Lessons Learned from Agatha Christie: Set the Stage with Just the Right Amount of Character.

140290I wish I could tell you what set me on Agatha Christie’s Poirot mysteries first. It might have been the PBS Mystery! episodes starring David Suchet. My folks may have recommended her, but they never read her work. Or maybe a librarian long ago recommended Christie to me, tired of me checking out the same illustrated edition of Holmes stories again. Whatever the case may be, I was hooked, and still am. While school friends passed spare time in study hall with Dean Koontz, Jeanette Oke, or J.R.R. Tolkien (the Spanish edition…because plain old Elvish ISN’T HARD ENOUGH), I was lost in The A.B.C. Murders, Hallowe’en Party, or Death on the Nile.

Dame Agatha Christie wrote The Mysterious Affair at Styles in 1916—100 years ago!

Wow, a century of Hercule Poirot…ahem. Sorry, I just thought that was really cool.

Mysteries carry some unique strengths and limitations compared to other genres that I’ve read. On the one hand, you have the ease of using the same protagonist as often as you’d like. You can develop his/her character slowly over the course of five, ten, twenty books. And those books don’t have to connect–each can be a stand-alone story. You may want to be like my son Biff, who loves to climb a single rock, jump off, then run over to another rock further down the park, or you may be like my daughter Blondie, who will start with the first rock, and carefully move from one rock to the next, determined to travel the park upon this road of stone until she reaches its end.

Other characters, though, just don’t get that same treatment. Few can. Unless one’s a recurring villain, or a foil for the detective, there simply isn’t the page space for ample character development. I used to strongly believe the contrary until I took up Styles with a more critical eye. To be clear, I don’t consider this a strike against mysteries; mysteries simply don’t need to be totally populated by complete human beings I could reach out and touch. Nor am I expecting a whole new world built just for a mystery. When I read a fantasy, I want to see a new world, or a new layer to my world. When I read a mystery by Agatha Christie, I know she’s writing stories that take place on this planet, with the same laws of physics, history, etc. There’s no need for her to extensively explain what’s going on in the world in 1916 for readers to have some sort of appropriate context.

What she does need to do is introduce the cast—that is, the potential victim and suspects—in a tight amount of space. A mystery can only be a mystery when there’s a crime either about to be committed or committed already. In a book of 13 chapters, one shouldn’t have to wait until Chapter 6 for the first crime. In Styles, we get the “The Night of the Tragedy” in Chapter 3 (thus the chapter title). That means we need the cast established before that. Two chapters. Is that enough?

(It occurred to me just now that there’s one exception to this cast establishment: the law enforcement character if the detective is outside of the law. It doesn’t exactly make sense for the law to show up until after the crime’s been committed.)

Let’s see when and how Christie introduces her suspects—I mean, characters.

Chapter 1: “I Go to Styles”

The book opens with a first-person narrator, whose name—Hastings—isn’t used until the fourth page.

  • The first paragraph tells us Poirot is his friend.
  • The third paragraph gives something of Hastings as well as introduces another character: I had been invalided home from the Front; and, after spending some months in a rather depressing Convalescent Home, was given a month’s sick leave. Having no near relations or friends, I was trying to make up my mind what to do, when I ran across John Cavendish.

Yes, yes—it’s rather like Dr. Watson, being a veteran of the war, wounded and sent home. But unlike Watson, Hastings is no medical professional. We learn he’s a bit of a loner, unsure of what to do with his life. For the sake of this story, that’s all we need for the start.

John Cavendish only gets a couple snippets of description over the first two pages:

  • Indeed, I had never known him particularly well. He was a good fifteen years my senior, for one thing, though he hardly looked his forty-five years.
  • John practiced for some time as a barrister, but had finally settled down the more congenial life of a country squire. He had married two years ago, and had taken his wife to live at Styles, though I entertained a shrewd suspicion that he would have preferred his mother to increase his allowance.

We often hear writers should use dialogue to get as much information to readers as possible, yes? Christie does that here. Other characters are introduced over the course of the conversation Hastings and John Cavendish have here at the beginning of Chapter 1.

