Comets and Meteors

For a possible project, I’ve been researching the Great Chicago Fire lately. It began on the night of October 8, 1871. I’m writing about it today because a meteor the size of a bus exploded over Russia last night. So far as we know, no one was killed, but the giant rock, traveling faster than 30,000 miles per hour, caused injuries to at least 1000 people (mostly from broken glass).

How are these incidents related?

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Vampires Didn’t Use to Sparkle

Every spring I teach a college course called Gothic and Supernatural Literature. We have just started a unit on vampires. It might surprise you know that the first vampire story in English was published in 1819. This was “The Vampyre” by John William Polidori. The titular character was a dude named Lord Ruthven, who barely resembles the more iconic vampire we know as Dracula. He lacks sharp teeth, for example, kills with a knife, and has no problem walking around in the daylight. Continue reading

More impossible behavior

I found this little gem in a novel that I otherwise enjoyed very much. This time it’s a teen romance, not that that makes much difference. I’m changing the name of the character to make it harder for you to guess which novel it is:

Bob chuckled to himself, murmuring, “What a cutie.”

Remember folks. The -ing construction means that the two actions are not happening sequentially (as a lot of people seem to believe). Rather, it means the actions are occurring at the same time.

I defy anyone to chuckle and murmur actual words simultaneously. And, I suppose, to do so intelligibly.


If you’re wondering where exactly I live in Utah, turn on CNN or search the Internet for news of the Wood Hollow Fire. It’s a big wildfire that’s burning right now. I live about 20 miles South of it. It’s not as big as some of the fires in Colorado, but its big enough for central Utah. 40,000 acres are burning, an entire town has been evacuated, a major highway closed, 100 homes destroyed, and at least one person killed. In a part of the world where everybody seems to know everyone else, this is major stuff.

A funny thing about living out here. Like anywhere else, you can only see a few miles across the valley floor. But you can see mountains many tens of miles away. That’s the way it is with this fire. I can literally walk 30 feet down the street from my house, look through a church parking lot, and there the fire is: 20 miles North, smoking away on the side of a mountain. Sometimes I can see flame. If it’s that visible at 20 miles, what do you suppose it’s like in the center of the thing?

To make matters worse, lightning sparked another fire yesterday morning on the East side of the county, way up on the Wasatch Plateau. Looking at the huge cloud of smoke rising from it, you could imagine that a nuclear bomb had gone off. Seriously: from top to bottom, I’d guess that cloud was two miles high.


It looks like the Wood Hollow fire has continued spreading North. Residents of Fairview (formerly evacuated) have been allowed to return to their homes. As far as I know, there have been no additional fatalities and no serious injuries among the firefighters. It seems to matter to Mirka, so I will add that I am personally at less risk than before, and the risk then was practically zero.

I love YouTube!

So I want to set the next chapter of my novel-in-progress in a real location I used to know fairly well. It’s a train platform in Chicago, not far from where I used to live. I knew it well because my girlfriend used to visit me from the suburbs and I would meet her there. The platform was adjacent to a HUGE rail yard where engines would shuffle cars from one train to another. It’s actually a complicated process, and I got addicted to watching it while waiting for my girlfriend to arrive. Hence my interest in setting a chapter there.

The problem was, after all this time I wasn’t sure how well I could trust my memories. Continue reading

Romantic Comedy

I mentioned a few posts ago that I’m writing a romantic comedy. This means that I have also been reading a lot of romantic comedies. It just makes sense that if you’re going to do something well, you ought to see how others have managed to pull off the same trick.

What I did not expect to find is that a huge number of books that are labeled romantic comedies really aren’t comedies at all. They do tend to be light and pleasant. The narrators are occasionally witty. Quite a few stories emphasize slapstick, so that the main character spends a lot of time falling down and bumping into things.

But as I wrote in another recent post, all of these elements are incidental to comedy. They are not the essence of comedy.

So let’s run through that in a little more detail. Since the movies so often get this thing right, I’ll discuss the plots of a few well-known romantic comedies and point out what it is that makes them comedies.

