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

At last, we’ve got a fun one!

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.


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

Today I snagged from the New Release shelf:

Fortune Favors the Dead by Stephen Spotswood

While Fortune Favors the Dead by Stephen Spotswood is not a new book, it is new to my library. It’s the first of a “hard-boiled” detective series featuring a pair of women (one with multiple sclerosis) solving crimes in the 1940s.

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

When I read that blurb about the detectives, I just had to give it a go, and I’m so glad I did. No need for bait-and-switch prologues here! We jump right into character Willowjean Parker describing the first time she meets detective Lillian Pentecost: “The first time I met Lillian Pentacost, I nearly caved her skull in with a piece of lead pipe.” It’s a wonderful opening line that brings the classic game/film Clue to mind, and it got me hooked to see how these two would really interact. Just as Pentecost’s body language and dialogue share a lot about her, so do Parker’s thoughts one what she sees and reacts to (“I took the wire out of her hand and had the job done in ten seconds flat. I’d picked harder locks blindfolded. Literally.”) I’m already eager to see how the other two books in this series shape up, for if these opening pages are any indication, Pentacost and Parker are not a pair to pass up. 

No matter what the season brings, keep reading!

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

The Happy Benefits of #Rereading Old Favorites. #WritingLife #WritingTips


Welcome back my fellow creatives! In the midst of surviving Midwestern snow, rain, more snow, more rain, and a single epic sledding trip–

–my family and I find warm solace in rereading old favorites.

Bo explores his biographies of the Marx Brothers. Bash marches to battle in his Transformer books. Biff dissects the data of every Federation ship in his Star Trek encyclopedia. Blondie explores the Wings of Fire series yet again, pausing at various pages to create her own illustrations of the story.

Blondie won a blue ribbon for this at the local Art Fair!

Me? I returned to Longbourn.

“Why there, Jean?” you may ask. “Why not a Poirot or Howl or some other such series?”

Good question! First, Bo and I are already enjoying Poirot mysteries via the boxed set of television adaptations he got me for Christmas. It’s as much fun to watch David Suchet and Company bring these stories to life as it is to watch Bo enjoy them. Even my three B’s have started to pay attention. “Why hasn’t anyone died yet? Hastings is silly. Woah, the police are using phones. Wait, that’s radio? WHAT?”

As for Diana Wynne Jones, I’ve a goal to finish a series I started looooong ago for some critical reading here: The Dalemark Quartet. This actually also ties to rereading Pride and Prejudice, for both are influences of my lost-in-development-hell Shield Maidens series.

Lastly, I had come across a really cool YouTuber named Dr. Octavia Cox who does close reading of classic literature, and her analyses of Pride and Prejudice made me realize just much one can uncover when one sloooowly moves through the words.

So, let’s focus today on why rereading those old favorites can do a writer–and reader–some good.

Comfort food for the imagination. When reality is cold and bleak, why not escape to a time and place we love? Of course, trying new things is important, but just as we enjoy those warm, delectable comfort foods, so does our imagination enjoy a return to the familiar. We experience those favorite lines, interactions, and settings with fresh appreciation each time, even to the point where we must read them aloud to others. Bash is an avid fan of this–if a Transformer has made him laugh yet again, he’ll read through the whole scene to Biff and Blondie who then, of course, must read the entire story for themselves. When one person loves a story, one never seeks to hide it! As a writer, those returns can be a marvelous benefit to us as we develop our storytelling skills, too.

Worldbuilding. Because we “know what’s coming” in the story, we can pay more attention to all the periphery details and how those enrich the overall setting. Rereading Howl’s Moving Castle, for instance, helps a reader better see how everyday magic utilized by sailors, bakers, and even hatters in Sophie’s life. Rereading the lives of the Marx Brothers–or rewatching Poirot–reveals the surprising pieces of 1930s life that can easily be forgotten. Rereading Wings of Fire helps Blondie catch specific aspects of dragon culture depending on where those dragons come from. In this reread of Pride and Prejudice, I paid closer attention to second and third-string characters, like the Lucas family, so I could better understand life in the Regency period.

The more we study those social gatherings, the more we understand how important they were for folks to meet anyone potentially suitable for marriage; how a female’s talents in entertainment could lift her up in the eyes of the community, and how many dance steps you had to memorize (oh my GOODNESS I would have failed miserably in that period). One may gasp with Elizabeth when Charlotte accepts the simpering Mr. Collins’ proposal, but when one reads closely, one catches that Charlotte is 27 years old–on the far end of the spectrum when folks were expected to marry. Add the size of Charlotte’s large family and small fortune to the mix, and readers have a clearer understanding of the period’s pressures upon a single young woman.

[Charlotte’s] reflections were satisfactory. Mr. Collins to be sure was neither sensible nor agreeable; his society was irksome, and his attachment to her must be imaginary. But still he would be her husband. –Without thinking highly either of men or of matrimony, marriage had always been her object; it was the only honourable provision for well-educated young women of small fortune, and however uncertain of giving happiness, must be their pleasantest preservative from want.

Is it any wonder Mrs. Bennet was cheesed off at Elizabeth turning Mr. Collins down? In that time and place, such a life was a young woman’s best option. We as modern readers may not understand that at first, but the more we reread and revisit the setting of the story, the more we learn.

Foreshadowing. It can be so, so hard to catch the clues dropped early, can’t it? We are caught up in the current moment, eagerly anticipating the next exchange or event that alters the storyline’s progression. That was me with a lot of tales, whether they were mysteries like The ABC Murders or fantasy epics like the Harry Potter series. We can even use Harry Potter as an example here: in the first story, Harry talks to a snake he unwittingly releases from its zoo enclosure. At the moment, it’s a lighthearted moment, but in the second book, we learn that talking to snakes is not common at all; plus, it was a trait usually only seen in witches and wizards who preferred the Dark Arts. So is Harry actually a Dark Arts master in the making? Dunh dunh DUNH!

One of Dr. Cox’s analyses of Pride and Prejudice really got me thinking about this, too, in regards to Lydia Bennet. The youngest and wildest of the sisters, she is on the constant search for entertainment and isn’t shy about demanding it from her family and friends. She’ll flirt with a number of officers, demand balls, play betting games with cards–the girl loves risks in all shapes and sizes. It’s a sly bit of foreshadowing about Lydia’s character arc and the choices she’s capable of making. Jane Austen’s slyness continues when Lydia starts talking about Wickham more frequently; it’s timed just so that it comes after Elizabeth refuses Mr. Darcy and reads his letter of Mr. Wickham’s attempted seduction of Georgiana, Mr. Darcy’s little sister. Elizabeth has no desire in hell to listen any references of Wickham, but what happens?

With such kind of histories of their parties and good jokes, did Lydia, assisted by Kitty’s hints and additions, endeavour to amuse her companions all the way to Longbourn. Elizabeth listened as little as she could, but there was no escaping the frequent mention of Wickham’s name.

Because we’re focused on Elizabeth in our initial read, we don’t wonder why Elizabeth ignores Lydia’s ramblings. In the rereads, though, we better understand that all of Lydia’s choices fit her temperament and character, and when Wickham bolts his militia, it really isn’t a wonder for Lydia to bolt with him for a lark.

Not to mention the hardcore foreshadowing of Wickham!

Character Arc (one way or another). Let’s stick with Pride and Prejudice‘s Wickham here. In our first read, we share in Meryton’s positive first impressions of Mr. Wickham:

But the attention of every lady was soon caught by a young man, whom they had never seen before, of most gentlemanlike appearance.

