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

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Welcome back, my fellow creatives!

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

–continued with Sherlock Holmes–

–and ended with some Poirot.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hercule Poirot: This is a given.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Realistic Population

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

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

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

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

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

More Characters = More Subplots. Yay!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final Thoughts…

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

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

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

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

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

~STAY TUNED!~

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

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

#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:

Hope.

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.

~STAY TUNED!~

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.

~STAY TUNED!~

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.

~STAY TUNED!~

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!

A Powerful Study in #Character on this #FirstChapter #Fiction #Podcast: The Unraveling of Lady Fury by @ShehanneMoore

Welcome back, my fellow creatives! We’ll continue tasting the wares of fellow indie authors I have gotten to know in this beautiful community through the years.

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I’m thrilled to share some flavors delicious with ambition and yearning today. Let’s take a sip from The Unraveling of Lady Fury by Shehanne Moore.

What does a reader experience in those opening pages, and what lessons can a writer take away in studying but a few paragraphs? Let’s find out!

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

If you’re ever curious for exploring historical worldbuilding, writing strong heroes and heroines, and meeting other fantastic authors, do check out Lady Shey’s wonderful blog.

Be on the look out for more sweet indie goodness in the autumn podcasts to come! 

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

#AuthorInterview: #Wisconsin #Mystery #Writer Patricia Skalka Shares Setting Inspiration and Tips on Writing a Unique Detective

A stormy August has descended upon us here in Wisconsin, my friends. Not only has rain come at last to our parched farmlands, but so has the lightning, thunder, and even tornados. We’ve had to huddle in our basement a few times in the last week around the transistor radio to hear of funnel clouds taking shape, of lightning striking power poles blocks away, of tornados destroying homes miles away. But we are all safe and well, and no deaths as of yet been reported. A prayer of thanks for that!

While storms will always trigger memories of flooding in our home, I know storms can also be an amazing inspiration for storytelling. There is something about that dark and stormy night that puts us all in the mood for a good ol’ whodunit…

…and I cannot think of a better series to tuck into during the next storm than the Dave Cubiak Door County Mystery series by Patricia Skalka. Not only was her first book a delight to sip on my podcast Story Cuppings, but I was happily surprised–and yet not surprised at all–to find out USA Today selected her first book, Death Stalks Door County, as THE story readers “traveling” the States through fiction should read to experience the Wisconsin setting. My fellow creatives, I am pleased as beer cheese to introduce you to the one and only, Patricia Skalka.

Niceties first! Please tell us about yourself.

I was born and raised in a blue-collar Chicago neighborhood, so I’m a city girl from way back, but I have a strong connection to rural Wisconsin thanks to my mother. Her parents, my grandparents, were Polish immigrants whose pursuit of the American dream led them to a small dairy farm in the north central part of the state, near the paper-mill town of Mosinee. I spent many summers on that hard-scrabble farm: milking cows, driving the tractor, baling hay, and staring at a night sky filled with stars. On one memorable night I even saw the aurora borealis flicker and dance above the horizon. To me, Wisconsin was always a magical place. I didn’t discover Door County until I was a young adult, but the majesty and sheer beauty of the area reinforced the notion.

Oh, yes, there is something magical in this land of forests and fireflies, I agree! Let’s get back to that in a moment. First, let’s explore the magic of the stories you enjoyed as a child.

When I was growing up books were a luxury we couldn’t afford. But I was a reader, and the books I enjoyed came from the library. Every Tuesday the bookmobile parked outside the neighborhood A&P grocery store and opened for business. Every week I walked in the front door –a seven-year-old proud to have her very own library card — and then marched out the back door with five books, the most you were allowed to check out. For the longest time, I was fixated by the biographies of famous women – women like Clara Barton, Betsy Ross, Molly Pitcher, and Florence Nightingale. Then one day, my Aunt Jean loaned me her childhood copy of The Secret Garden.  

My love of fiction began with that classic children’s story. The Secret Garden took me to a different time and place in a way that the biographies did not. Maybe it was the language or the fact that the story was about characters closer to my age, but I fell in love with the book. Just as Mary and Colin discovered the door to the hidden garden, I discovered a door to a limitless universe of literature, one that demonstrated the power of imagination.