Bringing up Baby

An oldie but a goodie. Dr. David Huxley needs a $1 million to finish the reconstruction of a brontosaurus skeleton. The money belongs to a Mrs. Random, who is assisted by a Mr. Peabody. All day long, David does everything he can to impress Mr. Peabody, but every chance he gets is spoiled by the appearance of a very strange girl named Susan Vance. Now all this is made very silly by a lot of slapstick, a dog who steals an important dinosaur bone, and a tame leopard named Baby who gets mistaken for a wild leopard, so there are plenty of laughs to go around. What really turns this into a comedy is the fact that Susan is Mrs. Random’s niece. So it turns out that David has been hanging out with exactly the right person to influence Mrs. Random, but neither he nor Susan has the slightest idea.

Missing or faulty information is crucial to a number of romantic comedies. How many times have we seen or read about someone getting the wrong directions to the party, the wrong room number, the wrong telephone number? How often does a character write one letter breaking things off with the old beloved and another letter making vows to the new beloved, only to have the letters swapped by mistake?

The Goodbye Girl

Paula McFadden is supposed to move with her boyfriend from New York to Hollywood. What really happens is her boyfriend takes an acting job in Europe and leaves Paula behind. The boyfriend also sublets their apartment to his friend Elliot Garfield. This means that both Paula and Elliot feel entitled to live in the same apartment. This alone would create tension between the two, but the tension is worsened by the fact that Elliot is also an actor, and Paula’s boyfriend has soured her on actors. In the end, Paula and Elliot work out their differences and fall in love.

What makes this a comedy is the situation. Paula and Elliot have every reason not to like each other, but circumstances force them to share an apartment. Sure, there’s a lot of wit and humor along the way, but the story is a comedy because of the ironic situation. And if we boil it down to its essence, you’ll see it’s a very old story that’s been told hundreds of times: a boy and girl dislike each other but are forced to be together; by the end of the story, they fall in love anyway.

Probably the most famous example of a romantic comedy premised on clashing personalities is Shakespeare’s play The Taming of the Shrew. I’m sure you can think of others. (Maybe it’s me, but it seems a lot of TV sitcoms use this premise at one point or another.)

While You Were Sleeping

If you haven’t seen this smash hit for Sandra Bullock, rent it today. The underlying premise is another comedic staple: mistaken identity. Here’s how it goes. Lucy is a lonely young woman who longs to be in love with Peter, whom she sees every day but doesn’t really know. By chance, Peter takes a spill and Lucy saves his life. Sad to say, he’s in a coma. Since Lucy is the only person who knows what’s going on, Peter’s family mistakes Lucy for his girlfriend — and Lucy doesn’t set them straight. The romance comes in when Lucy falls in love with Peter’s brother Jack. Does Lucy tell Jack that she’s been lying all along? And what’s going to happen when Peter wakes up?

Again, the comedy grows out of the situation. Lucy is not the person Jack believes she is. We in the audience gnash our teeth every time it seems she might get caught, but at the same time we know that she will never find true happiness until the truth comes out.

Mistaken identity is extremely common in this genre. Sometimes it’s accidental, as in While You Were Sleeping; other times it’s intentional, as in Cyrano de Bergerac, in which the title character (who’s a little ugly owing to a large nose) feeds his lovey-dovey talk through a more handsome character. Then there’s the almost unclassifiable way in which identities are mixed up in You’ve Got Mail.

A more relevant example. I recently read Language of Love, a teen romance by Deborah Reber. This came out in 2010, so it’s still pretty recent. The plot’s as classic as they get. Janna is goofing around with her friend Molly one day and puts on a fake Hungarian accent. When two nice looking boys start paying attention to them, and it’s clear that Janna’s Hungarian persona is the thing that attracted them, she keeps playing around. Harmless, right? Till she and one of the boys fall in love! How long can this go on without blowing up in her face? This is one romantic comedy for teens that really lives up to the label. (If you can recommend others, please do so in a comment!)

The Bottom Line

There’s nothing really wrong with a light and pleasant romance that doesn’t strain your brain. All I’m really saying is that if you’re going to call something a romantic comedy, you should understand what the label really means. I also think you’ll find that if you want to write something that really makes your audience laugh, you’ll make sure the situation is as funny as the jokes.

Do you like crispy food?

Dig this. A guy named John S. Allen just pubbed a book called The Omnivorous Mind. I expect most of it is kind of dry and scholarly, but I did enjoy an excerpt I just read. Allen points out the obvious: that human beings like crispy foods. Potato chips, pop corn, tortillas, deep fried anything, we love it love it love it.

Allen thinks he knows why. Continue reading