  • “Your mother keeps well?” I asked.
    “Oh, yes. I suppose you know that she has married again?”
    I am afraid I showed my surprise rather plainly. Mrs. Cavendish, who had married John ‘s father when he was a widower with two sons, had been a handsome woman of middle-age as I remembered her.
  • Lawrence, the younger, had been a delicate youth. He had qualified as a doctor but early relinquished the profession of medicine, and lived at home while pursuing literary ambitions; though his verses never had any marked success.
  • John noticed my surprise at the news of his mother’s remarriage and smiled rather ruefully. “Rotten little bounder too!” he said savagely. “I can tell you, Hastings, it’s making life jolly difficult for us. As for Evie—you remember Evie?”
    “No.”
    “Oh, I suppose she was after your time. She’s the mater’s factotum, companion, Jack of all trades! A great sport—old Evie! Not precisely young and beautiful, but as game as they make them.”
    “You were going to say—?”
    “Oh, this fellow! He turned up from nowhere, on the pretext of being a second cousin or something of Evie’s, though she didn’t seem particularly keen to acknowledge the relationship. The fellow is an absolute outsider, anyone can see that. He’s got a great black beard, and wears patent leather boots in all weathers! But the mater cottoned to him at once, took him on as secretary—you know how she’s always running a hundred societies?”
    I nodded.

Almost three pages in, and we’ve already met or heard of six characters. Not too shabby!

By the bottom of the fourth page Hastings and John Cavendish arrive at Styles. First we hear of a new character—

  • “I wonder if we’ve time to pick up Cynthia. No, she’ll have started from the hospital by now.”
    “Cynthia! That’s not your wife?”
    “No, Cynthia is a protogee of my mother’s, the daughter of an old schoolfellow of hers, who married a rascally solicitor. He came a cropper, and the girl was left an orphan and penniless. My mother came to the rescue, and Cynthia has been with us nearly two years now. she works in the Red Cross Hospital at Tadminster, seven miles away.”

And then we start to meet the aforementioned characters.

  • Miss Howard shook hands with a hearty, almost painful, grip. I had an impression of very blue eyes in a sunburnt face. She was a pleasant-looking woman of about forty, with a deep voice, almost manly in its stentorian tones, and had a large sensible square body, with feet to math—these last encased in good thick boots. Her conversation, I soon found, was couched in the telegraphic style.
  • “My wife, Hastings,” said John. I shall never forget my first sight of Mary Cavendish. Her tall, slender form, outlined against the bright light; the vivid sense of slumbering fire that seemed to find expression only in those wonderful tawny eyes of hers, remarkable eyes, different from any other woman’s that I have ever known; the intense power of stillness she possessed, which nevertheless conveyed the impression of a wild untamed spirit in an exquisitely civilized body.
  • The French window swung open a little wider, and a handsome white-haired lady, with a somewhat masterful cast of features, stepped out of it on to the lawn. A man followed her, a suggestion of deference in his manner…. I looked with some curiosity at “Alfred darling.” He certainly struck a rather alien note. I did not wonder at John objecting to his beard. It was one of the longest and blackest I have ever seen. He wore gold-rimmed pince-nez, and had a curious impassivity of feature. It struck me that he might look natural on a stage, but was strangely out of place in real life. His voice was rather deep and unctuous…. Strange infatuation of an otherwise sensible woman!

During tea—for, being English, they simply must have tea—we get a couple more arrivals, and the first mention of Poirot among the characters.

  • Cynthia Murdock was a fresh-looking young creature, full of life and vigour. She tossed off her little V.A.D. cap, and I admired the great loose waves of her auburn hair, and the smallness and whiteness of the hand she held out to clam her tea. With dark eyes and eyelashes she would have been a beauty. (“Would have been”? Jeez, Hastings, what kind of lady-snot are you??)
  • He looked about forty, very dark with a melancholy clean-shaven face. Some violent emotion seemed to be mastering him. He looked up at my window as he passed, and I recognized him, though he had changed much in the last fifteen years that had elapsed since we last met. It was John’s younger brother, Lawrence Cavendish.

Notice who’s still missing? While Poirot isn’t met in Chapter 1, he is spoken of when Mrs. Cavendish asks Captain Hastings what he wants to do now that he can no longer be a soldier:

  • “Well, I’ve always had a secret hankering to be a detective.”
    “The real thing—Scotland Yard? Or Sherlock Holmes?”
    (I rather like how Sherlock Holmes isn’t the “real” thing because it’s not, you know, the “proper” side of legal service.)
    “Oh, Sherlock Holmes by all means. But really, seriously, I am awfully drawn to it. I came across a man in Belgium once, a very famous detective, and he quite inflamed me. He was a marvelous little fellow. He used to say that all good detective work was a mere mater of method. My system is based on his—though of course I have progressed rather further. He was a funny little man, a great dandy, but wonderfully clever.”

