About jeanleesworld

A writer, reader, mother.

Author #Interview: Let’s Chat with #IndieAuthor @KentWayne108!

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Welcome back, my fellow creatives! I’m thrilled to continue sharing some lovely indie authors I’ve met in our community. This month, please welcome the adventurer cosmic, Kent Wayne!

Let’s begin with your adventures as a reader. What was an early experience where you learned that language had power?

Some early experiences with powerful language come from (now) outdated comic books, specifically Preacher by Garth Ennis, and the early run of Ultimate Spider Man by Brian Michael Bendis. Ennis was able to reinvent a bunch of 1960s and 1970s toxic Americana machismo into something heroic, inspiring, and infused with tolerance (for the 90s). He does allude to underlying problems and hypocrisy, but the parts where Jesse Custer learns what it means to be a hero no matter what the odds, then accompanies the act with a passionate monologue or iconic one-liner, made me aware of how a written story could charge my entire being with hope and purpose. Conversely, Ultimate Spider-Man (the early run) made me aware of how important silence, implication, and organic-sounding speech (even if it’s riddled with ums, dot-dot-dots, and yeahs) could make me want to stand up and cheer for a kid who—despite being saddled with terrible responsibility—is still able to seek out and experience joy. He’s one of the few characters I really felt for, to the point where I wanted him to stay naive and optimistic, and the scene where he almost kisses Mary Jane (Ultimate Spider Man #13) is burned into my brain as the best romantic scene I’ve read or seen.

What authors did you dislike at first but grew into?

When I first read it, I didn’t like the seminal work Dark Knight Returns (by paradigm-shifting comic book author/artist Frank Miller). It was only later, after I realized the significance of his depiction of media, was I able to appreciate the barrage of dialogue between his news pundits.

Have you ever gotten reader’s block? That is, did you ever encounter a story that you just could not finish?

I tried to read Cloud Atlas, thinking it would be similar to the movie, but it was so much slower than I thought it would be. I think I stopped a third of the way through. Other than that, I think I’ve finished every book I’ve read.

Time to dive into your own stories! Your first book, Echo: Approaching Shatter hit virtual shelves in 2015. Please tell us what first inspired this story and motivated you to explore this world and discover the three other stories in this series.

Echo was inspired by Die Hard with a Vengeance, specifically that opening scene where John Mclane is forced to wear an offensive sign in public and it puts his life at risk. I started wondering what would happen if an entire city turned against one person, then that person had to fight their way out? I wanted it to be science fiction (because I’ve always been a fan of robo-suits), and then I had to create a backstory for a sci-fi scene where it was one guy versus an entire city. I didn’t get to the actual scene until the end of Echo 3.

Speaking of series, I’d love to hear more about your methods in discovering whether a story should be a single standalone or a series. We’re so often pushed by the gurus that series will sell over standalones. What are your thoughts on this?

I believe writing is one of the worst ways to make money (if you’re looking to make money), and that it should feed your soul before anything else. That being said, I would say write in a way that brings you the utmost joy and allows you to feel like you’ve honored the characters. Whether that’s a standalone book or a multi-volume series is up to you and your muse. If writing becomes a chore because I’m forcing a series, I’m not sure that I would want to keep doing it.

What is the most unethical practice in the publishing industry?

I’m not too knowledgeable about traditional publishing, but from what I understand, things have vastly changed since Stephen King’s earlier days, where they’d work with you if you showed potential. Nowadays, they might arrange for your book to be turned frontwards instead of sideways for a few weeks at Barnes and Nobles, and possibly arrange some readings or a book tour. That’s not unethical, but I wish publishers would be willing to invest more into budding authors instead of just letting them sink or swim.

Okay, I HAVE to ask about your comic, Kor’Thank: Barbarian Valley Girl. Its premise is so utterly bizarre I cannot help but love it (it also helps I’m a fan of Conan the Barbarian). Where did this story come from in your imagination?

After I wrote Echo, which had plenty of violence and darkness, I wanted to write something fun and silly in the vein of Barry Ween (early 2000s comic). I was playing Kingdom Rush and noticed this primitive, mean-looking goblin guy named Gul Thak, and I started toying with the idea of a Conan-esque character switching bodies with a stereotypical cheerleader. After that, it was just a matter of playing up the ironies (despite outward appearances, she’s the mean one), adding a giant dose of juvenile humor, and sprinkling in some high school sweetness, infused with the eager young outlook and unjaded energy that I wish all high-schoolers were able to enjoy, simply because that’s what I wish defined peoples’ high school experience.

Kor’Thank also gets me wondering about that old chestnut of a writer’s debate regarding originality vs. catching a trend. What are your thoughts on trying to be more original vs. delivering to readers what they want?

This might seem a bit selfish, but I think it’s mainly what brings joy to the author. I’m all for originality, but not if it’s some arthouse-type work that evokes no emotion from me, despite being supposedly brilliant in theme and execution. Conversely, if I watch something that’s full of cliches, then I don’t care so long as it’s engaging.

Kor’Thank ALSO also gets me wondering about your character names. Can you describe your process for finding/selecting character names? I’m always a sucker for selecting historical names with meaning.

I wasn’t so good with names for Echo (I just wanted to get on with writing the story, and select names that wouldn’t be too jarring). Nowadays, because my YA fantasy series hews outside the bounds of traditional fantasy, I’ve placed great emphasis on names, dialogue, and culture in order to evoke the old-school fantasy feel, despite the nontraditional setting. I look for names that are evocative of behavior and background. For example, from my second book, Eralindiany felt like an Elvish, feminine name with a lot of flow and lilt, so that’s why she’s Jon’s half-Elf girlfriend. Syfaedi Kysaire felt like something that had flair and derring-do, so I made her a pirate captain. Raefingham Bask felt Victorian and refined, so I made him a Sherlockian detective. The bottom line is I go by feel. A lot of the time, I’ll use a “placeholder name” then change it in the edit as I get a feel for the character and my mind starts coming up with better names.

I’ve been following your blog for a long time, and I see that you’ve transformed a series within your blogs (Musings) into a book collection. Can you describe your process for bringing your blog to the bookstore, and do you have any other marketing advice for fellow indie writers?

Some of my readers wanted me to compile Musings into a book, so I acquiesced and turned it into a compilation of philosophical pseudo-poems. Once again, my advice on bringing my blog to a bookstore is infuriatingly vague: search your feelings, just like Obi Wan said, and if it feels right to publish, then go ahead and do it. In creative pursuits, I’m of the opinion that going by feel and intuition is of utmost importance. Because arguably, that’s what defines them and/or separates them from technical pursuits.

Your latest book, a YA Fantasy, sounds like a delightful escape from the mundane of our world. Considering how the HUGE variations of worldbuilding within the fantasy genre, did you find it difficult to challenge the reader while also guiding them through your story-world?

Absolutely. Since my main character is from Earth, I wanted to convey the wonder of discovery and adventure through his eyes, without getting bogged down in too much backstory. Also, building out a system of magic was a definite challenge, especially when the plot hinges on different styles of spellcasting.

What would you say was the most difficult scene to write in Evermoor?

The most difficult scene to write in Evermoor was when the hero finally gets to kiss the girl. I’d never gone all in on a romantic scene until then, and I really wanted to get it right. I wanted to convey his excitement at finally getting to experience this joyous moment—possibly the most joyous moment of his teenage existence—with the crush of his life.