Ah, so you were a frequent visitor of the library as a kid as well. I distinctly remember getting a small illustrated version of Sherlock Holmes mysteries, and that cinched it for me as far as the genre went. After going through all the Nancy Drew stories the library had on hand, I devoured Colin Dexter’s Morse stories, P.D. James’ Dalgleish stories, and of course, Agatha Christie’s Poirot. Did you experience a similar journey through the mystery genre?

Growing up I loved the Nancy Drew, Sherlock Holmes, and Miss Marple stories. Here were people following clues and solving puzzles, figuring things out.  Then I read Dorothy L. Sayers, and my sense of what a mystery could be shifted to something more.  Her books about Peter Whimsey and Harriet Vane did so much more than simply solve the crime. They revealed the pain and struggle of the human heart. They were windows to the soul.

I’ve had the same experience reading other mysteries, books such as The Honourable Schoolboy by John le Carre, Gorky Park, by Martin Cruz Smith, and The Secret History, by Donna Tartt. In each instance, the mystery was essential to the story, but in each instance the story encompassed more. These are tales of human strength and weakness, stories of internal conflict and struggle.

Thank you for these recommendations! I’ve not read Tartt or Smith, but I’ve enjoyed a number of Le Carré novels in the last few years. Now, what of your own fascinating mystery series? Just as Sherlock tells Watson in “The Adventure of the Copper Beeches”–

“It is my belief, Watson, founded upon my experience, that the lowest and vilest alleys in London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful countryside.”

–you create suspenseful tales of murder not in the urban land of Chicago, but the quiet, rural peninsula of Door County. What inspired that choice?

I always wanted to write a mystery, but I had no idea of where, who, or what it would entail. One day, I was sitting on a Door County beach looking out at Lake Michigan. It was a perfect day – blue sky, blue water, warm sun. The kind you could sell for a million dollars if only you could bottle it up. That night I sat in the same spot. Heavy cloud cover obscured the moon and stars; it was inky dark – and eerie. I kept looking over my shoulder and thinking: anything can happen here. The contrast between day and night prompted thoughts of light and dark, good and evil. And the idea was born: I’d write a mystery about a picture perfect location (Door County) where sinister forces were at work beneath the surface.

What were the sinister forces; who was responsible for them; what happened as a result; who suffered and why; who stood to benefit?  I wanted to write a story in which the contemporary crimes were linked to past events. People in Door County tend to know each other’s histories. My protagonist had to be a stranger –enter Dave Cubiak. A former cop from Chicago who could track a killer, a man with his own burdens, a man who didn’t know anyone and would have to ferret out the clues and follow their trail until he stood before the culprit and asked Why?

Death Stalks Door County was meant to be a stand alone. One and done. When I began my career as a mystery writer, I couldn’t imagine writing a series. But as I was going through the long initial process of writing and revising and hoping to find a publisher, different story ideas kept popping up and slowly the notion of writing a series loomed not as an impossibility but as a logical next step. By the time I had signed a contract for the first book, I was half way through the initial draft of the second book.

Along with Cubiak, I, too have been on a journey. Writing his story, his books, has taught me two lessons that I believe every writer must learn and embrace: one, believe in your story and two, believe in your ability to tell it even as you continue to hone your craft.

Dave Cubiak is indeed on a journey! Meeting him in the opening pages of your first book gave me such a powerful picture of a man trying to hide from his grief as much as move on from it.

(If the above podcast link does not appear, you can click here for my post with the podcast episode.)

Do you find it difficult to write a protagonist of a different gender? What tips do you have for other writers who struggle to write outside of their gender?

I don’t find it more difficult to write a male protagonist than a female protagonist. Either way, I need to know them fully – who they are, where they come from, their struggles, dreams, disappointments, weaknesses, strengths, values, foibles, fears, how they walk and talk and think.  Dave Cubiak evolved with the idea for Death Stalks Door County. He was an integral part of the story before I wrote a single word. In many ways, the book – and then eventually the series – is his story.

My books are more than mysteries; taken as a whole they trace Cubiak’s journey from the pivotal moment that changed his life to all that came after. One male reader said he felt they were stories of hope for anyone struggling with loss. Another man said he liked Cubiak because “he’s real.”