That is, the dude’s hot.

Lydia’s making a point to flat-out run into this guy and his friend. Elizabeth’s aunt is hollering at the guy from her window. He’s got eeeveryone’s attention with his manners and looks. After a brief run-in with Mr. Darcy, Mr. Wickham starts probing Elizabeth as to what’s known about Mr. Darcy, and through the coming pages we find out that Mr. Wickham is pretty cool with bemoaning his fate at the hands of the prideful Darcy. Once Elizabeth reads Mr. Darcy’s letter, however, she comes to realize how “gentlemanlike” Mr. Wickham often broke rules of decorum by bashing Darcy at every opportunity. Mr. Darcy’s letter also foreshadows an important aspect of Mr. Wickham’s character–his womanizing. He’s not afraid of ruining a young lady’s reputation for his own interests, and while he failed with Georgiana, he succeeds with Lydia Bennet. Everything that was his character is revealed for an arc from “hot guy” to “womanizing jerk.”

Elizabeth Bennet is also a fine study for the character arc. Oh, she remains playfully witty from start to finish, but in the opening chapters of the ball where Lizzy and Mr. Darcy meet, she is just as prideful as he. She laughs it off, sure, but from that moment on she “willfully misunderstands him,” as Mr. Darcy himself put it during their time together in Netherfield. She refuses to believe such an observation, though, and continues feeling herself best and right regarding Mr. Collins’ simpering, Miss Bingley’s interference with Jane Bennet’s happiness, and more. While Elizabeth is right in some of her observations, she has to face her own mistakes later in the story when it comes to Wickham and Darcy. She has misread people, and she has to own up to it. It actually reminds me of Howl’s Moving Castle when Sophie realizes just how much she cares about Howl. She can’t even admit to herself that she’s capable of loving someone until a fire demon lures Howl into a trap. Readers love seeing characters grow into themselves, so having these rereads helps writers better catch when and how such moments happen.

Two People Finding Each Other.

Blondie: What are you reading?

Me: Pride and Prejudice.

Blondie: Who gets murdered?

Me: Nobody.

Blondie: Does anyone die or get blown up?

Me: Nope.

Blondie: Is there magical stuff in it?

Me: Nope.

Blondie: That sounds really boring.

Now when I was Blondie’s age, I would have agreed. I was immersed in fantasy and mystery at that point, so if someone wasn’t getting murdered, then something better be getting blown up. Now, though, as I reread Pride and Prejudice, I am reminded of something many of us seek in stories of any genre. Even the most violent thing I’ve ever studied on this site, Garth Ennis and Darick Robertson’s The Boys, understood this important element of storytelling.

Boys members Butcher and Hughie are both transformed by love: Hughie struggles with a broken heart not once but twice, and Butcher’s descent into revenge begins with the rape and murder of his wife by a super “hero.” Early in their time together, they help two witnesses of a murder rekindle their relationship. Looking on, Hughie says:

What is it about love stories, you know?

BUTCHER: Two people findin’ each other.

Many of us yearn for that other soul that connects with us in a way no other can. There’s a reason romance alone can sell a story and that many genres include a romantic interest. Is it demanded? No. It doesn’t even have to be a love thing. It could be something as equally powerful as finding a friend or a family member. There is a unique joy as a reader in watching two characters come together, “finding” each other in spite of all story-world obstacles–even the barriers they themselves created.

So yes, there is much to enjoy and learn in a good re-read. What are you rereading during these dreary days? I’d love to hear. x

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

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

Well, I’m back with a mystery, but I’m not happy about it.

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.


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

Today I snagged from the New Release shelf:

Bleeding Heart Yard by Elly Griffiths

My curse on this podcast strikes again.

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

The prologue of Bleeding Heart Yard by Elly Griffiths is quite well-crafted and compelling and leagues ahead of the first chapter, which is an exposition dump detailing a separate character’s fast-track in her career with law enforcement. Now I can see that Griffiths herself is an avid mystery writer, winner of awards, etc., and the prologue shows me why. Writers would do well to study those first couple of pages to see how this first-person narrative shares a lot about the character without saying it directly. For instance, the first two lines read:

Is it possible to forget that you’ve committed a murder? Well, I’m here to tell you that it is.

This isn’t shocking necessarily, as the dust jacket alludes to the group of main characters committing murder during their school days. It’s how the paragraph ends that gets me:

…everyone [during the murder mystery game] would get drunk and forget the clues. This rather irritated me. I like following rules.

This speaks LOADS about the unique juxtaposition of character Cassie’s traits and morals, not to mention the way her mind works.

I was ready and willing to continue with Cassie, only the official first chapter just starts the story over again with a different character. Had Griffiths given us a bit more time with Cassie and smoothed that shift over to another character’s pov–ending a chapter with Cassie realizing this new character would be in attendance at a party, for instance–I think readers would be more intrigued to learn about her “friend” even if it takes sifting through an exposition dump to do so.

No matter what the season brings, keep reading!

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

#WriterProblems: The Absent Protagonist (or, a Quick Rant about a #MissMarple #Mystery)


Happy New Year, my fellow creatives! I hope 2023 is a kind one to us all. I’m eager to work with my university to develop strong goals as an educator, an advocate, and as a writer. That includes chatting with you here, and (fingers crossed) getting something published before 2023 ends.

To start the year off right, I picked up a cozy mystery my husband Bo had given me for Christmas…in 2021, but better late than never. Miss Marple has really grown on me over the past couple of years, and since I’ve not read all her books, I wanted to see if I could cover the rest in 2023. So, here we are with her third mystery, The Moving Finger.

One of the creepier covers.

And I’m peeved.

Not deeply peeved, mind you. The mystery itself is rather good. A brother-sister pair settle in to the countryside for a few months while the brother recovers from a back injury. With the peaceful setting situated, the “harmless” crime of poison pen letters begins with a flurry of notes to different members of the community–Jill’s a floozie, Tim’s not your husband’s child, etc. Even the urban siblings receive a letter that they’re not really siblings. The town gossip burns bright, but no one really takes the letters seriously.

That is, until a woman apparently commits suicide. When her maid is later found murdered, the letters suddenly feel like ticking time bombs. When will the next letter lead to the next death? Cue Miss Marple….

…a few dozen pages before the end.

That’s what brings me here for a brief rant/chat with you all. I know my blogging was rather sporadic last year as I continue to find my place academically and creatively, but one thing that I hope will help is to keep my blog posts shorter than the 5k essays I’d been writing. The short story collection I began in November reminded me just how much fun creative writing can be when we give ourselves time to actually write. We must still take a moment to learn from others, though, and that’s why we’re here.

No Pevensie to be found here!

When one writes a series, one cannot just use the same group of characters over and over and over again. A story-world is usually populated by more than a dozen folks, yes? So, there must always be someone new to the mix. Perhaps that new person is a side character, or perhaps that new person is a real first-stringer, a protagonist in their own right. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this in an established series so long as we establish why the, well, “established” protagonists are on the sidelines. For a big example, see the Chronicles of Narnia. The four Pevensies are only protagonists in two of the books; two Pevensies are protagonists in a third with their cousin, and then that cousin is a protagonist with a schoolmate in another book. Two books have nothing to do with the Pevensies at all, yet they’re still in the series because the series is focused on the world, not those characters.

Okay, let’s look at a series based on a character–James Bond. Bo, who chides me for not having read the Bond books yet (shall I remedy that this year?) explained that The Spy Who Loved Me, Fleming’s ninth Bond novel, doesn’t bother introducing Bond into the story until around the halfway point. Because the story is told from a civilian woman’s point of view, we can’t just pop over to wherever Bond is, even though this is technically a James Bond novel. We’ve just got to wait for him to show up.