Lastly, we all struggle with a writing Kryptonite—that thing that just saps our creativity and prevents us from telling the stories we love. What is your writing Kryptonite, and how do you overcome it?

My writing kryptonite is frustration that no one’s made my books into a movie or tv show, LOL! The scenes are so vivid in my mind, that I desperately want to see them onscreen. I have to deliberately focus on enjoying my story and immersing myself in the joy of writing it, because I can easily go down a depressing rabbit hole if I start obsessing about recognition or movie deals.

Thank you so much for taking the time to chat, Kent, and I can’t wait to see where your creativity takes you next!

~STAY TUNED!~

Nature is on my mind! Whether it’s the music of nature or the landscape of mystery, perhaps it’s time we venture out and explore with the words and sounds of others.

Read on, share on, and write on, my friends!

You’ve Got Five Pages, #TheDiamondEye by Kate Quinn, to Tell Me You’re Good. #FirstChapter #BookReview #Podcast

Hello, amazing fellow creatives! Here’s to more fun perusing the library’s new releases to see what strikes our fancy. As I mentioned in an earlier post, I’ve retitled Story Cuppings to better fit the premise of the podcast.

As writers, we hear all the time that we’ve got to hook readers in just the first few pages or else. We’ve got to hook agents in the first few pages or else.

Whether you’re looking to get published or just hoping to hook your reader, first impressions are vital. Compelling opening scenes are the key to catching an agent or editor’s attention, and are crucial for keeping your reader engaged.

Jeff Gerke, The First Fifty Pages

Well then, let’s study those first few pages in other people’s stories, shall we?

Today I snagged from the New Release shelf:

The Diamond Eye by Kate Quinn

Oddly enough, this has to be the first podcast where I didn’t even get to the first chapter all. The Diamond Eye by Kate Quinn has three–THREE–prologues. There’s a wee preface to tell you of the original person on which the novel is based, the “official” prologue, and then a couple of pages entitled “Notes by the First Lady.”

If you do not see the audio player above, you can access the podcast here.

Now the wee preface is not badly written at all. It’s just a succinct few verses that explain this woman was a real person who served as a Soviet sniper in World War II. At one point this woman was First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt’s friend; this can be hard for modern audiences to grasp, but it’s important to remember that in 1942, the Soviet Union and United States were allies against the Axis Powers.

This is where the “official” prologue helps a little with establishing the mindset at the time. Perhaps folks who’ve watched Mad Men know how women were often treated as second-class and unable to do “man’s work,” but in the 1940s the United States had to take a serious look at their approach to what women can and cannot do. (Of course, this all backtracked after the war, but let’s focus on the moment.) The prologue comes from the perspective of a hired assassin mingling with reporters watching Lady Death, the famed Soviet Sniper, arriving at the White House to meet The First Lady. So we all get to see this pretty girl and hear men constantly saying, “a woman could never do all that!” While I appreciate establishing that mindset, I’m not sure it needed its own prologue to do so.

And then, we get what reads like a diary entry from The First Lady before she meets the sniper. While I appreciate the importance of establishing President FDR’s physical ailments for modern readers, I’m not sure why the third prologue needed to travel back in time to before the second prologue. At this point, we just want to meet this infamous Lady Death!

As always, I love hearing what’s on the shelves of your own libraries. Libraries Rock!

Read on, share on, and write on, my friends!

You’ve Got Five Pages, #BlackMouth by Ronald Malfi, to Tell Me You’re Good. #FirstChapter #BookReview #Podcast

Hello, amazing fellow creatives! Here’s to more fun perusing the library’s new releases to see what strikes our fancy. As I mentioned in an earlier post, I’ve retitled Story Cuppings to better fit the premise of the podcast.

As writers, we hear all the time that we’ve got to hook readers in just the first few pages or else. We’ve got to hook agents in the first few pages or else.

Whether you’re looking to get published or just hoping to hook your reader, first impressions are vital. Compelling opening scenes are the key to catching an agent or editor’s attention, and are crucial for keeping your reader engaged.

JEFF GERKE, THE FIRST 50 PAGES

Well then, let’s study those first few pages in other people’s stories, shall we?

Today I snagged from the New Release shelf:

Gallant by V.E. Schwab

Once again, we’ve got a story with a “bait and switch” kind of prologue. There is a single page before Chapter 1 that comes from what I imagine to be the antagonist’s point of view, establishing this deadly hidden realm that is thirsting for the life on our side of “the wall.” The prose itself? Lovely. The antagonist? Threatening. The shadow realm? Eerie.

But was that trip really necessary?

If you do not see the audio player above, you can access the podcast here.

For the first chapter of Gallant by V.E. Schwab is a marvelous introduction to protagonist Olivia and her blessing/curse of seeing ghouls. We see Olivia dealing with the relatable bully conflict in a school setting, and the foreshadowing of this school teaching girls to be “ghosts in other people’s homes” is an excellent allusion to whatever the shadow realm. Olivia’s plight and life intrigue us as readers, and the scene with the ghoul in the garden shed is an excellent first exposure to the supernatural element at work in the story. So as a writer, I wonder why on earth we needed the dramatic peek at the antagonist at all. It feels like an unnecessary show of life-and-death stakes rather than letting the story reach that point organically.

As always, I love hearing what’s on the shelves of your own libraries. Libraries Rock!

Read on, share on, and write on, my friends!

#WriterProblems: How Many Characters Do You Really Need? #DeathOnTheNile #AgathaChristie

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Welcome back, my fellow creatives!

Last year, my husband and I began watching various episodes of mystery series together. It began with Columbo–

–continued with Sherlock Holmes–

–and ended with some Poirot.

Now as I’ve noted, my dear Bo is quite the cinephile, so on top of the television adaptations of these stories, we were also watching the film adaptations. This meant we saw four different versions (at least!) of Hound of the Baskervilles and a couple versions of Death on the Nilethe 1978 version starring Peter Ustinov as Poirot, and the 2004 version starring David Suchet as Poirot. (I had yet to see the new Kenneth Branagh adaptation at the time.)

While Bo was giving me commentary on what actor had gone on to do X or Q or T, I was noticing how certain plot threads would come and go depending on the adaptation. Now for technical reasons, I could see how a story is condensed so it can fit into a two-hour movie or three-part special. This will mean cutting characters or condensing characters for the film–normal stuff. As writers, we can debate the trials and tribulations of film adaptations until the cosmic cows come to roost, or however that saying goes.

But there was something about the Poirot Death on the Nile adaptations that left me pondering. Lots of good fiction depend on multiple plot threads to keep the reader engaged from the first page to the last. Mysteries in particular need those extra plot threads to create red herrings and plot twists so that the solution to the mystery is a surprise to the reader. In order to populate those other threads, one must have a sizable cast of characters.

But is a big cast really necessary for the story, or are they just filler?

THAT is the question I’d like to discuss with you today, and I’m keen to use Death on the Nile to do so. If you don’t recall the original story’s plot, the Wikipedia entry covers it fairly well. (The entry also mentions the film adaptations I’ll be mentioning here, too.) I’ve also snagged the original cast list from Litcharts so we can see what Agatha Christie saw fit to print. I’ve actually trimmed a few folks out, trying to limit us to the folks who rode the Karnak during the majority of the novel.

