Ursula K. Le Guin

      It's an unpleasant thing that finally brings me back to my blog.  I started a few posts over the last few months - a short story about a "Twin Peaks" Grief Support Group, a geeky happy word-splosion about seeing "The Last Jedi," - but I always decided to use that time to work on my manuscripts.  My determination to pull no punches around my attempts to publish has spurred me to put aside several distractions over the last several months.*

      But alas, what finally pushed me to type a few words is the passing of an icon: Ursula K. Le Guin died earlier this week, at the age of 88.  If you're reading this blog, odds are you've at least heard her name, if you weren't an all-out fan.  A highly talented, highly celebrated sci-fi writer, Ursula was a role model for writers of all genders.  More than that, she brilliantly demonstrated how to use fiction as a vehicle for expanding social awareness.  She practiced what she preached--& damn could that woman preach when the timing was right.

Receiving a National Book Award, presented by Neil Gaiman...right before delivering a seriously awesome speech blasting the publishing industry.

     The first work of hers I read was in high school, her famous short story: "Those Who Walk Away from Omelas."  It moved me.  More than that, it shook me.  The imagery she presented first delighted, then disturbed me.  I have remembered it & re-read it over the years, & I am not exaggerating when I say it has influenced several key decisions in my life.  Ursula K. Le Guin helped shape the woman I've become in a mere 2800 words.  And I'm crying as I type this.

     My deepest condolences to her family & friends.  May readers everywhere be blessed with more writers of her caliber & quality.  The world needs such inspiration more than ever before.  I hope her heaven looks like the Oregon coast, & that it's plush with purring cats.
Rest In Peace

*Your jaw would drop if you know how long it's been since I've watched "Naruto: Shippuden."

Sometimes I Do Screens

      I don't own a television.  That used to be more remarkable back before every film, TV show, & random home movie of a cat* was available online, but I also don't have Netflix, Xfinity, or an Amazon Prime membership.  In other words, I don't stream shows.  I live under a rock.

I would SO live under this rock if I could!
      Ok, obviously I don't live under a rock, my cat would never tolerate it.  Also obviously, I do watch movies & shows, because I am up to speed on "Game of Thrones," I'm addicted to "Last Week Tonight," & I never get tired of binge-watching old episodes of "Good Eats."  I also watch movies the old fashioned way, in theaters!  This is particularly great for awesome flicks like "Spiderman: Homecoming," when action just needs to be viewed on the big screen.  But most of my video consumption is thanks to the patience & support of friends & family.  And it seems like lately, I've been watching way more stuff than usual, so I figured it was time I voiced some opinions on my blog.  Starting with:

Currently Airing: Twin Peaks
      You can thank my friend & fellow author Michael Munz for providing a weekly opportunity to hang out & watch each new installment of this...interesting season.  I had to binge watch seasons 1 & 2 before this one got started.  I was charmed by the character of Dale Cooper, thrilled with all the food references, & intrigued by the suspenseful supernatural elements.  I was very ready for season 3; I wanted to learn Cooper's fate, & see more of the charming small town that supposedly exists within an hour drive my home.  Plus I'd heard that Trent Reznor was going to make an appearance!
      Well...if you've been reading the reviews, or watching the show yourself, you know that it's...um...very David Lynch-ish.  Let's just say that we celebrate every time an episode actually has significant plot content.
Gotta hand it to the mayor of Portland, he's a flexible actor!

       I won't pretend to have a background in film or any training in how to assess what makes it good or bad, but it seems to me that director David Lynch has changed in the last 25 years; you can say "matured," or "evolved," but essentially he's done what all human beings do, & he's just changed.  Which is fine.  But in this case, I think that means a significant shift from the mentality that led to his original vision.  The first season of "Twin Peaks" was dark, & weird, & confusing in ways that "Lost" only wishes it could have mimicked.  But it was also charming, funny, & oddly relatable.  And unfortunately, that's what this season seems to have lost for me.
      I'm still watching it.  The plot has finally progressed enough that I'm decently curious to see what happens.  But I swear, if Cooper doesn't come back to his full state of mind by the end of the series...well, for Munz's sake, I'm going to try really hard not to throw a cherry pie at his television, but it's going to be an effort!