The challenge, then, is not to write either a male or female protagonist, but to write one that is real, one that belongs in the story.

The keys to writing outside your gender are empathy and observation. Try to understand that character; walk in their shoes; feel for them.  Watch how they act; listen to how they talk. Invite them into your imagination and live with them for a while. Put them in different situations (finding an injured kitten; stumbling on a wallet stuffed with cash; getting a letter from an old lover seeking forgiveness for the unforgiveable) and see how they react. If you can do all that, you can write the character.

You mentioned earlier that Death Stalks Door County was meant to be a standalone, but your imagination created more conundrums for Cubiak and inspired you to write a series instead. A happy change in plans, I’d say! Yet I should think such a change in plans requires a change to one’s writing process. How would you say your writing process changed after publishing Death Stalks Door County?

I’d been a staff writer for the Readers’ Digest and a professional nonfiction writer for nearly twenty years when I decided to write my first mystery.  Death Stalks Door County was years in the making. I’d read plenty of mysteries and literary novels, but I’d always written nonfiction articles. Even a seven-thousand-word piece pales by comparison to a book of seventy-thousand plus words. With the first book I had a lot to learn. I wrote and edited; I revised and submitted. I got rejected. Repeat. And then again. At one point, I printed the manuscript and let it sit on a shelf for two years. One day I picked it up, fully intending to toss it in the trash. But as I flipped through, I realized that (1) it was decently written; (2) I really liked my characters; and, (3) I was the only person in the world who knew the story and if I didn’t tell it, then it would never be told. Sitting on the floor of my office, I decided that I would give it one more try. One more read through; one more edit; one more round of queries. And that’s when the magic happened. The email read: “Please send full manuscript.” Music to any writer’s ears.

I wrote Death Stalks Door County as a pantser. I had an idea and started writing a book. As I struggled with the process, I slowly evolved into a plotter. I began to think in terms of chapters, then scenes. Bit by bit, I broke the story down into pieces. The smaller the pieces and the more of them that I had, the better handle I had on the story and the more confident I became.

Last month I finished book seven and what changed from writing the first book to the way I wrote the rest of the series was my approach. Starting with Death at Gills Rock, the second volume, I realized that I needed to know the details of the story before I could write it, so I began to plot every step of the action. In essence, I created a road map that carried me from beginning to end.

There are writers who shudder at the thought of plotting the story first, and it’s not a technique that will work for everyone. But many will benefit from it. There are very clear advantages: Plotting ultimately eliminates writer’s block – with a well plotted story, you never sit in front of a blank screen or empty page and wonder now what because you know what comes next. Instead of writer’s block, however, you will have thinker’s block. Working out the kinks and inconsistencies and struggling to make sense of the story line takes work. It’s not easy but ultimately it means that you don’t toss out ten or twenty thousand words because you changed your mind midway through chapter three.  

I was once asked if detailed plotting doesn’t take the fun out of writing. Not for me, it doesn’t. In fact, it makes me more comfortable and confident and eager to write.

A seventh book in the works? Huzzah and congrats! I know just what you mean about pantsing. I enjoyed this style of writing quite a bit during the years I participated in National Novel Writing Month, but you’re absolutely right that when it comes to crafting a strong story–especially a mystery!–one needs to know where the clues are hidden, which characters are where and when, how the reveals happen, and so on. Having the plot planned takes a lot of the panic out of writing, to be sure.

You have been such a joy to converse with here, Patricia–thank you so much for sharing your time and talent with us! May we please close with any other tips you have for aspiring writers? There are so, so many traps writers can fall into, and any trap sprung often wounds, even scars, a writer’s imagination and motivation.

Based on what I have learned from presenting and attending various workshops and listening to aspiring writers discuss their work, I’d say there are three common traps.

