There are handicaps I labor under as a writer.  Okay, the gentleman that just said lack of native talent can stay after class to clean the blackboards.  It’s probably true mind you but not as important as most people think.  My life, from learning foreign languages to writing is a testimony to the fact that a sufficient amount of hard work can overcome any lack of native talent.

No, my big handicap is that there were so few genres I loved as a kid.  Or perhaps I should say so few subgenres.For instance while I loved science fiction and took to it like a duck to intellectual water, I was not exposed to fantasy until some of Simak’s half and half novels were published in Portugal (or I came across them.  It’s hard to tell when things came out when you inherited a lot of your books from friends’ parents and/or bought them used.)  That was in my late teen years. And when my brother gave me the hobbit in my early twenties, I thought he was out of his mind (my brother not the hobbit.)

While later, in my early married years (remember the eighties?) I read a lot of quest fantasy (who didn’t) it was still not my favorite subgenre, not the one I felt at home in.

Likewise, in mystery I was first exposed to dad’s hard boiled and police procedurals and did not fall headlong into Agatha Christie until I was 14.  Although to be fair, there, I read her so often and so much it might have erased the lack of early exposure.  Also mom watched a never end of mystery series, which I watched with her, so I absorbed most of the tropes that way.

As most of you know right now I read “everything.”  Or at least everything that will hold my attention for more than a few minutes (there ain’t a lot.)

So of course, I write everything.

I won’t say science fiction is easier than fantasy for me — it depends on mood and idea — but I’ve long suspected there was something missing.

Look, in space opera, which was my first love, I know just what to do and what allusions to drop in to make the reader happy (these are called reader cookies, btw) because I’m one of those.  I know at bone level what the tropes are, and the ideas that will make a reader gasp. In fantasy… My tastes often run to the off beat and those that have a more… “almost real” bend: Jim Butcher, Larry Correia, F. Paul Wilson.

So I wonder what level of cookies I’m missing or forgetting to put in.  What am I not dropping in that would make readers very happy?

The cookies are a sort of resonance of the field.  You might not even be aware of them, but the evocation of previous practitioners, the calling to mind of a favorite scene, the “I love it when this happens” can heighten the enjoyment of a book.  For instance I love the opening of puppet masters because I love all the books of hidden worlds within our own.  So having an agency that’s entered through a network of small shops. Yeah, I was there.

Mind you, I suspect a lot of the cookies today are from movies, not books, which puts me at a double handicap, since I rarely watch movies.  And by “watch” you should read “Stand in the kitchen doing something or other, while listening, with occasional glances at the screen.”

Anyway, I’m more likely to know what “cookies” to give the reader in space opera and cozy mystery than in just about anything else.

This btw is the convincing side of “write what you know”.  You will write better those things you learned at a very early age.  Or at least you will write them more as the people who love them will like, because you are, ultimately, one of them.

Some of my reader cookies are … oh, hints that humans were the “old ones” of the galaxy. It doesn’t need to be a main part of the plot or the world, but just a hint of it will make me like a book more.  Or the idea of hidden places and worlds within our own.  Or “We came from the stars and we’re going back.”  There are others.  A lot of these are schlocky, which is why they work best as hints: little cookies devoured on your way to finishing the plot.

In mystery?  I love swapped identities.  I love loving couples that everyone believes are on the outs (which explains why one is suspected in the death of the other.)  And I love “the most likely did it” though it takes time to get to it.

If I have cookies in fantasy, they’re not quite cookies… it’s more subgenres: I love entirely new worlds convincingly done.  I also love urban fantasy that’s not all about the chick and the monster, particularly if it involves deep history and weaving the story through history.  Yeah, I like alternate history too.  It’s just hard to find it to my standards.  Not because I’m a wonderful practitioner, but because I love history and read a lot of it.

So, what are your reader cookies, and what do you feel confident putting in your work?



    1. One of the things I look for in fiction is heroes who are heroic and villains who are villainous. Oh, sure, the hero can be flawed and the villain can have more to him than his villainy, but I shouldn’t need a scorecard (or to see whose name is on the cover–I’m looking at you modern comic books) to tell which is which.

