The Best Books Take You Away From Hard Times

As Dickens would say, ‘It was the worst of times.’

When real life gets tough, when it seems every phone call is more bad news, you need something to take your mind off of crap, something vivid and entertaining, engrossing and imaginative. You know what I’m talking about.

Now, there are options: You could take a trip, but your problems might just follow you; you could play board games or tennis, but forty minutes of the former will make you bored and forty minutes of the latter will give you tennis elbow.

You could even watch movies, which is great for a break from reality. But after two hours, it’s over, and the actors and set pieces never really engaged your imagination. They were like a Monet painting, nice to look at, but devoid of personal engagement.

Books, my dear Watson, are the perfect remedy. Well-written novels force you to imagine what you are reading. You brain transforms text into images and living scenes for you alone. An author writes about events on a windy desolate beach, and you are instantly transported to the Outer Banks, your problems and sufferings a thousand miles behind you. (The best part is that the trip cost you no more than the price of the book.)

Some books you enjoy but then never really give them a second thought.

Others are rare gems. You know the ones—those wonderful books that transport you to another world, or to a different, better one than this one(because it’s about other people’s problems), and which you so loved that it earns an eternal place of honor in your readers’ memory. Such winners might even merit a second or third reading. I want to provide my personal list of these types of favorites. Perhaps you’ve read some of them yourself and enjoyed their gift of: lifting you out of your no good very bad terrible day. Maybe there are a few titles you have not yet had the pleasure of experiencing. If that’s the case, go ahead and pick them up. They might just take you to new worlds and times, and lift your flagging spirits.

I believe in the power of books to engage our minds and to bring us joy and peace in the hard times—as well as in the good times. I trust these titles can do this for you:

  • Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell
  • Abhorsen Trilogy
  • Harry Potter series (naturally)
  • Song of Ice and Fire (AKA Game of Thrones)
  • Gaunt’s Ghosts (Dan Abnett’s brilliant Military Sci-Fi series)
  • The Dragonbone Chair
  • Christ Clone Trilogy (makes the Left Behind series look amateurish)
  • Dresden Files (just good plain fun)
  • Codex Alera (because only Butcher can combine the Lost Roman Legion with Pokeman on a dare and create intelligent entertainment)
  • Almost anything by Brandon Sanderson
  • Fablehaven
  • Leviathan Series (Scott Westerfeld)

Not surprisingly, only one title represents a stand-alone book in this list. Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell might just be my all time favorite fantasy. Yes, it starts out slowly—like The Dragonbone Chair—but this is intentional and intelligently handled. Reading it is like watching an old-school fuse light and chase, growing ever closer to the explosive finale; tension and excitement build with every page.

You get lost in 1820’s England and in the disturbing fantastical realm of Fairie. And that’s the point, isn’t it? To lose yourself in the fabricated worlds of great writers.

Which beggars a question crucial to all writers: What makes these books and their ilk so dang engrossing?

Well, a number of factors lead to their superior quality and desirability, making them books you continue to think about long after you close the cover.

For me, the most obvious reason for their engrossing nature is to be found in the fact that they were clearly crafted with care after long developmental stages by their creators. George R.R. Martin spent months creating just the back-story for each of his 7 Houses of Westeros.


Then there’s the personalized touch. James BeauSigneur, who wrote the Christ Clone books, is a former intelligence analyst for the NSA. Clearly he employed his experiences and unique perspective to write intelligent apocalyptic thrillers.

Another factor is that these authors all understand the importance (and are not afraid of the risk) of taking their time to develop their worlds and characters. Every book and series in my list becomes more absorbing the deeper you dive into their fictional worlds.

So dive into some deep adventures in reading and don’t be afraid to learn from them and to use whatever unique perspective and strength you have to craft your own engrossing tales. Reading and writing are, after all, both excellent methods of turning your no good very bad days into your best life now.


How to Convey ‘Atmosphere’ in Your Writing

While doing research on literary agents in preparation to sending out queries for my psychological suspence Lotteryman, I found that many agents are looking for ‘atmospheric’ novels.

How to Write Atmosphere

What the heck is ‘atmosphere?’

Writing atmosphere into your books is one of those more advanced techniques you pick up along your writing journey. It lends a certain degree of creepy to a manuscript. It is subtle, hard to teach. Fortunately there are a few tips I’ve picked up from excellent writers (and from trial-and-lotsa error experience). These are:

  • Grab a thesaurus and expand your vocabulary. Atmosphere is established through the cool use of extravagant (but still familiar) words
  • Read atmospheric novels like The House of Sand and Fog, Rebecca, and Time Heals no Wounds
  • Write, write, write
  • Think about your setting. Certain locations and types of weather can lend a sense of mood to your books
  • Proper kind of dialogue. Witty banter has its place, but if you’re shooting for grim or haunting, for example, you’ll want your dialogue to include atmospheric markers. For example: if your MC is a haunted man, like Gus from Lotteryman, you should make sure his dialogue is tragic, perhaps even borderline pessimistic–just don’t go overboard

The Writers Relief Staff posted an excellent article about capturing mood and atmosphere in your stories. Check it out here.