Chapter 2, “The 16th and 17th of July,” allows for a surprise meeting outside the post office:

  • As I came out again, I cannoned into a little man who was just entering. I drew aside and apologized, when suddenly, with a loud exclamation, he clasped me in his arms and kissed me warmly.
    Mon ami Hastings!” he cried. “It is indeed mon ami Hastings!”
    “Poirot!” I exclaimed.

We quickly learn that Mrs. Inglethorp has provided residents for Belgian refugees, and Poirot is one of them. And so is set the stage…

~*~

As I read through these introductions, I loved Christie’s touch in using Hastings as the narrator. The ease of establishing the cast via “catching up” dialogue was not boring, and totally plausible. It is also none too surprising how much attention Hastings gives the young females, while the chum John Cavenish gets hardly a physical detail. We have to trust Christie’s tactic through Hastings that such omissions don’t matter to the story, while the excessive descriptions we do receive, such as the “alien” Alfred Inglethorp, must bear some importance. I find this one of the great challenges in writing fiction: what MUST be established vs. what can be left to the individual reader’s perception. It’s so tempting to define EVERYthing so the reader has no choice but to see the story as we do, but honestly, does it matter what the narrator wears, or what the maid looks like? No. But they are not the detective, the focal point of the mystery. And sometimes, those physical details say just as much about the character as their speech, interests, or method of deduction. Poirot takes great care in his appearance, from the style of his mustache to the polish of his shoes. He pays attention to the tiniest of details on himself, and around him…unlike, you know, everyone else, including Hastings.

I couldn’t help but smile as I read Hasting’s description of Poirot to Mrs. Cavendish. It just so happens to provide some amazing foreshadowing for the case to come—

–that is, for his telling of the case. If there’s anything else to be learned from The Mysterious Affair at Styles, it’s the joy of storytelling through an unreliable narrator.

To be concluded…

*(insert lightning crash and maniacal laughter here)*

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Writer’s Music: John Powell

71urxg-0jl-_sx355_I wanted to label this post “John Powell III,” since technically I’ve shared his music twice in the past, but those posts were during National Novel Writing Month. Care to hear them? Both selections are brilliant. The first, from his Academy Award nominated score How to Train Your Dragon, is just…wow. It’s beautiful, lifting, hopeful, and the swell cuts off at just the right moment. The second is from the same album I’m about to talk about, The Bourne Supremacy. It’s a fantastic bit of action, with all the ups and downs a fight and chase scene require.

Both tracks as well as “Berlin Foot Chase” should help you see why John Powell is one of my favorite composers. His music has such a brilliant narrative feel that never draws from the visual story, but strengthens it from start to finish. For all the action and tension in the Bourne movies, it’s Powell’s keen sense of when to reign in the strings and percussion and when to really give’em that makes viewers clutch the armrests and hold their breath.

Powell is also one of the few composers that’s helped me work through multiple WIPs.

I like having a score to my story. I rarely get a story from my daily life; instead, a scene comes to me during a song, and the scene is so. damn. vivid. I can’t let go of it. I’ll listen to that song, again and again, see the scene replay before my mind’s eye, and…pause it, I suppose I’d call it. I’ll study one character in his motions, then another. The place where the scene is. And then I seek other songs that pull new elements of the characters out, bring the other settings to life. Rather like making a patchwork quilt, you could say. Only the right combinations of colors and patterns will do. And when it comes to my WIPs, certain bands or composers have already been stitched into place. I can’t use them again, for they FIT precisely where they are.

That’s partly what makes this Middle Grade fantasy story so bloody maddening–I mean, incredibly challenging. I was given the character first from Michael Dellert, then the place. While I was able to imagine a plot line, one that I hope is, um, decent, I couldn’t FEEL anything.

Music helps me feel outside myself. Without music, I struggle to place myself next to Gwen. The #13WeekNovel freewrites have helped me talk to her a little, but I’m still not SEEING from her point of view. Even Powell, whose music has been of use to me in three different WIPs just doesn’t fit in Gwen or Droma, blast it.

So, as I embark on this quest for Gwen’s song, please enjoy one of my favorite bits of Powell. Yes, this is the end of the post, and in less than 1000 words! MIRACLE!

Click here for more on John Powell.

Click here for more on The Bourne Supremacy.

FanFic Fears & Other Bits of Potluck Clean-up

CM_JUL15_FEATURES_AnnaLouise6-e1435680443162Another lovely element of the writer’s psyche: we know how to clean up.

