More Escapism, Please

by James Scott Bell

Erle Stanley Gardner

Say, just wondering, but have any of you awakened lately and felt like you’re not in your own bed, but rather inside the trash compacter from Star Wars?

That’s what I thought. Thus the word escape comes to mind. And isn’t that what good, solid, entertaining fiction is about? I believe in escapism. It’s as necessary for human flourishing as good food, good sleep, and good company.

Erle Stanley Gardner, said:

“The public wants stories because it wants to escape.…The writer is bringing moral strength to many millions of people because the successful story inspires the audience. If a story doesn’t inspire an audience in some way, it is no good.”

Dean Koontz said:

“In a world that encompasses so much pain and fear and cruelty, it is noble to provide a few hours of escape, moments of delight and forgetfulness.”

And this from our own Brother Gilstrap:

“I want to make their hearts beat a little faster and I want to make them laugh and sometimes cry. I want to earn those occasional emails I get from readers who share that my stories have been welcome diversions from the problems stacked up by real life.”

That can be said of all of us here at TKZ. Nothing pleases us more than transporting readers into a fictive dream.

And yet, it isn’t always easy to escape into fiction these days. When was the last time you “got lost” in a book? So much so that all considerations of time and other pursuits went completely away?

It was a lot easier in the days before computers, smart phones, social media, cable and satellite TV with a gazillion channels, endless content streams, 24/7 news cycles and on and on.

In spite of all that—nay, because of it—we all have a craving for regular escape.

So here’s what I’ve done. I have a special chair in my family room, set by a window, which is my reading chair. Having the same physical location for my reading sets off a Pavlovian response in my mind, i.e., that here is where I don’t have to check my phone, scan the internet, or worry about anything. The only concession to technology is putting on smooth jazz via the Pandora app on my phone.

Also, in this chair I prefer to read a physical book. I like that old-school feeling of having pages in my hands and a to-be-read stack on the table. (When I’m not in my chair, but in bed or waiting in an office, I do utilize my Kindle, with its 99¢ collection of the complete works of Dickens, and so on. I’m no Luddite.)

Next comes the “getting lost” part. There’s a certain mental practice required here, I believe. For example, when I start a novel I give the author the benefit of all doubt. I am pulling for them to pull me in. When they do, it’s magic. If the opening chapters aren’t stellar, I still give the author some space, hoping things will change for the better. This space is limited, however; I am more prone to setting aside a book that doesn’t hold me than I used to be.

What if you don’t have a lot of time to escape? Or you’re in the midst of a pressing day and you need to snatch some relief?

The answer is the short story. In the bookshelf near my reading chair are several collections of short stories. Everything from Hemingway (who I consider the undisputed master of the form) and Irwin Shaw, to collections of classic pulp, such as The Black Lizard Big Book of Black Mask Stories (ed. Otto Penzler).

I can always grab one of these and go for a satisfying ride. When I return to “real life,” I feel refreshed.

In that regard, please indulge me in a short commercial. I’ve got a project for escapism over at Patreon. My product is short stories. I write stand-alone suspense, stories that tug the heart, and on occasion something speculative, a la Ray Bradbury. I also have a series character who is a troubleshooter for a movie studio in post WWII Los Angeles (written in classic pulp style). These stories are exclusively for patrons, and cost less than a Starbucks drip. (I also do flash fiction—under 1k words—for ten-minute escapes.)

And for the price of a fancy-dancy frothy drink, you get the stories plus advance review copies (ARCs) of my full-length fiction.

All the details can be found here. I would be most grateful for your support.

We now return you to your regularly scheduled program, with some questions from our host:

When was the last time you got lost in a book? Is finding time to read more difficult for you these days? Do you have a preferred place to read? Are you a “physical” or “ebook” or “doesn’t matter” reader?