  1. Not being clear on the kind of book you’re writing – this is most likely to be a problem for  first-time writers. To paraphrase Socrates, “To know thy book is the beginning of intelligent writing.”  Different types of books have different rules. Something as simple as word count varies from one kind of book to another. Taking the time to figure out what you want your book to be – memoir or historical fiction, cozy mystery or thriller – helps the writer focus and start and stay on the right track.
  2. Misinterpreting the advice to “show don’t tell.” We’ll all heard this dozens of times. Unfortunately, many new writers interpret the advice to mean that you show everything, but that is not what is meant. As a writer, you show the important parts and tell everything that happens in between. As I see it, we have a responsibility to hand the reader a finished story on a silver platter, not to present the verbal equivalent of an unedited video of everything that happens in a character’s life and expect the reader to ferret out the story.
  3. Trying to please everyone. After Death Stalks Door County, my first mystery, was published I was invited to a book club whose members included both men and women. Listening to the book club members discuss my work was an enlightening experience. One woman said she really like X about the book; her husband said X was what he liked least. Then a man said he wished I had included more Y, and the woman across the table said, oh, no there was quite enough of Y for her. As the back and forth continued, I asked myself: which of these people should I be trying to please? It didn’t take long to realize the futility of trying to write to accommodate the preferences of a specific individual or type of reader. My takeaway from the experience: Write the book you want to read. Write to please yourself.

And so we shall, Patricia. So we shall. x

My fellow creatives, you are welcome to visit Patricia Skalka’s author site as well as book review site for more information on what she writes and reads.


~STAY TUNED!~

Blondie and I are keen to share our own writing updates! It’s also high time, methinks, for a bit of creative nonfiction crafting when it comes to those everyday absurdities. x

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

#Writing #DiverseCharacters: The Hero with No Name but a Thousand Faces

Good morning, my fellow creatives! We’ve come, at last, to the midwest summer’s sunset.

Such are the days when decisions must be made. Quests must be completed. Evil must be thwarted before twilight takes us and all is lost.

Such are the days when a hero shows his mettle. Such are the days never to be forgotten, for they live on in the tales we pass from one generation to the next.

A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of super-natural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.

Joseph Campbell’s Hero of a Thousand Faces

Seriously, why makes such heroes appeal to so many across so many cultures and time periods? Sure, Bilbo Baggins appeals because he’s nice and stuff, but what about this guy?

Clint Eastwood’s character in High Plains Drifter is not what one would call “likeable.” In fact, if there were ever an example of the anti-hero, it’d be this Man With No Name. He comes out of nowhere to an isolated seaside mining town and literally turns it red as Hell. As Eastwood himself explains:

“It’s just an allegory…a speculation on what happens when they go ahead and kill the sheriff and somebody comes back and calls the town’s conscience to bear. There’s always retribution for your deeds.”

James Neibaur, The Clint Eastwood westerns.

Well, that doesn’t sound like something Bilbo would do. That fellow was ready to halt his own adventure because he forgot a handkerchief, for goodness’ sake. But there is good reason to bring Bilbo and our Man With No Name together. See, when one studies storytelling, one sees certain archetypes transcend cultural and racial barriers. One such archetype is the outsider who brings change to the story’s world and its characters. This outsider does not follow that story-world’s code for justice, but their own, and in following their own code brings about the salvation—or damnation—of the story-world they encounter.

Now Bilbo fits this to a degree. I wanted to use this character as an introduction of sorts to this Hero talk because he does follow his own code no matter what others say or do, and he is, above all else, an Outsider to the ways of Dwarves, Burglary, Dragons, and War. While Bilbo’s skills change on this quest, he also brings about a change within Thorin, albeit late.

In High Plains Drifter, The Man With No Name does not change, not one bit. His very presence brings out the worst in the town: greed, lust, gluttony, jealousy. But above all else, the town is afraid, very afraid. Those they hired to kill the sheriff–and then immediately set up for arrest and imprisonment–have escaped their prison and are on their way for revenge. The townspeople hate Eastwood’s Outsider, the one who can kill with such ease, but they fear their past more. They realize too late The Man With No Name’s skills in manipulation are just as great as his skills with weapons, and by movie’s end the town burns bloody red in punishment for past sins.

Such is the way of the Punisher….or, the way of the Male Messiah.