Oh, we may hate it. Put it off. Try to pawn the duties off on someone else to clean our messes for us. But we who are serious about craft and creation know the story will always need a good cleaning-up. How else will others see the language and imagery when there’s used napkins and half-eaten coconut oatmeal raisin cookies all over? And who brought those, anyway? Those raisins are disgustingly deceptive…

Anyway.

I imagine that, in moments like this, we’re all rather like my grandmother.

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Yes, the one with the cheesy grin is me.

She took her place as Church Basement Lady very seriously. If there was to be a funeral or some sort of fellowship hour, count on her to bring a pan of date bars and some hot ham for sandwiches. Where are the cups? She knows. Out of sugar? She’ll get some. Zounds, but the tables are a mess. Don’t worry: Marge and her crew will handle the clean-up.

And handle they did…in their own way.

Grandma and the six other ladies loved that time: the congregation gone, pastors elsewhere, they could smoke and cackle over gossip while hobbling among the tables gathering half-empty plates and forgotten snack cups. They’d use washcloths they had crocheted themselves to wipe down the tables and chairs. They’d drink that God-awful coffee, each leaving their own distinct shade of magenta lipstick on the styrofoam cups.

So let’s sit around the last table, you and I, and fill this air with old perfume and nicotine. Drink the dregs, and share our thoughts about all things past, present, and future in this meager life of hope and faith.

~*~

Last week I mentioned writing some thoughts on children’s literature for writer and illustrator A.J. Cosmo. Yesterday he posted some of these thoughts. Please click on over to read, “How Dark is Too Dark in Kid’s Lit?”

Poet Mike Steeden also sent me his review of my e-book collection of Lessons Learned. Not gonna lie–I teared up. I’ve only been in the blogosphere for a little over a year, but the friendships and partnerships formed are stronger than many I have in the physical world around me. Mike and I only started speaking–what, a month ago? And to receive such reactions from him spurred me to interrupt Bo on the toilet just to show him.

LESSONS LEARNED

‘Lessons Learned’, is a title that at first glance implies big picture aspirations gathered from history that make for a better future. In essence, albeit by way of cameo this book, should one be either a writer or an avid reader (or both) is just that…a backward glimpse at excellence; a message understood affording a more accomplished appreciation and/or production of what possibilities lie ahead.

An ever so silky smooth muse upon the works and thinking process of the prolific fantasy novelist Diana Wynne Jones, this book intelligently and painlessly dissects her extensive portfolio in a manner that new, indeed seasoned writers of the ‘now’, should they take heed of Jean Lee’s words, will be ‘better than before’.

For those, like this reader, unfamiliar with the works of Ms Jones, ‘Lessons Learned’ commences with a most agreeable account and crucial ‘hook’ as to how Ms Lee discovered the author, as well as providing a pertinent point glimpse as to, in colloquial terms, ‘what she was all about’.

As such, the book lives up to its title as it captures those lessons learned by the author herself in compiling the same and those, like me, grateful that such lessons are being passed on here.

Ms Lee debates a host of Ms Jones attributes, from genre and fictional character evolvement concepts that fascinate beyond measure. Also, as one who has had stabs at writing verse for children yet finding – in my case at least – the fun of silliness lost on more adult forms of poetic art the chapter ‘Don’t Sacrifice the Fun for Grown-Ups’ was particularly pertinent and educational.  Later in the book the ‘what is normal’ for a child as opposed to an adult – may be obvious in hindsight, yet not always in the forefront of the mind-set of those who ‘aspire’ – was another ‘lesson learned’.  Additionally, the importance, yet oft times overlooked first line attraction drawing the reader in is reinforced through specific example from Ms Jones’s portfolio.

‘Lessons Learned’ is an insightful analysis of a clutch of plainly super novels and furthermore, of the birth of a book and the specifics of its conception, thus making this well aimed tome a thing to serve as a vital aid for the writers far and wide.  Far, far better than an account of mere chronological subject matter vis-à-vis Diana Wynne Jones.  Moreover, the notes on ‘brevity’ caused this overly wordy reader to hang his head in shame (in a good way I stress)! The concluding chapter, ‘Yesterday Needn’t Stay in Yesterday’ conveys much about Jean Lee’s compelling way of thinking, an insight into both her own and Ms Jones mind in much the same way as a lyric might to an undisguised songwriter.  

Most important of all though is that there is a certain magic in Ms Lee’s didactic words that will remain intact, not stored away in some dark recess of my head for some time to come. 

Well done indeed Ms Lee!

How could I NOT interrupt Bo on the toilet with a review like that?