Coming Soon: Ready Player One
      When I first read Ernest Cline's "Ready Player One," I was utterly enchanted.  It was one of those books that scratched a specific itch in the most perfect way possible.  It was a love song to my generation: the first generation of the modern nerd.  Because back then, video games were weird, fantasy & sci-fi movies had hand-made special effects, & playing RPG's got you beat up.**  To have the nostalgia of 80's nerdom revitalized & revered in a near-future sci-fi story was nothing short of genius.  I have my concerns that this might have been a one-shot wonder for Ernest Cline, but who cares?  It was a freaking awesome book!!!
      So when I heard it was going to be made into a movie, I got really, really excited!
      Until I saw the trailer.
      Ok, first & foremost, The Stacks look perfect.  Second impression: that is NOT what Wade Watts is supposed to look like!  Any true nerd who read the original book can testify how much it meant that the main character was a rather over-weight teen with less than perfect hygiene--because so many of us WERE.  So to see a ruggedly handsome young man instead?  *sigh*  Way to miss the point.
     Then: there's a car race?  Where the hell did that come from?  And did I see a warrior riding a giant scorpion killing Freddy Kruger?!  Does canon mean NOTHING to you, Steven Spielberg?!!?  And finally I heard a vicious rumor that they took the Zork reference out of the movie....oh wait.  I'm sorry, do you not know what Zork is?  Darn, if only we lived in an age where you could access an essentially limitless database of both accurate & opinionated information on just about freaking everything so you could look that up!!!
      What I'm getting at is that it seems pretty obvious they went to a lot of pains to make the video game aspects of this movie more relatable to a younger generation.  Typical Hollywood move.  And what sucks is that in this case, it almost defeats the entire point.  I get it if you need to take Peeves out of the "Harry Potter" films to streamline the story.  In fact, I'm totally Ok if you modernize some of the language in Shakespeare so that more people can understand it--Will would have done the same.  But a central core of this book was the nostalgia factor, which catered to a specific audience...most of whom probably make bank in the tech industry now, so frankly, catering to them is a pretty safe bet.  And I suspect that a lot of them are feeling let down.

      So screens haven't been living up to my expectations lately.  Well, except for "Game of Thrones."  The only thing wrong with that is that somehow they've managed to make an hour feel like only lasts 20 minutes!  That, & the last episode did a great job of turning me off to chicken pot pie, one of my favorite comfort foods.  Maybe they'll do that with every episode, & this can be the new diet fad.

*This one is still my favorite, partially because of the adorable noises the kitten makes while eating, & partially because of the facial expression of the adult cat in the background.

**Maybe that's still true in certain parts of the country, but here in Seattle if you don't play a table-top RPG, you are only two degrees of separation from someone who does.  Two degrees max.

Z.D.'s Choice

      Due to a variety of complex circumstances, I have been living without my books for over a year.  None of my reference books.  None of my classics.  None of my favorite reads.  None of my cookbooks!  It has been a painful separation, the only silver lining of which is that I have re-familiarized myself with my fabulous local library system.  But there were literally nights when I would lie in bed & fantasize about being reunited with my personal library.
      Two weeks ago the dream was realized.  As is often the case, however, the reality was significantly different from the vision.  Specifically: due to circumstances outside of my control, I regained my books, but not my bookcase.