ALSO: Spoilers abound. Writer problems trump “spoiler-free” descriptions any day.

THE ORIGINAL CAST OF THE 1937 NOVEL (PRETTY SURE, ANYWAY)

Hercule Poirot: This is a given.

Linnet Doyle: the spoiled rich English lady who marries Simon Doyle and gets murdered.

Jacqueline De Bellefort: Linnet’s best friend who was engaged to Simon until Linnet gets involved. Also, one of the story’s murderers.

Simon Doyle: the youngest son of a well-to-do family, so he loves fancy things but has no money for them. Loves Jackie but marries Linnet. Also also, the other one of the story’s murderers.

Colonel Race: I didn’t remember him from other stories, but apparently he befriended Poirot before Death on the Nile takes place. (Edit: I had to look this up–they do meet in Cards on the Table.) He is present on the riverboat Karnak due to a potential Communist and/or Anarchist threat, but from a storyteller’s standpoint, he is the trustworthy one Poirot can speak freely about his observations so readers know what’s going on.

Andrew Pennington: An American trustee for Linnet Ridgeway due to family connections. There’s a partner, but he barely factors in, so we’ll not bother with him.

Mrs. Salome Otterbourne: a writer of sensational, sexualized fiction who drank more the less her books sold.

Rosalie Otterbourne: Daughter of Salome–and because of the alcoholism, her mother’s keeper. This leads to Rosalie being very difficult for folks like Poirot to interact with.

Mrs. Allerton: the “nice” character of the novel, and essentially Poirot’s gateway into meeting all the other passengers of the riverboat Karnak.

Tim Allerton: son of Mrs. Allerton, eventual lover of Rosalie Otterbourne, and cousin of Joanna Southwood who enjoys hanging out with Linnet before the trip to Egypt. He helps Joanna steal jewelry and make forgeries, and on this boat, it’s his job to switch their fake pearls with Linnet’s real ones. This leads to one of the minor plots of Linnet’s missing pearl necklace being a possible motive for murder.

Miss Marie Van Schuyler: wealthy old American lady who bosses her cousin Cornelia and nurse Miss Bowers around throughout the novel. She’s also a kleptomaniac, which adds to the pearl necklace subplot.

Cornelia Robson: a nice girl who becomes a tool for Linnet and Simon and an object of the affections of Mr. Ferguson and Dr. Bessner.

Mr. Ferguson (Lord Dawlish): a Communist who is hateful to pretty much everyone except Cornelia, infatuated with her genuinely kind nature. Secretly a member of a very well-to-do English family. His brazen comments about how awful rich people and capitalism are material for the political agitator subplot.

Miss Bowers: nurse to Miss Van Schuyler who isn’t actually treating the old lady for anything. She’s there to keep the kleptomania in check and return things Van Schuyler steals, which means there is a “mysterious” return of the necklace, only it’s a forgery, and…yeah, the necklace subplot is a bit much.

Signor Richetti: a middle-aged Italian archaeologist that Poirot meets on an excursion near the hotel (which Ferguson also came on). He turns out to be the political agitator that Colonel Race is after. He has absolutely nothing to do with the deaths on the Nile. He’s just there to be ominous and threatening.

Louise Bourget: maid to Linnet and Simon Doyle, Louise initially appears to be a minor character, until suddenly she takes center stage when she becomes the second murder victim.

James Fanthorp: a young English lawyer for Linnet Ridgeway, the nephew of the lawyer William Carmichael. I vaguely remember this guy.

Dr. Bessner: a middle-aged European doctor on board the Karnak who takes care of Simon after his leg injury and who eventually proposes to Cornelia Robson. Yes, Cornelia chooses this dude over the English Lord, much to her grandmother’s chagrin.

Fleetwood: an engineer on the Karnak who attempted to marry one of Linnet’s old chambermaids, despite the fact that he was already married to an Egyptian woman. Linnet prevented the marriage, which made both Fleetwood and Louise extremely angry.

So, we have our cast, and it’s not a small one. We have our primary players who drive the plot forward with their secret and not-so-secret actions, and those who make stuff happen for our primary players to react to.

Realistic Population

Death on the Nile primarily takes place in Egypt, broken up with stops at hotels and busy locations. The named characters ride on the S.S. Karnak up the Nile River together, and it is on this boat that the murder and mayhem take place. In the original novel, Ustinov adaptation, and Suchet adaptation, most of the characters have negative, tenuous connections to Linnet Doyle–her father bought out one character’s business, ruining the family, for instance. In another example, we see that in the Ustinov adaptation, Dr. Bessner’s clinic is about to lose its funding because Linnet Doyle is changing her father’s financial ties. But not all characters have these connections, and that is okay. Something we must remember as writers is that when a story is taking place in a public space, there will be strangers to the story. There are plenty of other visitors to the hotels in Egypt, and the riverboats are common transportation for tourists. Readers don’t expect every tourist on a boat to be connected to every other tourist on the boat. That’s what makes the old connection between Mrs. Van Schuyler and Linnet Doyle a surprise. On the surface, Mrs. Allerton and her son Tim have no connection whatsoever to Linnet Doyle, but when Joanna’s name is mentioned, a shady connection reveals itself.

To put it another way, it’d be as if the Hogwarts School was only populated by Harry and his friends, and Draco and his friends. The school just has four teachers at any time and that’s it. None of the other students and faculty matter, so trim them out!

Readers expect a school to be populated. They expect a city to be populated. They expect a passenger boat to be populated.

Of course, Agatha Christie had plans for the characters she put on the Karnak, but at the outset, having this large group made sense because it’s a tourist’s boat. It’s supposed to be busy and crowded. But it’s not necessary to make all those characters obviously connected. She didn’t make intricate connections between every student and every teacher in Cat Among the Pigeons, either; sometimes, you just need people there because people are supposed to be there. They are, essentially, moving scenery. And because those extras are treated like scenery, we readers are not expecting backstories on all of them. We don’t know all the backstories of all the crewmembers on the Karnak, nor are we looking for them. They are there to simply fill in the scene.

In the most recent Branagh version, however, this entire cast–yes, all those people–are the wedding party for Simon and Linnet Doyle. Considering Branagh’s time in Shakespeare, I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised by this strategy. Now the entire cast’s presence on the boat is justified. Such a move, however, means all the secretive, surprising connections are thrust out into the open. The chances for surprise go way down. And the fact some of those connections are negative at the outset makes it all the stranger some of these people are invited to the wedding. For instance, Branagh transforms the Dr. Bessner role part into another doctor who was Linnet Doyle’s former fiance. The man is clearly fawning after Linnet until she dies. Why is he at this destination wedding? No idea. But we need our suspects, dammit!

More Characters = More Subplots. Yay!

As previously noted, having this size of a group means one can have some other plot threads. These smaller plot lines give the writer a chance to break up the major plot and allow little breaks from major events without bringing the story to a standstill. After all, if all the major plot points of Death on the Nile were smushed together (marriage/murder/second murder/third murder/reveal), you’d have an overwhelming episode of a television show rather than a movie, let alone a novel. So having other plot lines allows the writer to build curiosity in the reader. What did that dollar fragment in the maid’s hand mean? Wait, who is Mr. Farnthorp, really? Why is the Signor so upset about his note? Why is Rosalie Otterbourne so protective of her mother?