(Oh, and if you have no clue what I’m talking about with this e-book collection thingey, email me at jeanleesworld@gmail.com and I’ll send you one. Yes, free. Friends share. 🙂

Yesterday I enjoyed reading smexy historical romance writer Shehanne Moore‘s interview (well, her power-hungry hamsters’ interview) of adventure fantasy writer Michael Dellert. They discussed the influence of place, as well as time, upon a writer, and how important it is to know how the when and where will impact the characters. Click here for the interview.

At one point Dellert states the following: “I think some writers sometimes make the mistake of plopping very contemporary attitudes down in a location that can’t support them. For example, in my medieval setting, literacy isn’t common.”

I know why he said that.

Me. 🙂 Well I’m sure I’m not the ONLY reason, but this specific example comes from the freewrites I’ve been working on for a Middle Grade story to take place in his created universe. The protagonist is a fourteen-year-old named Gwenwledyr (Gwen for short, thank God) and her quest to become a true Shield Maiden of Droma. The freewrite prompts currently have me picking apart her psyche. Here’s an example:

Prompt: “I struggle with…”

What do you need to know THAT for? My struggles are my affairs, not yours.

Don’t stare.

FINE. Fine fine fine.

It’ll come out worse around others, but don’t you DARE speak of this without permission.

I don’t read really well. Actually, remove the “well.” I don’t read, really. Being the middler of the Not-Loved Woman meant I didn’t get the attention Muirgurgle and Nutty receive. They, THEY received educations. What makes them so special? One’s a boy, and one’s pretty. So what is it, their mothers? Must be. I hear of Muirgurgle’s mom spoken of, and pretty often too, by Father and some of the staff. She sounds like she was a sweet one. Maybe if she had lived a bit longer, that sweetness could have been gifted to Muirgurgle and he wouldn’t be the twit he is today.

Nutty’s mom is…around. Father’s a bit touchy about her. She goes off to meditate, see, a lot, and he’s wondering if she’s meditating with a little help, if you catch the nudge nudge there.

Sorry. I’m a *laaaady.* I shouldn’t speak of such things.

Hmm. Well actually, as a Shield Maiden, I *should* be more respectful of my elders.

When they earn it.

And right now our stableman Fiachna gets more respect from me than THAT woman.

But I have to be GOOD about it, see? That’s a struggle, too. Put on the Good Girl mask when others are around. Prim. Polite.

Even when Nutty asks me to read through a message, like the one that came from Dunsciath. THE message, from the king, that said he agreed to letting me become a Shield Maiden.

I held that message IN MY HAND, and had no idea what it said. Nutty and Muirgurgle laughed. Father politely told me what was going on.

Never have I wanted to read so badly in all my life.

Maybe another Shield Maiden could teach me….but that means talking about this to ANOTHER person besides you.

Damnation, but people are irritating.

I sent this to Michael, and that’s when he most graciously reminded me that illiteracy would be the norm of the period.

In my head I said:

DAMMIT THIS IS WHY I DON’T WRITE FAN FICTION IN OTHER PEOPLE’S UNIVERSESESES I DON’T KNOW WHAT THE HELL THE GOD DAMN RULES ARE AND WHY THE HELL SHOULD I BOTHER

In the message I typed:

No, I didn’t know that. I presumed their class would know at least a little. Ok. That alters things.

Which has led me to wonder about the very concept of fan fiction, and what really defines it. I suppose such a talk could go on for ages, but as this post has already gone on for ages, I’m going to set out two of these styrofoam cups and tip my ashes into the one with fewer dregs.

That’s the setting cup.

And this one with the lipstick will be the character cup.

It seems to me, being a noob in the online writing universe, that fanfic either fixates on a particular person (or two, like *cough* 50 Shades *cough cough*), or on a universe. I’ve got piles of Sherlock Holmes stories not written by Doyle that my dad enjoyed: Holmes in the Midwest, Holmes vs. The Phantom of the Opera, and so on. People took the character, and gave him more adventures. Hell, my very, VERY first picture book I can remember making had to do with a monster kidnapping a little boy and Superman flying in to save him.

Damn. My first story’s a fanfic.

Maybe for some writers, fanfic with characters is a bit like training wheels on a bike. Uncertain how to create originals, they move around with others until they’re confident enough to balance without help. That seems to be the case for me, anyway.

And if that’s the case, writing in another’s setting should be like training wheels again, right?

