bridge the gap? My preferred method is to start with a few obvious indicators that there’s a world beyond the edge of town. Have your protagonist take a call from someone looking to enlist their help or a family member who wants to talk family politics. The protagonist has to beg off because of plot reasons and offer some explanation to their current companions.

This lets you build some personal history into a natural conversation instead of info-dumping. It firmly establishes that, yes, things do exist beyond the edge of town. Our protagonist has existing and ongoing relationships with mostly off-screen characters. (This also a good way to obliquely introduce characters you want to use in sequels.)

It’s also effective at humanizing your lead character. He or she faces ordinary limits like not being able to do everything or be everywhere without necessitating some kind of soliloquy about that fact. That makes the world you’re constructing feel more familiar. Who hasn’t been overbooked and wished that they had a clone to send on some task.

Stage two of my preferred method is giving your protagonist mundane tasks. Magical firefights and showdowns with the powers of darkness are cool, but you’ve got a couple hundred pages to fill. Everybody eats. Everybody shops. Have it happen on the page. It lets you talk about the setting in a natural way.

Our protagonist needs toothpaste, so she needs to go find a store. That lets her interact with everyday people in everyday ways. She needs to ask for directions. Drive around looking at things. Get lost. Ask for directions again. Wait in the aisle while someone spends five minutes choosing between Crest and Colgate. Deal with a lazy cashier. All of which supports the fiction that this is a believable place.

Worldbuilding is unquestionably in the details, but it’s about using the right details. Use common technologies to support the idea that there’s a fully-fledged world beyond the borders of town. Show that the protagonist has relationships and responsibilities that aren’t related to the current crisis. Leverage the mundane to help you explore the environment. You’ll get a more believable world.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

From the SHOWCASE archives...

Fiction • “How it Always Happens,” by S R Mastrantone •

Celine held her hand up to the horizontal slash in the mountain wall. A soft breeze tickled her palm, barely discernible but for its temperature: much cooler than the arid summer air that had made their week in the Ardèche so torturous.

“What do you think?” Dermot asked. He was standing below her, at the foot of a pile of rocks. The look of boyish expectancy on his face belied the twenty years between them.

Celine’s thudding heart felt like the only organ in her body. She wasn’t in control of the smile that broke out on her face. “I think we’re going to have to stay another week. There’s a cave.”

Most of their equipment was back at the camp. Their final, one-for-the-road walk had meant to be a gesture at best, an excuse to explore the mountains without lugging cumbersome backpacks and waterproofs.

All they had was a battery-powered torch and a helmet; still they began clearing away rocks from the opening.

Isn’t this how it always happens? In all the stories Dermot told in his lectures and in all the books she had read when writing her doctoral thesis, there was always something fortuitous, almost revelatory that preceded a big discovery. Less than a mile away from where they now worked, Jean-Marie Chauvet had literally stumbled across some of the world’s oldest cave paintings and changed the way in which the world related to ancient man.

She put her hands around Dermot’s neck, pulled him toward her and kissed his forehead. When she let go he pulled away looking slightly embarrassed. But she didn’t care. If this wasn’t the moment then there was no such moment.

“Sorry,” she said. “I’m just excited.”

This is how it always happens...

Read more »

Feeding the Muse: Living Well on a Writer’s Budget

Recipe • Traditional Corned Beef and Cabbage • by Karen Bethke

Now is the time to buy corned beef. Just as the Monday after Easter is the best time to buy a ham, the Monday after Thanksgiving is the best time to buy a frozen turkey, and the Monday after Christmas is the best time to buy a beef roast or prime rib, all the grocery stores that stocked up for St. Patrick’s Day are now eager to move all their unsold corned beef brisket, so if you shop around you can find some great prices.

