Good morning, all, from a wintry Wisconsin! At long last, snow’s found my corner of the Midwest. Biff, Bash, and Blondie had a blast sledding upon our wee hill. It’s the sort of blizzardy day that encourages one to tuck into a blanket and a book–not that I can, with my pile of student projects requiring grades and the kids now planning to convert the house into one giant Gotham City/Sodor hybrid because I was fool enough to leave those old toys out. Still, isn’t it a lovely thought to just wile away the day with a cozy mystery? Or, perhaps an epic adventure into the Elsewhere…
Dark Crystalis a film I’ve only watched a handful of times, and yet I can still remember the awe of my first encounter. Everything glowed, moved, lived. I knew these were puppets, and yet they felt real to me, so real that their torture under the Skeksis scared the pants off of me. Heck, I still have the occasional nightmare about that chair.
Dark Crystal is also one of the few creations by Jim Henson Disney doesn’t own, which is why Netflix was able to produce its own prequel series. I’ll be the first to admit I was skeptical, but the music alone has won me over.
To the lovers of fantasy, the lovers of adventure: here is a theme to call you over that threshold for a hero’s journey.
Oh, Daniel Pemberton, you do not disappoint. The mix of zither and medieval instruments atop a foundation of strings inspire the feeling of a dirt track beneath leather boots, of dusty wind whipping rain-washed hair. We close our eyes to a sun first rising over old forests and older mountains, the road lost in a valley of thorns and uncertainty.
I’m such a sucker for the medieval flair in this score. The feel of history, I think, and the simplicity in its emotional expression.
The score to Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance doesn’t just count on the medieval flavor, however. The moments of synthesized melodies seems to hearken back to the 80s while also remaining distinctly…distinctly itself. “Unnatural” would be my description, an antithesis for the skin drumheads and soft flutes of before. The result unsettles the imagination, cracking it as a clawed foot cracks the ice.
When winter turns our real world bleak with cold, music like Pemberton’s reminds us there’s magic both frightening and fragile beyond the snow. We’ve only to turn our writing eyes inward, and watch music awaken Story’s Landscape.
That, and there’s nothing quite so lovely as a fluttering solo violin. 🙂
Someday, I hope to see the story actually paired with Pemberton’s music (Yes, I’m one of thooose people who has no streaming service of any kind.) Until then, I’m thrilled Pemberton’s found a way to bring the music of Henson’s original story together with his own, just as the writers of Age of Resistance found a way to create a new story in Henson’s universe.
May your own stories, whether unique to you or inspired by others, contain such magic as to enchant your readers and leave them breathless in a land of hope and shadows.
~STAY TUNED NEXT WEEK!~
I’m keen to get back into my Star Wars series by studying some plot holes in The Force Awakens and how those holes affect the strength of the trilogy overall. I’ve also got some FANTASTIC interviews lined up, with the first to be posted in the next few weeks. Blondie’s also been pestering me to write on here, too, so you may be hearing from her soon. xxxxxx
Literary talent is not enough. If you cannot tell a story, all those beautiful images and subtleties of dialogue that you spent months and months perfecting waste the paper they’re written on. What we create for the world, what it demands of us, is story. Now and forever.
November. The media blitz is on to promote Rise of Skywalker, the third installment in Disney’s sequel trilogy in Star Wars. Kathleen Kennedy, the current head of Lucasfilm, is interviewed by Rolling Stone to discuss the films and their challenges. When asked about writing the third film to close the arc, Kennedy says:
Every one of these movies is a particularly hard nut to crack. There’s no source material. We don’t have comic books. We don’t have 800-page novels. We don’t have anything other than passionate storytellers who get together and talk about what the next iteration might be.
It seems a curious line, to specifically point out how Star Wars has no comic books. A dig, perhaps, at the Marvel films and aaaaaaaaaaaall those comic story lines at the screenwriters’ disposal for adapting into film?
For folks like my friends and brothers who had read the comics and novels, this was a serious blow to the gut. For more casual fans like myself, who grew up with the movies and the goofy spin-off cartoons–
–I wasn’t angry so much as confused. If the cartoons can pull one or two tertiary characters from the original trilogy and build successful stories around them, why was it so important to blow up the ENTIRE EU and all its storylines? Each one had already undergone serious testing with lovers of sci-fi, let alone Star Wars. It’s not like all the storylines had potential for film adaptation, but surely a few had promise, right?
But Disney didn’t want to continue the saga in the galaxy far, far away as other creators had seen it. They wanted their Star Wars to be like the Star Wars movies from the 70s and 80s, only different enough so they could make the most money with the least amount of change.
The art of story is in decay, and as Aristotle observed twenty-three hundred years ago, when storytelling goes bad, the result is decadence.
Enter The Force Awakens.
Damn, if that teaser STILL doesn’t give me chills. We have a panicked Storm Trooper–a human, panicking Storm Trooper. This isn’t just some eleventh generation of clones from the prequels, but a person, and this person looks sincerely scared. For the casual fans like myself, this had never been seen before. The first few seconds of this teaser promised audiences a new kind of Star Wars story. Throw in a new droid, renegade girl, and an X-Wing pilot, sure, but the real compliment to that opening new thing was the climactic-yet-familiar thing: the Millennium Falcon fighting TIE Fighters. Over the course of roughly 90 seconds, the teaser promises audiences a balance of familiar and unfamiliar to create a new Star Wars story.
Don’t worry, I won’t go into an analysis of all the trailers. It just felt important to show that in 2015, The Force Awakens looked extremely promising to the fans who grew up with the first six films, and now have toy-loving children who of course have seen those films, too. After Disney had yanked the EU,devoted fans like my brothers were excited to see what Disney wanted to put in its place. Considering the cool work they’d done bridging the gap between prequels and original trilogy with Star Wars: Rebels, Disney had a lot of audience goodwill in their favor, visible in all the Cosplay and YouTubers whooping with light sabers as they prepped their own audiences for movie reviews.*
Then folks saw the movie.