48 thoughts on “More Escapism, Please

  1. During the day, I have a reading chair in my office, but my main escape reading is done at night, in bed. I don’t care about format. Right now, I’m reading my library copy of Faye Kellerman’s The Lost Boys. It’s an easy read, and most of the time my internal editor is off. I also have my Nook tablet on my nightstand, and my iPad mini (which I use when my insomnia kicks in because it’s lightweight, and I can read curled up on my side.
    I subscribe to EQMM for short stories, but I’ll check out your project.
    Escape is my goal, both in reading and writing.

    • Thanks, Terry. EQMM and Alfred Hitchcock are still printing away, aren’t they? Nice to have that pulp heritage still around. I wish I could be transported to a newsstand on Hollywood Boulevard in 1941 just so I could look at all the pulp magazines offered. And buy a bunch, of course, and bring them back as collector’s items.

  2. I have a glider rocker in my office and a wing back in my bedroom. I read about 40 books last year but really only got lost in a few. The two that stand out to me were Nathan’s Run by a certain Mr Gilstrap—couldn’t put it down—and the third installment of Dean Koontz’s Jane Hawk series. Both kept me up into the wee hours of the morning. There were other excellent books in my reading pile this year but these 2 have stayed with me. In the case of Mr Gilstraps, I bought 2 others of his and slipped them into my TBR pile. Same with the last 2 Jane Hawks.

    For short stories I have become fond of a certain “Hollywood fixer” and look forward to his monthly appearances in my inbox. In addition I also have a wide collection of shorts by Irving Shaw, Harlan Ellison, Louis L’Amour, Mark Twain, R E Howard, and many others.

    I own both a Nook and a Kindle, but really enjoy the physical book—hardcover or soft doesn’t matter but to feel and smell the paper helps transport me away.

    • Yes, Douglas…Gilstrap hit it out of the park with NR. Koontz often does the same, or comes up with a clean triple or double.

      Glad to see Robert E. Howard on your list. Prolific in different genres. Famous for Conan, I actually prefer his Sailor Steve Costigan fight stories.

      Thanks for the shout out to my series character. 😉

      • That Costigan has a unique voice and the one story I’ve read was pretty good to be sure. Still, I grew up reading the Bantaam reprints of the original Conan stories, plus some unfinished works L Sprague DeCamp and others completed for those volumes so I still find myself partial to them.

    • Well, my goodness. Douglas (and Jim), you have no idea how important your words are on this particular day. Thank you so much. Here’s hoping I never let you down.

  3. I read in the recliner near the wood stove (winter months) and in the sunroom when the weather gives me a break. I usually read on my Kindle unless I’m reading outside in the summer. Then it’s paperbacks. I prefer most nonfiction in paperback, too. Escapism is my #1 goal.

    The last year has disrupted my reading big time, but I’m trying to get back to my routine.

  4. The last book I finished (I have several started) was THE QUEEN’S GAMBIT. My wife picked the movie for our Saturday evening Netflix night at the movies. I was blown away by the movie, because it was a perfect character-oriented story. I had just finished reading and reviewing WRITING UNFORGETTABLE CHARACTERS, and wow, the movie ticked off every chapter of your book. So, I got the book. I wanted to study how the author had structured the story. I got caught up in the story once again, but was disappointed with the structure.

    For reading in offices or waiting areas, I tend to read craft of writing books.

    I’ve enjoyed your Patreon series, especially the “Hollywood fixer” that Douglas referred to, and would encourage everyone to check out your short stories.

    My special reading place is a recliner in the family room. I read until I can’t stay awake any longer. I like physical books better, but often use my Kindle so that I don’t keep my wife awake

    • Interesting about the QG book, Steve. It was written by Walter Tevis, who also wrote The Hustler (the basis for the Paul Newman movie). I believe he would be accurately characterized as a literary writer, so messing with structure is not uncommon.

