What Is Your Secret Sauce

This weekend we went to a very good Italian restaurant.

For… reasons, I wasn’t the one who picked. I wasn’t a great fun of Italian restaurants, even before I was low carb. Mostly because when i wanted Italian cuisine I made it myself, from making my own pasta, to making Caesar salad with homemade dressing. Because it’s one of my favorite foods to make, it wasn’t what I went out for.

Anyway, the restaurant was both amazing (quite possibly one of the best 10 meals of my life) but the recipes I ate were ones I make, and they were subtly different, but very good. Like, I’d say their Caesar dressing was better balance than mine, but the anchovy really came through, while I tend to be coy with it.

And it got me to thinking. Not in terms of doing it yourself and going out for it, but in terms of ingredient and balance.

And then a friend posted a list — just a list — she spent time writing (like a day) of things that make fiction special for her. Because she thinks it’s a way around the burnout: writing things that make her really happy and interested to be writing.

And I thought that MIGHT be a way to combat the burnout.

So far my list is pathetic, because I haven’t had the time to sit down and really consider it (SO LATE. ON EVERYTHING.) But I sat down and thought about it (mostly while husband drove.)

One of the things that has always excited me about science fiction and fantasy is the idea of a secret world, that normal people don’t see.

Also the idea that our lore (or dreams) are actually true.

So, you know, say the idea there are actually already colonies in other worlds, but they’re being kept secret for…. reasons, is inherently amazing to me.

That moment in Galaxy quest where they say “it’s all true” and the kid says “I knew it.” That’s like an electrical current through the center of the reasons I’m a fan.

I also love the idea of ancient civilizations that fell, and why they fell, and what could prevent us from falling.

And the idea of “the ancient ones of the stars” being humans, all along.

That’s it. I haven’t had time to think of many other tropes that just light my mind up like a Christmas tree.

But what are yours? what makes you all excited in books. And is it something you write or would like to write?

55 thoughts on “What Is Your Secret Sauce

  1. I think my love for fantasy and sci-fi mostly stems from wondering how the world would change if you just added one or two things. If the world was mostly the same, but just a handful of natural laws could be broken, a few new critters were added–how would those few differences make everything else different? What new trials would people face if things were just nudged slightly in another direction? How would a slightly different reality alter the way of things?

    More than that, I love characters. I like to think up all the people I could’ve been if I had a slightly different life or if someone else did. How did the people around me end up the way they are, and how can I combine and condense all that into a character that fascinates me? In reading, there’s nothing more exciting than a well-written character.

    I don’t think I would have any desire to read or write if not for those two ingredients combined. But with them, I can’t see myself ever not wanting to read or write.

  2. Basements and attics, and the things that got left behind.
    Hills you can walk.
    Rivers you can canoe.
    Old houses.
    Enormous old trees.
    Forgotten cemeteries.
    Bridges, and the spaces beneath.
    The bird that follows you when you’re just out walking.
    A cat you follow, with it looking over its shoulder while it waits for you to catch up.
    Caves, especially the ones where the weeds show a faint path into them.
    Old libraries.
    Old churches.
    Stained glass windows, especially ones where the leading is a bit wonky, and where the eyes on the figures are odd.
    Lying in snow staring up at the sky.
    Recognizing a grouse in the woods just by the wingbeats when it takes off.
    Battered pickup trucks, and the old guys who drive them.

      1. Unicorns, dragons, and mythical creatures,
        Snow falling down on a mountain’s bare features,
        Long-buried stories now given new wings –
        These are a few of my favorite things!

        1. Oh, yes, shape shifters, old trains
          Strange diners in the middle of nowhere
          things you find in walls
          And aliens who are really humans
          Someone else make it rhyme.

        2. Heroines, Heroes, and worthy companions;
          Beautiful sunsets and rainbows in drizzle;
          Imagination-inspiring new worlds –
          These are a few of my favourite things!

            1. Yes, that’s what really ticked me off about the Star Wars prequels. I love redemption, and those three movies were the setup for it, but they were so badly done. If they had laid off the wacky aliens and CGI and focused on the dialogue and characters instead…

              1. It’s hard to write a “Good Guys Lose” type of story but good writers can do it in such a way that the readers/viewers can enjoy it.

                But it was obvious that Lucas wasn’t able to do it.

                One thing that really annoys me is the idiocy that he did to the Jedi Order.