Only it’s not. As I told Michael some time ago, I felt like I was writing blindfolded. I couldn’t SEE where these characters stood because I don’t know Droma like Michael does. He’s spent years building this world, and now I’m just in there, picking up and dropping and throwing stuff around like my sons. Blondie will tell you: those two are destroyers.

And I felt no better.

Michael, bless him, kept it simple: yeah there’s a map, but that part of Droma isn’t defined.

I thought about Jason Voorhees. He’s been on my thoughts a lot since the start of motherhood. He. Is. A Character. People just looove toying around with his past, uncovering what makes him immortal, that real relationship with his mom, all that garbage. Bo, being a fan of slasher films, will even get into comic books based on the characters from time to time. One particular volume by Justin Gray and Jimmy Palmiotti stuck out, in part because of this image:

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Just…look at that. (If you have the stomach, sorry–I know slashers are NOT for everyone.)

This image of ghosts rising up from the lake’s floor is the foreshadowing of what’s to come: Jason lets one character hold his machete, and in that instance, we see the true past of Camp Crystal Lake: of settlers who butchered entire tribes of natives, of a shaman’s curse, of the countless drownings, fires…

Gray and Palmiotti don’t do anything fancy with Jason. Jason’s Jason. Instead, they define the place.

The characters are mostly my own. I don’t know them all just yet, but little by little they’re coming into focus; you can read more of my freewrites on my facebook page if you’d like. A few already have traits established by Michael, but they, too, have blanks to be filled in.

With the freedom to define the place, I feel like I’m no longer confined by another’s universe. Yes, I do need to abide by some laws of history and progress. (What do you mean, they didn’t have the number zero? GAH! Next you’ll be telling me they don’t have alloys or mustard gas.) These laws, though, are rather like the foot-high picket fence people put around flowers because it looks cute. Yeah, it sucks to trip on, but otherwise, you can step over and around it without hurting yourself.

I need to stop hurting myself.

I need to stop treating that little fence like some sort of electrified contraption.

I need to let Gwen show me around. Introduce me to people. Take me to where she saw the the Cat-Eyed Man.

I need to grip the grass in my fingers. Balance on large rocks that look like a giant’s toes. Smell the river air mix with hidden herbs. Listen to the bees work through the glens.

Time to wrap this up, my friends. I’ll get the lights if you can grab that garbage bag. May the coming week find you in strange places with stranger company.

That’s how the best stories–and gossip–are born.

 

 

 

 

A Potluck of Kith

slideshow101933_2My father loved his Divine Calling, so much so that you could tell it took an effort for him to wrap up a sermon. Bo and I would play The Amen Game whenever we attended my father’s church: we’d listen for his dramatic pauses and tally how many times Dad could have declared “Amen” and therefore endeth the sermon. I believe Bo has the record–10 spots during one Lenten service.

Dad knew himself longwinded, and while most churchgoers didn’t mind (outside of football season, anyway), my grandfather, who was mostly deaf and therefore clueless about the concept of whispering, would always say in the greeting line after service, “TOO LONG, DAVID!” To which my father would always say, “Thanks, Dad,” smile and blink, and then roll his eyes as we hugged hello.

But to even get to THAT point, we’d have to survive the after-church announcements. They were like a second sermon sometimes, because of course, Dad just had to make a joke about so-and-so’s cookie bars at the potluck in the church basement, how well the playground fund is doing, reminders about the food drive for the community pantry, and so on. Everyone’s got their coats on, parents are anxious because the snack stores are depleted and the toddlers are restless. Even I’m raising my eyebrows at Dad with a clear look of “GET ON WITH IT, DAD!”

So I’m hoping today’s post feels more like the potluck of goodies awaiting us in the church basement rather than that endless list of announcements.

First, the bounty of crockpots (you may know them as slow cookers) filled with various baked beans, pasta and meat concoctions, and the one weird one with only vegetables that have gone an icky brown color for cooking too long.

I’ll skip that one, just for you.

Three writers have bestowed upon me some marvelous honors: Mike Steeden, A.J. Cosmo, and S.J. Higbee. Cosmo is a children’s writer and illustrator who invited me to write a couple guest posts on children’s literature; I’ll be sure to post an announcement when they’re up for viewing. He’s currently sharing a selection from my Lessons Learned collection–I do hope you’ll check it out!

Mike Steeden enjoyed my e-book Lessons Learned so much that he wants to write a review. I never thought I could market this book—I just enjoy giving it to others! So to know someone dug it so much they want to write about it was quite a tear-inducing moment. I’ll post his review soon.

Lastly,  S.J. Higbee is a sci-fi/fantasy author that has nominated me for the…

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Thank you, S.J.!