  5. Hi, Jim. I find it harder to lose myself in a book these days, even before the pandemic, but when I do, it’s such a pleasure. I read the entirety of SF grand masters C.J. Cherryh’s Foreigner series (18 novels) from late 2019 to early 2020, and followed that with a couple virtual stacks of mysteries, including a bunch of Block’s Matt Scuder novels. I prefer to read my fiction in eBook form — I love the format and the convenience. But I still love a print for certain kinds of non-fiction. I’m now back to Foreigner, since she released two more novels in the series in the intervening year.

    I read at the kitchen table first thing in the morning, and then in bed at night. I’m hoping to up my reading time this year, so may go to bed a bit earlier. Thanks for a thoughtful, encouraging reminder about the joys of escape.

    • It really is a lovely thing when “getting lost” happens, right, Dale?

      As for reading in bed, I usually can only get four or five pages in before I start to nod off!

    • I have the same problem, Dale. It’s the stress of hibernation, but I have genuine trouble concentrating to read a book of late. It’s getting better. (Just got my first Covid shot). Yet I can’t seem to get enough of good movies and TV series. Today it is chilly and rainy and I “wasted” four-plus hours binging on the first two Jason Bourne movies. Hey, I got to travel the world, see some nifty car chases! Also just started the series “Lupin.” Wonderful original heist story with great characters and creative use of backstory. Highly recommend it.

  6. Recently I beta-read a not-yet-published novel, Beyond the Waning Moon, by historical author Janet Fisher. Not my normal genre but her exquisite writing carried me into the world of ancient Crete 1500 years ago with architecture, art, smells, tastes, culture, and riveting characters stuck in moral dilemmas warring between their duties and their hearts. I was supposed to be editing it but got so caught up in the story, I forgot. Guess that means it didn’t need editing!

    Jim, your Patreon shorts are always a fun interlude, like a chocolate break. O. Henry was a great favorite and yours have similar twists at the end.

    I read in bed mostly. Kindle is the best way b/c of the adjustable font size and my arthritic hands don’t have to hold a heavy book. Reading on a phone screen is pure torture.

    Back in the BC era (before Covid), my best reading time was on plane trips–several uninterrupted hours with nothing else to do. Luxury.

    • I looked forward to those plane rides too, Debbie. Reading or working on a project on my Mac Air. I’d get a window seat and pop on the noise-cancelling headphones ASAP.

  7. I like my Kindle for reading, during the day or night. I don’t have much time for huge blocks of reading time *Alas!*, but right now, I’m “lost” in a Francine Rivers novel, A Voice in the Wind. I do have lots of paper books also, and they’re good for the rare daytime reading. I always end my day wishing I’d spent more time reading for pleasure. 🙁

    I have a reclining loveseat in my office, and a corner of one of the living room sofas that are my preferred places to “get lost”.

    I love your short stories and flash fiction on Patreon, JSB! Heartily recommend, over and above a Starbucks drip, to all you TKZers. I eagerly anticipate that bit of escape. After enjoying the first read, I read again because I want to learn how to write shorts.

  8. Excellent post!

    I almost prefer to life in the world of books (think Gumby). But over the last year, between COVID world and my dad dying, it’s become even more important.

    First, couldn’t agree more about Papa. Reading him at 13 made me want to be a writer.

    Second, I have that Black Lizard book and it’s an absolute treasure. In fact, I have all those phonebook style collections Penzler put out.

    Finally, I’m currently reading Killer, Come Back to Me by Ray Bradbury, put out by Hard Case Crime. It’s truly been another world to step inside. Bradbury is underrated.

    I really prefer short stories these days, and even novels I love the old pulp length of 50-60k words. Seeing your taste in reading makes it clear why I enjoy reading your books so much. Going to check out your short stories.

  9. I have a recliner in my office that is my reading chair. I try to reserve at least an hour before bedtime to read fiction. I like to read fiction on my ipad since it’s so amenable to moving quickly through the book, but I prefer paper for non-fiction because I may want to flip back and forth to find what I’m looking for.