Unity is critical, but not sufficient. Within this unity, we must induce as much variety as possible…we don’t want to hit the same note over and over…. They key to varying a repetitious cadence is research. Superficial knowledge leads to a bland, monotonous telling. With authorial knowledge we can prepare a feast of pleasures.
Many were thrilled to see a style more like the original trilogy than the CGI-infested prequels. However, many–me included–felt a very strange deja vu. Echos, if you will, that felt too like what’s come before. And we felt it before the opening scrawl had departed for the stars.
Luke Skywalker has vanished. Woah! The only known Jedi in this new series was officially missing? How? What happened? One sentence in, the audience’s curiosity is piqued. But then we keep reading: In his absence, the sinister FIRST ORDER has risen from the ashes of the Empire and will not rest until Skywalker, the last Jedi, has been destroyed.
So, that whole chucking-the-Emperor-into-the-abyss didn’t kill the Empire? Hmm. Well, it’s just the head of state. Big Bureaucracy like that could probably run for a bit without the head. But if this First Order is looking for Luke, then they must not be responsible for his absence. So is there another villain here? What’s going on?
The scrawl goes on: With the support of the REPUBLIC, General Leia Organa leads a brave RESISTANCE. She is desperate to find her brother Luke and gain his help in restoring peace and justice to the galaxy.
So…ok. the Republic of the prequels is back now, but there’s still a First Order that came out of the Empire. If Leia’s leading the Resistance, that must mean the First Order has more power than the Republic, I guess? Who’s even in the Republic? Wouldn’t the First Order technically be the minority, the underdog?
We’ve defined setting in terms of period, duration, location, and level of conflict. These four dimensions frame the story’s world, but to inspire the multitude of creative choices you need to tell an original, cliché-free story, you must fill that frame with a depth and breadth of detail.
Herein lies the next major mistake Disney made with Star Wars: they wanted all the same stakes of the original trilogy without putting in the effort to bring the galaxy to that point. People like Rebel Princess Leia, so keep her in that position. People liked the baddie Empire, so make a new Empire. People liked the Death Star, so let’s make a new one. How the First Order–consisting from, as the scrawl said, the “ashes” of the Empire–has the might they do to build huge fleets and planet-killers is never explained. Why doesn’t the Republic have its own army? At the very least it’d have reused whatever’s left from the Empire…unless the First Order took ALL of that? So then what the heck is in the Republic, and why are they separate from the Resistance?
Time never moves without effect. Years have passed since Return of the Jedi, and yet good and evil are right back where they were. History may be cyclical, but something must happen to reset the cycle.
Disney never shares that something with us. It’s as if they hit the reset button on a video game, selecting different faces and places, but leaving the stakes the same.
However, as my husband Bo reminds me, there’s only so much one can pack in the first movie. Backstory can always help explain things later in the narrative arc, when a breather in action is needed. So at this point, audiences have to hope for a quiet moment with a sage-like character–Leia, perhaps, since she’s the only one the scrawl tells us is present–to clue audiences and new characters in as to how the galaxy ended up the way it did. A scene with some exposition could better clarify why the stakes are what they are so audiences can care about the characters involved in those stakes. This didn’t have to happen in The Force Awakens, but the opportunity was there in one of the first characters audiences see: the scared Storm Trooper from the teaser.
The opening scene echoes the entrance of the black-cloaked figure in a mask, Kylo Ren. The daring pilot’s hidden the clue to Skywalker in his droid, BB-8, and sends him off…He wants the map to Skywalker from what the title scrawl calls an “old ally”–not anyone we’d have actually seen in the first six films, mind you. Just Max von Sydow talking to Adam Driver (Kylo) like they had a history…not that we know any of this history…
As a story opens, the audience, consciously or instinctively, inspects the value-charged landscape of world and characters, trying to separate good from evil, right from wrong…. The worst of people believe themselves good. Hitler thought he was the savior of Europe.
It doesn’t take much to see the evil masked people killing the good guys. But one, one does stand out: a Storm Trooper who runs to assist one of his dying comrades, the dying man putting a bloody hand to the other’s helmet and streaking it with blood. The Storm Trooper pulls back, and you can see the panic in his body language. He no longer lifts a gun when ordered.
We see a Storm Trooper, always the symbol of order and Empire, breaking free.
THAT gets our attention. Something is different with this character. A Storm Trooper turning good? Maybe we could learn about the First Order through this character! Audiences fixate upon this character who clearly questions his masters, who fears the life he’s in. As McKee calls it in Story, this Storm Trooper, named Finn by the pilot, becomes our Center of Good in the first ten minutes.
Only we’re diverted after that to Rey, a lone girl on a desert planet doing the same thing day in, day out…kind of like a farm boy on Tatooine, methinks…scavenging crashed ships for parts, dreaming of a life elsewhere. But I’ll give credit where it’s due: the first scene with Rey does a beautiful job telling the story of her life without her saying a word. A quick montage of her day, and we know what her life’s been like living in a hollowed out Walker.
So…so where is our Center of Good? Are we following the Storm Trooper, or the scavenger?
Dimensions fascinate; contradictions in nature or behavior rivet the audience’s concentration. Therefore, the protagonist must be the most dimensional character in the cast to focus empathy on the star role. If not, the Center of Good decenters; the fictional universe flies apart; the audience loses balance.
Rey is, from the start, a good character. She helps the BB-8 droid without knowing who it is, she doesn’t sell it off when that would easily give her enough food for months. She’s consistently nice and helpful.
Finn, however, was clearly raised to be a mindless soldier. He’s been conditioned to follow orders and kill without mercy, yet this guy doesn’t. Despite his environment and all that he knows, he is different. And that, by definition, makes him stand out. It makes him unique.
It makes audiences want to see him as the Center of Good, to overcome the old identity of Storm Trooper and discover who he truly is.
Fine writing puts less stress on what happens than on to whom it happens and why and how it happens.
By the time we see Storm Trooper Finn again, he helps break out the imprisoned pilot so they can both get off the vast, fancy, well-stocked star destroyer. Their ship is struck, and Finn wakes to find himself alone in the wreckage. He takes the pilot’s abandoned jacket and wanders the desert until he stumbles upon the village where Rey and the droid are. Finn tells them what happens, and takes on the guise of being a Resistance fighter. When Troopers and Fighters come, he doesn’t simply run from his old life. He protects the droid his pilot friend wanted to rescue and the girl whom the droid’s befriended.