Now even in a novel, one can have superfluous plot threads. Yes, Dame Christie, included. Take the Signor Richetti character. His sole purpose is to be the reason Colonel Race boards the Karnak. He is a sulky man who has no connection whatsoever to the Doyles or anything going on. He gets to have one angry interaction with Linnet Doyle, and that’s it. There’s a reason that all three adaptations of this novel omit this character. One could remove the “political agitator” subplot and affect absolutely nothing else in the story, which is why the films consistently cut him out.

The pearl necklace subplot is altered from film to film. Sometimes the pearls are forged, sometimes they are just stolen. Sometimes it’s the klepto old Miss Van Schuyler, while in the Branagh version the character created to replace Col. Race took the pearls in order to have a clean start with his love, Rosalie Otterbourne, whose mother is a jazz singer hired by the Doyle’s for this destination wedding thing. Unlike the political agitator plot, the stolen pearls provide a worthwhile red herring to Linnet’s murder–someone may have murdered her out of hate, but maybe they were just greedy for the money in those pearls. Greed doesn’t require a previous relationship or connection, and such greed allows strangers to become suspects. In a mystery set on a tourist boat, such a move makes sense and therefore requires characters to flesh it out.

If I could have a smidgeon of the fun Angela Lansbury has in acting for this film, I would be a happy soul, indeed.

More Subplots = More Characters to Keep Track of. UGH.

So you saw that list I made earlier. Let’s face it–that list is huge. Macbeth has roughly the same number of named characters. There’s a reason films often condense or omit characters from a movie: it’s just too much. The Suchet adaptation, for instance, eliminates three characters. The Ustinov adaptation deletes six. Branagh cuts a few, but then also adds some different ones to fill in the gaps. Yet these adaptations were able to tell the same essential story.

This means the effects of cast changes are felt far more in the subplots than in the major plot. Branagh’s adaptation, for instance, pushes love as the major motive for everything: the pearl necklace is stolen for love. Linnet is murdered for love. The maid–and the necklace thief–are murdered to protect love. By reorganizing the characters and how they connected, Branagh altered the very subplots those characters served.

And…sure, I guess that’s okay. But when there’s only one real reason folks are doing anything, you suck a lot of mystery out of the story.

Yes, having a big cast is a pain. Keeping track of multiple motivations is a pain. The Ustinov adaptation made this painfully clear with the connections they created for motives: Mrs. Otterbourne was getting sued by Linnet for libel (and Rosalie would go far to protect her mother, wouldn’t she?); Dr. Bessner’s clinic was going to lose funding; Communist Ferguson openly despised Linnet’s wealth and wanted to see her dead; the trustee Pennington was embezzling Linnet; even the nurse Miss Bowers blamed Linnet’s family for ruining her own. You couldn’t take a step on that boat without bumping into someone with the motivation to kill Linnet.

Keeping track of all those motivations and connections is very, very hard, for on top of making them exist, you have to make them matter. This means dedicating page space (or screen time) that adequately gives every plot thread relevance and urgency to the overall storyline. The more plot threads you have, the more complicated your pacing will have to be, too, for the major plot thread can’t be out of sight for long.

Final Thoughts…

So if you the writer are not sure you can make it all weave together, DON’T DO IT.

There is nothing wrong with keeping to a few plot threads and a small cast. There’s a reason “cozy” mysteries typically use a small group of characters: readers can track them easily, their motivations are easy to track as a writer, and any change to those characters is easier to distinguish because there’s less moving scenery to distract a reader. As one who has read mysteries for a few decades, nothing infuriates a reader like goofed character/plot connections. It messes up the story, and it makes you the writer look like you don’t know your own story-world.

Now I’m sure that, assuming you made it to the end here, you have your own thoughts on stories and the size of their character cast. I’d love to hear them!

I know that the easy advice here would be to “create only the characters your story absolutely needs,” but sometimes we just don’t know how many characters that entails–not in the first draft, anyway. I still grind my teeth over the plothole the filmmakers created in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban because they condensed the story too damn much. It takes time and practice to first find our central plot thread, and then the characters needed to see that plot thread through. I’m still working on this just like you, so I’d love to hear your take on big/small character casts, plot threads that could have used a few more characters, a few less, and so on.

And what’s your favorite book cover from the assortment in this post? I admit, I love the clean, cool colors of this one.

~STAY TUNED!~

I’ve another indie interview on the way! Plus we could wander the Holmesian countryside if you’d like, dissect the plot and characters of my own fiction, find inspiration among the sounds of nature, or take up a dragon to fight Napoleon. Mystery and adventure await!

Read on, share on, and write on, my friends!

You’ve Got Five Pages, #BlackMouth by Ronald Malfi, to Tell Me You’re Good. #FirstChapter #BookReview #Podcast

Hello, amazing fellow creatives! Here’s to more fun perusing the library’s new releases to see what strikes our fancy. As I mentioned in an earlier post, I’ve retitled Story Cuppings to better fit the premise of the podcast.

As writers, we hear all the time that we’ve got to hook readers in just the first few pages or else. We’ve got to hook agents in the first few pages or else.

Whether you’re looking to get published or just hoping to hook your reader, first impressions are vital. Compelling opening scenes are the key to catching an agent or editor’s attention, and are crucial for keeping your reader engaged.

JEFF GERKE, THE FIRST 50 PAGES

Well then, let’s study those first few pages in other people’s stories, shall we?

Today I snagged from the New Release shelf:

Black Mouth by Ronald Malfi

The first chapter of Black Mouth by Ronald Malfi is a fine example of how one can have the intense opener, change scenes a little, and STILL keep momentum.

If you do not see the audio player above, you can access the podcast here.

The protagonist gets hit by a double-whammy of a notice when he leaves rehab, but rather than move forward on that time, we backtrack to what caused the protagonist to be in rehab in the first place. While I was bothered by this at first, Malfi successfully avoids telling us how rehab went. Rather, we experience the protagonist’s spiral downward into a place of intense fear and pain. Could this just be the lack of alcohol, or is there something more sinister afoot? Plus, now that we know the protagonist is about to hear tragic information about his family, we are further intrigued to see how a man in such a state will handle such news. Considering the unique voice and personality of this character, I cannot predict what he will do…and that makes me a happy reader.

As always, I love hearing what’s on the shelves of your own libraries. Libraries Rock!

Read on, share on, and write on, my friends!

You’ve Got Five Pages, #DisappearanceofaScribe by Dana Stabenow, to Tell Me You’re Good. #FirstChapter #BookReview #Podcast

Hello, amazing fellow creatives! Here’s to more fun perusing the library’s new releases to see what strikes our fancy. As I mentioned in an earlier post, I’ve retitled Story Cuppings to better fit the premise of the podcast.

As writers, we hear all the time that we’ve got to hook readers in just the first few pages or else. We’ve got to hook agents in the first few pages or else.

Whether you’re looking to get published or just hoping to hook your reader, first impressions are vital. Compelling opening scenes are the key to catching an agent or editor’s attention, and are crucial for keeping your reader engaged.

JEFF GERKE, THE FIRST 50 PAGES

Well then, let’s study those first few pages in other people’s stories, shall we?