    I got lost in the book “Year of Wonders” by Geraldine Brooks in 2020. I probably wouldn’t have picked it since I don’t usually care for historical fiction, but it was selected by one of my book club friends. The way she told the story of the plague of 1666 in the small village of Eyam was mesmerizing. The book was actually written in 2002 — what timing. Unfortunately, the ending was so contrived that it ruined the spell for me.

    I also love the Patreon stories, Jim. Thanks for keeping us entertained!

    • Ah, Kay, the dreaded “ending that lets us down.” That is such a bummer, in a book or movie. The nice thing is: there’s always another book and another movie!

      Thanks for the good word.

  10. I love my escapes. Currently planning a solo beach trip to the Outer Banks to *really* escape. But back to books and such…

    I’ve been having trouble getting lost with a couple of the latest hardbacks from the library. Didn’t finish Koontz’s “Fear Nothing.” Same with Demille’s “Up Country.” Too much slogging. But then I sped right through Demille’s “Night Fall” … go figure.

    Lately, a favorite escape is watching movies/TV in bed with my wife at the end of the day. Getting cozy with a 10” Fire tablet and nibbling on popcorn or pistachios. Cozy Escaping.

    • I like that, Harald: “Too much slogging.” Reminds me of Elmore Leonard’s axiom about not writing the parts that people skip.

      Oh man, solo beach trips. I’m with you there. Enjoy!

    • I’m with you, Harald, re movies. Highly recommend the TV series “Lupin.” Terrific heist story, good characters, Paris setting, and original storytelling techniques.

  11. Old school guy here, JSB. I’d much rather read in print than digitally. Part of the reason is I’m one of those horrible, horrible people who carve the pages with a pen and get perverse delight out of dog-earing. Getting lost in a book? One that stands out (for me) was Hunt For Red October by Tom Clancy. It was a unique format for the time and so well told.

  12. I gave myself permission to read for fun and not feel guilty about it after my dreams of being a university don exploded from English department politics, a failed doctoral grant, and my dad’s death, then my life took a drastic turn.

    After all those years of being able to cut off the world and immerse myself into Hawthorne or Dickens, I’ve had no trouble since being able to do that with a good book. Bad books either get tossed or studied like an alien autopsy as a writing teacher. Bad books have been one of my prime sources for writing articles for many years–what works, what doesn’t work, and OMG never, ever do this.

    My most intense immersion into a book where the book world was real, and my world wasn’t happened years ago. I was “babysitting” my high school age baby brother while my retired parents were traveling in their motorhome. Babysitting consisted of keeping him fed and the house and grounds tended. I managed to sprain my ankle and spent a week lying on a couch and reading the LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy for the second time. Middle Earth was real, and I was a sad little hobbit yearning for my true home. I’ve never reached that total immersion since except within my own book universes.

    • Marilynn, Middle Earth was there for you at just the right time. That’s one of the great things about what we do. We can be there for readers when they need us. When that happens, it’s magic time.

  13. First of all, it’s truly an honor to find myself quoted in JSB post. Much appreciated.

    My dedicated reading space is a room we call the library. It sounds grander than it is, but it’s got a man-eating lounge chair and a wall filled with books. More than what IS there, I must talk about what’s NOT there: No phone, no computer. I use an Amazon Echo for music because it does not tempt me to check email or . . . Squirrel!

    Most of my reading of late has been for blurbing upcoming published books. I prefer to read those in the form of ARCs, but if not, my Kindle will do. When I read purely for pleasure, I vastly prefer physical books. A few years ago, I bought several volumes of the compete works of O. Henry, but I haven’t gotten to it yet. I do enjoy my subscription to EQMM, but I find that only 50% of the stories are deeply engaging.

    All that said, I don’t read nearly as much as I used to, but no other form of entertainment is as engaging when it works. Today, as I write this, we’re in the fifth or sixth hour of what is supposed to be a 48-hour snowstorm. I feel the library calling to me.