                In the original movies, the Order was described as Something Very Good and its fall was a tragedy.

                But in the “prequels”, the Order was shown as something that deserved to Fall.

                1. In the original, the Force was mystical; in the prequels, it was a bacteria.

        3. It is a certain hour of twilight glooms,
          Mostly in autumn, when the star-wind pours
          Down hilltop streets, deserted out-of-doors,
          But shewing early lamplight from snug rooms.
          The dead leaves rush in strange, fantastic twists,
          And chimney-smoke whirls round with alien grace,
          Heeding geometries of outer space,
          While Fomalhaut peers in through southward mists.
          This is the hour when moonstruck poets know
          What fungi sprout in Yuggoth, and what scents
          And tints of flowers fill Nithon’s continents,
          Such as in no poor earthly garden blow.

          Yet for each dream these winds to us convey,
          A dozen more of ours they sweep away!

    1. I’m going to have to second everything you say that begins with “old.” It may come from living in the U.S. and in particular in Colorado where “old things” means “late 19th century,” but just the idea of something really ancient, something that had GOT to have stories attached to it, gets my creative juices flowing.

        1. The house was old, with tangled wings outthrown,
          Of which no one could ever half keep track,
          And in a small room somewhat near the back
          Was an odd window sealed with ancient stone.
          There, in a dream-plagued childhood, quite alone
          I used to go, where night reigned vague and black;
          Parting the cobwebs with a curious lack
          Of fear, and with a wonder each time grown.

          One later day I brought the masons there
          To find what view my dim forbears had shunned,
          But as they pierced the stone, a rush of air
          Burst from the alien voids that yawned beyond.
          They fled—but I peered through and found unrolled
          All the wild worlds of which my dreams had told.

  3. I haven’t written a ton of them, but in reading/watching: duels. For some reason, I’m always down with a good sword-fight, or even a mediocre one. I saw the Italian Pride and Prejudice,* which opens with Darcy dueling a career-military version of Wickham over the business with Georgiana, and immediately thought: “I like the way you guys think.” Gunfights I’m kind of pickier about: two (or three) men at high noon with revolvers, or the wacky trick-gun stuff that the European westerns got into once the makers saw the Wild Wild West tv series.

    In scifi, I watch/read for the space battles, the creatures, the alien cultures, and the genre-blending (see duels, above).

    Fantasy, I like the epic moments, I like the neutral/good-aligned creatures, the heroism, the larger than life quality. I like the high-flown language, but the n00bs from Terry Brooks onward don’t do it as well as R. E. Howard, Tolkien or Howard Pyle, and they don’t do it quite as well as Kipling, who didn’t even write high fantasy. If I ever write high fantasy, it will probably as an excuse to write that kind of prose.

    Actually, for most fiction, I would say I’m about the larger than life moments, and the likable people hanging out moments. And that moment where the cool but seemingly not-good guy turns out to be better than you expected. (Anti-hero saving the peasants in Yojimbo/Fistful of Dollars, Vader’s change of heart in ROTJ, see below for the mystery trope).

    In mysteries, I read for that moment when you realize that the character rather like but feel like you shouldn’t really is just a red herring, and may even get the girl. The other moment in mysteries, where you realize the character you despised but you thought the author wanted you to like, is in fact the murderer. Agatha Christie was the master of this kind of misdirection, and I would say that it’s a large part of what makes her mysteries so satisfying.

    In mysteries and thrillers (and to some extent large-scale epic fantasy) I read for the moment where all the pieces come together.

    *This is the version that somehow feels like the adaptor was suffering from a Georgette Heyer hangover and a Sense & Sensibility hangover simultaneously.

    1. If you haven’t already, you might look into the Association for Renaissance Marital Arts. They’re focused on figuring out and recreating how historical sword fights works in the European style, and film demonstrations.

      Pretty wild stuff.

      Also very informative if you are writing sword fights. Turns out, shoes matter to swordmen.

        1. i need and edit button….

          Now I find myself wondering what an associate of marital arts would actually cover? Creative negotiation 101? Advance kid juggling? Master level car swapping? Grocery shopping for the incoherent? Advanced small children’s birthday parties, (grace and logistics under fire)?

        2. Addendum: This is also why I am eternally greatful to Margaret Ball for editing my stuff.

          Discrete and Discreet are not the same word, and not interchangeable.