      And while my first love has long been Science Fiction, I find more of that in fantasy these days than in Science Fiction. And of late I’m finding a lot of it in the subgenres of Romance which have a SF or Fantay bent. Mind you, they often screw up the SF/F “cookies” so I have to read it in a different mindset but it’s still there.

      1. I love heroes who are unexpected. The timid man who discovers his inner warrior. The housewife who takes up sleuthing to protect her cubs.
        But, you have to show hints of that inner potential before that point, or it just doesn’t make sense.

      2. Yes!

        I can’t stand that writing advice that you get over and over and over again that your villains need to be humanized. Was Sauron humanized? How about Haggard in The Last Unicorn? Or the elves in Three Hearts and Three Lions, or the devil in Operation Chaos?

  1. Happily married couples and happy families. In part because they seem so rare in a lot of TradPub fiction and TV these days.

    Characters with flaws who overcome them (or find ways to cope) and are not “Victims!!!!!”

    1. As a side note, I’ve often thought that that quote from Anna Karenina–“Happy families are all alike, every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”–has been responsible for more unnecessary misery inflicted upon hapless fictional characters than any other sentence.

        1. “I do think it’s the opposite – unhappy families are tediously the same. It’s happy families that reach that status in different ways.”

          I just wanted to repeat that.

    2. Eh, there are plot problems, too. A happy family does not generate conflict. Therefore you need a problem large enough to take the entire family to fix it. And you need to orchestrate it so that every single character is needed and not in the same way.

      Especially in children’s or YA,where you need to tackle the Adult Problem: barring those stories where the problems are solely growing up, the adults need to be absent, evil, or incompetent incapable, otherwise they would not let the child face so much on his own.

  2. I’ll take the gimme on this one: Period Music references for any story set in the real or alternate world. I suspect that if I crafted another whole-cloth fabricated world for fantasy or science fiction, I’d even create a couple of era references to the music of those worlds!

    1. I have fun in the Familiars books mixing real music groups (Abney Park, Skinny Puppies, Sabaton) in with made-up groups and songs. I think of those as Easter Eggs more than reader cookies, YMMV.

      1. I’m in the “I do not consider myself goth, but I hang out with some enough to know a tiny bit” such that the real groups (and tunes) are nice little ‘Easter Eggs’ and the story ones are… well, interesting. I shall refrain from commenting on the name of one such.

    2. I never would have thought of that. Music is at best background filler to me. That said, our intrepid heroes will have background filler. Why NOT use music? A great touch of realism.

      1. You can play with culture and anatomy. In the Cat books, the Azdhagi have lots of percussion and plucked instruments, but no flutes or horns. They don’t have lips.

    3. I picked up a bunch of old music books at a library warehouse sale on $5/bag day. Between that and Shakespeare’s Songbook, I have a lot of stuff at my fingertips. In my book, there’s only one song referenced that doesn’t actually exist. All the rest are period, folk, or stuff I wrote in order to get it out of impenetrable dialect. (“The Cruel Sister.”)

  3. Gentlemen, I love war. Okay, I have a strong affinity for history, and I like understanding how the impact of the military history in the world building impacts the society and characters.

    I like things delivered to literal specification that are the opposite of desires.

    I like costs.

    I like insane people in a environment where their qualities are functional.

    I like very high prices, willingly paid.

    I like Good and Evil, real and separate, not muddled together in a mess of grey goo.

    I like truth.

    The truth is that this is a fallen world, but goodness can exist, and there are prices worth paying.

  4. Family loyalty. I’m not sure it’s a science fiction cookie, but it’s definitely on the top of my list of fiction cookies. The Sacketts, you know. Or Aral and Miles and Gregor and Ivan. Given proof that one meant to betray the other they’d simply wonder what the other was up to and play along.

    Fiction contains so many faithless characters. Fidelity. There you go. That’s the word I’m looking for. Fidelity is on the very top of my cookie list.

    1. “Given proof that one meant to betray the other they’d simply wonder what the other was up to and play along.”

      Which does in fact happen at several points.