Today I snagged from the New Release shelf:

Disappearance of a Scribe by Dana Stabenow

The opening pages of Disappearance of a Scribe by Dana Stabenow are a lot of fun. The prologue has a lovely wit to the voice, its cadence an interesting mix of thoughtful prose and short, one-word sentences. This, in part, may be due to the fact that a man is trying to work out the fact he is on a boat about to be murdered.

And then is murdered.

End of prologue.

If you do not see the audio player above, you can access the podcast here.

I was hooked in those pages, but I admit I started the official Chapter 1 quite warily. As I had noted in my earlier episode about The Lioness, the prologue is sometimes used by writers in a “bait and switch.” Unfortunately, I was right.

Such a tight prologue of tension, dialogue, and action successfully engaged me, but my attention is for *more* action and intrigue, not a history lesson. Of course, Stabenow has to give readers a sense of time and place, for this mystery is set in the time of Cleopatra and her rule in Alexandria. The detective is the Eye of Isis–that is, Cleopatra’s personal investigator. The details Stabenow shares with readers in Chapter 1 are all relevant to setting and time–that is not the problem. The problem is that Chapter 1 takes its time explaining the history and significance of the Library of Alexandria without any sort of scene at all. It’s quite the exposition dump, and it really didn’t need to be that way. If we writers are to keep readers after baiting them with a flash of intense action, then we need to at least keep some degree of action going. A simple conversation between an established character and a new character, for example, would invite education as well as interaction and sensory detail. This would keep the story’s momentum going, and the reader would still have the necessary context to understand the historical period.

As always, I love hearing what’s on the shelves of your own libraries. Libraries Rock!

Read on, share on, and write on, my friends!

Author #Interview: Let’s Chat with #IndieAuthor @AValdiers!

You can catch Alex on Twitter and on WordPress!

Welcome back, my fellow creatives! I’m thrilled to continue sharing some lovely indie authors I’ve met in our community. This month, please welcome the explorer of the speculative, Alex Valdiers!

In our correspondence, you mentioned you began writing 25 years ago. I was like that as well! When I was four, I took to making picture books because I didn’t know how to write words yet. What was an early experience where you learned that language had power, or what experience led you to begin writing your own stories?

I remember vividly the day I decided to become a writer. I was 8 years old. At school, at that time when I was still interested in school, I was faster than the other kids. Whenever there was a test, I would finish it with plenty of time to spare, then I’ll get bored. To keep me occupied, teachers would send me to the school library. On a math test one day, I got sent to the library after I handed out my copy, but I didn’t want to read other people’s stories, I wanted to create my own. So I stayed in class and wrote my first short story. After the test, the other pupils asked me what I wrote, so I read it to them and the response was overwhelming. People were touched and reacted positively to something I had created. From that point on, my mind was made-up, I wanted to become a story-teller.

Photo by John-Mark Kuznietsov on Pexels.com

What literary pilgrimages have you gone on?

Until I turned 25, I wrote in notebooks. During my school days I changed establishments every year, spending two years in boarding schools. The first boarding school was very grim, very violent. I read a lot of Lovecraft back then and spent most of my free time writing similar stories in my notebooks (as we all did with Lovecraft!). At 18, I moved to Australia without a plan. I crossed the country, writing poetry, in buses, in cafes, by the beach, in the vineyards, etc. Then back in Europe, I took long walking trips across France and Belgium, notebook in hand, writing either poetry or plans for future stories. I wrote a lot in cemeteries, especially in Aachen, Germany. I used to visit the main cemetery once a month during my University days in Liege, Belgium. I wrote my best poetry amongst those green alleys full of history.

I have never been able to dabble in poetry, but it sounds like your writing crosses many mediums; you have written plays, novels, and poetry in your native French language. I’d love to hear your process on knowing what medium was the best structure for the story you wanted to tell! (That is, how did you know the story needed to be a play, or a novel, or a poem, etc.?)

At the time I wrote plays and poetry, I was very influenced by the French Surrealist and the Absurdist movements (Breton, Vian, Cocteau, Anouilh, Sartre, etc.). And I followed the Greek rule of unity for writing plays (1 action, 1 location, 1 day). When stories were about dialogue and mood, plays in four acts were my favorite medium.

For poetry, Pushkin and Charles Cros were my biggest influences, then there was L’Oulipo, a surrealist group of the mid-sixties and seventies pioneered by Queneau, Calvino, Perec, amongst many writers and mathematicians. L’Oulipo taught me one of the most important literary lessons which still influences me to this day, ‘literature as an art form is about shortcuts’. It’s about giving life to words and letting them take control of the narrative voice, it’s about links and ellipsis. Sometimes when I correct a draft and I feel my writing isn’t good enough, I go back to my Oulipo days to find an answer, a spark.

I only wrote novels when stories were character based and commended to be told in prose, in greater length.

Does writing energize or exhaust you?

I consider writers like pro athletes. When writing, you need to build stamina, amongst many things (habits, structure, etc.). When my job only allowed me to write once or twice a week, writing was mentally exhausting. I would do stints of 500 words, then would take a nap, start again, 500 words in 2 or 3 hours, then a nap, then again. At the end of the day, I would be drained.

Now, things are different, I have a low paying job with zero responsibilities, I get to write everyday, so I never unplugged and I’ve built great stamina. I can do stretches of 12 hours straight behind the desk, writing 5k on one story, correcting another, planning the next one. My energy reserves are rarely depleted. In fact, when I’m feeling down, physically and mentally, writing is the best remedy.

Five thousand words in one day?! That is AMAZING! Clearly, when you find your groove, you are in it. Now let’s flip this. What is your writing Kryptonite? For instance, when my children’s school principal calls, all desire to create leaves my soul. There’s no writing when there are school problems.

Money problems are an issue that can linger in my mind and block me for a few hours at a time. Otherwise, there’s hardly anything else. I’ve made space in my life for writing without restrictions and with time I’ve become more selfish, in a good sense.

As a teenager in France, growing up in violent environments (outside my family and hometown), fighting or schemes to avoid fighting were a big part of my life. My mind was so preoccupied by injustice, racism, violence, that I couldn’t even read at times. I got away from all this. It is part of the reason I’ve left France.

The United States definitely has its share of these problems as well. Reading, at least, helps us escape if but for a moment. What’s your favorite under-appreciated novel?

My answer to this question is about to become outdated because the TV show based on the novel is coming soon (with Kate Mulgrew!!), it’s The Man Who Fell To Earth by Walter Tevis (another atrociously translated writer in French). It is my favorite novel, I read it once a year. It’s the novel I would have liked to write. I connect on every level with Walter Tevis’ prose and his personal life. I get the true meaning of the novel, which I don’t want to spoil here. I’ll just say that what happens at the end of the novel is my greatest fear as a writer and a person.

So, this novel doesn’t really count, and if I answer Boris Vian’s L’Ecume des Jours (Froth on the Daydream), you’d think that’s an indie novel I haven’t heard about. It’s not an indie novel. It is one of the most read and celebrated novels ever written in the French language, and it will remain so for decades and centuries to come. According to a report from 2013, the novel has been selling between 80,000 and 270,000 copies every year since its second edition in 1962. Sadly, it is an impossible novel to translate (I wrote a short story about it entitled Missing Pages), because of its reliance on word meanings and figurative speech.