Do NOT leave home without it!!!
      You wouldn't think that's a big deal until you realize you a) have very little free cash with which to purchase a new bookcase, & b) don't have a means transporting one, anyway.  My preference is always to buy a sturdy piece of used furniture from Craigslist or a thrift store--but that required renting a truck, and when you're strapped for cash...yeah.  So after a week of pulling my hair & gnashing my teeth, I resigned myself to purchasing a new bookcase & assembling it.*  The price was right.  It even matches my other furniture, at least in color.  But it is significantly smaller than my previous shelving unit.
      So then, it came down to Z.D.'s Choice: which books do I purge?
      Aaaaauuuuugh, the agony of it!  Have you ever had to do this?  It's HARD!  I'd already gotten rid of some clothes & some kitchen stuff** & several knick-knacks of fair emotional value.  But now I had to pass on several members of my beloved literary family.  I could feel my heart chipping away with every selection.
Confession: I cry a little at the book burning scene in "Indiana Jones & The Last Crusade."  Every time.
      My only consolation was the psychological insight of it.  What I chose to keep gave me a deeper understanding of self.  Obviously the first to go were books I'd gotten on a whim or been gifted & enjoyed, but knew I would never read again.  Next came the handful that were falling apart--I figured if I find myself missing them, I can put them on my birthday list when I have more space.  Then it got harder.  I purged all of my coffee table books on the rationale that I don't have a coffee table.  I distracted myself by purging essentially all of my DVD's.
      Then I had to get down to it.  I wound up getting rid of a lot of my popular fiction, even though they were books I deeply enjoyed, because I know other people who copies I can borrow if I really want to re-read them.  Similarly, I passed on a number of books I know I can always find at the library.
      What I found myself keeping were rare books & classical literature: a selection of Japanese ghost stories given to me by an exchange student; a translation of Gilgamesh; a book of poetry written in opposition to the Iraq war.  I also found myself keeping a number of nonfiction books that have profoundly changed my perspective on the world: The Coming Plague by Laurie Garrett; How Does it Feel to Be a Problem, by Moustafa Bayoumi.  And what I realized was that I was keeping the books that promote the best in myself.  Which is a nice thing, really, to have such physical evidence of how I want to grow.  It birthed a rosebud of peace amid the thorns of my grief.
      Of course...I still have two copies of the complete Harry Potter series: one of hardcover books I got at the midnight release parties, then the paperbacks that I actually read.  You can translate that piece of my personality however you want.
Judge not, lest ye be judged, nerd.
      So...if it came down to it, do you know what you'd keep?

*Now I've assembled my own furniture on multiple occasions with perfect success, but this time I had generous help from a fabulous friend.  You know who you are, & this is a mad shout-out to your awesomeness!

**ME!  Getting rid of kitchen stuff!!!!  I think I just saw a Pot Belly sow soar gracefully past the Space Needle.

Four Fantastic Fiction Writers & the Finger Foods they Munch

      So, have I been true to my post from (over) a month ago, & been writing?  A bit.  Not as much as I would have liked, because June has been insane.  But it's been insane in a very good way.  Specifically, because I've been working towards...

...my first published work!
      Yeah, that's right, check out the authors on that thing!  See the first name?  Notice that it's MINE???  Four Fantastical Ways to Lose Your Fingers is a speculative short story collection compiled by some of the Seattle area's finest, & lucky me, I got in on that action.*
      Four Fantastical Ways to Lose Your Fingers is now available as a Kindle exclusive!  It weaves tales of Seattle superheroes, haunted bookstores, cats who are every bit as supernatural as you've always suspected, & Greek Gods with laser guns.  So guess what?  I recommend you buy the book!  :-D
      *ahem*  Yeah, I am neither versed in the ways of emojis, nor this whole self-promotion/advertising thing.  I'm new at this.  But authors Michael Munz, Tiffany Pitts, & Janine Southard are all pros, & not only are they talented story tellers, they are also really, really nice people who have been both patient & encouraging as I've stumbled through this whole process of turning a story into a published thing.  They came up with the brilliant of idea** of doing a blog tour, in which we answer questions on one another's blogs.  Of course the questions had finger-related themes, & of course mine had to be about food.  Because...you know...food.

I asked: 
What's your relationship to food when it comes to writing? If you snack when working on stories, what's your favorite finger food while writing?
It's me!  
Or rather, as much of me as I care to show online!
My Answer:
      Tea & graham crackers.  Why?  Because a lot of my stories are set in the Victorian-era (not the one in FFWTLYF, though), & nothing sets the mood like sipping tea from a china cup & nibbling pastry.  But too much pastry is neither good for one's health nor one's budget.  So I compromise with graham crackers, which I can truss up by spreading with peanut butter, or Nutella, or mascarpone with a drizzle of raw honey or pinch of cinnamon.
      Of course, if I was really going all out (& had a significant amount of time to prepare), I might go for a full-on afternoon tea.  For me, this would include freshly baked scones with butter & preserves, some manner of savory, such as a finger sandwich (no, really), fresh fruit, & then a small dessert like a tartlet or brownie.  And don't tell me brownies aren't sophisticated enough for afternoon tea, because they're bloody delicious--especially mine!