Of course, accepting such an honor requires answers to certain questions.

No hamsters bent on world conquest are involved this time, so I SHOULD be safe. (furtive glance in Shey’s direction)

  1. If you could meet any author, from any time (past and present), who would that be and what would be your most pressing question?

Oh, heavens, Diana Wynne Jones, of course! I’ve written a few past posts about my childhood, as well as hers in my Lessons Learned collection. I would want nothing more than to sit with her by a fire, pet her dog, and just talk about the past’s impact upon the present. Sadly, she died only a few years ago, but she didn’t completely abandon us: Neil Gaiman was one of her dearest friends, and her sister Ursula Jones grew up to be an actress as well as writer in her own right. While I know their work is all very nice, all I’d want to talk about is Diana.

  1. Who is your absolute favourite character, ever? I know you’re probably groaning and rolling your eyes but there must be one character that springs to mind immediately – probably followed by a host of others – but, I want that first knee jerk reaction please and why!

Gah, but I’m TORN! Okay, knee-jerk: Hercule Poirot. Sherlock Holmes was my gateway character into mystery, but reading his stories still makes me sad, for to read them brings my father back into the room as a ghost. Hercule Poirot was my own discovery; I do not associate him with any loss or grief. His mysteries are always a pleasure to read, one where the brain works, but not too hard—rather like a nice walk around the neighborhood and peeking into windows just in case one catches something out of the ordinary, like MURDER.

  1. What is your favourite series out of all the books you’ve read? The series you would recommend without hesitation.

Definitely Diana Wynne Jones’ Chrestomanci series. Or her Howl trilogy.

*%&$#@ Choosing is hard!

Okay, um, I’ll go with the Howl trilogy then, because the last Chrestomanci book IS, to me, not up to Jones’ usual platinum standard. In Howl’s Moving Castle, Castle in the Air, and The House of Many Ways, the characters are all full of flaws and quirks, and the stories aren’t just about Howl—the main characters change from book to book, so the story always feels fresh inside that universe. Just trust me on this.

  1. What’s your preferred reading format, book or e-reader?

I teach online, so I stare at the screen enough as it is. Paper book, please.

(That, and I LOVE the smell of books. Why isn’t that a cologne?)

  1. Who is your favourite animal character, and why? This can be a mythical creature like a dragon, or real, like Elsa in Born Free.

Oh, gosh, it’s been a while…and just because I’ve hardly made up my mind for the other questions, I’ll say I’m torn between Reepicheep in Voyage of the Dawn Treader and Mrs. Brisby in The Rats of NIMH. I’d mention Ralph from The Mouse and the Motorcycle, too…did I not read of other animals when I was a kid? Huh. Odd.

ANYway, I always admired Reepicheep’s fearlessness, and Mrs. Brisby, a widow, goes through terror after terror to protect her children. Personally, I find her to be one of the most amazing mothers in literature.

  1. What is your most anticipated book for the remainder of 2016?

New or old? Here, I’ll just cover all the bases:

Future: Michael Dellert intends to publish the fourth book in his Matter of Manred series, The Wedding of Eithne, by the end of the year. Since I’ve already devoured the first three books like a plate of chocolate peanut butter bars, I’m highly anticipating the next serving.

Present: Waiting for my copy of Zoe Zolbrod’s The Telling, which came out this year. Since it’s the memoir of Zolbrod coming to terms with her own history of sexual abuse and its impact on her life, I know it’ll be a heart-gutting read. Still. It’s something I need to face and overcome in myself, so to see how another writes through it may help.

Past: For all my talk about Jones’ Dalemark Quartet, I realized I never finished that epic fantasy series, so I’m going to snatch those up toot suite.

  1. Imagine someone has given you a magical Audible account and you can order up your favourite narrator to read aloud the book you’ve always wanted to hear. Who would be narrating the book and what would it be?

Well if this was a truly magical account, I would request Alan Rickman reading anything. Seriously, anything. His voice was delicious. I suppose I could request something prolific, like Alan Rickman reading King Lear, I suppose.

But I suppose I should pick someone alive. Then I’d want to get a hold of Stephen Fry narrating Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Yes, I know that product exists, but the magic involved HERE would be that I’d have time to listen.

So now here’s the mish-mash of cold salads and vegetable platters and the one fruit bowl with an odd-colored syrup….wonder if that’s from the same family. Lift up the bowl and look for the name in masking tape stuck on the bottom. It might be on the spoon, too. We Mid-westerners are a territorial sort when it comes to potluck gear.