So, my true unsung novel would have to be Neverness by David Zindell. It’s one of those perfect novels, it has everything and more. I don’t understand why it’s not more read, and why it hasn’t been ‘rediscovered’ yet.

I admit, I had to look this one up. Seeing a title with “never” in it got me thinking immediately of Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman, but I see Neverness takes us to distant time and space for plenty of adventure. I’ll have to check it out! Are there any authors you disliked at first but then grew into?

There’s only one name that comes to mind, Stephen King!

Nowadays I read one Stephen King’s novel per week, but until December 2021, I had only ever finished one King’s novel, The Shining, which I disliked.

There’s a combination of factors at play which caused me to dislike King for many years. First of all, I was a dumb kid, swearing only by the classic authors, rejecting all popular and contemporary novels as garbage lit. Then, there were the translations. Reading a work in translation is hit or miss, in every language. SFF and Horror translations in France can be atrocious. I tried several times to read King as a child and teenager but I could not get past the atrocious writing. Yes, Stephen King’s pen in French is bad. It’s not the case in the original form though and it was The Gunslinger which finally got me into Stephen King, and allowed me, at last, to discover his wonderful craft.

You’re not the only one who ignored contemporary genre writing. My instructors in my graduate program were SHOCKED I mentioned Stephen King and writing fantasy. They drove us to focus solely on literary fiction; everything else was garbage. How dull the world would be without stories beyond our humdrum world! Still, I would be remiss if I did not admit that genre fiction–especially Scifi/Fantasy–can be prone to publishing in fads or phases. (The fad of Young Adult Dystopian fiction comes to mind.) Do you try more to be original or to deliver to readers what they want?

As a ‘rounder’ as I call all the writers who actively submit to pro-SFF markets, you have to read the latest SFF magazines and novels and see what the trends are. It gives you two indicators: what’s in demand and what is outdated or not wanted.

I always write the stories that I want, otherwise, I don’t get excited and the story turns out crap. So I’ll never write a story in a particular genre or fashion because it is what sells, I’ll write the kind of fiction I want to write and I’m very careful about avoiding all the unwanted tropes and themes.

When it comes to writing fantasy and your favorite genre of science fiction, we writers have to take special care to avoid those worldbuilding exposition dumps. Yet we also can’t just leave the reader to guess what on earth is going on by jumping into the middle of the action. How do you balance making demands on the reader with taking care of the reader?

I abide to Ben Bova’s rule about worldbuilding, borrowing is being lazy. Every SFF element has to come from my own pen and mind. I don’t do info dumps, I don’t explain how a tech or magic works, I show what it does. When writing dialogue, I place myself in my character’s shoes. When I speak to my siblings, we don’t reference the Indochina war that forced my mother to flee Laos in the 1950’s, we all know it. The same goes for characters in fiction, realistic dialogue doesn’t have infos dump about a war that happened fifty years ago or a tech breakthrough being explained. It’s assumed by the characters because it’s part of their lives. If you and I met today, you wouldn’t explain to me how a smartphone works, we both assume we know how they work. Infos dumps in dialogue are cringe and often lead to DNF.

Fantasy and science fiction also invite some delightfully creative approaches to naming folks, places, and so on. How do you select the names of your characters?

There are 3 types of scenarios. 1. The name comes by itself, early on, when I’m writing the outline of the story. 2. During pre-work, I get tired of writing ‘the female gunslinger with the rabbit tattoos’ and I make up a common name, like Jenny, Mary, Rose. Sometimes that name stays, sometimes I invest time to look for a more fitting name.

3. I decide the origin of the character, then look up websites with popular baby names per country. I pick one I have an affinity with, one that sounds right, but often I get inspired by a name and create a variation of that name. If the character is alien, I respect Asterix laws (from the Goscinny cartoons), names from a common alien origin must be consistent (e.g. in Asterix, all the villagers have named ending in -ix, in Rome all the name end in -us)

Ah, a blend of the ancient and the future with your name rules–I dig it! I love digging through name books for ideas, and those names sometimes help inspire certain traits in the character. What other kinds of research do you do, and how long do you spend researching before beginning a story?

The amount of pre-work can really vary, and I think the decisive factor is plotting. Stories that are heavily plotted require more work, from writing the plot outline, to writing key parts of the story beforehand, backstories for every character and locations, etc.

Stories relying on mood are much faster. I decide on the location, the theme and the characters I want to use for this particular story, then I just get on with the story without any pre-writing, research or backstory developments.

You’ve gotten quite a few stories into online magazines over the past couple of years. What are your favorite literary journals for reading and/or querying?

Escape Pod is the first mag that comes to mind, it is one of my objectives and dreams to be featured on this magazine. The quality of the stories is incredible. I read most stories on Daily SF, Hexagon, FIYAH, Interzone, Metaphorosis, Analog, F&SF, Clarkesworld, Beneath Ceaseless Skies.

We who love to write are definitely in it for the long haul, but we’d all be liars if we didn’t admit to those spells of discouragement. What motivates you to keep going when the publication process gets tougher than tough?

Writing isn’t a choice, it’s the way I live, nothing else can bring me fulfillment. With the years, I’ve eliminated everything that kept me from writing. I’ve reached a point of no return where becoming a pro writer is my only option. So now, even when I feel devastated after a story I cared deeply about gets turned down by a big market after being held up for consideration for weeks and months, I just take the hit and I get back to work, because there’s nothing else for me to do. History and experience proved that stories are rejected for a reason, even if one doesn’t see at the time. One has to keep writing, keep improving and then the issues with a particular story become clear.

Thanks so much for taking time to chat, Alex! It’s been wonderful to hear from another lifelong lover of words. Feel free to plug anything you’d like.

I want to shout out to the editors and staff of all the pro, semi-pro and non-paying SFF markets out there. We know most of those magazines are run at a loss and outside the SFF writing world, not many people know who the people behind the scenes are. The work, the efforts and sacrifices they put in to discover, develop and support new and existing writers is a gift. These ‘infrastructures’ are the reason I left France, one of the dominant literary countries in the world, yet the infrastructures are not there in France. There are no short story markets for emerging writers to graduate from, SFF is disregarded as a genre, and the only option for emerging writers to break in, is write a full novel then hope it will get picked up by a major publisher. However, there’s a lot going on behind the scene, who the author is, what her or his social and ethnic origins are sadly more decisive than the novel itself.

Writing in France is still an elitist affair. If it’s the case in France, I can only imagine what the publishing industries are like around the world, especially in countries we are less accustomed to reading writers from, such as Sudan, Kazakhstan, Vietnam, Venezuela, etc. I cannot help but think about the countless talents our civilizations have lost because the country these people were born in had no infrastructure to develop their talent and give them a chance to be read. It saddens me, and I didn’t want to be a victim of these inequalities by staying in a country where publishers berated me for my skin color or who I was. 

Therefore, it truly is a chance and a privilege to have all those SFF markets willing to read and give a chance to any writer in the world, regardless of her or his origins and social status. For that I am grateful beyond measure.

What a powerful message! Yes, thank you to all who help make these markets of the fantastic and impossible possible for the indie writer. Folks, I hope you’re able to check out Alex Valdiers’ stories in the links sprinkled throughout the interview.

~STAY TUNED!~

It’s time to take a trip down the Nile. How many folks do we take along? It should be up to you. Or is it up to the plot? Hmmm…..