I assume a moped is involved in the story somewhere…

Diana Wynne Jones also has some stories like this in her Chrestomanci series. Technically, technically, Witch Week is a Chrestomanci novel because he has to get involved to make things right in the chaos of a world where burning witches is the law and schoolchildren are on the run for their lives. But like Marple, Chrestomanci does not show up until Act III of the story.

Yet I’m not peeved about Chrestomanci’s late arrival like I am with Miss Marple’s in The Moving Finger. Why?

It has to do with agency. Chrestomanci may have been late to the Witch Week party, but he took action. He dealt with the witch-burners and saved the children. He DID SOMETHING.

Includes The Magicians of Caprona, which also fits my concerns with the absent hero, too.

I’m not going to spoil the resolution of The Moving Finger, but I will say that Marple’s interactions with others can be counted on one hand. Readers don’t see her talking to police or many townspeople. She’s with the vicar’s wife, and she talks to the urban siblings. That’s it. Yet she gets the pages of explaining the mystery at the end? What did she DO???

For the record, I think the mystery’s plot is fine. The characters are a little cheesy with the romance, but not to the point of irritation. What bothers me is that Marple’s absence from the story would not alter the story’s outcome. A little tweaking of interactions with the regular cast here would lead to someone realizing the truth and catching the culprit. Miss Marple had no real agency in her own story, and that just leaves me confused as a reader: why is this a Marple story at all?

There’s nothing wrong with a different cast shining inside an established protagonist’s universe. The key is to make sure that established protagonist still has a moment to shine themselves. So long as readers know their favorite hero(ine) is still ACTIVE in the story-world, they will be happy to see others take action, too.

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

#LessonsLearned from #NaNoWriMo2022: Start the Story with Conflict, Not Contemplation. #Writetip #ShortStories

Good afternoon, my fellow creatives! May your words be flowing free to the page this National Novel Writing Month.

I was doing so gosh darn good at getting the story out every day. Sometimes the installments here were dialogue-heavy, other times detail-heavy, but the stories did come.

And then I got stuck.

This may be partly due to choosing a story inspired by my daughter Blondie. An amazing writer in her own right, she has not stopped asking, “When are you going to write about me?” Ever since I used her little brother Bash for “The Boy Who Conquered Goose Island.” When the kid actually knows she’s a muse, she gets, um, a bit assertive about it (“Will there be dragons? Can I ride dragons? When do dragons show up? YOU HAVE TO HAVE DRAGONS!”). At this point, I had alluded to the presence of dragons in the world where Pips Row resides, but if their eggs are illegal to carry, then how on earth could I have dragons buzzing about the town? When I did hit upon something she’s genuinely worried about that would make for a compelling story…well, now she doesn’t ask what I’m writing about.

And that stung a bit.

And I got more than stuck–I was downright stucker.

The first installment I shared about Choosing Day still feels like the best path to take, as we all relate to what Soffire will be dealing with: the expectations of society vs. our own dreams. Blondie’s feeling that now as she creeps closer to the time of high school and those expectations society puts on teens: get a job! get straight As! be on social media! start dating! do what other people like so you fit in! be amazing at everything you do, especially in front of other people!

I initially liked starting the story “Graduation Glums and Glamours” at the Choosing Day ceremony. That’s in the moment, right? That moment of pressure, of a townwide amount of things to look at and see. Lots of action, right? Plus it’s relatable–many of us have experienced some form of a graduation ceremony in our lives. Plus it reminded me a little of Lois Lowry’s The Giver, or some of those other Young Adult dystopian books that love the whole “I choose” kind of ceremony. But to me, The Giver route was more important, as we need to consider that not all characters can simply buck what society says.

And frankly, isn’t that what we expect as a bored reader at this point? The defiant teen feels as cliche as the “cop who doesn’t play by the rules.” Let’s not do that.

But as a writer, that put me into the very real conundrum of how to move the story forward. Do I walk through the entire Choosing Day ceremony? That could be fun worldbuidling, but that’s not where the story is. I tried writing a second installment of Soffire’s classmates helping her calm down by sharing their own worries, but the story isn’t about them, either. Both chapters had to be scrapped–they just grind the plot to a halt.

And that got me thinking–why start with the Choosing event? Was it because I wanted that scene from The Giver a little too much?

So I pulled back and thought: where does the story REALLY start?

Soffire dreads Choosing Day. Why? Because her dream is to go to a university in another town and study dragons. But Pips Row graduates are designated to jobs in Pips Row. No one leaves Pips Row for university.

Well no one’s going to know that if I start with the Choosing Day ceremony. Sure, I could flashback later, but why? Plus, this is a short story. Bouncing around timelines is tricky. I already did that a little in “The Boy Who Conquered Goose Island” because the character-narrator is telling the story. We have no such speaker here.

Where does the story REALLY start?

Short stories need to do the same job as a novel but with far less time and far fewer words. I needed to get Soffire’s inner conflict established immediately, or any of the other conflicts–with her mom, her town, etc.–just wouldn’t make sense. She’d just be another Defiant Teen to readers, and that’s the last thing I want for this character, this fictional piece of my Blondie. Readers need to see what Soffire wanted so very badly and why this Calling Day was, in Soffire’s eyes, the end of her dreams.

So let’s try starting this again.

~*~*~ Another Try at Story 4: Graduation Glums and Glamours ~*~*~

Calling Day. Her Calling Day.

“Soffire?” A quick two raps on the door—her mom was getting impatient.

Soffire straightened out the shoulders of her long white robe. It looked ready to hide her…or drown her. Both, maybe.

“Soffire, did you hear me?”

“I know, I’m getting my shoes on.” But those were already on. Soffire had to look one more time, just once more, at the University’s catalog. She pictured herself walking through its campus on Ford’s Bluff along the sea. Imagined meeting other teens who wanted to keep learning amazing things they could never understand in their own stupid little towns. Stuff about inter-being relations, the science of Workings, the geography of the Land Between Existences. About dragons.

Especially Dragons. All the best pilots, warriors, explorers—they all began with Dragon Studies.

One rap. “Young lady, I will vanish the door if you don’t open up.”

Soffire slammed the catalog shut and threw it under her pillow in time. “Sorry.” She opened the door with a small smile. “Sorry,” she said again.

Her mother sighed as she straightened Soffire’s plain woolen headband to keep her while curls out of her face. Her own mother’s wild hair had long since tired into a drab bun on the back of her head. “We have got to get a move on or you’ll be late for the processional line.”

“I know.”

Even Soffire’s mom caught the sadness in her voice. She cupped her daughter’s face and stroked her cheek. “Calling Day is scary for everyone, and I mean everyone. No one knows what comes after school until this day, but everyone finds their place in Pips Row this way. And your place is going to be special,” she said with a kiss on Soffire’s forehead, “I just know it.”

Soffire just didn’t have the heart to tell her mom the last thing she wanted was to grow old in this town like everyone else. Now more than ever, Pips Row felt like a prison she’d never get out of. Calling Day was just the final sentencing.

~*~*~ End Scene ~*~*~

This is still a work in progress–it is NaNoWriMo, after all–but I feel this opening scene of just a mom and daughter allows the inner conflict of my protagonist to actually be seen. No mysterious allusions to her shattered dreams like I had in the first go at this story. Here readers see the representation of what Soffire wanted for her future as well as what she has to do: bury it and walk away.