As the Punisher, he’ll curse the man who has “fallen” to teach him a lesson. He wants to break the man’s ego. He’ll kill the man’s spirit to transform him into his image. He may try to justify himself to others, but they’ll never fully understand his power or the burden he carries.…the Male Messiah may not know of his connection to the Divine, but he may just be driven to accomplish something important. In this respect, he isn’t working on a spiritual goal. It seems his whole life is for one sole purpose and that purpose affects the lives of thousands of people… His character may not change, but others will change because of him.

Victoria Lynn Schmidt, 45 Master Characters

I’ve shared this book–and this quote!–when I was releasing my second novel, Fallen Princeborn: Chosen. Understanding the roots of such an archetype helps we writers better understand how a character who is not of our story’s setting, one who is driven by a cause–not a selfish cause per say, but a cause that in the character’s eyes will lead to salvation for those who matter. “Those who matter” will vary on the character: the Male Messiah feels all matter, while the Punisher will decide who matters.

In modern cinema, John Wick is a good example of a Punisher audiences root for. He left the assassin’s life to marry his love. He no longer has any part in the criminal underworld, and has found contentment in nature with his wife. His love eventually dies of illness, but left him a puppy to care for. A Russian mobster’s spoiled son steals Wick’s car and kills the puppy.

Unleash the vengeance.

Italy’s Django series is another fine example of this Outsider-Turned-Hero. Here’s a drifter with guns moving along the wild lands of the United States-Mexican border. His rules are his own–he means to kill the man who killed his lover. That a town is currently under the thumb of this man and would thrive if saved from this man is just a coincidence, really.

Django’s got his own rules, and even if his own hands are crushed, he WILL find a way to lay his enemies to waste. Cause above all.

Revenge for love stolen before its time is something we as readers and audiences can understand, even root for. John Wick doesn’t go off killing the doctors who couldn’t cure his wife, but he does destroy those who kill the innocent puppy his wife had gifted him in her will. In Thailand’s Tom yum goong (known in the United States as The Protector), Kham doesn’t go after an Australian gang just because the gang and its drugs are evil. His family has been protectors of the royal war elephant line for centuries, and Kham is content to continue this special life. When a Vietnamese gang leader kidnaps two of those elephants and takes them to Sydney, Kham hunts them down and lays waste to them, one gang member at a time, until the elephants are back in his care. Cause above all.

Australia’s Mad Max series–Mad Max 2/The Road Warrior, in particular–has Max seeking fuel, as all are seeking fuel in that desolate, dystopian place. When he hears there’s a refinery nearby with tons of the stuff, Max is ready to go grab some for himself no matter who else lives there. That the refinery is under siege by the Marauders makes no difference at first–the Marauders aren’t after Max, so Max doesn’t care. Max is just the Outsider in the situation, looking for his moment to benefit. That moment just so happens to line up with helping those in the refinery escape the Marauders’ siege.

Because this is another thing about that Outsider-Turned-Hero: the Outsider often has no stakes in whatever conflict is already in play in the story’s setting. He simply exists, and in this moment, his existence seems to be merely passing through. South Africa’s District 9, Japan’s Yojimbo, and Italy’s A Fistful of Dollars (which is just Yojimbo again, really, so one should look to For a Few Dollars More here). In District 9, Wikus is just a government worker doing his job: informing the alien race stuck on earth that their provided homes and lands are going to shrink even more. He is an Outsider to the alien culture but is dragged into the alien/human government conflict when he accidentally exposes himself to some of the fuel an alien father and son have been collecting. His body starts to change. He does not want to change. He only helps the aliens if it will mean he gets to be human again and return to his child. In the end, Wikus still changes into an alien, but he chooses to help the alien and his son escape because in Wikus’ eyes, the family code is more important than whatever humans deem right or wrong.

Yojimbo tells the story of a wandering  rōnin–masterless samurai–who comes across a town suffering under the power struggle of two warring bosses. The rōnin plays both bosses against one another to ruin them and save the town. This definitely makes the protagonist look like the Male Messiah, but is he doing it because it is “right,” or because it’s just what he wants to do because he lives by his own code? I mean, Fistful of Dollars sees The Man With No Name play the bosses against one another as he gets paid by each. The Man makes some serious money…and happens to bring some peace to the town. The Man wasn’t there to be a Messiah. He was there with his own livelihood, his own cause, above all else, and that cause led to being both a Punisher and Messiah in this particular setting’s conflict.