TRUE CHARACTER can only be expressed through choice in dilemma. How the person chooses to act under pressure is who he is—the greater the pressure, the truer and deeper the choice to character.
These are the kinds of choices that engaged fans like me in TheForce Awakens: the Storm Trooper breaking free of his old coding to join the fight for good and, in consequence, discover his own self-worth. I would have loved to learn more about the First Order way of life through Finn’s memories. I would have loved to see Finn reach out to those he cared about, like the dying Storm Trooper in the first scene, and see if other Troopers were capable of finding the good within. I would have loved to see Finn’s potential with a light saber as shown on the movie’s poster.
Fans were excited for something new, and a story of a Storm Trooper Turning Good would have been dazzlingly new as far as these cinematic episodes go. We were ready to follow a classic story in a familiar galaxy with this unique character.
CLASSICAL DESIGN means a story built around an active protagonist who struggles against primarily external forces of antagonism to pursue his or her desire, through continuous time, within a consistent and causally connected fictional reality, to a closed ending of absolute, irreversible change.
Alas, it was not meant to be.
~STAY TUNED NEXT WEEK!~
You know, I really hoped I could do one film per blog post, but there is just waaaaaaaay too much to cover regarding plot holes, characterization, and antagonists. Since I have students submitting projects this week, I’ll likely save the next Force Awakens post on worldbuilding and plot holes for later. I think we could all use a music break, right? Who doesn’t love a trip into a land fantastic, rich in history and ripe for adventure?
Read on, share on, and write on, my friends!
*Video game and movie critic Mauler has an excellent series on The Last Jedi. While his The Force Awakens series remains unfinished, I still recommend what he’s done so far, especially since his thoughts on the world-building problems inspired me to share my own.
But the love of a good story, of terrific characters and a world driven by your passion, courage and creative gifts is still not enough. Your goal must be a good story well told.
Robert Mckee, Story
It’s an opening as known as Once upon a time.It’s the sort of opening to calls upon readers to leave the reality they know and enter a story both of the future and of the past—a hero’s journey, a villain’s redemption, a coming of age, a coming together of hearts, of friends…
The dialogue over Disney’s contributions to the Star Wars universe has been….well, a pretty shitty one. We’ve reached the point where Star Wars fans are like the Yooks and Zooks of Dr. Seuss’ The Great Butter Battle, and if you know that story, you know it doesn’t end well for anyone.
So let’s just put aside our Bitsy Big-Boy Boomeroos for a second, lean against the wall à la Charlie Brown–
–and talk like storytellers. Not as rabid fans, or haters, or menaces, or warriors. Just people who love crafting good stories as much as they love experiencing them. And what better way to focus on the craft than by utilizing wisdom from one of the most revered voices in storytelling?
Robert McKee has been a revered voice in Hollywood for decades, as he’s taught notable storytellers like Peter Jackson,Paul Haggis, and William Goldman. His book Story is one of the few texts I’ve kept from my hellish graduate school days, as it utilizes films from several different genres to show how smart writing with character development, tension, and scene structure can build a powerful story with which audiences can connect.
It is with McKee’s craft lessons in Story I’d like to discuss the flaws that plague Episodes VII, VIII, and IX of the Star Wars saga. As storytellers, I think we can all agree on some pretty important things are necessary to make a strong story, and therefore understand certain choices that both JJ Abrams and Rian Johnson made with their installments. To be clear,I’m not going to bash either director. On the contrary, I think both brought some positive elements to Star Wars that shouldn’t be dismissed just because you don’t agree with all of their other creative choices.
No, the flaw lies in the foundation of the sequel trilogy. Like the parable of the foolish man who builds his house upon the sand, the recent Star Wars trilogy was built without a solid foundation. In other words, the creative powers of Disney failed to do the necessary worldbuilding—galaxy-building, if you will—for the stakes of the new trilogy to appeal to audiences old or new.
In this blog series, I’m going to utilize McKee’s words on story craft to break down where the sequel trilogy’s potential shines as well as where it dims. Every film has its moments, so I’m not going to dwell for a thousand words on one and then just rush through another.
And the truly tragic part? This could have aaaaaaall been avoided had Disney stuck with what it already built.
Story is about originality, not duplication.
Robert McKee, Story
Disney purchased Lucasfilm and rights to Star Wars in 2012, and by 2014 had created its own original storyline in the Star Wars Universe. The story was set between the prequels and original trilogy, a time when the Empire are hunting down any surviving Jedi and the Rebellion is slowly beginning to form.
Star Wars: Rebels ran for just four seasons, but in that time gained a solid following of fans, a good merchandise line, and even splinter stories in books and comics. The cast was a mix of alien and human-like folks, male and female, adults and kids, each with unique talents that came together to create a strong team to deal with a vicious gallery of Imperial foes.
The storyline fit snugly in the between the established trilogies without disturbing any of the arcs of previously established characters in the Skywalker episodes. Audiences were happy to go on adventures with the scrappy kid, laugh at the cranky droid, marvel at the piloting smarts of the lady alien, feel for the Jedi mourning the loss of his brethren…
…in other words, Disney had successfully built a solid setting in this galaxy far, far away that was unique while also adhering to the state of this galaxy as Revenge of the Sith left it.
Story is about eternal, universal forms, not formulas.
Robert McKee, Story
You’d think that for a studio that loves making live-action remakes of their animated properties, bringing a live-action adaptation of Rebels to film would have been the easy-peasy choice for their feature debut with the Star Wars franchise. They had fans happy with the show, they had storylines all written out ready to go, characters fun and fleshed out. All the hard work of worldbuilding, character development, and plotting was already done.
But perhaps, to those Disney Powers That Be, this was the problem.
Ezra the kid wasn’t like Luke enough.
Hera the pilot wasn’t like Leia enough.
Kanan the Jedi wasn’t like Kenobi enough.