        3. Hmm. Most of the Renaissance setting pieces that I have read, you must first study the martial arts if you are to have any chance at studying the marital arts. (Fiction, I know…)

          1. My biggest peeve word-swaps are cavalry (horse-soldiers) called Calvary (site of Our Lord’s crucifixion), enormity (egregiousness or infamy) for immensity– so frequent many dictionaries excuse it per se as “common usage” but I’d rather hear nails on blackboards or teenagers whinging at me.

            I’ve even heard a US Army Cavalry officer call his own branch “the calvary” (nowdays they’re mostly tankers: thank the Cav officer who wrote Saber Exercise 1914).

  4. I think it’s heroism. People rising above whatever has dropped on them, even if they don’t know whether or not they can, even if they are certain it is futile, but they go on anyway because it is the right thing to do.

    I think that also links into fish out of water characters as well. Those are interesting because, at a much less intense level, they are dealing with something they simply are not comfortable with, yet continuing anyway. Those tend to lend themselves to humorous stories instead of dramatic ones, but I think it’s the same dynamic I find myself attracted to.

    I think that also explains why I’ve been having trouble with a couple of the last stories of the fanfic thing I was working on: several segments had neither. In the first one, skipping the entire opening to start at the spot where a hyper-introvert was having to deal with a swarm of people, and then recapping why they were there gave it the kickstart it needed.

    In the current one I’m beating my head against, scenes that do seem to work all orbit around at least one character dealing with something they find profoundly uncomfortable. I think that is the piece that’s missing from the ones that aren’t?

    Will have to try that and see what happens.

  5. Competence.
    The proliferation of changes.
    Unintended consequences.
    Coherent geology, or a reasonable excuse why not.
    Coherent ecology.
    Coherent economics.
    Plausible, coherent cultures.
    Plausible, coherent tactics.
    Multiple cultures, not just the cultural equivalent of “jungle planet”, that integrate with their geology, ecology, and economics.
    Politics that makes sense given the above.
    Food that makes sense given the above.
    Coffee and chocolate, cats and dogs, because humanity will make sure those reach the stars.
    Technology sufficiently advanced to be called magic, or vice versa… and the exploration of how that will shape people, societies, cultures, and the drawbacks as well as the benefits.
    No infodumps.

    That’s not all, but it’s enough for going on with.

  6. Clash of cultures, where there are real differences between the cultures, and both sides figure out a way through it anyway.

    Normal, as in, not elite or super-powered, people doing extraordinarily brave things because they’re stuck somewhere that they have to. Doesn’t have to be fighting, or super-powered, just something that takes a lot of bravery for the character, as written, to do. Even if it doesn’t look brave at all from other perspectives outside the character. And they don’t even have to succeed — but the story should make clear, that successful or not, it mattered.

    People in over their heads who break. And then get up and keep going anyway.

    People who break things that can’t be fixed. And then try to fix them anyway.

  7. The common man/little guy who does the things because they need to be done, then goes home (Samwise Gamgee). Or if he doesn’t go home, he doesn’t change from the person he was (Belgarion). The moment that breaks your heart (most of the Fionavar Tapestry).

    Dang – I read a lot of fantasy.

    1. Oof, the Fionavar Tapestry. The main character body/heart/spirit count was pretty high. Although the ending of Tigana was a bit of a gut punch, too. (GGK is one of my love/hate authors. But I owe him for leading me to Carlo Ginzberg and some really fascinating history writings that used Ginzberg’s techniques.)

  8. “And the idea of “the ancient ones of the stars” being humans, all along.”

    How about the ancient greybeards and creaky old squids of the dusty old stellar empires thinking humans are fabulous and all coming down here to Earth for their holidays? Hi-jinks ensue. ~:D

    Hero gets The Girl. This is a gotta-have in my book. Or, Hero get his robot. Or robot gets her Hero, Heroine, ancient crusty space squid, other robot, or what have you. Everybody gets somebody, basically.

    Heroes win, heroically. Bad guys lose. (Anti-heroes suck, and we do not see them in our fiction.)

    Accidental Heroes get stuck with a job by Fate/Chance/enemy action. Usually an impossible job. And then they pull up their big boy/girl pants, DO THE IMPOSSIBLE, then they go home. (With The Girl/boy/robot/space squid of their dreams. Or nightmares, that’s okay too.)

    There should be explosions. Really big, really explodey ones. From orbit if possible.