No one ever wants to bury their dreams.

This is something all readers can relate to, and I think such a start adds more weight to the Choosing Soffire will be given later in the story. Yes, this erases the “mystery” of why she was sad at the ceremony, but that mystery is not the point of this tale.

I just need to have a better way to segue away from mom-and-daughter to the ceremony. I don’t like telling readers, HEY, THIS IS WHAT THE PROTAGONIST IS FEELING. So, still some kinks to work out, but much happier and less stuck than I was before. 🙂

Of course, now I don’t know how to end this post, so I’m going to reshare something I posted two years ago from Donald Maass’ The Emotional Craft of Fiction. This excerpt fits perfectly with my new conundrum, so I’m going to ponder this and see what I come up with over the weekend.

This excerpt comes from the chapter “Inner versus Outer” discussing that ever-nasty writer problem of showing vs. telling.

Writing out what characters feel ought to be a shortcut to getting readers to feel that stuff too, shouldn’t it? You’d think so. After all, it’s through characters that we experience a story. Their experience is ours. Actually, the truth is the opposite. Put on the page what a character feels and there’s a pretty good chance that, paradoxically, what the reader will feel is nothing.

Here’s an example: His guts twisted in fear. When you read that, do your own guts twist in fear? Probably not. Or this: Her eyes shot daggers at him. Do you feel simmering rage? Meh. Not so much.

Such feelings fail to excite us because, of course, we’ve read them too many times. Those daggers have dulled. What gets readers going are feelings that are fresh and unexpected. Yet those feelings also need to be real and true; otherwise, they will come across as contrived–they’ll ring false and fail to ignite the reader’s emotions. ….

Human beings are complex. We have emotions on the surface and emotions underneath. There are emotions that we minimize, hide, and deny. There are emotions that embarrass us, reveal too much, and make us vulnerable. Our emotions can be profoundly trivial or so elevated that they’re silly. What we feel is unescapably influenced by our history, morals, loyalties, and politics.….

We’re clear. We’re vague. We hate. We love. We feel passionately about our shoes yet shrug off disasters on TV. We are finely tuned sensors of right and wrong, and horrible examples for our kids. We are walking contradictions. We are encyclopedias of the heart. ….

With so much rich human material to work with, it’s disappointing to me that so many manuscripts offer a limited menu of emotions. I want to feast on life, but instead I’m standing before a fast-food menu, my choices limited to two patties or one, fries or medium or large. …They work only with primary emotions because that is what everyone feels, which is true, but this is also a limited view.

So how does one create emotional surprise? …

Be obvious and tell readers what to feel, and they won’t feel it. Light an unexpected match, though, and readers will ignite their own feelings, which may well prove to be the ones that are primary and obvious. third-level emotions. That’s the effective way of storytelling.

Have you encountered any conundrums this NaNoWriMo? I’d love to hear!

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

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

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.


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.


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!

#WriterProblems: Finding that Balance Between #Worldbuilding and #Character Development

Happy May to you, my fell creatives!

As I mentioned last month, I got something of a stick in my craw, a monkeywrench in my gears, a fly in my ointment, and other such little irritants over some story series two friends recommended to me. These irritants led me to create this rant/debate/discussion/whatever you want to call it that we’ll be getting into today, so buckle up, my friends–this one’s going to be a bit raw (in a good way (I hope)).

First, a little context.

My podcast You’ve Got Five Pages…To Tell Me It’s Good has me constantly asking the questions about what as readers, hooks us into a story and what, as writers, helps us create that hook. By looking at first chapters only, I am expecting a book to somehow get my attention in those opening pages. Usually, one of two things will do the trick: either a fascinating setup for the story, or fascinating characters I want to hear more about. Ideally, we would get both, but I know this will not always be the case. The lovely P.J. Lazos recently reminded me that there will always be stories that take their time building up interest and intrigue (Outlander was her example). She’s certainly not wrong! How often have we come across stories where “the good stuff” showed up later on? So I won’t knock a book for that approach. Yet I do think something in those opening pages encourages a reader to keep going. When that something peters out…well, that’s why we’re here today.

So, the books in question: one was all about epic battles with fire and ice and lightning–

–while the other was a trip down Pride and Prejudice Lane, only from Mr. Darcy’s point of view:

Both series sounded promising to me from the outset. One’s providing insight into the silent character whose heart is a mystery to the characters around him, while the other alludes to a mysterious Ascension, the physical lifting of six gigantic islands the size of Australia into the air in order to save humanity from drowning in the now Endless Ocean.

So, on the one hand, you have a character-centric story; on the other, a plot-driven story.

Is it necessarily bad to have one or the other? No, not…not necessarily. But it’s certainly tougher to appeal to readers. Jeff Gerke is pretty blunt about this matter in Plot versus Character: A Balance Approach to Writing Great Fiction:

The problem is that each kind of novelist is usually as awful at the one thing as she is terrific at the other thing. The plot-first novelist tends to create characters who are flat, unrealistic stereotypes: cardboard cutouts who, despite different moods, agendas, genders, and occupations, seem eerily similar to one another–and the author’s personality. The character-first novelist produces wonderfully vibrant characters–but often has no idea what to make these interesting people do.

This point came home as I read each series. Here’s the blurb for Skyborn, which is both succinct and totally encompassing of the story at the same time:

Six islands float high above the Endless Ocean, where humanity’s final remnants are locked in brutal civil war.

Their parents slain in battle, twins Kael and Brenna Skyborn are training to be Seraphim, elite soldiers of aerial combat who wield elements of ice, fire, stone and lightning.

When the invasion comes, they will take to the skies, and claim their vengeance.

Aaaand that’s what they do. So there’s no false advertising, at least.

Now again, I want to be clear: this series, to me, had a really cool premise. After all, SOMEthing like an apocalypse must have happened to lead to this Ascension that allows SIX continent-sized land masses to remain perched atop giant beams of water high above an endless ocean. How could such an event affect these different lands? What kinds of people would live on each land, what kinds of wildlife? Would they have different habitats, like deserts and rainforests and such? Plus, these islands had strange prisms that could help power metal wings one could strap on–where did those come from? How do they shoot fire and stuff? Does that mean they have advanced technology, too? Where and how does all that history affect this world’s present?

I had so many questions about this epic place filled with epic war. And oh yes, there’s lots of fighting with ice and fire and lightning and such. This author knows how to write a battle, and there are a LOT of battles across the trilogy. Plus, he included some very interesting themes at work involving God and free will, the needs of the many over the few, and so on. Such themes fit very well in a world where people flew like angels.

And yet, I was bored. Why?

Because I didn’t care about the characters. There wasn’t enough about them to make them feel like actual people.

Readers meet these twins just as they are watching their parents battle in the sky and die. And the next thing you know these twins are now going to school to be Seraphim. We don’t really explore how such a traumatic event affects these two. They were growing up to be Seraphim, and they’re still going to be Seraphim. The first book almost immediately takes us away from whatever sort of everyday setting there could have been for the twins to process their grief so we could instead see “underdog kids in school” situations while they train to be Seraphim. Grief? What grief?

On school grounds, the twins are surrounded by cutouts like “snob boy,” “quiet girl,” “smart librarian,” “deceitful politician,” “kindly teacher.” And what really got me is that the very protagonists themselves never really grew out of such descriptions either: the girl Bree was eternally “out to prove herself,” and the boy Kael was eternally “thoughtful and supportive.” Even when the twins’ father who was thought dead in the first two books shows up in Book 3, there’s hardly any interaction between him and his children–and as a result, there’s hardly any emotional resonance. (spoiler alert) And since he also dies in Book 3, the aftershock of his loss amounts to…nothing.