  5. I love the “trick”–I think you mentioned it in your short story series? Where you’ve set up all the rules in advance, and it makes the situation seem impossible, but one ekes out a loophole in the end. (Or, related but slightly different, where the antagonist exploits a loophole to make the hero’s life more difficult. The enchantresses in the Black Cauldron–specifically the trade they make with Taran, and how much it isn’t much like he thought it would wind up–are a fantastic example close to the top of my head, on account of having just read it to my daughter.)

    I really like the seemingly useless superpower that turns out to be just what’s required to save the day. Well, done halfway well. Most of the time it’s… not. But that doesn’t take away from the sheer joy of it when the useless person manages to save the day. (Actually, pretty much any Underestimated Weakling Provides The Key (Generally By Working Smarter Not Harder). But there’s an entire subgenre of this, so I don’t know if it’s exactly a cookie or just a standard.)

    I’m a sucker for Villain Protagonist Slowly Realizes Everything He’s Ever Done Is Wrong. It sounds like breeding ground for gray goo, but it’s kind of the opposite of “Good and Evil are the same”–it’s realizing they’re different… and you’re on the wrong side of it, and repenting. (That said, this done poorly is *awful*. And it’s usually done poorly.)

    And, er… I don’t know if this is a specific cookie for anyone else, but I kiiiinda love it when the Dark Moment of Despair involves being physically restrained (in a cage, tied up, whatever) while the villain is free to go about his Evil Plan, all because you were dumb enough to fall into the obvious trap that makes up the Big Failure. Y’know, helpless and lost and despairing, all requiring your less powerful buddies to come save you in time for the Big Showdown. (This is usually where the Small and Insignificant Character/Creature You Helped in the First Act comes in.) This one, again, is frequently done terribly (there should be *some* reason the villain isn’t killing you out of hand)… but I frequently love it even then, weirdly enough.

    Anyway! That’s, er. Mine, that I enjoy reading. (I’m not writing much at the moment–but I’m starting to get my energy back, so that’s something.) And I think they’re all pretty well represented in fantasy? I’m not sure, I haven’t actually read much fantasy lately, now that I think of it. (Barring Daughter’s bedtime reading.) Should fix that.

    1. I’m a sucker for Villain Protagonist Slowly Realizes Everything He’s Ever Done Is Wrong. It sounds like breeding ground for gray goo, but it’s kind of the opposite of “Good and Evil are the same”–it’s realizing they’re different… and you’re on the wrong side of it, and repenting. (That said, this done poorly is *awful*. And it’s usually done poorly.)

      My go-to for a really well done “villain realizes he’s working for the wrong team and repents” example remains Prince Zuko in Avatar: The Last Airbender. It has all the elements that make for a plausible heel-face turn. He never really was evil just misdirected. He stumbled along the way. Oh, and the good guys didn’t just naturally accept him when he announced his change of heart. There was a lot of suspicion and the need to prove himself, particularly to the one who was directly present for his previous stumbling.

      Really some excellent writing there.

      1. Mine is Damar, from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. At first he’s just a lackey to Dukat, and then he murders Ziyal. But then he ends up as the Dominion’s puppet and he starts to grow. The scene where he looks at himself in the mirror and throws his drink at it made me cheer. And ultimately he dies a hero. Not bad for a lackey.

      2. I love that wonderful moment when it’s obvious that Zuko is going to turn to the good side, just like the whole season has been foreshadowing and building up towards… and then his sister offers him everything he ever wanted on a silver platter as long as he doesn’t turn to the good side, and he takes her offer. You’re blown away because you didn’t see it coming, but after the end of the episode you realize that it makes perfect sense for his character as he’s been so far. This is what he’s been pursuing since the start of the show; of course he’s going to take it when it’s offered. It’s only later, when he realizes that what he thought he wanted isn’t satisfying him, and his victory tastes like ashes… only then is he actually ready to turn away from his former goals.

        1. And I was also impressed that they came up with a perfectly reasonable reason for Uncle Iro not to speak for several episodes.

    2. The best fairy tales will have the underdog hero or heroine do a Kind Act at the beginning to some low or unlovely creature with no expectation of reward (or perhaps with an expectation of punishment instead) who then turns out to be magical or powerful and helps them to win in the end.

      I wonder if the secret magical person goes right along with the secret prince or princess or chosen one… oh!… and entertaining angels unaware, so biblical, too.