The Inquisitor wasn’t not like Vader enough.
Rebels wasn’t enough like Star Wars’ original trilogy, a film series loved by millions across multiple generations. Rebels’ own successes just weren’t enough.
Disney was determined to repeat the cosmic success of the 70s and 80s, and decided the best way to do this was by treating those original films as a formula to follow.
This choice, right here, before ANY director could say “Action!”, marks the beginning of the troubles for Disney’s Star Wars films. Had they begun with a feature film cast with their own characters and followed previously tested storylines, they would have planted the seeds of goodwill among audiences while also learning the ins and outs of producing a sci-fi adventure epic that is a Star Wars film.
Instead, they chose to fly as close to A New Hope as possible. Too close, as we shall see.
~STAY TUNED NEXT TIME!~
Oh, I’m keen to do some analysis of the entire sequel trilogy, so you’re stuck with me on this topic for a little while. 🙂 But I’ll also throw in some AMAZING music by Daniel Pemberton I got for Christmas, plus there’s some swanky author interviews coming, too.
…just in time for our Christmas church service, no less! At least Blondie’s ready and raring to recite Luke 2 and sing oodles of carols.
But enough whinging over fevers.
Firstly, I wanted to thank you for supporting me through what’s been a very bumpy year. My publisher discontinued my series, which meant I had to pull my free short stories Tales of the River Vine and overhaul my platform. You held me up when I felt like the game was over, and you encouraged me to write on and fight on.
So I did, and got a novella published in the process.
It seems so bloody easy to walk away. To give up the battle because the world says we’re just not good enough. I’ve seen these faces of defeat in many classrooms over the past few months: eight-year-olds who still cannot connect letters to sounds. Twelve-year-olds who’d rather throw books than read them out loud. Eighteen-year-olds who’ve never learned to use an index, let alone critically dissect a few textbook paragraphs. And the teachers? The teachers will move them onward and outward whether the students are ready or not.
We live in illiterate times, my friends. You may know proficiency rates are low where you live, but do you know how low? I learned last week that in the public schools of Wisconsin’s capital, only 36.6% tested proficient in reading.
Think about that for a second.
Only three in ten can read at grade level. And that’s just the basic stuff without all the critical thinking skills to go with it. These kids are graduating high school without the skills to read literature appropriate to any profession, let alone write a resumé. They’re simply dumped into the workforce and expected to survive.
Not for lack of trying, mind. Teachers in Madison, Wisconsin, and anywhere are in a terrible place. When I see what they’re up against, I can’t help but think of World War 1: embedded in trenches dug by faulty philosophy, living with almost no resources, struggling through the barbed wire that is parental criticism with little support from administration, their very livelihood determined by the results of tests created without their input.
This Christmas, let’s tell our kids stories by the light of the Christmas tree. Let’s enchant them, spook them, tickle them. Let’s engage them with characters and places realer than real. Whether it’s a story about Christmas or a story to love all year long, it is time to give the sweet gift of story…with cookies. Never forget the cookies!
From our sniffly house to yours, may you have a most blessed Christmas and an adventurous new year!
~STAY TUNED NEXT WEEK!~
It’s so exciting to see my author interviews fill up for 2020! I can’t wait to share these wonderful writers with you. I also got an early Christmas present of music I MUST share with you next month. First, however, we need to discuss a serious writer’s problem, one which has gotten lots, and lots, and LOTS of press lately.
Oh yes. Next week, we are going to a galaxy far, far away to discuss what went wrong with Disney’s sequel trilogy…and no, I’m not just going to bash Rian Johnson and/or JJ Abrams for a thousand words.
Hullo hullo, everyone! While most of the Midwest is buried beneath vast amounts of the white stuff, southern Wisconsin remains primarily bare. Cold, and bare. Cold, drab, and bare. Cold, drab, starless, and bare.
Whether you love Christmas for Christ or Claus or whatever else, the music of the season always carries an extra touch of magic. This year, I want to take you on a ride with that music, but not through carols or reindeer. This year, let’s take a train.
I first learned of The Polar Express via its Robert Zemeckis film adaptation in 2004. I got kids, and those kid love trains, so borrowing this film from the library was a no-brainer. The film came out during the 3-D craze, so there are several roller-coaster style sequences thrown in for…reasons.
Still, there’s a lot to love here. The original illustrations in the book are simple and elegant, so when the film brings those illustrations to life, the story glows on the screen.
Silvestri utilizes the caroler element of Christmas music to build a majestic sound to compliment the orchestra: like “Carol of the Bells” or “Deck the Halls,” a portion of the choir sings onomatopoeia bell sounds while the others maintain a traditional harmony as they sing “Spirit of the Season.” When you combine the choir with a bit of brass and bells on top of sweeping strings, you have a song of majesty unbounded.
Of all the tracks, however, my favorite comes from near the film’s end. Will Santa Claus appear to these children after their adventures on the Polar Express? Do these kids truly, truly believe in the magic?
Unlike the opening to “Spirit of the Season,” Silvestri starts low, almost ominous. The bells aren’t quite traditional harmony–more like playing in fifths, perhaps, with the same low note playing over, and over, and over, so when the percussion and low brass begin it feels like a train slowly building steam to go. Something is building to happen…it picks up speed…and a melody. And drums.
Oh, those drums at 1:52 are my favorite. Like the pounding of reindeer hooves, the drums signal a change to a smashing of Christmas songs galloping by us, around us, spinning us like tops for Santa’s toy sack. While the choir dances in and out of these songs, the brass are the heroes in this track. Those trumpets nail the intense run from carol to carol with precision so perfect I fear many must have needed ice packs for their mouths after playing. 🙂 But back to the music. After the fantastic gallop of carols we return to the sweeping theme of majesty and flying magic. Santa cracks a whip made of the Northern Lights, and color splashes across the sky as his sleigh snaps out of sight into the night.
As you embark on your own seasonal adventures real or imagined, always keep the right music ready to transport you to the furthest reaches of snowy magic…or to return you to your home’s hearth of warmth and laughter.