In all of their epic battles, the characters never really transform. Even when the boy twin literally grows wings at one point, it never seems to matter because the girl twin’s got to prove herself again, so off she goes with his support to keep fighting and on and on.

Now for the record, we’ve all enjoyed plenty of stories where the characters don’t really change–heavens, I don’t read any given Poirot or Marple mystery by Agatha Christie for the character transformations. I read for the murder, mystery, and mayhem. The characters are just a part of that plot-puzzle. So, I tried to treat the Skyborn books that way as well–the characters were just pieces to lead me to the puzzle that was this world.

But I also feel like this was part of the problem: I wanted to care about these characters and this world. But since, outside of battles, this world interacted so little with the characters and vice versa, we never really got to see much beyond destruction. And considering the obvious care put into creating this world, this felt like a missed opportunity.


Now let’s flip to the character-centric.

Who is Fitzwilliam Darcy?

In An Assembly Such as This, Pamela Aidan finally answers that long-standing question. In this first book of her Fitzwilliam Darcy, Gentleman trilogy, she reintroduces us to Darcy during his visit to Hertfordshire with his friend Charles Bingley and reveals Darcy’s hidden perspective on the events of Pride and Prejudice. As Darcy spends more time at Netherfield supervising Bingley and fending off Miss Bingley’s persistent advances, his unwilling attraction to Elizabeth grows—as does his concern about her relationship with his nemesis, George Wickham.

Setting the story vividly against the colorful historical and political background of the Regency, Aidan writes in a style comfortably at home with Austen but with a wit and humor very much her own. Aidan adds her own cast of fascinating characters to those in Austen’s original, weaving a rich tapestry from Darcy’s past and present. Austen fans and newcomers alike will love this new chapter of the most famous romance of all time.

I found it fascinating to see Pride and Prejudice from a different set of eyes and it was particularly fun because, for those who may not remember, Darcy spends the first half of the book more or less skulking about and staring at Elizabeth. What on earth Darcy was thinking in all of that time? Through this retelling, we know it’s not just his observations of Elizabeth Bennet, but also his concerns as a big brother for his little sister Georgiana. Reading from Austen’s original narrator, we as readers do not learn until Darcy’s letter (halfway through the story) of the cad Mr. Wickham’s attempt to whisk Georgiana Darcy away with elopement. So in this retelling, it makes perfect sense that Darcy’s very worried about his sister from Chapter 1 onward, and the very sight of Wickham drives him to fear and anger. In the original Pride and Prejudice, we as readers just don’t understand that concern’s effect on Darcy’s actions in Meryton until later. In An Assembly Such as This, we see the motivations plain as day, and it helps us better understand why Darcy is as he is.

But then, there’s the second book.

The first book ends with the Netherfield ball, and the third book takes readers to Rosings Park and Darcy’s first–and disastrous–proposal to Elizabeth Bennet. So what the heck was going on in the second book?

Darcy goes to a rundown castle for what amounts to a bizarre gothic mystery. Darcy’s determined to find a woman of his own class to marry so he can forget about Elizabeth, so he visits a castle to hang out with a bunch of rich people. Only they are all being snobs, and then there’s some sort of haunting, and some sort of ritual sacrifice and kidnapping of children and just all sorts of mysterious whatnots that should be interesting.

Yet it wasn’t. Why?

The plot of this overall story arc has already been set. We know that this retelling can’t divert from the eventual coming together of Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet. Since it takes Elizabeth’s refusal for Darcy to finally reflect and grow as a character, his character does not really change during this second book, either. So we as readers are simply plowing through this gothic mystery to, essentially, “get back on track.”

And considering how this whole second book could have explored more of Regency England’s concepts of marriage and how such pressures can impact characters and transform them, this installment felt like a missed opportunity.


Perhaps THAT is my problem in all this. I’m a writer grumbling about the “missed opportunities” I see in other writers’ work when all along those stories aren’t mine to dictate. Perhaps all that author wanted to do was make lots of epic battles featuring angel-like people, or perhaps that other author just wanted to get a gothic mystery on paper and this was her moment. We all have a right to tell the stories we want to tell, so please, PLEASE, feel free to love those stories and approach your own tales your way.

For let’s face it–some readers just want those epic battles, or those dramatic interactions. And others still want to see what happens when vastly different genre elements get tossed together. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, anyone?

Gosh, this post is LONG.

Know what? We’ll break it off here and finish this off June 1st (I’ve an author interview planned for later this month–stay tuned for that!). In exploring books for my podcast, I did find a book that balances character and worldbuilding without sacrificing either, so we’ll cover that next time.

Plus, I will hold myself under this critical lens. Since I’m revamping Middler’s Pride for a novel release instead of its previous serial release, I need to make sure I’m also balancing the worldbuilding and character development to propel the story forward. Stay tuned!

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

Lessons Learned from William Lindsay Gresham’s #NightmareAlley: Don’t Do the Spook Show.

Ah, the lure of the Dark Carnival.

As one who deeply loves Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, how could I NOT be fascinated by the trailer to Guillermo del Toro’s latest film? The combination of carnival lights and period noir ignited something electric, something…unnatural, yet all too true to the darker corners of human nature.

I found the graphic novel, the original novel, and even the Tyrone Power adaptation from the 1940s before treating myself to the new cinematic adaptation of Nightmare Alley last week. (Babysitters are damned hard to come by these days, and Bo got to see Halloween Kills by himself in November. My turn!)

For those curious about the premise of Nightmare Alley, here’s a blurb:

Nightmare Alley begins with an extraordinary description of a carnival-show geek—alcoholic and abject and the object of the voyeuristic crowd’s gleeful disgust and derision—going about his work at a county fair. Young Stan Carlisle is working as a carny, and he wonders how a man could fall so low. There’s no way in hell, he vows, that anything like that will ever happen to him.

And since Stan is clever and ambitious and not without a useful streak of ruthlessness, soon enough he’s going places. Onstage he plays the mentalist with a cute assistant (before long his harried wife), then he graduates to full-blown spiritualist, catering to the needs of the rich and gullible in their well-upholstered homes. It looks like the world is Stan’s for the taking. At least for now.

Published in 1946, Nightmare Alley was adapted into film the following year and put author William Lindsay Gresham on the literary map…for a while, anyway. This novel was his only popular publication, and in the early 1960s Gresham took his own life by overdosing on medication. In looking at his brief biography on Wikipedia, I notice a parallel between his life and Nightmare Alley’s protagonist, Stanton Carlisle: both seeking community and purpose, only to judge all as a con afterward. Carnivals are full of deception–of course they are. But so is show business, so is psychology, so is religion, so is the amber drink of the bottle and the counselors who are supposed to break you free from the bottle so why even bother leaving the bottle at all…

All give false comfort. All deceive with the most dangerous power of all:


A powerful thing, Hope. It has the ability to drive out despair, grief, and anger. It has the ability to ignite empathy, love, and trust. Countries rise and fall upon the revolutions spurred on by Hope. Religions millennia old root themselves in Hope.

Hope brings many to the Ten-in-One show. Be it Molly, the Mamzelle Electra; Zeena and Pete, a pair of mentalists who wowed crowds until Pete took to drink; or Stanton Carlisle, a young man determined to make himself in a world of marks and saps.

The crowd was coming out of the geek show, gray and listless and silent except for the drunk. Stan watched them with a strange, sweet, faraway smile on his face. It was the smile of a prisoner who has found a file in a pie.