Corned beef briskets come in two basic styles: the flat cut, which is usually more expensive because it looks more attractive, and the tri-tip, which is exactly the same piece of meat but triangular in shape, because it’s the part of the bottom sirloin that’s trimmed off to make the flat cut look so nice and rectangular. Of the two, tri-tip is usually considerably cheaper, but the difference is entirely cosmetic. You can also sometimes find whole briskets, which are the flat cut and tri-tip still attached to each other, but that’s a huge hunk of meat, and in some markets you’ll find what’s called “New England” corned beef, which has a disturbing grayish color because it hasn’t had nitrates or nitrites added to the brine to keep it pink. In all cases, corned beef is just a big slab of cow that’s been packed in heavily salted brine for a good long time, to preserve it for long ocean voyages, and coincidentally to make it nice and tender. If you’ve ever run across the term “bully beef” in your reading, that’s corned beef.

For that matter, pastrami is basically just corned beef that’s been spiced and smoked. Every now and then Bruce gets a notion to try putting a brisket in the smoker to make his own pastrami, but so far hunger and impatience have always won out.

The great thing about buying corned beef right now is that it’s a.) really cheap, b.) freezes well, c.) can keep for a long time if properly refrigerated—remember, this stuff was made to stay edible while kept in barrels on long ocean voyages in the age of sailing ships, though I wouldn’t recommend doing that now— d.) tastes great if prepared right, and above all, e.) is one of the all-time great fix-and-forget meals for a working mom to prepare in a slow cooker.

So here’s how I prepare it.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Talking Shop

Op-ed • “Boldly Going Beyond,” by Guy Stewart •

I completely agree with Eric Dontigney’s assessment of the problems with “SF, Diversity, and This Author’s Dilemma.”

I’m pretty sure that if I agreed with his solution, I’d have to quit my job. After almost thirty years teaching science, I’m now a counselor at a predominantly black, semi-urban high school, and I am a big, old, fat, white guy. People tell me I’m effective at connecting with many of my students…
Rather than compliments, let me offer this anecdote: Shortly after I finished my degree, one of the counselors left. She was a Latina and led the Latin@ Culture Group at the school. As there were no spare bodies to slip into the role, it was mine. Even I could see the absurdity of that. The night of the weekly meeting arrived, I opened the room, and after the kids had gathered, I stood up and said, “It’s obvious what I am, but you’re stuck with me. The only way I can learn anything about you is if you teach me what I should know.”

They were so startled that they spent the next nine weeks working hard to help me understand what they thought was important and what issues they faced. I even learned enough to defuse a potential explosion when, on Cinco de Mayo, an administrator came to me to ask “my kids” to stop trying to hang the Mexican flag in the school foyer.

Whoa. Knowing by then what Cinco de Mayo meant to them, I went out and offered to hang the flag outside my office door for the rest of the day—in full view of anyone who came into, or even looked into the office. They were good with that.

I agree with Mr. Dontigney when he writes, “I don’t want to get it wrong, and it would be laughably easy to get it very wrong. Having access to information is not the same thing as understanding it. Facts and truth are not identical.”

However, the solution is not to avoid the issue. The solution is relationships. He writes, “We live in a diverse world.”

That’s it exactly!

Monday, March 19, 2018

Talking Shop

Op-ed • “Politics, Fandom, and SFF,” by Eric Dontigney •

As an extremely minor player in the field of science fiction and fantasy, I frequently approach SFF culture from the perspective of a fan. I geek out over new seasons of Doctor Who. I wish more people were watching Stan Against Evil—seriously, it’s awesome. I watched Firefly when it was still on TV. So, in a peripheral way, I’ve always been aware of politics as a component of SFF itself and of SFF culture.

I had a nascent understanding that the Star Trek franchise was preaching at me about things, although as a kid I was often perplexed about exactly what. I was aware that Buffy the Vampire Slayer was trying to undermine tropes about women in SFF and to promote some kind of feminism: I think it failed miserably. I know a lot of people disagree with that, but it doesn’t mean I’m wrong. Go back and rewatch some episodes. Whedon gave her physical superpowers and made her emotionally incompetent. He could just as easily have titled it Brad the Vampire Slayer. At least then the emotional incompetence would make more sense... but I digress.

Politics has often been prominent in SFF literature. The early Dune books were a bare-knuckle warning about theocracy and totalitarianism. Point to any Heinlein book and you’ll find politics. Robert Jordan reveled in the politics of his Wheel of Time series. It makes sense. If you’re going to write stories about the near future, distant future, or about the society on a made-up magical world, avoiding politics is nigh impossible. At its best, fictional politics becomes a commentary on actual politics without violating the narrative thread.