Janine A. Southard
Janine's Answer:
I do most of my drafting work in coffee shops. So my food relationship when it comes to writing it:one pasty and one (maybe two) mochas per writing day.

If I've gotten carried away with my work too many days running, I don't even get a real dinner later unless I eat out because I rarely bother to stock my kitchen when my mind is in a fictional world.

During the editing part of the process, though, I get to show off how awesome my spouse is. When I get to the final draft, I'll reach a point where I just want to be done and get through all the notes from the editor. I lie on my couch at home, stabbing the computer keys and vaguely listening to a Pandora station in the background as the sky gets darker and darker. Suddenly a bowl of soup will appear next to me. Homemade. (My SE usually goes for the Chinese Beef Soup with bok chow which you can try here!) You know your spouse loves you when healthy soup magically arrives whenever you're working at your computer. Much <3 to the one I marries.  **waves**

Janine A. Southard once once cut her hand on a mirror liek woah, though she didn't lose a finger that way.  (She did spend a year mostly unable to use her right hand for other medical reasons, thanks to which she now excels at opening doors left handed and taking notes on her phone.) She writes speculative fiction from coffee shops in Seattle, WA. Find Janine on Twitter, Goodreads, and JanineSouthard.com!
Author of the Ippy award-winning DF novel Queen & Commander on Amazon.com, Kobo, iTunes, Barnes & Noble


Michael G. Munz

Michael's Answer:
I drink when I write--by which I mean coffee, by which I mean espresso, by which I mean some sort of latte or mocha, by which I mean that's pretty much it but now I'm trying to figure out how many "by which I mean" clauses I can cram into a single sentence. I've actually tried drinking-drinking, by which I mean (Hah! You can't stop me!) hard cider a few times while writing, but that's not usually productive, with the possible exception of when I wrote the part of Zeus is Dead with Dionysus, the god of wine & revelry.

Okay, full disclosure: I was completely sober when I wrote those parts, but wouldn’t it have made a great anecdote if I hadn’t been?

As for food, well, I’ve found I can’t write very well when food is involved. There was a café I used to write in that also served some fantastic panini sandwiches, so on occasion I’d order one. Nine times out of ten, that resulted in being too distracted by eating to get my hands on the keyboard. Even when I was finished eating, all half the blood in my brain had gone to my stomach to work on digestion, so the resulting creative thoughts were about as useful as saying that “I have the best words.”

An award-winning writer of fantasy & sci-fi, Michael G. Munz possesses what "normal" people would likely deem far too much familiarity with a wide range of geek culture, although he prefers the term Geek-Bard: Jack of all Geek-Trades, but Master of None.  Or mostly none.  There are exceptions.  He dwells in Seattle where he works on his latest novel & jealously guards all of his remaining fingers.  Find him on Twitter, Facebook, & MichaelGMunz.com.