We’ll return to that geek show in a moment. First I want to highlight a specific exchange between Zeena and Stan in the third chapter, for much of Stan’s story ties back to these words:

“I’ve always stuck to the mental business. It don’t hurt anybody–makes plenty of friends for you wherever you go. Folks are always crazy to have their fortunes told, and what the hell–You cheer’em up, give’em something to wish and hope for. That’s all the preacher does every Sunday. Not much different, being a fortuneteller and a preacher, way I look at it. Everybody hopes for the best and fears for the worst and the worst is generally what happens but that don’t stop us from hoping. When you stop hoping you’re in a bad way.”

Stan nodded. “Has Pete stopped hoping?”

Zeena was silent and her childish blue eyes were bright. “Sometimes I think he has. Pete’s scared of something–I think he got good and scared of himself a long time ago. That’s what made him such a wiz as a crystal-reader–for a few years. He wished like all get out that he really could read the future in the ball. And when he was up there in front of them he really believed he was doing it. And then all of a sudden he began to see that there wasn’t no magic anywhere to lean on and he had nobody to lean on in the end but himself–not me, not his friends, not Lady Luck–just himself.”

Perhaps it is Zeena’s final note on self-dependence that prevents Stan from taking Zeena’s words to heart; there are multiple flashbacks to Stan’s childhood in the novel, where his mother’s deceit and father’s abuse taught him that everyone lies and no one is worth real trust. But readers cannot help but absorb Zeena’s other lessons: that everyone is looking for hope and will take it wherever they can get it. That believing one’s own hustle will only lead to a dark place of liquor and hopelessness, and when hopelessness sets in, all is over.

But at this early point in the story, Stan’s not worried about hopelessness, hope, or anything else. Money’s all that matters to him, and he sees the money to be made in the carnival acts. Even The Geek–a person who bites the heads off of chickens and drinks their blood–is a major draw. When he questions Clem, the manager of the Ten-in-One, about where a Geek is found, Clem explains a Geek is “made” by exploiting an alcoholic’s desperation for drink.

“So you tell him like this: ‘I got a little job for you. It’s a temporary job. We got to get a new geek. So until we do you’ll put on the geek outfit and fake it.’…[After a week] you say, ‘Well, I got to get me a real geek. Out you go’…[And] you drag out the lecture and lay it on thick. All the while you’re talking he’s thinking about sobering up and getting the crawling shakes. You give him time to think it over, while you’re talking. Then throw in the chicken. He’ll geek.”

Remember this.

Stan first maneuvers himself in to help Zeena and Pete with their mentalist act, slowly asking for tips and tricks about cold reading people. He picks it up quickly, so quickly he’s able to talk down a sheriff and his raiding officers from shutting down the carnival. Through seducing Zeena and poisoning Pete, Stan gets a hold of the codebook for their mentalist act and then seduces young Molly to come with him as his partner in the nightclub circuit. A few years of this, though, make Stan hungry for more, and he shifts into spiritualism with a fake ordination certificate from a church correspondence school.

Both film adaptations skip the preacher portion of Stan’s series of cons. From a storytelling perspective, I do not blame them. Initially, I thought this was because Religion is too important to too many potential movie ticket-buyers to be included in the films, but I can see now that removing the “preacher” phase of Stan’s evolution tightens up the narrative so we can get to Stan’s next con: applying his “mentalist” powers to “help” the wealthy communicate with their dead loved ones.

Molly hates this shift away from their stage show, feeling it too deceitful and mean to play on people’s grief. But Stan will not listen.

I’ve met half a dozen spook workers in the past year and they’re hustlers, every one of them. I tell you, it’s just show business. The crowd believes…isn’t it better to give them something to hope for?

Stan successfully persuades Molly to play along, promising her a happy marriage and child one day while threatening her with exposure as a fraud the next. For a while, Molly deceives herself that Stan is just struggling with the pressure of the business, that their relationship will go back to its happier days soon. She bets her hopes on a future where Stan will stop trying to one-up his own game.

And that is her mistake, for Stan has already chosen to bet on the power of another woman to help him.

Ooooh, psychologist Dr. Lilith Ritter is slick. Slicker than Stan, I’d say. She attempts to out his “mentalist” con while he’s performing, and when that fails, invites him for a consultation where she quickly sums up his sleepless, nervous character.

Dr. Lilith Ritter was regarding him from across a wide mahogany desk. She went on, “I thought I’d be hearing from you, Carlisle. You were never cut out to run a spook racket solo.”

Stan, so bloody sure of himself, is certain he can use Dr. Ritter’s connections with the upper echelons of the city to get enough clients–and dirt on their pasts–to keep the “spook racket” going until he’s cleaned out the lot. He believes his own hustle so much, he never once considers Ritter to have her own con at play.

Whether you want to go with the del Toro’s adaptation of Ritter using Stan to get back at the wealthy Mr. Grindle who scarred her, or Gresham’s novel version of Ritter using her sexual appeal and domination to con Stan into deceiving Grindle so that she could “heal” the man with therapy and then marry him and his wealth…there are just so many ways to interpret this character that I cannot fit into this post. Honestly, no character in this story, be it film or book, is dull. In all the adaptations, though, it is Ritter who toys with Stan’s body and mind, breaking his alcohol abstinence and drawing out Stan’s confession of murdering Pete.

A stubborn thing, Hope. Stan so badly wants to prove the world’s nothing but marks and saps that he can shake down to his heart’s content. He’s sure no dame would be stupid enough to go against him. He even starts feeling he can handle the liquor AND take on the powerful Grindle for all he’s got thanks to Ritter’s information.

But the con falls apart. Grindle sees through the facade Stan puts on Molly to make her appear as the ghost of Grindle’s past lover. Grindle vows revenge at any cost. Molly flees on her own while Stan runs to Ritter for money and help…only for Dr. Ritter to act as if she has no clue what he’s talking about. He’s suffering delusions, she’s been nothing more than his therapist for months, it’s time he be committed for his own sake, she of course only wants what’s best for him.

Instead, Stan runs. And drinks. And runs some more. He’s soon one more bum among the others in a nameless camp, lost in alcohol with the shadow of Grindle eternally on his heels and in his nightmares.


A deceitful thing, Hope. It can make us see what we want to see. Back in the early days of the carnival, Pete tries to help Stan understand the role of Hope’s Deceit in cold reading people:

(and I do wish I could share this whole scene because the prose is so bloody brilliant, but I’ll do my best to condense it for you here)

“…Then I jump right into the reading. Here’s m’crystal.” He focused his eyes on the empty whisky bottle and Stan watched him with an uneasy twinge. Pete seemed to be coming alive. His eyes became hot and intent.

“…through the ages certain men have gazed into the polished crystal and seen…Slowly, shifting their form, visions come…”

Stan found himself watching the empty bottle in which a single pale drop slanted across the bottom. He could not take his eyes away, so contagious was the other’s absorption.

…Pete’s eyes burned down into the glass. “…A boy is running on bare feet through the fields. A dog is with him…Happiness then…but for a little while. Now dark mists…sorrow. I see people moving…one man stands out…evil…the boy hates him. Death and the wish of death.”

Stan moved like an explosion. He snatched for the bottle; it slipped and fell to the ground. He kicked it into a corner, his breath coming quick and rapid.

[Pete] crumpled into the folding chair…”didn’t mean nothing, boy…Stock reading–fits everybody. Only you got to dress it up…Everybody had some trouble. Somebody they wanted to kill. Usually for a boy it’s the old man. What’s childhood? Happy one minute, heartbroken the next. Every boy had a dog. Or neighbor’s dog…Just old drunk. Just lush. Lord…Zeena be mad.”