At long, long last, I’m going to start up another Lessons Learned! I spent a good long while on Jones, and Eco…um…maybe I’ll get back to him sometime, but I officially exhausted The Name of the Rose…and exhausted myself of Eco in the process.

Why genre writing isn’t used more to teach elements of story is beyond me. In graduate school, genre writing was seen as the choice of imbeciles, those too dumb to write REAL literature. If you were going to write, it had to be about struggle, or death and struggle, or loss and struggle, or sexual deficiency and struggle, etc struggle etc. Make sure the ending’s sad.

GAG. That was a warm mayonnaise pasta salad with wilted broccoli if I ever smelled one.

So that’s another reason why I tend to study genre lit than “literary fiction.” Yes, of COURSE there’s plenty of good ones out there, but genre gets such a bad wrap in the writer’s learning environment.

Take Agatha Christie, for example. If you know a school that actually uses her as an example of GOOD writing, please tell me, because I’ve yet to hear of one. I have no intention of spending the same time on her as I did on Jones, but I am looking forward to studying some important story elements through two or three of her novels and some short fiction. No, not Murder on the Orient Express or And Then There Were None. Other ones.

Oh, look! The table overloaded with brownies, cookie bars, fruit breads, and cakes with frosting slipping down the sides! At least half of any congregation brings desserts, you know. And an obnoxious number of those people put nuts in their desserts. Philistines.

As many of you have said to me with greatest care and friendship, I should be taking time to write stories. But with kids and teaching and LIFE and writing here, I never thought I could take that encouragement very deeply. Sure, I’ll write fiction…in a few years…

But then Michael Dellert prodded me to take a character on his Tribe of Droma facebook page, a sort of role-playing realm based on his Matter of Manred series. I’d have to give her things to do, challenges to face.

I’d have to give her a story.

A what? I…I don’t do stories. I’ve read stories, and I’ve been writing about reading, but writing, myself? What? I haven’t done that decently in…shit, at least a year.

But then I thought of Jones’ Dalemark Quartet, and a story started to form in my head. This could be a coming of age story, a girl who wants to be treated as a grown up but must grow up first. A girl who’s got to battle one of the most dangerous enemy’s a human being can face:

Pride.

But the more I thought, the more I got wishy-washy about it. I never did this role-playing thing before, I won’t have a clue and it’ll show like the maraschino cherries on Grandma’s Green Torte. I can’t write in another person’s universe. I don’t have time to do the character justice.

Michael listened nicely, then not-so-nicely, and then finally told me to shut the f**k up and stop psyching myself out. Stop strangling the unborn story and DO IT.

So, I’ve started doing it. Not writing scenes yet, mind. Just freewrites based on prompts he sends me out of his #13WeekNovel. The way I figure it, if I keep myself on a timeline, I shouldn’t end up with another six-year-old WIP. You can even see some of my freewrites on facebook, if you’d like. Once I start writing scenes, I’d like to share them here, which is…well, utterly terrifying. I’ve never opened my fiction in public, not since grad school. And these’ll be extremely rough drafts, to boot. But I have wanted to try a Middle Grade story for a while now, one I know I could share with my children in a few years. The Middler’s Pride shall be exactly that.

To do this, though, something has to be cut in return. So I foresee my typical blog fare getting mixed up, or taking brief hiatuses, depending on where I’m at with this fictional work.

~*~

Some people can balance three plates’ worth of goodies from the potluck in one go, but I’m just not that kind of person. I’ve got to move by the tables as slowly as possible to figure out what I have to take (Mrs. Hildegard has no family to cook for so any compliment on her beans makes her day, ew what is that SHIT oh yes Miss Tigglesworth I’d love some pasta salad, oh ICK who put carrots in the jellow AGAIN?) and what I want to take (brownies brownies brownies GOOD GOD WHO PUT NUTS IN THESE).

Here, let’s take a spot over there, where the folding chairs aren’t too bent, the ceiling tiles not broken. It doesn’t echo so badly over here.

When I look around, I see such a wealth I could have never imagined. No, not money. These tables are as old as my dad, the plumbing moreso. This building is being held together by scraps at liquidation stores, duct tape, and prayer. No, this basement is filled with a wealth of talent. You all have so many gifts: the gift of language. Imagination. Kindness.

Thank you for sharing your wealth here, with me, and with the fellow writers here. When I see writers come together like this, I feel nothing but bright promise for what’s to come.

But don’t touch the coffee—church coffee’s always gross.

Amen.