~ STAY TUNED NEXT WEEK! ~
Blondie’s excited to share her writing and reading updates with you! I’m also eager to share more music and storytelling joys. Oh, and if you’re interested in one of my 2020 Author Interview slots, let me know!
Lastly, if you haven’t written a review for your favorite writers in a while, please be sure to do so. No gift is as meaningful to any writer, indie or mainstream, like a review from a reader. I‘ve got my two books, sure, but this is a gift that means to world to ALL writers. x
Good morning, my friends! At last I can write to you by the light of a Christmas tree. Many still slumber in this snowless cold of Wisconsin, but thanks to coffee and sweet sounds of soft singing, I’m content to sit and write to you of Christmas traditions…and murder!
“It’s dying out, you know,” he said, “the real old-fashioned type of Christmas. People spend it at hotels nowadays. But an English Christmas with all the family gathered round, the children and their stockings, the Christmas tree, the turkey and plum pudding, the crackers. The snowman outside the window…”
“The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding”
Two years ago I shared with you a few of the traditions Bo and I have passed on to our children. I realize, however, I didn’t stress just how important those Christmas cookies are. Telling Bo to “skip the cookies this year” is akin to telling me to “skip the music this year.” In order words: BLASPHEMY! Bo will spend hours upon hours dying the dough, organizing the cutouts, laying out the sprinkles and ships for the kids to use for decorations. He loves giving these cookies to friends and family because they embody the love his mother shared when she baked cookies in his childhood. Though dead for twenty years, her love sweetly returns every Christmas through Bo, a tradition I love to see him honor.
Traditions, especially Christmas traditions, have this way of calling us back to our childhood. Once more we feel the snap of magic in winter’s air, hear the joy in song, see beauty in the world when the candles are lit and ornaments are hung. And don’t forget the food!
“All the same old things, the Christmas tree and the stockings hung up and the oyster soup and the turkey–two turkeys, one boiled and one roast– and the plum pudding with the ring and the bachelor’s button and all the rest of it in it. We can’t have sixpences nowadays because they’re not pure silver anymore. But all the old desserts…”
“What does all this have to do with your little murder bit earlier, Jean?” you may ask.
Okay, okay, I’m getting there.
While some rereadA Christmas Carol every year, I love to reread the Poirot short “The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding.” (No, I do NOT like to reread Hercule Poirot’s Christmas…though I’m the first to admit the David Suchet adaptation of this clunker is hilarious because they added a storyline of Inspector Japp dealing with his in-laws.) The premise for “Christmas Pudding” seems straightforward enough: a government official and a princeling ask Poirot to help them recover a jewel stolen by someone they suspect to be staying with the Lacey family at the old manor house King’s Lacey. They manage to bribe Poirot with the promise of the manor’s modern heating system–and, perhaps, some bloodshed.
“You see, it is very famous, this ruby. There is a long trail behind it, a history. Much bloodshed–many deaths!”
Poirot finally agrees to help and goes to the manor house under the guise of wanting to experience a good old-fashioned English Christmas. Though the Laceys do not know of the jewel, they do know they don’t like their granddaughter’s boyfriend, and hope this detective can help them disentangle their granddaughter Sarah from the cad Desmond, who only seems good when he tends to his mysteriously ill sister always hiding away in her guest room.
So, we have the traditional homecoming mixing with the nontraditional guests. This clash promises some engaging storytelling to come–and it does.
Hercule Poirot entered his bedroom. It was a large room well provided with radiators. As he went over towards the big four-poster bed he noticed an envelope lying on his pillow. He opened it and drew out a piece of paper. On it was a shakily printed message in capital letters.
DON’T EAT NONE OF THE PLUM PUDDING. ONE AS WISHES YOU WELL.
Hercule Poirot stared at it. His eyebrows rose. “Cryptic,” he murmured, “and most unexpected.”
A note is no dead body, but there’s a clear warning here of danger to come, and of all things that danger is connected to a Christmas dessert. I can’t imagine Bo’s cookies being dangerous, but then again, we don’t serve his cookies ON FIRE.
On a silver dish the Christmas pudding reposed in its glory. A large football of a pudding, a piece of holly stuck in it like a triumphant flag and glorious flames of blue and red rising round it. There was a cheer and cries of “Ooh-ah.”
Folks, it is utterly impossible for this anxious-addled mother of mischief-maker kiddos to imagine serving food on fire and expecting them to EAT IT. I mean, I know you don’t eat the fire, but still.
Rapidly the plates were passed round, flames still licking the portions.
“Wish, M. Poirot,” cried Bridget. “Wish before the flame goes….”
…. In front of everyone was a helping with flames still licking it. There was a momentary silence all round the table as everyone wished hard.
There was nobody to notice the rather curious expression on the face of M. Poirot as he surveyed the portion of pudding on his plate. “Don’t eat none of the plum pudding.” What on earth did that sinister warning mean? There could be nothing different about his portion of plum pudding from that of everyone else! Sighing as he admitted himself baffled–and Hercule Poirot never liked to admit himself baffled–he picked up his spoon and fork.
If the great Belgian detective admits he’s baffled, then readers know there’s a real mystery afoot. We know there’s a precious ruby somewhere in this manor. We know the the manor’s heir is dating a ne’er-do-well that is surely the ruby’s thief. But what has any of that to do with this age-old Christmas tradition?
We soon find out.
Something tinkled on [Poirot’s] plate. He investigated with a fork. Bridget, on his left, came to his aid.
“You’ve got something, M. Poirot,” she said. “I wonder what it is.”
Poirot detached a little silver object from the surrounding raisins that clung to it.
“Ooooh,” said Bridget, “it’s the bachelor’s button! M. Poirot’s got the bachelor’s button!”
Every portion of the pudding contains a little token: wedding rings, a thimble, a pig, a coin, etc. For my lovely friends across the Pond, you’ll have to enlighten me about what tokens are or are not traditional, for my two-second search on Google only alluded to coins, thimble, bachelor’s button, and a wishbone. (And again, Panic-Mom-Me would be crying “THEY’RE GOING TO CHOKE!” throughout all this. Prrrrobably for the best we don’t have the Christmas Pudding Tradition in the Lee house.) I especially wish I knew more about the traditional tokens because of what happens when the lord of the manor digs into his portion.