Again, Stan doesn’t listen.

Or perhaps he does, wrongly. He could not deny Pete’s power in that moment of clarity with the empty bottle. He felt the draw of Hope that one could really see the past, see the future. He knew what Pete was doing, but in that moment of Pete’s crystal-gazing, Stan did not care. And that is the power Stan wants to hold over others for his own gain.

How can such a soul find redemption?

Let us fast-forward to the end now, and see for ourselves.

The movies don’t bother with something that Gresham writes next, and it’s a pity. It’s one last deceitful hope–this time by Gresham on us.

Stan spots an ad in a newspaper for Zeena’s horoscopes and bums rides to the address. There he finds Zeena making a living off of horoscopes for newspapers and some other subscription services. She cleans Stan up and offers him help to find another carnival until Grindle’s hunt dies down. During his stay, Stan has stopped drinking and is even working on developing a new mentalist alias.

Perhaps this really is a new beginning! we readers think.

And then we see Stan stealing from Zeena’s earnings before she gives him money for the bus.

He hasn’t learned.

Not at all.

By the time Stan arrives at the new carnival, he is completely soused. The manager McGraw wants nothing to do with him…at first.

In the office trailer McGraw was typing out a letter when he heard a tap on the screen door…The bum was hatless, shirt filthy. “Allow me t’introduce myself–Allah Rahged, top-money mitt reader. Best cold reader in the country.”

McGraw took the cigar out of his mouth. “Sorry, brother, I’m full up…I don’t like a mitt camp. Too much trouble with the law.”

The bum was eyeing the bottle, his red eyes fastened on it…”Hey, mister, how ’bout [a] li’l shot ‘fore I go?”

“Yeah, sure. But I just happened to think of something. I got one job you might take a crack at. It ain’t much, and I ain’t begging you to take it; but it’s a job. Keep you in coffee and cakes and a shot now and then. What do you say? Of course, it’s only temporary–just until we get a real geek.”

What. An. ENDING. In terms of prose, in terms of narrative arc, in terms of twist.

But unlike the book and del Toro version, Tyrone Power’s 1947 adaptation chooses to take the audience past this moment of Stanton becoming the Geek–

–and down the redemption route.

Oh look, Molly is at this carnival as well, and oh look, Molly sees Stan is the new Geek, and oh look, Molly can get through to Stan and the power of love will help Stan heal and there IS hope after all! Hope can be found in Love!

We even get a little moral of the story from the bystanders watching Stan and Molly embrace: “How can a guy get so low?” one asks. Another answers: “He reached too high.”

Aw, isn’t that sweet? If the worst of us, like Stanton Carlisle, can be redeemed, then maybe we can be redeemed, too.

This, my fellow creatives, is the REAL Spook Show. This ending, right here, is a narrative deceitful hope, and it will not hold up.

A man who has seduced, killed, and constantly swindled isn’t going to magically sober up in the last two minutes and be back in love with the girl he was willing to dump for the dominatrix psychiatrist. Even del Toro doesn’t go this route for Stanton Carlisle in the new movie, for he knows that in a tale like Nightmare Alley, there is no hope for such a man. Clues throughout his movie (as well as Gresham’s novel) make it clear to us that Stan is not a soul that can be saved.

You cannot apply glowing paint to a picture of a heart, dim the lights, pump sounds of heartbeats in through hidden speakers, and tell us that’s a real heart. We know the hustle too well by now.

Any story that pulls such a con will always feel hollow at its end, the deceit a taint upon whatever true strengths in narrative the story shared. Do not build the spook show, writer.

Do not look for hope where there is none, reader.

For there shall always be those fictional souls born to be damned.


Thank you all so so SO much for listening to the December podcast series Blondie and I did together! She loved it so much that she wants to start her own blog and podcast. Proud Mama moment, indeed! I’ve got some goals to share as well, and after wandering around Nightmare Alley, I neeeeeeeed to make good on my promise from last year and write about comedy.

Also, I’m looking for authors to interview in 2022. If you’ve got a new release planned or just want to connect more with other writers and readers, please let me know by emailing me on my Contact Page.

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

#WritingMusic: #Music of the #Monsters

Welcome back, my fellow creatives! October’s been a time for monster movies in our house.

Oh, we’ve got our kid-friendly flicks like Wallace and Gromit’s Curse of the Were-Rabbit, but Bo’s also shown some more classic films to the kids, like Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein and the original King Kong. On a whim, Bo and I then watched the 1976 version of King Kong, and…well it’s got…it’s got some good things in it. But I will tell you right now that John Barry seemed stuck on James Bond mode when he scored this movie. And what on earth was the romance theme for the humans Dwan and Jack doing with Dwan and King Kong? AND when King Kong’s climbing places? AND when King Kong gets trapped? AND when he’s hurt? That flippin’ romance theme gets thrown around everywhere, and I’ll tell you right now–it does not make me think of a giant monster ape, let alone a giant monster ape to be scared of.

As Bo and I discussed music and monsters, it got me thinking about past scores I’ve shared here and how they helped create the terror in the stories they told–Ennio Morricone’s soundtrack for The Thing, for instance, or Thom Yorke’s soundtrack for Suspiria. As we creep ever closer to All Hallows Eve, it is time to visit more music that inspires the monster-maker in us, the scare-seeker in us. Let us walk down those misty, leaf-littered roads now, and see what we can find…

Photo © Sveta Sh / Stocksy United

Music is one of the most powerful elements in creating an aura of tension and fear. Oh sure, it may start as a simple technique exercise, but even a simple pattern of notes can develop into being one of the most iconic horror themes of the 20th century.

I know, I know. I’m not sharing the original soundtrack here, but the 2018 film’s score. That’s because that wily old fox John Carpenter developed the score, bringing the core of his simple themes into the 21st century with just enough new percussion and synth work to compliment the theme rather than drown it out.

A build on a pattern almost sounds too easy, doesn’t it? And yet this approach has worked for other monsters all too well.

Volume is the real killer here. Of course we can all picture that shark fin when hearing this theme, the volume increasing with the close of distance. Williams quickens the tempo slightly towards the song’s climax, but it’s the volume that truly stretches that tension to the point of snapping. The inevitable approach, the nearness, the size of the beast as his…well…his jaws–those beat upon us as those brass and drums beat ever louder.

Or maybe it’s the lack of steady approach that unnerves us.

Goldsmith’s score for Alien thrills with the trills of dissonant strings in the tense moments, but I find the true terror comes in the foreboding uncertainty of arrival. All is dark, broken, and cold. There is no harmony. There is no light. There is no sound but the breathing of man and what Goldsmith creates.

Dissonant strings are perfect for unease, but what of the minor harmonies? Do not the beautiful melodies haunt us as well? One of blog posts I wrote in my first year here (six years ago–heavens!) was about Philip Glass and his gift of haunting minor harmonies for the 1931 classic Dracula. Here is another selection of his creation for this film, and as you can hear, we once again have a minimal approach with instruments, but not with the music. The balance here is extremely intricate with the weavings of arpeggios to build tension amid the beauty and the tragedy.

Glass’ scores remind us that the music of the monsters needn’t slash at us or chase us to our deaths. Tragic beauty may call down upon us from the choir loft as the piano bids us to feel for this monster of hook and mirror. We have seen time and again that monsters are not just born, but made by man. By us.

And while the monsters we make may not always kill us, they do repulse us.