And perhaps that is another reason so many of us across different times and cultures connect with that Outsider: he is not restrained by whatever individual societies dictate. He believes in his own code above all else; sometimes that code benefits others, sometimes not, but that code rarely tolerates others vying for power. The Outsider has nothing to lose in joining the fray, and sometimes nothing to gain, either, yet the Outsider joins in. Whether he is a warrior with the skills to take the evil down–

–or a quiet countryman who prefers the peace of his pipe in the garden, The Outsider steps in front of the oppressed, the innocent, us, and decides, Enough of this.

And that, my friends, is a hero we love to share from one generation to the next.

~STAY TUNED!~

I’m really excited to share my interview with Midwestern author Patricia Skalka! I recently reviewed the opening chapter of her book Death Stalks Door County on my podcast for Private Eye July. Check out this book and other awesome stories on Story Cuppings, a podcast where I take a sip from various tales to see if they fit the tastes of we picky readers and working writers. x

We also need to take a moment to ponder the place of everyday absurdity in our writing, as well as twins. Yes, twins. I was going to include this Native American legend I found about an Outsider here, but its connection with twins–and my own connection with twins–makes the subject too intriguing not to make its own post.

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

#WriterProblems: How Do You Name Your Characters? #WritingTips

When you begin a story, what do you see?

A landscape of danger and mystery, perhaps. A relic with power to change the world dropped in the rain while fleeing the enemy. A duel of ambitions, weapons poised to take life and light of all.

You see a brittle world, crushed and smoldering. You know how to save it.

Art by Sergey Musin

Maybe.

We don’t always begin with the conflict or the setting. Sometimes, we begin with an identity, one which turns the wheels of the plot in ways we are not yet sure, but we know the workings are hidden there, beneath the face of this person.

This name.

“It gives me great pleasure, a good name. I always in writing start with a name. Give me a name and it produces a story, not the other way about normally.”

J.R.R. Tolkien

Now I’m sure this method worked wonderfully for Mr. Tolkien, as I believe he’s gotten himself published a few times. However, we other creatives just do not always have a name to go with and find ourselves going “the other way about” quite a bit. Let’s explore a few of those situations together.

When a key scene and its conflict are etched in my mind, the character names are but one detail in a sea of details–not to be fussed about until the rest of the moment is captured. That was my approach in “The Hungry Mother” (free to read in Mobius: The Journal of Social Change!) where I could see the con artist and the mark engage in a rundown park, but not hear their names. So, my first draft had nothing but alphabet letters for character names to keep them straight. Only after that first draft was completed did I consider the backgrounds of the characters and setting to discover Puritan-style names for the homely, rural Remembrace and her daughter, Tace. But what of my network marketing hustler? Social media loves to dub such people “Karens,” so there was that name…eh, too on the nose. So I looked back into my own memories of bullies and deceives to uncover the name of a girl who was a real jerk during our school days: Nicole.

The woman turns away from the old man and locks eyes with Nicole. For a moment, Nicole is a freshman on the bus all over again, snickering at the pathetic group of Old Sancs boarding to attend school at New Sanctuary thirteen miles away, and none was more pathetic than the hunched creature in patched rags named Remembrance Priest. That was the creature Nicole pictured when she messaged that name and a hundred others about Suzy Ray! and its wonders. That was the creature Nicole pictured when agreeing to meet in this town forgotten among the fields of corn and cow shit.  

“Oh, my, gosh,” Nicole says. Normally she must count to three between each word so she sounds as wondrously pleased as possible, but Remembrance’s total lack of hunchback makes the greeting almost genuine. “Look at you, Mem! Has it really been ten years?” And a part of Nicole wriggles at how ten years has affected Mem. Her skin is smoother, firmer. Her braid of thick hair looks strong enough for a rope swing. Was Mem always this tall? Did another Ray of Sunshine beat me here?

Mem waves like the homecoming queen she never was. “Hiii!” She says and embraces Nicole so tightly Nicole almost spills her drink. Mem’s lips press through Nicole’s dark curly hair and onto her Suzy Ray! sunshine studs. “Sooo good to see you, Nicole. You look sooo pretty.”