  9. Hmmm. I’ve read a good number of portal fantasies. But it’s never clicked with my muse except for The Princess Goes Into the Forest which is an odd take on the genre. (For one thing, it uses none of the advantages of it. 0:)

    1. One of my attempts at novel writing was a portal fantasy, putting a tough as nails guy in a world that was one part Conan, one part Lovecraft, with a dash of Book of the New Sun.

      I loved the worldbuilding and wrote some great adventure scenes, but it ended the same way all my WIPs do: pants it till I’m stuck, then give up in frustration.

      1. That’s how I first wrote and why I took up outlining.

        Mind you, I pants my outlines and they often die, but it’s less frustrating

  10. Ponies, dogs, cats, and other friends in fur that are really horse, doggy, and feline.

    Other worlds where the setting is a character and has Sekrit stuff along the lines Mrs. Host described so it is also a puzzle.

    Romances and Friendship plots (even “at first sight” ala Queen Lucy and the sea-shepherdess) of kindred spirits not magic hoo-has.

    The storytellers voice, especially in 3rd omniscient and fairy tales which I miss.

  11. I love the idea of a hidden world of magic, the MC finding out that the reason they don’t fit in in the ‘normal’ world is because they belong to this fascinating other world. Redemption, true, full redemption. Hero’s journey. Sci-fi along the lines of Dorothy Grant’s books, or Sarah’s Darkship – people-driven stories with way cool tech. Unexpected friendships, a touch of romance.

  12. Redemption stories. (Actual ones). Heroes. Courage, daring do. Chosen ones who may have special powers, but that’s not what makes them ‘that guy’. Stories where evil isn’t the only power, even if Good tends to be more subtle so harder to see. Villains that are actually wicked. Characters that do what is right, even if they find it distasteful. I want bold adventures in brave worlds. I want that candle in the darkness to realize that the darkness cannot touch it unless it gives up and thus goes out. That moment of realization that the light is stronger than the darkness.. and ANY light can drive it back. I want small hands turning the wheels of the world because they must while the eyes of the great are elsewhere. (Hat tip to Tolkien) I want the Great to wage fierce battle to buy those small hands time, not thinking about their glory but the task that must be done. I want desperate battles against impossible odds (Gung-ho Iguanas optional but sometimes preferred.)

    I want stories that make it clear… dragons can be killed.

    1. “…the Great to wage fierce battle to buy those small hands time, not thinking about their glory but the task that must be done.” That’s Tolkien too.

      Heroism. Fighting against long odds and doing the right thing simply because it’s right. Friendship. Nobility of spirit. Adventure and danger. The good guys winning in the end . A world that’s written with a sense of wonder. Basically, if you listed everything that makes The Lord of the Rings awesome, you’d have the entirety of what keeps me reading and makes me want to write.

      1. Both were Tolkien references, the first was pretty close to a quote. The second was not if I recall correctly rather intended as a summation of a good chunk of the 3rd book. Rather like I did not cite the Last Starfighter, but figured people would get the reference.

        And yeah. Fairy tales and Tolkien. Things to aspire to as a writer. (I don’t expect to BE Tolkien, but hey, impossible goals keep you moving. 😉 )

  13. I’d say Secret-Sauce elements for me are a lot like those listed above:

    Return-of-the-Prodigal, done right
    Coming-of-Age (not adolescent-hazing, but ordeals that force growth/maturity, especially when it wouldn’t have come otherwise)
    Explosions and scene-shredding action that advances the plot


    New and/or obscure words used in precisely the right place (exact meaning, tone, euphony, syllabic cadence, et c…)
    Vivid sensory similes/metaphors
    Song references (done well)
    Mundane details that show intimate knowledge of the subject can boost the book’s rating by a whole star if done right: Wolfram’s Parzival shows appalling geographical knowledge, but is the only Arthurian work I’ve read in which a young knight is told to wash the rust from his face whenever he takes his helmet off. It’s an obvious bit of hygiene that nobody would have thought to include but someone who’d had to do it.
    Characters with (consistent, well-written) funny accents.

    1. Hmm. That’s the one where the guy with a white father and a black mother is piebald?

      1. The very one, indeed. There were a lot of details we’d call “basic knowledge” now that Wolfram just had no clue about. But what he did know, he knew, like how to be a knight!

        Although OTOH, the half-African half-brother storyline does suggest Parzival for “modernized retelling” of the Grail legends in the mid-20th-c American South (or some version thereof).

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