      The “cookie” may be a “secret world” cookie. Not even the secret princess knows she’s a princess, after all. The random person on the street may be someone important or magical. The dented old cup on the rough plank shelf could be the holy grail.

      In some sense it’s the opposite of working hard and making your own success which is why, every so often, everyone gets together to proclaim Harry Potter horrible. But as far as what small children dream of, they (and we as adults still do) dream of having the super power or secret family history or fairy godmother or discovering Aladdin’s cave. One of my elderly professors said that he never takes a walk that he’s not keeping an eye out for the random rock that’s really a meteorite, though he laughed and said he hadn’t found one yet.

      1. I can see the argument where it’s the opposite… but in most of the cases, it’s not just that Magical Fortune fell on the protagonist’s head. Opportunity knocked–a rare, fortunate, indescribably unlikely opportunity, but opportunity nevertheless–in disguise, and the protagonist proved themselves, in some way, equal to it.

        And… yeah. That dream is exactly why “hidden world” has always been one of my absolutely favorite genres. *^_^* Everything is a test… and it’s impossible to tell in advance how important this test is. Are you equal? Well? Are you?

    3. A good redemption story is fun. And that’s what I think some of the Grey Goo is reaching for without realizing it. People don’t want Darth Vader to be a victim of circumstance, nor do they want excuses made for him. They want him to repent and be redeemed, even if it’s in death.

      1. As a counter-example, let me present Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog. I realized that the reason that it works with the villain winning in the end is that the story is Faust; he gets everything he ever wanted and realizes that in doing so, he lost everything he needed. And they show that in the last heartbreaking line.

        The villain doesn’t reform, but you still get the concept that villainy isn’t a good idea.

  6. Friendship.

    Seriously underestimated as a draw to readers. Did you watch Star Trek to see what socially meaningful thing they were doing this week or to see what Kirk, Spock and Bones were up to? Frodo would never have made it to Mordor without Sam.

    And IIRC, Sarah, you’ve mentioned that buddy trip in DOITD that fans say they like so much.

    I think this is a good cookie to throw into any genre.

  7. I’m a huge fan of “Greater love hath no man, than that he lay down his life for his friends.”

    Give me a hero who’s realistically convinced he’s going to die or worse, and does it anyway because his friends are in danger and he can’t find another way to save them.

  8. Oh! I just thought of the perfect place to put an explicit call-back to Roy’s Blade Runner death speech. Holly’s comment about sacrificing one’s life made me think of it but I was also thinking that one of the cookies that I like in science fiction, and I suppose it would work in fantasy or any other genre, is the moment someone sees what no one has seen before. To be the first eyes on something.

    “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die.”

    It’s really a bunch of pretty nonsense, if one thinks too hard about it.

  9. Honor/loyalty/virtue, especially when they know it’s a Bad Idea, but it’s the RIGHT thing to do.

    The gruff guy who is really a big softie– also the big and scary who is actually sweet.

    Folks who are just stupid in love with their wife or husband. (Paging Chief O’Brien, founder of the floating Irish Holiday of “I am married to the most wonderful woman ever” day.)

    1. oh, that reminds me of a bit from the climax of the anime Gurren Lagan (possibly misspelled), a huge mecha is attacking Earth and one of the good guys roars “I have the best wife in the universe, Swing!” and heaves the thing away. This is the climax that includes using galaxies as shuriken, so somehow grabbing and heaving a planet sized mecha isn’t out of line.. If you can’t go with the flow for the sake of the awesome hammy we won’t give up — don’t bother watching.

      For villain learning better and repenting, of what I’ve read and watched, Londo Mollari of Babylon 5. Made a deal with the devil, lived to regret it and thwart the devil as he could.

      And there’s a Worm fanfic out there that decided Worm was a setting that would be improved by Sauron, reborn as a human and learning to be better. Ring-Maker by Lithos Maitreya. i gather Worm is a pretty grim setting. My kid, who has been talking about this fic says Worm is so bad any form of Sauron would be an improvement.