Ten years clearly hadn’t taken the sliding whine out of her voice.

When the conflict shines so clearly before us, we must capture every line, every movement, as quickly as we can before that light dims. It is all too easy to allow our exploration of names get in the way of storytelling, so using the simplest identifier possible will keep characters straight until their true identities come to you.

I’ll be the first to admit I got lost in names for my Fallen Princeborn novels. Nearly all the names went through multiple changes as I researched history and better understood my velidevour world. Only Charlotte’s name remain unchanged, for it was a choice close to my maternal heart. Bo and I had been considering the name for our daughter-to-be, but in the end we gave Blondie a different name and Charlotte remained bodiless, name of strength, fluidity, tenacity, beauty and…I just had to put that identity, that soul, to use. The different versions of “Charlotte” also allowed the girl to make her name a boundary in and of itself, which helped those around her–and readers–see when she had finally accepted the friendship and trust of another.

“Come  now,  Charlie, don’t  leave.”  Liam’s fingertips graze her hand.

“Don’t call me Charlie.” That’s for family. You are not my family.

~*~

“Cate’s the luckiest princeborn ever, having a brother like you,” Charlotte lets the thought out, surprising herself a little, but sorry for the slip? Nah.

Dorjan blushes. “Well then, here.” He pulls an extremely fast hat trick of hair tug, ear flick, nose tweak. “Consider yourself an Honorary Durant.”

And now Charlotte can’t help but hug them both, these two who were willing to fight alongside her before they had known her a single day. “Call me Charlie.”


The House of Artair holds many Gaelic names. I wanted this family to be rooted to the Isles, intelligent and fierce. “Artair” is a version of Artur, which is Gaelic for “Noble Bear.” Considering the vicious head of the House, Bearnard (“strong as a bear”), transforms into a bear, this was a perfect fit. Liam’s name was a tricky one; it needed to carry the weight of his parents’ aspirations as well as the truth of his inner spirit. Plus, as a writer, I wanted the name to carry a timeless feel to it. Discovering Liam means “resolute protector” was nothing short of a miracle. Liam’s parents are determined to see him lead all velidevour into a new age of dominance; Liam desires to protect Charlotte and those who have come to support him and fight alongside him. And it’s a timeless name. 🙂

Granted, we sometimes allow ourselves a name purely because it sounds cool. Disraeli is the name of a Celestine, offspring of stars and magic. Why did I pick the name Disraeli? Because I saw it in a magazine and thought, That’s a really cool name. It was originally the name I intended for Arlen, but when I realized the need for the princeborn names to carry meaning and history, I knew I had to change that name. Still, I had to find someone to hold that name, and a creature of the stars just happened to fly by…

The world can help us discover character names, too. As I worked out the history of River Vine and the velidevour trapped there, I could see the natural setting would mean everything to them. They were souls who used animal and human bodies to hunt their prey as dictated by wicked The Lady of the Pits. Nature above ground would be their peace, their refuge. This led to me using plant names for many of them, such as Nettle, Poppy, and Campion. Does your own story-world have ties to nature, the elements, or some other unique feature in the setting?

Or perhaps the very world in which you write must change. This happened to me a ways back with Middler’s Pride. The first version of the story was a co-collaboration of sorts with fantasy author Michael Dellert, but as our goals with the character changed, he continued on his world’s story arc and I continued on with the character. This meant renaming recreating the Shield Maidens’ world and practically everyone in it, starting with the protagonist Gwen.

Back to one of my favorite resources: The Writer’s Digest Character Naming Sourcebook!

Now here I had to keep in mind that I was not just renaming a protagonist, but a character within a group of protagonists. This meant I did not want the characters’ names to sound alike, have the same cadence, start with the same letter, etc. Now that may sound silly–why should those impact the name if the name MEANS something amazing?–but this is an important strategy for the readers’ sake. How on earth will readers keep a group of protagonists straight if their names blend together or are easily mistaken?