    • Snow storm! We in L.A. know not of what you speak, Mr. G. The nearest we get is the occasional rain squall. When it really comes down, the safest place is inside. Drivers in L.A. freak when it gets wet, and you don’t want to be on the streets. I do love it when the light is dim, the drops patter on the roof, and I can get in my chair and read.

    • O.Henry was born in the next city over, Greensboro, NC., so I’ve read his entire opus. A few of his stories like “The Gift of the Magi” are very well-known, but I recommend his “A Retrieved Reformation” about a safecracker who must do the right thing and destroy his life and “The Last Leaf” about a dying young woman. He’s totally out of copyright so most of his stories are available online. Saki is another perhaps-too-clever-for-his-own-good short story author with the same evil twisted plot ability. His “The Open Window” is awesome.

  14. Great post on a snowy Sunday, Jim, with interesting questions:

    1) The last time I got lost in a book was about three minutes ago while reading THE UNWILLING by John Hart (full disclosure: he is NO RELATION to The Kid!). I stopped reading only because my Kindle ran out of juice.

    2) My preferred place to read is a couch in what has become, by amazing coincidence, my “reading room.”

    3) I prefer ebooks for novels because of the “search” feature. It enables me to hunt down that character who suddenly became important on page 257 but who hasn’t been mentioned since page 15. I prefer physical books for short stories.

    Good luck with the Patreon project!

    • You bring up a good point about the Kindle search feature, Joe. There are definitely some advantages. Like highlighting passages you truly enjoy and can quickly go back and reread.

  15. I’ve read fewer books since the start of the pandemic than I did in the couple of months before it began. I don’t recall ever reading so little in my life. It should be the opposite since I’m no longer working. Between pandemic stress, packing up my life to move to Panama, and (now) preparing for hip surgery March 1 I’m just not able to read. I sure am streaming a lot of tv, though. More than I ever have before. I continue to buy books, but I doubt I’ll get much reading done before I move. Recovering from surgery is strictly a time to watch tv as the drugs turn my brain to mush.

  16. I’m an all-of-the-above. I always have an e-book from the library on my phone (mostly new releases), an audiobook for the commute, and real books all over the house (especially during hurricane season when we lose power for a week).

    I did work on my dystopian yesterday but most of the time lately I’m writing pure fun stuff (my current project is basically Freaky Friday Meets 9 to 5 at Christmas) and I’m having a blast.

    Took a cartooning workshop at a writer’s conference yesterday just because I hadn’t done that yet and had a blast. So now I’ve dusted off my sketchbook and am doing a 30-day drawing challenge.

    My little rebel self wants to have fun for a change.

    • Cynthia, I could never draw, at least I thought so. But then I took up a little cartoon course myself and you know, it’s sort of like writing. It’s a matter of practice and having fun. I’m not going to be syndicated anytime soon, but it is relaxing.

  17. Am reading Cara Black’s “Three Hours In Paris.” (set in WWII) I am a Francophile and wish I could return there. A friend who lives there says it’s a sad city right now (6 pm curfew and nothing is open, this in a city that lives to be outdoors and among each other). Read an article today about how the city has changed, as if a giant fog has encircled it. They quote Saul Bellow: “Parisian gloom is not simply climatic. It is a spiritual force…a powerful astringent.” So Cara’s book, set in another era when Paris was dark, is somehow managing to give me light and hope.

  18. I have a nice red recliner in my office that is my reading chair.

    Digital or paper delivery matters not a jot, not a tittle. The material-story is what’s important to me.

    Lost in a book? That’s a depressing topic. Due to accumulated experience and/or age, it is harder and harder to find a quality book to carry me away. It doesn’t have to be “deep” or otherwise esoteric. It simply has to be competently written and so few are reaching that bar in recent years. I guess the last author to make me pout about life forcing me to put down the book and go to bed was Ian Tregellis with his “Alchemy Wars” and “Milkweed Triptych”. Those were a couple of years ago, alas and alack.

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