Read on, share on, and write on, my friends!

You’ve Got Five Pages, #ARipThroughTime by Kelley Armstrong, to Tell Me You’re Good. #FirstChapter #BookReview #Podcast

Hello, amazing fellow creatives! Here’s to more fun perusing the library’s new releases to see what strikes our fancy. As I mentioned in an earlier post, I’ve retitled Story Cuppings to better fit the premise of the podcast.

As writers, we hear all the time that we’ve got to hook readers in just the first few pages or else. We’ve got to hook agents in the first few pages or else.

Whether you’re looking to get published or just hoping to hook your reader, first impressions are vital. Compelling opening scenes are the key to catching an agent or editor’s attention, and are crucial for keeping your reader engaged.

JEFF GERKE, THE FIRST 50 PAGES

Well then, let’s study those first few pages in other people’s stories, shall we?

Today I snagged from the New Release shelf:

A Rip Through Time by Kelley Armstrong

The opening line of A Rip Through Time by Kelley Armstrong floored me:

“My grandmother is dying, and I am getting coffee.”

Immediately I and any other reader who’s coped with family death could relate to this protagonist. We don’t know if she’s fleeing the emotions, flippant about the ordeal, or somewhere in between, but many of us have had that mundane mixed with the monumental in ways we may or may not prefer. The opening pages proceed to break down that our protagonist, Mallory, is a homicide detective and that she is in Edinburgh to be with her grandmother in her final days. The rest of the family is still in the United States, so relations are strained with phone calls and job obligations. I was 100% in with this protagonist, having been in that position myself. Armstrong utilizes the first-person limited POV well, establishing this character’s inner conflict between her no-nonsense approach to life and the emotional weight of her grandmother’s impending death.

If you do not see the audio player above, you can access the podcast here.

This is not why I first picked up this novel, however. The dust jacket promises time travel, so I was also looking for hints of that time travel and was rewarded in the first five pages. Mallory specifically mentions she is not a student of history, but that she and her grandmother would occasionally visit the more “macabre” sites of Edinburgh. My only real qualm with this book is that in five pages Mallory is about to get into trouble, but for some reason is not prepared as she would be on any given day in the United States; for instance, she’s jogging at night in Edinburgh, but she does not have her knife that she carries with her while jogging in the States. Why? She doesn’t know how to call for help in Scotland. She’s been visiting Scotland all her life and doesn’t know the emergency number? Such forgetfulness seems completely out of character; yes, we’ve only known this character for a few pages, but from what we’ve seen earlier, this just doesn’t add up. Frankly, I think the forgetfulness is a cheat to ensure the time travel occurs, but I’ll have to keep reading to find out.

As always, I love hearing what’s on the shelves of your own libraries. Libraries Rock!

Read on, share on, and write on, my friends!

You’ve Got Five Pages, #Trust by #HernanDiaz, to Tell Me You’re Good. #FirstChapter #BookReview #Podcast

Hello, amazing fellow creatives! Here’s to more fun perusing the library’s new releases to see what strikes our fancy. As I mentioned in an earlier post, I’ve retitled Story Cuppings to better fit the premise of the podcast.

As writers, we hear all the time that we’ve got to hook readers in just the first few pages or else. We’ve got to hook agents in the first few pages or else.

Whether you’re looking to get published or just hoping to hook your reader, first impressions are vital. Compelling opening scenes are the key to catching an agent or editor’s attention, and are crucial for keeping your reader engaged.

JEFF GERKE, THE FIRST 50 PAGES

Well then, let’s study those first few pages in other people’s stories, shall we?

Today I snagged from the New Release shelf:

Trust by Hernan Diaz

The opening pages of Trust by Hernan Diaz intrigue me, but only to a point. The pages of solid exposition provide portraits of three characters: A wealthy businessman, Solomon, his wife Willie, and their son Benjamin. No one talks to anyone. No one actually does anything. The opening pages are purely descriptions of the lives of these three people.

If you do not see the audio player above, you can access the podcast here.

On the one hand, I do not have patience for so much telling and no showing at all. On the other hand, plenty of other novels have a slow burn with exposition before the story truly starts. Diaz makes every single word count–I definitely feel like I could identify these people if I was ever in the same room with them. I was, admittedly, hoping to hear more about Solomon and Willie; when Diaz notes how they are never in the same residence at the same time, I can’t help but wonder a) how did the baby Benjamin come about then and b) why they married in the first place. By the scene’s end, though, both parents are dead and Benjamin is a wealthy orphan. Apparently, their backstories are only relevant in whatever way they help shape Benjamin, so all else is moot. From a writer’s standpoint, I can appreciate that, but as a reader, you’ve spent the first impression of this story immersing me in the lives of two people only to kill them before the story’s even begun.

There’s also the matter of how the son Benjamin’s life is described. He is utterly cut off from the world, and this detachment affects every facet of his life. As the scene closes, we are seeing the now-college graduate who is devoid of any “appetites to repress,” as Diaz puts it–no vices, no interests, no nothing. A blank slate if we ever knew one. And as anyone knows, blank slates are rarely blank for long. All it takes is for the right person to see find it and fill it with their own ideas and interests. That, I feel, is what will come our way here.

As always, I love hearing what’s on the shelves of your own libraries. Libraries Rock!

Read on, share on, and write on, my friends!

Of Monks & Marigolds & Murder: A Nature Walk with Brother Cadfael

Welcome back, my fellow creatives! The Summer Solstice has come and gone, leaving Wisconsin with a collection of thunderheads eager to crack our air with lightning and thunder and blanket our countryside with rain (and sometimes hail). Had I knowledge of seeds and soil, such weather would be fit for a plot of sprouts (well, not the hail, but you get me). But alas, my neglected garden remains…neglected. Well, save for the one onion I threw into the mud for a lark. That’s actually sprouting! Now to make sure I don’t mow it down by accident…

In a few days’ time, a group of fellow educators and I are getting together to celebrate nature in literature. Some are eager to discuss the beauty of nature in poetry, others the power of nature’s presence in nonfiction.

And then there’s me, eager to talk about how nature can be used to kill us.

Don’t worry, I’m not digging into any eco-terror-type tales. No, I went to my beloved mystery series, for of course I had to. I gathered a batch of Sherlock Holmes stories where the rural isolation played a role in the crime, and a batch of Brother Cadfael mysteries where flowers played a role in the whodunit with the Rare Benedictine. If you’d like to explore the Holmesian Countryside with me another time, let me know! In the meantime, let’s take a stroll among the flowers that will never ever grow under my care (though considering the poisonous nature of some, that’s probably for the best).

~*~

I’ve only written about Brother Cadfael once or twice previously, so here’s a brief refresher:

The Cadfael series is a mystery series set in 12th century England featuring a Benedictine monk who had served in the Crusades before taking Orders. His time in the world not only taught him a wide variety of herbal remedies and apothecary skills, but also the depth and breadth of human nature.

Cadfael’s peace, though, is always to be found in the garden.