A while back, though, something weird started happening. Instead of using SFF stories as a vehicle to critique culture and politics, people have been turning the whole of SFF into politics.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Op-ed • “Notes Towards a Manifesto,” by Bruce Bethke •

It seems I need a manifesto.

I’m not entirely sure why. I’ve gotten along for decades just fine without one. But everyone seems to have a manifesto these days, and I’m beginning to feel embarrassingly underdressed without one. As we’re working to improve sales and develop the Stupefying Stories and Rampant Loon Press brands, people keep asking me, “What does Stupefying Stories mean?”

Um, “stupefy” is a transitive verb. It means to stun, astonish, or astound. So—

“No, no, what does Stupefying Stories stand for? What does it mean? What’s your agenda?”

Ooh. Agenda. I don’t like that word. It makes me nervous.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

From the SHOWCASE archives...

Fiction • “The Wishing Hour,” by Romie Stott •

Nira was indeed pregnant, belly an albino watermelon and nipples like dormant volcanoes. When she walked, she waddle-stomped, and when she walked, she burped. She waddle-stomp-burped down the stairs and up again to collect a package from Omaha.

Congratulations on your purchase of auction lot 74, the note read. We hope you find satisfaction in this antique brass teapot, and we hope you will rate us highly in your online feedback. The pot was lightweight and slender and smelled of salt. Nira buffed it with a dry palm and sure enough the kitchen filled with purple smoke and a genie appeared.

“Three wishes,” said the genie.

“Ah, but I’m two people,” said Nira. “Six.”

“One and a half people. Four and a half,” said the genie.

“Ah, so half-wishes can be wished,” said Nira. “And since a wish could encompass the world, to ask for a working toaster would be such a small fraction of the universe it would be almost no wish at all; a thousand such wishes would still round to zero.”

“If one were inclined to think so,” said the genie, who loved haggling as all genies love haggling. For what is wish-granting but a negotiation with the world as it is, convincing the world to sweeten a bargain?

» Read the rest of the story »

Feeding the Muse: Living Well on a Writer’s Budget

Recipe • Low-Carb Enchiladas • by Karen Bethke

There are only so many times you can repurpose leftover baked chicken as chicken noodle soup before you start to wonder, “What else can I do with this?” The great part about this recipe is that while I usually make it with leftover chicken, it works just as well with leftover steak, leftover pork chops or pork tenderloin, or fresh ground beef or ground turkey, and the result is a great-tasting and inexpensive meal that gets a lot of stuff out of the fridge and averages about 15 grams of carbohydrates per enchilada. It does require significant prep time, though.

  • about a pound of some kind of meat
  • one large (1 lb.) can of enchilada sauce
  • one small (4 oz) can of diced green chiles
  • 2 cups (8 oz) shredded cheese
  • tortillas
  • one large sweet onion
  • options: black olives, cilantro, lettuce, green onions, bell peppers, sour cream, and/or guacamole, as your taste, budget, and pantry permit
The secret to keeping this a low-carb meal is in picking the right tortillas. I like the Low Carb Whole Wheat tortillas from La Tortilla Factory, as they’re just 11 grams of carbs per tortilla (less 8 grams for dietary fiber, which nets out to 3 grams apiece!), and yet they don’t taste like recycled cardboard, unlike pretty much every other low-carb tortilla we’ve tried. If your local grocery store doesn’t carry them, they are worth tracking down.

If you’re just full of energy you can grate any type of cheese you like, but I’m not, so I like to buy a bag of shredded cheddar, Monterey Jack, “Mexican Blend,” or basically whatever is on sale this week. Lately I’ve taken a liking to Crystal Farms Shredded 3 Pepper Cheese, as it’s a mix of Monterey Jack and Cheddar cheeses along with Chipotle, Habanero, and jalapeño peppers. Very handy, and just the right mix of cheesy and peppery for us.

Prep work:
It all starts with the meat. If you’re using fresh ground beef or ground turkey, you must cook it through and drain it before doing anything else. If you’re working with leftovers, it helps to use the microwave to bring it up to room temperature before shredding it.