Tiffany Pitts

Tiffany's Answer:
The only food I keep at my desk is a jar full of dog cookies.
For the first 15 years of my adult life, I worked in a lab. If you’ve ever worked in a wet science lab (chemistry, micro- or molecular biology –stuff like that) you will be familiar with the idea that food and workspaces don’t mix. I haven’t been in a lab since 2012 but old habits die hard and I still don’t snack at my desk. There’s just something scandalous about it in my mind. Like the neighbor is going to stop by and write me up for having pretzels in my office. I don’t even like eating lunch there (although my dog is very keen on it).
Really, I couldn’t if I wanted to. My desk is covered with stuff. I don’t know how that happens. But adding a few plates here and there really doesn’t work. And I can’t put a plate of snacks on the floor because Thor calls dibs on everything at knee height or lower.
So, while I’m at my desk, I’m usually just drinking coffee. It’s not until about 2 or 3 in the afternoon where the food really comes in.
When I was a bench scientist I worked with a bunch of people that genuinely liked being in a science lab. They were curious people that liked doing random stuff along with all our regular work. We would do random chemistry experiments, like the type you’d find on science projects.com -elephant toothpaste, flaming gummy bears – stuff like that. The weirder the better.  It was so much fun.
I don’t have a group of friends to do that with now which makes me sad. To make up for that, I often find myself gravitate toward the kitchen in the late afternoon to ‘make something.’ Usually something easy like biscuits or tortillas. Sometimes, Nutella bread. Recently, my daughter’s best friend discovered she’s got a severe gluten intolerance so I’ve been testing out some gluten free recipes to see what that’s like. To everyone’s surprise, gluten-free Whoopee pies are super awesome. I highly recommend those.
A lot of the kids at school know my habits and I will often find a house full of hungry people at four o’clock. I encourage this behavior since then I won’t be tempted to eat all the stuff I bake.
I’m thinking of learning some vegan recipes next. We’ve got one friend who is vegan and she’s always having a hard time finding baked goodies. Maybe I could make a vegan whoopee pie.
Whoopee Pies (gluten Free)
2 c. Bob’s Red Mill Gluten-Free Baking Mix
1 ¼ tsp. baking soda
½ c Dutch-process cocoa powder
1 tsp salt
1 c light brown sugar
½ c softened unsalted butter
1 egg
½ tsp vanilla extract
1 c buttermilk

½ c softened butter
1 ½ c confectioner’s sugar
2 c Marshmallow Fluff
1 ½ tsp vanilla extract

  1. Preheat over to 350F. Line cookie sheets with parchment.
  2. Sift together flour, baking soda, cocoa powder and salt in a medium bowl. Set aside.
  3. Cream butter and sugar on medium speed until light and fluffy. Add egg and vanilla extract. Mix until combined.
  4. Add the flour mixture and buttermilk alternatively in small amounts until fully incorporated.
  5. Using a cookie scoop, place 1-1/2 sized mounds about 2 inches apart on your lined cookie sheets. Bake for 12 minutes, rotating sheets at halfway mark. Allow cookies to cool for 5 minutes before transferring to a cooling rack.

For the filling:
  1. Cream together butter and confectioners’ sugar at medium speed until light and fluffy. Add marshmallow crème and vanilla. Beat until smooth.
  2. Spread 1-2 TBSP of filling across half of the cookies and sandwich the other half on top.
  3. You can then roll in sprinkles, wrap in paper or simply eat them standing over the sink.

Tiffany Pitts grew up in the PNW on a diet of cartoon, candy, and instant noodles. She is a former molecular biologist, and a former-former analytical chemist who has definitely never blown anything up on accident. Her latest novel, Wizzy Wig, won the 2016 Cygnus Award for Best Speculative Fiction. Connect with Tiffany on Twitter, Facebook, and TiffanyPitts.com.

Now you just need to pick what to eat while you read!  -Z.D.

*How, you ask?  It's kind of a random story.  I was hanging out with Camela Thompson & one of her fellow authors sent her a text suggesting a collaborative short story project with some of their other writer buds, & Camela was all over that.  In fact, she suggested Ten Fabulous Ways to Lose Your Fingers.  From where I was eavesdropping with a cup of tea on the other side of the table, I said, "Huh, I was just starting a novel with a character missing two fingers."  The wheels started turning. So the next thing I knew, I'd written a short story--something that's usually very hard for me to do.  And wouldn't you know it, THESE OTHER PUBLISHED WRITERS REALLY LIKED IT!

**A real one, not one where accidental amputation ensues.

In an Age of Wonder

      You've heard, right?  Wait, you haven't heard?  Or worse yet, you've heard, but you're not appreciating the unbelievable AWESOMENESS that is...

      ...the up-coming Dark Crystal Netflix series!!!!

      Ok, when you're done squeeing & jumping up & down you can keep reading.
      The first time I saw Jim Henson's The Dark Crystal, I was pretty young.  Young enough to be freaked out by EVERYTHING in it.  I was scared of the black beetle-like monsters that guarded the castle.  I was scared of the crystal bats.  I was scared of Fizzgig, because he had a big mouth & was loud.  But I was so intrigued by the beauty & the completeness of the world, I kept going back & watching it again & again.