So I first had to look at my own Shield Maidens whose names did not need to change: Wynne, Tegan, and Ellylw. I had chosen all these Welsh names loving how the names bounced so dramatically between simple and complex. Each starts with a unique sound and phonetically differs enough that one shouldn’t confuse them when reading aloud. But they were also all rather short, so Gwen’s new name could not be that simple. Oh, it could have the potential for a nickname–Ellylw becomes “Elle” pretty quickly–but it still needed to be longer than a couple syllables. So, I focused my search on longer Welsh names, and came across Meredydd, “Protector of the sea.” Considering Middler’s Pride is the tale of Meredydd and the other Shield Maidens rescuing the River Goddess from a cursed beast, this name felt right.

Mer watched the sunlight caress the blade. She heard footsteps, and knew the others had pulled in around her to form a half-circle. Hauling lumber would surely take them until dawn, but by dawn she’ll have this worthless batch of—

“Wynne, stand here. Tegan, right? How’s your balance?”

I’m really hoping I can redesign these covers later this year.

“Hey, what?” That circus freak, walking about like she was next in command. The bloody nerve. “You heard the captain. The best way to get that dagger down will be a ramp, and that’s going to take lumber. All we need is an axe and—”

 “No we don’t.”

And I’M the upstart? “Captain Vala said—“

“She said to get the dagger.” The circus freak pressed down on each of Wynne’s shoulders. The pretty face winced, but didn’t complain. “We don’t need lumber. Just a couple good backs. Wynne, I think you can do it.”

She shriveled at the compliment. “I-I’m afraid I’m not as strong as you. I don’t want anyone getting hurt.”

“All the more reason to train up,” Meredydd tugged her arm towards the gate. Ye gods, it was soft as dough. This girl wasn’t lying. “You can’t be a Shield Maiden without power in your limbs.”

“And she’ll get there.” The circus freak grabbed Wynne’s other arm. “But not because you make her do something stupid.”

If Mer could just get Wynne behind her and away from this twit—“Would the king bestow a weapon upon an idiot?”

The key will be some series consistency!

The circus freak’s scar across her gross face went all squiggly. “Sure, if he’s desperate.”

Wynne yowled. Tegan’s fists tightened around her hips and she screamed:

STOP YOU’RE RIPPING WYNNE’S ARMS OFF!”

Three loud THUDS and the girls fell in a heap against the gate. Tegan coughed, shook, and ended up plopping down herself. “Look, this”—she waved at the three of them—“is stupid. Mer, you want to follow orders the idiot way? Fine. I’ll go with you. Wynne, you want to work with…”

“Ellylw.”

“Huh?”

“Sounds like a pig call.” Mer ignored Tegan’s glare. It seemed to keep her magick at bay, for one thing. And for another, the circus freak’s name did sound like a stupid pig call.

Wynne fixed her hair. Gods help her when a twig undoes her braids. “I think it’s pretty.”

You would.

The circus freak rolled her eyes as she finished catching her breath. “Just call me Elle, it’s easier.”

We are blessed to live in a world of countless tongues and histories. A single name can be the seed to a hundred variations, each unique with potential for an identity across the oceans. Whether you begin with that seed or uncover it as you dig through a story-world’s soil, be mindful of that name’s beginnings, the culture in which it is rooted. Nurture that name with the respect it deserves, and you will find a character as strong and perfect as the imaginary world you cultivate.

~STAY TUNED!~

The Hero with No Name but a Thousand Faces will soon be upon us! Let’s not forget to celebrate some everyday absurdities, too. More author interviews are on the way, and don’t forget I’ve got Story Cuppings, a weekly podcast of first chapter reviews!

Last but not least, hopefully–HOPEFULLY–we can talk about some story stuff. 🙂

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

Start #PrideMonth with #Magic and #Mayhem on this #Podcast: #Spellhacker by #MKEngland

Happy Wednesday, one and all! I’ve continued exploring unique fantasy reads, this time in the spirit of Pride Month. Let’s begin June with Spellhacker by M.K. England.

Let’s take a sip together to taste this urban world where magic is not…well it’s not your typical magical world.

 If the embedded link recording is not showing up, you can click here to access the podcast site.

If you’d like to recommend a read for the podcast, let me know in the comments below! I’d welcome reading any indie authors’ stories as well. x

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