He doubted if there was a finer Benedictine garden in the whole kingdom, or one better supplied with herbs both good for spicing meats, and also invaluable as medicine. The main orchards and lands of the Shrewsbury abbey of Stain Peter and Saint Paul lay on the northern side of the road, outside the monastic enclave, but here, in the enclosed garden within the walls, close to the abbot’s fish-ponds and the brook that worked the abbey mill, Brother Cadfael ruled unchallenged. The herbarium in particular was his kingdom, for he had built it up gradually through fifteen years of labour, and added to it many exotic plants of his own careful raising, collected in a roving youth that had taken him as far afield as Venice, and Cyprus and the Holy Land. For Brother Cadfael had come late to the monastic life, like a battered ship settling at last for a quiet harbour…He saw no contradiction in the delight he had taken in battle and adventure, and the keen pleasure he now found in quietude. Spiced, to be truthful, with more than a little mischief when he could get it, as he liked his victuals well-flavoured, but quietude all the same…

A Morbid Taste for Bones

Don’t we all, Brother. Indeed, don’t we all.

First, a visit to The Rose Rent.

We are not quite in Brother Cadfael’s herb garden within the cloister’s walls, but we are now on abbey grounds. This home, you see, was willed by a widow named Judith. She gifts it to Shrewsbury Abbey with the request of being given a single rose from her late husband’s rose bush as a form of rent. The rose bush itself is quite impressive, as our flora-loving monk will tell you.

A snow of white, half-open buds sprinkled it richly. The blooms were never very large, but of the purest white and very fragrant.

Many men seek the attention of the pure, beautiful Judith, but she refuses all. Even the young monk charged with caring for the rose bush falls in love with the widow, but he is soon found dead alongside the plant. The authorities assume the rose bush was simply wrecked in the attack, but Brother Cadfael thinks otherwise.

“What was done to the rose-bush,” said Cadfael firmly, “was not done with that knife. Could not be! A man would have to saw away for half an hour or more, even with a sharp knife, at such a thick bole. That was done with a heavier weapon, meant for such work…”

Why is the rose bush as brutalized as the boy? THAT is a crucial piece of the mystery, for someone wants the Rose Rent as broken as Judith’s ties to the past. But who could it be?

For that, you will have to read the mystery.

Come, let us visit Brother Cadfael’s workshop now. I hear he keeps cherry wine here as well as many balms and salves. Just take care with the Monk’s-Hood!

Monk’s Hood

While many plants served their purpose in healing mixtures, some could be powerful healers as well as killers. Monk’s-Hood is one such plant. Named for the cowl-like shape of its petals, this lovely flower plays a critical role in attending the aged in the abbey’s infirmary. The risks of using it, however, cannot be understated.

“But keep it carefully, Edmund, never let it near your lips. Wash your hands well after using it, and make sure nay other who handles it does the same. It’s good for a man’s outside, but bad indeed for his inside. … [the oil is] the ground root of monk’s-hood, chiefly, in mustard oil and oil from flax seeds. It’s powerfully poisonous if swallowed, a very small draught of this could kill…”

When a hard-headed landowner is found poisoned not only by food from the abbey but with the Monk’s-Hood salve Cadfael makes for the infirmary, the Benedictine must act quickly to clear the abbey and reveal the killer.

“If you can make medicines from this plant,” said Prior Robert, with chill dislike, “so, surely, may others, and this may have come from some very different source, and not from any store of ours.”

“That I doubt,” said Cadfael sturdily, “since I know the odour of my own specific so well, and can detect here mustard and houseleek as well as monk’s hood. I have seen its effects, once taken, I know them again.”

Cadfael uses his knowledge of the oil’s smell and stain to bring the killer to justice, for few realize just how poisonous such a potion can be. The sheriff certainly didn’t until Cadfael tested the main suspect by asking him to drink the monk’s hood to calm his nerves–and he would have if not for Cadfael’s intervention.

But why was the landowner killed? For that, you will have to read the mystery.

Plants can not only help heal, but they can also help provide place. We can visit a nearby shepherd’s hut so you can see and smell for yourself.

One Corpse too Many

The clover’s quite heady isn’t it? Clover was often used as a perfume for altar lamps in this time period, but it was also grown by farmers to feed livestock. Goose-grass, too, was quite handy for feeding farm animals, but even Brother Cadfael could put such a clingy plant to use in making salves for wounds.

It’s this particular combination of clover and goose-grass that helped Cadfael uncover a murdered man’s body among King Stephen’s executed prisoners. Only the murdered man had the smell of clover and the burrs of goose-grass (as well as different strangulation marks, but that’s nothing to do with the plants), so by finding the barn with both plants, Cadfael was able to uncover the murder weapon and other clues to the killer.

The dry grass was well laced with small herbs now rustling and dead but still fragrant, and there was a liberal admixture of hooky, clinging goose-grass in it. That reminded [Cadfael] not only of the shred of stem dragged deep into Nick Faintree’s throat by the ligature that killed him, but also of Torold [Blund]’s ugly shoulder wound.

With war among the monarchs, everyone, even those cloistered, are caught up in the bloodshed, the betrayals, and the espionage. Cadfael must show the king that this singular corpse could crack his credibility beneath the crown…hopefully without losing his own life in the process. Does he succeed?

For that, you will have to read the mystery.

One last stop, I think. The hawthorn hedge is beautiful this time of year, its white petals falling as gently as snowflakes upon the ground. Did you know those of this time period believed the crown of thorns placed upon Christ’s head came from a hawthorn plant? Such a connection with the divine should be revered…and put to good use…

A Morbid Taste for Bones

One of the young monks under Brother Cadfael’s supervision frequently experiences visions and extreme spams, so Cadfael must often give the monk poppy juice to help still the boy’s body and mind. When some other ambitious monks “interpret” the boy’s visions as a plea from a Welsh saint to dig up her bones and bring them to Shrewsbury, Cadfael (being Welsh) has no choice but to accompany this band of Brothers into Wales to exhume the saint.

Not surprisingly, this venture leads to conflict between cloister and Welsh, and one morning soon after their arrival, the leader of the Welsh village is found dead. Cadfael is not wanting for suspects, but once he discovers his poppy juice supply has been drained, he quickly works out the identity of the killer.

To cease the conflict in the village and protect the saint whose bones his abbey so desperate wants, Cadfael chooses to put that reverence for hawthorn to use in a display of “divine” intervention.

Over altar and reliquary a snowdrift of white petals lay, as though a miraculous wind had carried them in its arms across two fields from the hawthorn hedge, without spilling one flower on the way, and breathed them in here through the altar window.

Why the ruse? For that, you’ll have to read the mystery.

~*~

Is it any wonder that Cadfael inspired my character Arlen? Both men of nature and healing, of principle and justice. Both called in dire days to summon past skills. Both fiercely loyal, giving, and kind.

We could use more Cadfaels in this world right now. But perhaps they are already among us–in the streets. In the battles.

Or, perhaps, in the gardens.

This season, do take a moment to explore a beloved park, forest, or other sanctuary of nature. Such places of color and quiet can be a balm to soothe the tired soul.

~STAY TUNED!~

If you’d like to meander through the Holmesian countryside, do let me know! Otherwise, I’ve finally seen Kenny B’s adaptation of Death on the Nile, and I have thoughts–not just about his take, but on how big or small a cast should be. Considering how the cast size of Death on the Nile changes over the course of a novel and three different film adaptations, it’s worth asking ourselves as writers just how many characters and subplots one needs in a tale to keep it clipping along.

Read on, share on, and write on, my friends!