      1. I thought of the very same Gurren Lagann character/scene. Then there it was in your comment.

        That scene reminded me of when I was in the Marines, and a bunch of the guys were heading to Iraq (Kuwait really, it was for Iraq part one), and one of the wives got as many of the other wives as she could gather together, and instead of crying they were yelling “Have fun!” and “Be safe and come home soon!” with smiles and cheering. Those women knew their Marines, and how to help keep their spirits up. Of course, as soon as the plane took off there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.

      2. I’ve read a few Worm fics.

        Worm has two major problems that a crossover fic writer might try to solve. One, super powered nigh invincible monsters. Two, human groups that are very thoroughly screwed up. Solve just one, and the setting still isn’t a great place to spend time in. Solving both plausibly tends to mean spending a lot of time in the setting.

  10. ” So having an agency that’s entered through a network of small shops. Yeah, I was there.” That’s how Napoleon Solo got into U.N.C.L.E.! I didn’t know that was a trope.

    1. It’s very much a trope and it relates back to adventure stories — I wonder if any of them famous — from great grandma’s collection (she who put the family on bread and vegetable soup to buy one of chapter of her serials) written in the nineteenth century or so.

  11. Religion taken seriously by both the society and the characters. It doesn’t have to be my religion, but cynical atheism and apathetic agnosticism are not the default religious states for humans.

    Thought out economics and logistics. One of the few things I unabashedly love about George Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire is that his world building was thought out enough to allow for a character that rose to wealth and prominence in large part because he invested in infrastructure and industry. Armies are slow and expensive, so don’t have 90% of the male population enlisted and teleporting around the countryside.

    Mysteries that are structured so well with their clues that you could have solved them, with extra love for the ones that you can even know the outcome and still want to read again. (Zahn is just a master of this.)

    1. Oh, gads, yes– I’ve had Dungeon Masters who can’t grasp that yes, it actually matters which god your paladin follows. The god of suffering and peaceful death is going to behave differently than a god of heal everything.

      1. Ah, but the god of suffering and death will heal you . . . to prolong the suffering. 😉

      2. Heck in my current RPG-verse work, there is a monotheistic religion, and yet it matters what elements you emphasize. . . .

        The in-universe explanation is that different priests and paladins have different powers, and none have them all, is that so they have need of each other.

        1. You mean like real, modern monotheological individuals and groups do?
          Mere humans aren’t God, so of course if they try to emulate the Ultimate, they’re going to have to focus on only one small aspect.

    2. But DO make a reasonable religion. If you have a polytheistic religion, your characters is NOT going to pick a god to worship, barring insanity. Yes, you will be partial to those gods related to your sphere in life (but all of them, mind you), but you will be respectful of all of them. And probably join in the appointed festivities regardless. Yes, as a wizard, you’re mostly concerned with the goddess of magic and learning and the god of magic and liminal times, but during the harvest festival you will attend the sacrifice to the agricultural gods and dance in the community dances. Etc.

      Also, don’t make their spheres of influence TOO tidy.

      1. . Yes, as a wizard, you’re mostly concerned with the goddess of magic and learning and the god of magic and liminal times, but during the harvest festival you will attend the sacrifice to the agricultural gods and dance in the community dances. Etc.

        Also, don’t make their spheres of influence TOO tidy.

        If looking for something to crib from, look at Catholic saints.

        Then add in that they’re not selected for saintly qualities, and might even be raging psychotic a-holes with a lot of power to support their petty rages. Might be able to get a better/nicer selection by making it possible for them to die, which would at least get rid of the stupid murder-hoboes.

        1. look at the Greek gods.

          Poseidon was the god of the ocean — and horses. Artemis, hunting and wild animals and birth. Etc.

          1. Main reason not to look at the Greek gods is that it can be hard to find a version that isn’t a simplified version of a simplified version of a simplified version; the horses thing? Can actually be considered obscure if you’re looking at actual text books. I knew about the horses because mom mentioned it when Gandalf had them on the river flood in the animated LotR, and pointed out the ocean waves did kind of look like wild horses.
            (What we got at school was three or four more levels of simplified on top of the above– I actually knew more than the Jr. high text book had because the kids’ Greek mythology book was one or two simplifications fewer.)