I was afraid of Aughra, but that just showed that I was smart.  Only fools don't fear someone this wise & powerful...& able to remove her own eye while it still works.  Mad-Eye moody has nothing on this Sorceress.
      Eventually I stopped being scared.  Eventually I also got the movie on DVD, because my family's recorded-off-HBO-VHS tape was so dark, I missed a lot of scenery.*  But I've always loved it.
      There are some people who say that the special effects of the 1980's are outdated to the point of being laughable, but if anything I think the development of CGI make The Dark Crystal even more amazing.  Yes, it is amazing to take the time & skill to create art on a computer that transports us to places like Pandora or Middle Earth.  But everything - EVERYTHING - in The Dark Crystal was made by hand.  Every twig, every eyelash, every crack in the wall was made in a workshop, with physical tools.  And every movement was done through human action.  This is art, people.  This is mastery of a craft like nothing ever seen.
      Through the years there have been rumors that a second movie might be made, but I never let myself get my hopes up.  I was even worried that they might be true; if a sequel was made mostly on computer, a part of my heart would break forever.  I haven't looked into the plans for puppetry vs. digital effects for the Netflix series yet.  I'm going to let myself squee uncontrollably a little longer.

*I still remember the first time watching that DVD & going, "Holy Crow, check out those plants there!  And animals there!  And stuff on the wall!  HOW DID THIS JUST GET EVEN COOLER!?!!"

The Noisy Muse

      I woke up Friday morning wanting to write.  That hasn't happened for...um...how long has it been since my last blog post?
      Ok, that's a mild exaggeration.  There have actually been several days in the last few months where I have felt an inclination to work on my stories.  And a few times I gave into said inclination for 20 or 30 minutes.  But that's about as far as I've gotten because - in the words of my co-workers - I got Life'd.
      What made Friday unique was that I didn't just feel like, "Writing could be fun," I felt like, "I NEED TO WRITE!"  And guess what?  No time.  I had to work for 5 hours (on my day off), then I cooked for 4 hours, then I co-hosted a Cinco de Mayo party for another 4 hours.  I have zero complaints about how the day ended because it involved margaritas.  Mixed Citrus Jalapeño Margaritas, to be exact!  But all the same, there was no time to write.
      And I. Am. Fed. Up.
      Writing is my biggest passion.  Honestly, it's bigger than cooking, it's just that finding time to cook is easier, because I eat every day.*  Life is too damn short not to pursue one's passions.  So time to write will be found, come hell or Gods Damned high water!
      I've joined a new Writer's Group, which meets every other week.  I'm hoping that will help keep me accountable.  Besides, the weather is getting sunnier & inspiration is peeking out from so many corners!  There are hikes to enjoy, Farmers' Markets to peruse, & friends to host, all of which help get my creative juices flowing.  I'm going to do my damnedest to get back into regular blogging as well.  And to thank you for continuing to read (despite a few months of absence, here is that recipe I promised.  Drink responsibly, please, & Feliz Cinco de Mayo.

Z.D.'s Mixed Citrus Jalapeño Margaritas
makes 1 large pitcher

24 oz. Tequila Blanco
11 oz. freshly squeezed lime juice
9 oz. freshly squeezed lemon juice
3 - 4 oz. Mixed Citrus Vanilla Syrup**
1 jalapeño pepper, halved lengthwise
extra lime wedges, jalapeno slices, kosher salt, & crushed ice for serving

 - Mix tequila, juices, & syrup in a large pitcher until thoroughly combined.  Drop in the jalapeño, cover with plastic wrap, & chill 30 minutes to 2 hours.  DO NOT leave the jalapeño in there longer than that, it will develop too harsh of a flavor!

 - To serve, use a lime wedge to wet the lip of a margarita or highball glass.  Let sit for 1 minute, then dip rim into a shallow saucer of kosher salt.  Set aside for 10 minutes to let the salt adhere.  Fill glass with crushed ice, then pour margarita mixture over.  Serve with lime wedge on the side if so desired.

Not my photo, but this is basically what it looks like.  I went with a little less salt than that.

*Four times, usually.