After you’ve shredded the meat, spoon a few ladles of the enchilada sauce into a large sauce pan, mix in the meat, the can of diced green chiles, and a quarter-cup of diced sweet onion, and sautée over a low flame until the onions are done. While this is going on, dice the sweet onion, green onions, bell pepper(s), cut the lettuce in whatever way amuses you, and chop up anything else needs rinsing, chopping, slicing, or whatever.

When the meat-onion-chile mix is done sautéeing, let it cool to a tolerable working temperature. Start pre-heating the oven to 350°, get out a largish baking dish, and get ready to start assembling enchiladas. It’s important to let the meat-onion-chile mix cool! First off, because you don’t want to burn yourself, and second, because if it’s too hot the cheese will melt, and that makes assembling the enchiladas a really sticky mess.

You may want to spritz the baking dish with a light coating of cooking spray to avoid sticking, especially if you’re using a metal pan, but I use glass baking dishes, so I don’t.

  1. Ladle a thin layer of enchilada sauce into the baking dish, just enough to coat the bottom.
  2. Set your stack of tortillas on the work surface in front of you.
  3. Are you sure the meat-onion-chile mix is cool enough to handle? Okay, then scoop up some of the meat-onion-chile mix and spread it in a line across the center of the tortilla. Add cheese and more diced onion to taste, fold over one side of the tortilla on top of the meat, and then roll the whole thing up like a big fat—er, hand-rolled cigarette. Lay it into the baking dish, seam-side down to keep it from unrolling, and roll the next one.
  4. When you’ve used up all the meat mix and filled the baking dish, ladle the remainder of the enchilada sauce over the top. Make sure you cover all the exposed tortillas, because you want them slightly crispy, not burned. Spread the rest of the shredded cheese over the top.
  1. Bake at 350° for about 20 minutes, until the cheese is melted and everything is bubbling.
  2. Turn the heat up to 400° for last 5 minutes or so, to get things crispy around the edges. Alternately you can pop it into the broiler to get the same results, but be careful. This dish can go from tasty and crispy to smoking ruins very quickly.
  3. While it’s cooking, set the table, and then pour yourself a nice glass of wine. I recommend a tempranillo, although a zinfandel or Bordeaux will do.
When it’s done, put a trivet on the table and serve it right from the dish. Warn everyone that it’s going to be VERY HOT coming straight from the oven, so they should sit back, let it cool, and admire your handiwork before they bite into it. (Cutting the enchilada open helps it cool faster.) Garnish to taste with black olives, green onions, diced bell peppers, shredded lettuce, and sour cream. If you have guacamole on hand that makes a nice topping, but salsa or hot sauce is generally not needed.     

Karen Bethke is a wife, mother, grandmother, and 8-year cancer patient. The product of many generations of Italian family cooking, she’s now on a mission to create low-carb, low-fat, low-sodium, and just generally healthier meals that still taste great.

Karen’s sole publication credit is as co-author of “From Castle Dracule to Merlotte’s Bar & Grill” in A Taste of True Blood, but behind the scenes, she’s the real driving force behind Rampant Loon Press.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

From the SHOWCASE archives...

Fiction: • “No Accounting for Taste,” by Lance J. Mushung •

I sat on a bench on one side of the small, battleship-gray drop bay of my patrol cutter, Oliveria. The last month and a half of the patrol had been mind-numbing, but taking a ship of wasters into custody would soon make it all worthwhile.

Wasters violated the regulations prohibiting the dumping or processing of toxic waste anywhere except on Ogre, a rogue planet at the edge of nowhere. However, with typical perversity, the government had made the regulations difficult to enforce. It stipulated wasters had to be caught red-handed, and that was exactly what I intended.
The other two humans of my crew, Ngoc and Dieter, were sitting on the bench across from me. The faceplates of our sky-blue environment suits were open, allowing me to study their expressions with no trouble. Ngoc’s delicate light tan features indicated satisfaction, the look of a person about to right a wrong. Dieter’s Nordic face looked eager.

I needed no mirror to know my expression. During a drunken celebration right after graduation, I’d overhead fellow graduates talking about me. One had said, “Antha’s face changes from pretty and gentle to feral and fierce whenever she anticipates action.”