“God bless my soul,” [Mr. Lacey] ejaculated. “It’s a red stone out of one of the cracker brooches.” He held it aloft.
…. “But what I can’t understand,” said Mrs. Lacey, “is how it got into the pudding.”
Mr. and Mrs. Lacey are both baffled about this particular “token.” Poirot isn’t–nor are we readers–but the reaction of the Laceys makes it clear that of all the tokens Tradition dictates be put into the Christmas pudding, a red stone isn’t one of them. It’s a peculiar twist on the tradition to them, but to Poirot, the pudding provides the answer to the mystery of the ruby’s hiding place.
Of course, now he has to figure out how it got there in the first place. The answer comes in yet another Christmas tradition learned when Poirot compliments the cook Mrs. Ross on her pudding and asks how she makes it.
“…As it was, that pudding was only made three days ago, the day before you arrived, sir. However, I kept to the old custom. Everyone in the house had to come out into the kitchen and have a stir and make a wish. That’s an old custom, sir, and I’ve always held to it.”
When the cook says “everyone in the house,” she means it: not only did the family members come and have a stir, but the staff and all guests–including the suspected thief Desmond and his supposed sister. This tradition provides the nontraditional guests the opportunity to hide their criminal activity in an unlikely place.
Yet why would they hide the ruby inside something everyone was going to eat? It turns out the Christmas pudding wasn’t meant to be the Christmas pudding, as the cook explains.
“As a matter of fact, sir,” said Mrs. Ross, “it was the wrong pudding you had for lunch today…This morning, when Annie was getting [the Christmas Day pudding] down from the shelf in the larder, she slipped and dropped it and it broke…. So we had to use the other one–the New Year’s Day one.”
Thanks to the tradition of multiple puddings for the holidays, the Christmas dinner had been saved–and the ruby exposed.
Of course, then, there comes a wee spot of murder, but I’ll let you read about that on your own. Honestly, “The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding” is a quick’n’fun read for your lunch break or before dawn creeps to your window.
As you embark on your own writing adventures this December, consider the holiday traditions you’ve known since childhood. What villainy could hide under the plate of cookies, or in the shadows beyond the carolers outside? A festive promise of mystery and adventure awaits!
~STAY TUNED NEXT WEEK!~
I’m lining up author interview for 2020! Some have already reached out to me, and I’m in the process of reaching out to others. It promises to be a smashing year of sharing authors we love! I’ve also got some brilliant music to share with you both seasonal and magical. Plus, let’s not forget an update from Blondie and her own storytelling as well as the importance of giving the gift of literacy to others. Here’s hoping I can get Bash back on his Transformer Christmas story, too. 😉
National Novel Writing Month called to my imagination with the promise of storytelling in spite of all life’s commitments. Thousands take up the challenge, so why can’t I? And I was realistic about this, too. I knew 50,000 words was impossible, but surely there could be SOME way to accomplish a meaningful amount of words. I’ve done it before, and dammit, I could do it again!
But if you saw my banner for November, you might already know what changed the course of my plans.
Oddly enough, it wasn’t the motherhood. I managed to turn Biff’s day of fever into a quick morning of writing.
No no–it was the teaching. Yeah, the final projects from my University students were once again a big drain on time, but those at least I knew how to manage. The subbing among six different school districts, however, was constantly unpredictable. A small agreement of a three-hour stint would change into a six-hour haul among several different grades. I’d show up expecting to work with a special needs kid only to find out I’m actually teaching 1st grade math to kids more eager to stab each other in the eye with pencils than to just sit the Godfrey Daniel down. (You can decipher that bold phrase if you channel your inner WC Fields.) This doesn’t even include the 5am phone calls of, “Can you come in today? All day. There are notes here for your duties, I think. We’ll look when you get here.”
It was a busy month. Busy, and rough. I’d be rushing from hours spent with a kid who refused to use kleenex and therefore had a steady stream of mucus running from his nose into his mouth while eating his snack and then coming up to hug every single adult and myself and to give us high fives with those same boogery hands and I had to prevent myself from gagging all over this kid OLD ENOUGH TO USE A FRICKETY FRACKIN’ TISSUE and then get my own kids, NOT let them hug me so I wouldn’t spread whatever germs are smeared in green on my person, and grade finals.
And the typical bits of motherhood don’t vanish,do they? Blondie needed to work on her piano. Biff and Bash needed to do their homework, and they needed to attend their occupational therapy. All three needed to be fed with actual food, not just, you know, dog bowls on the floor. (Though that would be SOOOO much easier.)
At the beginning of November, I was certain I could use the same tactics I had in previous years to write while parenting and teaching. And if my life’s course was still just motherhood and teaching online for the university. it could have worked.
But this fall, the course of my life changed when I added the substitute jobs. The river no longer flowed in the way I understood it. It went from this…
I missed writing so much.
I wanted life to continue its typical course with my writing floating atop. I might row for ten miles one day, just around the bend the next. But at least I’d be writing again.
Yet at least two weeks of November passed with no writing at all.
I had failed.
“Failures, repeated failures, are finger posts on the road to achievement. One fails forward toward success.”
That failure hung on me like twin boys determined to make me a tree. It hung on me like the face my daughter used to make when I’d say time and time again, “Not now.” It hung on me like the words my husband couldn’t say because I had to work. I had to do more. There was always more to do.
And that, Dear Friends, is when it’s time to stop.
You may think you can walk upon the river’s stones. You may think you can continue on your course your way because you are you.
That’s what I thought. I put on my sensible shoes and figured I could portage my writing across the rapids without *too* much trouble.
I was so bloody determined to carry my writing through these unpredictable waters that I failed to look on what I had done as any sort of accomplishment.
I had written 12,000 words of a new story and shared share every one of those words with you.