            1. I don’t know when I learned the connection between Poseidon and horses (IIRC bulls are also associated with him).

              But I must have learned it before I read “Claimed” by Francis Stevens. 😉

  12. Bits of legend, historical asides, and snatches of song are things I love.
    Believable geography is something I love to see, but it’s much too rare to be a fantasy trope.
    Puns and glancing references to other stories make my day.

    1. Oooh, good call! I freaking adore getting tidbits of legends/myths/history that I can poke around and find out more about, or better yet run into and do a full Captain America “I understood that reference!” on it.

    2. I have a total lack of spatial reasoning/understanding, added to a tendency to digit dyslexia. SOMEONE needs to read me afterwards and not be sure that things didn’t shrink/grow in size, including distances.

    3. “Believable geography is something I love to see, but it’s much too rare to be a fantasy trope.”

      Rivers CONVERGE. I’m looking at you, Melanie Rawn. (My actual answer to “how do you world build?” is “Plate tectonics.” I’m with you on that one.)

  13. Can I leave an anti-cookie? Complex geography that matters to the story (e.g. armies not teleporting around) without a map.

    For SciFi, this includes coordinate systems that make no sense. The galaxy is a big place. I don’t care exactly where your planet is located. 10 light years coreward is more than accurate enough.

  14. Societal evolution. We as humans went from migratory hunter gatherers to landing on the moon with dozens of major empires and other distinct political units in roughly six thousand years. Fantasy humans living at a medieval technological level for ten thousand years under one government makes me assume the author, the people, or both are ignorant and and lazy. Tolkien got away with it, but you aren’t Tolkien, Mr. Sanderson.

    Characters who decide to move from passive bystanders to active participants in righting the wrongs. One of my favorite tropes.

    Exact words coming back to to bite fools and villains in the rear.

    1. The static medieval model seems so standard and so expected that when Weber subverted in in Oath of Swords it was amazing and shocking and utterly wonderful. And it really was a sort of “cookie” in that he gave just tiny glimpses of the transitional nature of current technology and then moved on. The hero, Bahzell Bahnakson, crawls under a wagon to examine the springs because he knows his father would want to know about them as his father’s main goal is modernization.

      It was truly shocking and amazing.

    2. The pair of that is… in a world with magic, would technology develop in the same way? Plausibly developing a very different tech can be very interesting… or extremely confusing.

      1. As much as I tend to think “The Legend of Korra” was botched in a lot of ways, I really liked some of the tech approaches–first, that after the initial discovery of new bending techniques, they proliferated (so that it’s not Just One Person who can metalbend after eighty years), but also that lightningbenders could find work at factories, that spirit vines could be used to power ridiculous weapons, and… heck, even the hippie metalbending city. Those parts were definitely fun. 🙂

      2. Yes!

        I tend to have sailing ships where the magic is used to control the wind. After all, why bother with an engine that could blow up if the wind obeys?

  15. Cookies.

    The random, normal guy who is going down to the corner for smokes and has to fight a monster. And wins.

    Wardrobes that open up into a new world.

    Magic that works.

    Anachronistic technology.

  16. Me, I like it when the author rewards the reader for knowing things. It’s great to feel smart.

    1. Oh! This could be a big long discussion all on it’s own. Yes, readers love to feel smart. But how does one set that up and do it on purpose? Psychological manipulation for fun and profit, 101.

      1. actually study how Heinlein did it. Set up the action (often not logical at all) the character is taking, with faux logic that the reader “gets.” Then the reader feels smart, like the smart character.

        1. I’ve just realized a horrible flaw in my plan to study this… what if I feel smart while reading something because I am smart?


  17. One of the things I deeply appreciate when done well is people with realistic physical handicaps, who work around them. One of the reasons I like Miles Vorkosigan – at no point does he ever get to wave a scifi/magic wand and gain two feet, stop looking like a hunchback mutie, or become unfragile..And yet, he grows as a character and accomplishes many things despite that, or because of it.

    A lot of writers seem to think handicaps and physical limitations are like bad fantasy horses – they only kick in as problems at Dramatic Plot Point. Which is a sure recipe to get me to Throw Book Across Room.

    1. Well, it’s kinda like Baum had the tendency to forget the color scheme of the region of Oz once he had set it. It’s hard to keep remembering something.

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