**Here's the twist: this is the leftover syrup from making this recipe for Mixed Citrus Marmalade from Bon Appetit magazine.  Why the heck do I have it?  Because I made the marmalade as part of my Easter dessert.  Is it a pain in the ass?  Yes.  Is it so absurdly delicious that you'll make it again even though it is a pain in the ass?  Yes.

Stuck in the Middle...or...Beginning.

      A common piece of advice among writers is to "start a story in the middle."  The idea is that tales often don't get interesting until a certain amount of tension builds, or problems unfold.  By starting a story in the middle, the characters have their motivations firmly in place, and the reader gets to find out not only what happens next, but what has already happened.  This is fresh on my mind after just watching the final performance of Seattle Opera's "La Traviata," Verdi's famous tragedy.*  I'd never seen it before, nor was I familiar with the story, although in many ways it's a classic tale.

I wish I had seen it earlier so I could have recommended it to more people!!!
      Here's a summary: the most popular young courtesan in Paris** is wooed by an awkward, bookish young man.  She is dying from a wasting disease, & he wants to take her away from her life of vice.  Against all her instincts, she falls for him.  For a time they are happy together in the French countryside.  But then the young man's father arrives & begs the courtesan to leave his son & not tarnish the family name.  Grieved, but determined to do the right thing, she abandons her lover & returns to Paris, where she persuades everyone - even him - that she was only toying with his affections.  He confronts her in a rage before leaving to travel abroad with his family.  Months later, she is dying alone, when her lover returns.  His father has told him of her sacrifice, & he is determined they shall live happily together once more.  But alas it is too late: although her heart is filled with joy she dies in his arms.
      The opera opens right where my summary began: at a party, where the Parisian elite are teasing this bookworm by pushing him towards his celebrity crush.  We know nothing of the courtesan's past except that she must be good at what she does to be so popular.  As the opera goes on, we learn more of her lover's past than of hers.  But the story doesn't need anything more: the themes of the tragedy (and the gorgeous music) speak for themselves.
      Now a novel doesn't have the benefit of music or actors to fill out the blanks.  The author must find ways to do this on their own.  But more than that, the author has to figure out something more subtle: just where the heck is the "middle," anyway?
      Some stories seem like they're starting at the beginning, & it's not until later the reader realizes how they are really in the middle of something--something big.  While not an expert on the genre, it seems to me this is how pretty much every mystery goes.  Consider the Sherlock Holmes mysteries; sure, it's the beginning of the adventure for the famous detective, but the mystery itself may have been gathering momentum for years.
"Once upon a time" could mean a lot of things, depending on the timeline in question.
      When I tried to think of stories that actually begin at the beginning, the only thing that came to mind was fairy tales.  You don't start by saying a girl in a red hood knocks on her grandmother's door, & then find out she met the wolf en route after she's been eaten.  But then again, the story starts with Little Red going to visit her sick granny.  Already we have a character with a history so strong her identity is synonymous with it.  Where do stories really begin, anyway?  If they're character based, would the beginning be birth?  But then what about the family of origin?  Or the history of the location where it all takes place?
      While I'm certain there are plenty of authors, professors, editors, & other people far more experienced & successful than I who give a concise definition of what it means to "start a story in the middle," I'm starting to think that for me it really means knowing the story myself.  As the author, I need to know what happened to set up the events at the opening of my tale.  After all, a good novel is rarely one story: it's usually several interwoven.  "Pride & Prejudice" may seem to start at the beginning - when Elizabeth first meets Mr. Darcy - but later we learn the story of Mr. Darcy's pride & reserve, & the scandal that threatened his family & comes to threaten hers.
      Maybe I'm getting too philosophical here, but thinking about where a story starts seems a lot of like trying to figure out when a day begins.  Midnight?  When the sun breaches or the horizon?  Or pulls free of it?  When your alarm goes off?  When your coffee kicks in?  Maybe it's not so much about starting the story in the middle, as it is about the writer creating a sense of real time continuum.  After all, everyone wants to believe their own next adventure could start any moment!

*It's so famous, that even if you're not an opera fan you're probably familiar with at least one tune.

**Of course it has to be Paris, even though the opera is in Italian.

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