As in other aspects of advanced writing techniques, the very best thing you can do to hone your abilities and master atmosphere, is to practice. Write and read until you are the best person and you possess the greatest ability you can achieve, to convey mood or tone or atmosphere.

(Different lit agents seem to favor different words on this jubject. Their wish lists could ask for novels featuring tone or mood or atmosphere, and mean the same thing–those picky fickle buggers!)

Let me share an example of setting the mood (or atmosphere) with an excerpt from Lotteryman:

‘The fire had died long ago; nothing but cold ash in the log grate. It seemed only yesterday that Folger had been sharp as a tack, never letting the fire go out on cold evenings, or permitting dust and cobwebs to accumulate in every gloomy corner. The house was carpeted in grime and painted in dark gray webs, abandoned now even by their leggy creators. But the fireplace was the most blatant sign of the caretakers’ crumbling mental state: the constant cold March nights and the black incrustation climbing the wall above and around the mantle, were reminders that life in the house had been steadily declining in every way. ‘

Include Parallels in Your Writing

Note the parallel between the caretaker and the house, their declining states. This creates a connection between character and setting, a link which adds depth to your tale. Also, note the mood-identifying words: declining, black, dark, incrustation, gray, cold and grime. These adjectives are exotic yet familiar. Your readers will know what you are talking about, without their having to look things up in a dictionary.

I hope you’ve found something here to help you on your journey. Happy writing, you masters of atmosphere/mood/tone!




A Writer’s Take on the Gun Control Debate

As both sides seem unable to reach a satisfactory agreement on gun control, perhaps we should look to our writers, novelists and scholars. These people have trained themselves to not just think outside the box, but to create entirely new boxes.

The Amy Rose Device

In my short story, The Shooting of Amy Rose, my MC cobbles together a device that will disarm would-be shooters and identify them, all without having to pay for guards or do background checks, or arm anyone else, or bother limiting the number of bullets law-abiding citizens can purchase.

Crazy, right? The device (SPOILERS AHEAD) looks like an armored metal detector, but instead of detecting metal, it identifies gun signatures using a sohpisticated solid state CPU.


And then it activates (within a micro-second) the giant electromagnet buried just beneath the thin floor on which the would-be shooter is standing. The device yanks the gun out of the man’s hands, ID’s him with its bullet-proof photo lens, and sits pretty, sending the footage directly to the police and FBI.

Nice and clean and simple. Such a device may be science-fiction, but the story is filled with hope.

Check out the first page below:

Church is better with a beautiful girl by your side, Brian thought as he stared at Amy, she of the vibrant red hair. It nearly reached down to her hips. Sometimes he caught himself gazing, almost hypnotized by those strands, by her beauty, by her delicate facial features, and at those impossibly smooth hands, so different from his own callused mitts.

“Pay attention,” Amy Rose chided in a playful murmur. “God is watching.” That pixy grin had no place in the house of God. But there it was anyway, just for Brian Collins.

He turned his focus reluctantly onto the preacher, who was standing up front on the podium, telling everyone to rise and join him in worship.

A few stanzas of some new unfamiliar tune, then they were onto ‘How Great is Our God’.

It was a moving rendition, a cappella, powerful enough to filch Brian’s attention from Amy. They were three verses in—the air a bit stifling and tainted by bad breath but filled with peace for all that—when the crescendo came on like the Holy Spirit. Brian closed his eyes and let it sweep him away. Even Amy Rose stood a distant second at times like these, when the Spirit moved over the congregation. He raised a hand in praise.

‘How great is our God, sing with me: how great is our God!’


Brian opened his eyes. What was that?

Looking around, he noticed others had stopped singing too. Everywhere he looked there were strange glances, consternated expressions.

POP. A flash of color in the corner of his eye. A fleshy thump was followed by a low murmured grunt.

“What is that?” When he turned to Amy with this question, he realized she was no longer standing beside him. He looked down. There she was, lying on the dark red Berber carpet. Was she prostrating herself? It was such an odd sight that he almost chuckled. But then someone screamed, and in the same instant Brian noticed the carpet around Amy morphing into a liquid red, brighter than the fine woven strands of carpet—too bright.

Screams filled the sanctuary as Brian finally knelt down beside her. The music had stopped, to be taken up by this hellish refrain.

Worship was over.

If you like, check out the rest of the story here.