When the monster we make stands before us, we can no longer hide our darker natures. They are now walking, talking, for all to see and hear. We can no longer hide our darker natures from ourselves. It demands to be loved just as we do. And as Franz Waxman’s score blends the romantic strings, dissonant woodwinds, ominous brass, and steady pound of drums, we know all must march towards the inevitable tragic end. There is no heart-warming moment, for there there is no beating heart to love.

So keep listening, my fellow creatives, for the music of the monsters. Their songs call from faraway worlds, from forgotten castles, from frozen depths…and from the house four blocks away. They will come at soul’s midnight, and they will come hungry.

Are you ready?

You know me–I HAD to get Ray Bradbury in here again.


When All Hallows Eve passes, National Novel Writing Month begins! Let’s talk humor writing and celebrating those 30 days and nights of literary abandon.

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

#IndieAuthor #Interview: Jason Savin Shares the #Magic of His #Reading and #Writing Journeys. Thanks, @KingsofMunster!

Welcome back, my fellow creatives!

Autumn is slowly but surely falling to our feet.

It’s been a joy to read indie authors on my podcast Story Cuppings these past few weeks. The tasting began with Jason Savin, who reached out to me about his book Beyond the Elven Gate: A trilogy of works. Not only was it a joy to read his book, but it was a treat to interview Jason as well! My friends, it is an honor to introduce you to Jason Savin!

Thank you so much for taking time to chat here, Jason! Let’s start with your journey through literature. What is your favorite childhood book?

I only began reading Wind in the Willows and Peter Pan about 20 years ago, when I was in my early 30s, and really loved them. But from my own childhood I loved The Folk of the Faraway Tree by Enid Blyton. Those exciting tales of Moonface and his friends really transformed my dull childhood into a world where excitement could be found.

Ah, I didn’t read those classics as a child, either. Oddly enough I didn’t read as much fantasy in my child as I do now; back then it was all Nancy Drew, lol. I don’t recall any deep emotional connection to the characters–I just enjoyed a fun mystery! Did you ever feel yourself overwhelmed with emotion while reading?

It may have been To Kill a Mockingbird. The court scene was so unjust, knowing that an innocent man was going to jail for such a vicious crime that he clearly hadn’t committed. It is still a very powerful book today.

Indeed, Jason, it really is! I’m sure many other readers would agree with you, too. Is there a story you love that you feel is under-appreciated today?

Many years ago, I bought a book called Period Piece written by Gwen Raverat, who was a grand-daughter of Charles Darwin. It’s not really a novel, as it’s autobiographical, but it takes the reader to a different world of long ago. It’s filled with little artistic sketches drawn by Gwen herself and it is so beautifully written. I own almost a thousand books and this is one of my favourites.

Have you ever gotten reader’s block?

I regularly get this, when I’m reading a passage and my mind begins to wander. I then have to re-read sometimes a few times before I can get through the ‘block’ to find out what is actually happening in the story.

I’ve had that same experience! It usually happens when I have to read something about teaching philosophies….or when I’m reading final exams, but that should be a given. 🙂 What was an early experience where you learned that language had power?

I really don’t remember the first time, but I am acutely aware of many incidents when people have tried to vocally put me down. It’s probably because I’m quite quiet so I can sometimes appear to be an easy victim. And I have verbally ripped those people apart. Not noisily, just in a more intellectual way than they are prepared for, and anything that they say back to me, I can turn those words on their head and use it like a weapon against them. I sometimes find it a little annoying how much enjoyment I get when this happens. But I really can’t stand bullies.

You and me both, my friend. You and me both. I think that’s why I love words so much: Words Have Power. They have the power to amuse, to intrigue, to seduce, to inform, to enrage, to inspire, to…well, to do anything. I know my own spirit is always lifted whenever I have the chance to write. Does writing energize or exhaust you?

Mostly energize. Hours can pass very quickly when I’m writing. And when I’m finished, it is usually only because of some pressing chore that needs doing, and I feel a little peeved that I can’t continue with my creativity.

I feel that way every time I have to focus on school work than writing! Such time is so very precious; in fact, I’d have to say that one of the toughest pieces of my writing life is finding time to write. What would you say is the most difficult part of your own artistic process?

That’s an easy question. The most difficult part is trying to find the time to write, too. It is hard to empty your mind to fully concentrate on writing knowing that you’ve got housework to do, or a needy dog that needs some love and attention.

Let’s ignore that housework just a bit longer and discuss your book. Beyond the Elven Gate: A Trilogy of Works includes a history of the Elven race that you researched from “historical records.” I love the variety of sources you used to create this history–from burial records to newspapers and everything in between. What first spurred you to start this project, and how do you shift yourself from the researching process to the writing process? I know my research can overwhelm my own creativity, to be sure!

Thank you for that. That particular piece called A Treatise on the Evolution of the Fairy began when I was writing another book, called Kings of Munster. (I’m still writing this other book and have been working on it for over 10 years now). But this history of the Elven race was basically a lot of information that I had found whilst researching my other book. I was fascinated by what I was reading and thought that many other people might also be interested, so I tried to write the information in date order to see what this evolution of the fairy race would look like. I was quite astounded by my findings. 

It was quite easy to shift from researching to writing, as I was keep trying to write whilst I was researching. Until finally I was doing mostly writing, and only researching the odd fact or detail. But I had to consciously stop researching really, as it is a subject that I could easily have spent years working on and would never get my Kings of Munster finished.

One tale in Beyond the Elven Gate is about a mother’s search for her adopted son at the time when the Fairy-Mounds are open.  What’s the most difficult thing about writing characters from the opposite sex?

I began writing this tale, as normal, until I realised that I was writing from a Mother’s perspective. I tried to change it, but quickly realised that this was the voice that the story needed. Obviously writing characters from the opposite sex in some ways will always be impossible, because most people only live their life as one sex, but as I trained as an actor and have inhabited many different characters over the years, who are all very different to myself, some of them even being women, I find that I can somehow morph into different people when I’m writing. Whether or not I’m any good at it I really don’t know; I’ll leave that to the reader to decide.

Let’s wrap up looking at another tale in Beyond the Elven Gate. “Good People” takes readers on a journey with an elderly gentleman as he deals with challenges put to him by the Good People. Such a variety of characters and character types in a single volume is so delightful for the reader! Do you feel yourself drawn to write a certain aged character? What process do you have to help you enter that older–or younger–mindset in order to make the language and mannerisms remain true?

When I was writing this character of Wilfred, I partly based him upon my own Grandad, who I was very close to. Due to this closeness, I was naturally drawn to writing this elderly character this way, probably in a bid to bring him back alive, in the only way that I can. To enter into the mindset of these different characters I tend to use an acting technique called ‘the Magic If’. Which is basically if I was that character how would I feel, how would I think, how would I react. This helps me to try to become that person whom I’m writing about.

Thank you so much, Jean, for asking me such thought provoking questions. It has been a joy to answer them.

And many thanks to you, Jason, for taking time to chat with us! I’ll be watching for Kings of Munster to appear at my virtual bookshop. If you, my friends, haven’t had a chance to hear a sample of Beyond the Elven Gate, you can listen to my podcast episode on Story Cuppings.


October is coming! We simply must get a bit spooky. I’m keen to share the roads diverging on that “Blue House Doll” snippet I shared with you in my last post. Perhaps we’ll uncover some music to inspire a fright, or perhaps visit a beloved tale from my childhood. Or shall we wander Wisconsin to find a haunted home both beautiful and lonely? Let us see. x

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