It’s so easy to get caught up in what we fail to do, isn’t it? We get daily notifications of a gazillion new authors all hot’n’fancy with readers we’d LOVE to have for ourselves. We check out the new best-seller brew-ha-ha and wonder what on EARTH inspires people to spend money on such’n’such garbage when there’s *our* stuff ready and waiting. We hear of yet another remake/re-imagining/reboot/re-whatever and wonder why no one notices the bounty of fresh fiction we create.
We look so longingly at the accomplishments of others that we forget what we ourselves have accomplished. No, I didn’t finish my story, but I did work to help keep Blondie in music and Biff and Bash with their therapy. No, I didn’t finish my story, but I did inspire my daughter to start her own. No, I didn’t finish my story, but I did get to split my sides laughing while Biff and Bash shared their favorite quotes from a Captain Underpants read-a-thon (Seriously, Biff sat and read an entire novel out loud with Bash silently listening. It was AMAZING.)
So Friends, please don’t dwell on what wasn’t finished. There will always be a course to travel, and it will always be a mystery beyond the bend. What matters is that you take a step, then another, then another. One day you may take one hundred steps, the next one thousand, the next, just one. Every single step–every single word–is something to be proud of.
~Stay Tuned Next Week!~
I’m going to start posting on Sundays instead of Thursdays, so now you have to wait until next Sunday for some awesome writing music, updates from Blondie, and perhaps some writing craft study on an old holiday favorite. More author interviews are underway as well, so be sure to stop by and see who’s on the hot-seat in the coming weeks!
Only a few days of November remain, my friends! Clearly this novella won’t be done by then. For sake of time, then, I think I’d like to jump, just a smidge, to another critical moment. (If you need to catch up, here’s a list of current chapters for What Happened When Grandmother Failed to Die.)
Sal and Chloe flew through the sliding doors. “We have to close these,” Sal called to Thomas, “NOW.”
“What happened?” Thomas was almost lost to the darkness of the room, too far for the firelight’s reach. Only his eyes glowed to Chloe, wide with fear when he saw the blood on her hand, the panic in her face.
The fear locked Chloe’s jaw but she fought it as the men fought time and warped wood to close the doors. “A b-b-body, Dad. They ch-ch-chopped someone up.”
Laughter: Reg hopped up, a smile so big on his face you’d think it was Christmas Anywhere-But-Here. “It’s done!” He clapped and leapt over the sofa to hug his sister tight. “It must be done done done! The signs, they worked!”
But Chloe ran to join Sal at the doors. Stuck. So damn stuck. The wood groaned, denying them. “The Sumac guy and the doctor–”
CRACK. Thomas’ side splintered free above him. He slammed his side to the center and said, “I knew that damn plowman was no good.” He came to help Sal and Chloe, but his strength only made the wood louder, louder, its moans surely echoing throughout the Crow’s Nest. “Get furniture. We’ll block the rest.”
“What about your mom?” Chloe asked Sal as they took the ends of the sofa.
“It’s her bloody curse.” Sal grunted under the load, faltering after only a few steps. “Let her face it.”
Thomas rushed to Sal’s side and shoved him towards Chloe. “Ang, come on!”
But Angela’s shape stayed to the window, her darkness one with Reg’s, her fingers spread out upon the glass.
Oh, the caws.
It began as one, lone but strong. Then another. Another. Another. And in a heartbeat it was a chorus of murder ringing through the air. A cloud of black feathers beat the windows as the crows flew by. Their song seemed to wrap around the house, filling its rooms and all their hidden spaces–
The walking shroud of Madame Yana Perdido stood, hands upon her cane, in the last space of the sliding doors.
Sal dropped the sofa and stood, empty and limp as a scarecrow after a storm. Reg let out a cry and buried himself in Angela’s arms.
Only Angela held her chin high…though she did not move one inch from the window. “Mother.” The word fell, small and hard, into the air.
The grandmother’s head slowly swiveled from adult to adult until at last she stopped with Choe. “Has the sign been made?” That the sofa was but a few inches away from blocking her entry apparently meant nothing.
Chloe pointed at the pile of drawings about the desk. “Reg has made a hundred, all right? You need to get in here before that doctor–”
Thock. “He means nothing. Did you make the sign?”
“We need to call–”
“Did you make the sign?!”
“NO I DIDN’T MAKE NO DAMN SIGN!”
Not a caw.
Not a groan.
Not a flutter.
Only a single, long, growl. Very deep. And very near.
Word Count: 513 Total Count: 12,324
Gah, I didn’t get to my part yet! Here’s hoping the kids behave well enough tomorrow for me to write before we venture off to another Grandmother’s house… xxxxxx
I’m still alive! Pretty sure, anyway… Yes, I’m back, if only for a moment, to try and finish this scene. It’s too damn important not to. I’ll share my past week’s misadventures another time. xxxxx
“…no use at all. The medicines did nothing.”
Chloe jumped at the sound of the axe on some unseen chopping block. A few fat snowflakes flew in through the crack of the open kitchen door to die upon the woodpile.
Sal held his arm in front of Chloe, ears red as the veins in his eyes.
“What did you even give her?”
He didn’t have to tell Chloe to be quiet. She clenched her jaw to keep from chattering, and dug her fingernails into her palms. How could she pretend like they didn’t hear? What was she even hearing?
“Who knows? What’s clear to me is that she knows where it is and she is not telling.”
WACK. “Not telling you, you mean.”
A lone, fat drop of blood broke from the rabbit pelt by the butcher’s block and struck the ground with a sound too loud, too obvious. Sal started pushing his arm against Chloe, his breathing shallow and fast under his plaid shirt.
“Don’t get started with me.”
Chloe took a step, but…but she couldn’t quite go. What was the big deal, really? Sumac worked for Chloe’s grandmother. The doctor would be here often to treat her.
Not that he sounded pleased about it. “That bitch has cost me too much time already. I want that seed, and I want it now.”
Sal stopped nudging. “Seed?” he mouthed silently. His lips formed the word, over and over as he hunched his gangly body forward and lurched further into the room. The balls of his feet wobbled as he crept, his fingers outstretched to grab anything, anything that could keep him from falling.
“Hand me the last of that meat, will you? My perimeter’s just about done.” Sumac sounded very much at ease, almost relaxed despite the axe work. “My point, Sir, is that she may have told one of her children.” WACK. “Or maybe she’ll tell the granddaughter. You said she liked her.”