Dieter twisted toward Ngoc. “I wonder why the wasters come here instead of just dumping their tox into a star somewhere? There’s much less chance of getting caught that way.”

“You can ask when we have them. All I know is Mother Nature here will thank us.”

I ignored their ensuing chatter and whispered to Olive, Oliveria’s A.I. and pilot, using my suit mic and our private frequency. “I’d like to work on the summary of an arrest report.”

Olive answered in her distinctive melodic voice, “Ready for dictation...”

» Read the rest of the story »

Monday, March 12, 2018

From the SHOWCASE archives...

Fiction: • “The Waters of Oblivion,” by Michael Haynes •

Jackson always calls hyperspace the “waters of oblivion.” It seems an odd affectation, out of character with the rest of his carefree personality. His parents are both dead and he has no close relatives; he’s told me he plans to work the hyperspace runs until he’s thirty and then retire young and wealthy.

I asked him about the phrase once, and he wouldn’t answer me. Two days later ship’s time, after we’d completed the three-jump journey to the Karibib outpost to drop off our cargo, he turned to me and said “I took it from an ancient text.” Then he walked away.

I didn’t realize what he’d been referring to until many minutes later.


Getting ready for a jump is easy. Put in all of the navigational information and the computer does the rest of the work. The jump itself only takes seconds. At least, that’s what all the systems say. But while you’re in a jump, hours or days or even weeks go by in the rest of the universe. And here’s the thing. All those seconds? You feel them.

Doctors and biologists say that’s impossible, that it’s a trick of the mind. That since the body doesn’t go through more than a few seconds of biological processes—respiration, circulation, digestion, and the like—that the brain simply cannot actually be experiencing an extended period of time.

There are armchair scientists and weekend philosophers who debate this endlessly on the nets. Some say it’s proof there exists something separate from our physical bodies that contains our consciousness. A soul. Others insist there must be a biological reason, even if we don’t understand it yet. One of the most notable proponents of this latter view raised money and arranged to have himself brought on board a jump ship as “cargo” several years ago. He returned no less confident in his writings on the topic. And yet, when a soul advocate offered to put up the money for him to make a second trip, he declined.


“How’s David?” I ask my partner via the hypercomm. Jackson is sleeping and I should be sleeping, too. But the ship doesn’t have hypercomm capabilities and the morning will be taken up with the preflight checklist for the jumps to Namanga Station with no time for personal matters. Our son’s first birthday is the day after tomorrow—while my ship will be off navigating the waters of oblivion—and I want to talk to him and to my partner. David was three months old when I left home on a month-long ship’s-time run...

» Read the rest of the story »

Talking Shop

Op-ed • “SF, Diversity and the Author’s Dilemma,” by Eric Dontigney •

A common, and wholly accurate, refrain is that much of contemporary entertainment still aims at a white, male demographic. Movies and TV focus on white men or largely white ensemble casts. Ratings giant NCIS long-featured one of the whitest casts on TV, though a scan at the current roster shows some improvement. A look at any recent highest paid actor/actress lists shows the vast majority are white and highest of the highest paid are always men. The logic is pretty simple from there. If the highest paid actors are white dudes, the top-billed films probably focus on them. The problems in contemporary video games and comics are widely acknowledged. Surely, though, speculative fiction literature does a better job.

You’d think so, but no. SF literature routinely features white men as the POV character or the protagonist. Why is that? Well, published SF literature is predominantly written by white men, usually straight, often living in the US, Britain, or Western Europe. One of the precepts of writing is to write what you know. What these authors know best is being a white, straight, male and living in the developed world. I can speak about this with some authority because I’m one of them.

“Well,” someone might say, “that doesn’t excuse you for not writing more diversity into your fiction.”

You’re right. On the face of things, it doesn’t excuse me. We live in a diverse world. As an American, I live in one of the more culturally diverse countries in the world. I have ready access to cultural traditions that aren’t my own. So, why, under those conditions, am I profoundly hesitant to include characters of diverse cultural backgrounds and experiences? It’s simple.

I don’t want to get it wrong, and it would be laughably easy to get it very wrong.