Well. Chloe needed to follow now. She followed Sal’s cue and took to all fours, her knees fastly cold from old snow and blood. They kept close to the butcher’s block, the only real cover in the kitchen.
The two men’s shapes walked before a window, and stopped.
Chloe and Sal just made it between the butcher’s block and the fridge. They were hidden.
Chloe dared to peer with one eye around the edge, hoping the rabbit pelt would do enough to cover her head.
A small red something flew into the snow. “Could the girl be bribed, perhaps?”
WACK. “Damn joint.” A large, crooked something flew like a heavy boomerang before the windows. “Maybe. If the parents don’t get in your way.”
Dr. Artair laughed a jolly laugh. “Ah, but these are parents who want what’s best for their child. I’m sure I can bend that to my advantage.”
A drop of blood fell and splattered atop Chloe’s hand.
WACK. “If you say so.” WACK. “All I know–” WACK. Sumac grunted and stepped, stepped, stepped. “–is I’m not cleaning up any more of your messes tonight.” The kitchen door swung wide, groaning in the cold. He stopped in the doorway, holding a hand up to the light.A bloody, pale stump of a forearm and hand, adorned with a watch and a shredded purple sleeve. Sumac pulled the shredded fabric off and held the watch to his ear. “Always wanted a Van Doren.” With a smile he gave the bloody hand a high five and returned to the doctor, the meat, and the snowy night.
Word Count: 596 Total Count: 11,811
Hmmm. Not quite what I was planning here, but it’ll do for now. 🙂
Hello, friends! So, I’m not alone with my writing today–Biff’s getting over a fever. Oh, he seems okay, much more animated and energetic than yesterday. Still, I don’t need a relapse in the midst of my panicking university students and sub teaching gigs, so here we are, home together, him wondering why I won’t let him watch tv all day and me…um…wondering I won’t just let him watch tv so I can get some writing done. 🙂
Writing Music: Laurie Anderson and Kronos Quartet, Landfall
“Thomas!” Angela clung to the sliding doors as
her body hung forward, face as fearful as any caught animal. “Thomas, you let
Chloe go up there?” Her feet moved for the stairs, yet her hands would
not let go. “Did she talk to you?”
Chloe and her father moved as one to meet her at
the base of the stairs. Chloe wrapped her arms tight around her momma,
murmuring, “I’m okay, it’s okay. She’s just creepy, is all.”
Thomas’ long, powerful arms held them both close
to his chest. He kissed the tops of their heads, then rested his own on
Angela’s. “It’s almost midnight. Doctor said she’s in her last few hours. It’s
“Over.” Angela’s face was but a few inches from
Chloe’s, and yet Chloe felt like her mother couldn’t see her at all. What could
she see? “C-can it really be over with…without…”
Sal knocked on the sliding door to get their
attention. “Ang. The crows. Do you hear them?”
Just like that, Angela’s focus sharpened on her
daughter, husband, brother. She pulled away from her family and ran into the
living room and its windows. Chloe followed, keeping her distance from Reg
whose back was to them all. He sat at the small, plain desk not far from the
hearth, its surface lit just enough by the fire’s light that he could draw in
great, dramatic strokes. Papers littered the floor about his dusty chair.
Papers filled with crows.
No one spoke but the fire. No one moved. From
somewhere came a ticking. From somewhere came a thock. Thock. Thock.
“You must make the sign,” the grandmother had
said. The crows upon the floor had outspread wings and
open beaks, long talons and wide eyes. They stared at Chloe from the paper,
stared like those hidden golden eyes on the bookshelf–
From somewhere came voices, beastly and strange.
“Isn’t that plowman supposed to be feeding the
crows?” Angela asked. “We can’t lose them, not now.”
Sal nodded. “I’ll go check.”
You must make the sign…
But Reg was already making plenty of signs. What difference
would a drawing by Chloe make? And Chloe’s stomach still rumbled, and her
father was giving her that “we have to talk” face while touching her mother’s
shoulder. Damn, he’s going to bring up
the radio job to get Momma’s mind off crows and witch-mothers. She had to
separate them…but no. Not when her mother looked ready to jump out of her own
skin. And unlike Angela, Chloe’d already seen the bloody kitchen.
“I’ll come with you.” Chloe practically skipped over to Sal’s
side. “Uncle Sal.” Anything to put off “that
talk” until we’re in the car. Hell, I’ll talk the whole way home about it if it
means not doing it while Momma’s like this.
“You sure?” Chloe’s father asked. He sure wasn’t.
But the scribbling noise from Reg and the tappingof Angela’s fingernails on the laced
table made the bloody silence of the kitchen sound like a sanctuary to Chloe. That,
and the ginger scarecrow that was Sal felt like the least threatening thing in
this house. “Mmhmm.”
“We’ll just be a moment,” said Sal, and led Chloe out.
The foyer felt far colder than a moment ago. Little whips of wind lashed the back of Chloe’s stockinged legs. The lights flickered once, twice. But no black laced shapes loitered on the stairs—not that Sal looked up to check. He was all too happy to share a smile with Chloe instead.
“Thanks for this. I hate walking around here by myself. When
I saw Reg at the front door, I just…stayed with him by the fire until you came.”
They paused by the display of crow skeletons. One skeleton was posed to look
outward, right were Sal stood. “It’s always felt…safest, in there.”
Chloe shuddered. “Should I ask where you guys slept?”
Sal swallowed. “No.”
The cold had been coming from the kitchen. The back door
stood open, just a sliver. The dead rabbit was gone.
So was the axe.
Word Count: 675 Total Count: 11,215
Consarnit! I can’t wait to share the next moment with you, but I teach all day tomorrow, so there’s a good chance I won’t be posting. Stay tuned!
I Lang hae thought, my youthfu' friend, A something to have sent you, Tho' it should serve nae ither end Than just a kind memento: But how the subject-theme may gang, Let time and chance determine; Perhaps it may turn out a sang: Perhaps turn out a sermon. - Robert Burns