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 MeetFrankenstein 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…
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.
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?
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.
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 talein Beyond the Elven Gate. “Good People” takes readers on a journey with an elderly gentleman as he deals with challenges put to him by the Good People. Such a variety of characters and character types in a single volume is so delightful for the reader! Do you feel yourself drawn to write a certain aged character? What process do you have to help you enter that older–or younger–mindset in order to make the language and mannerisms remain true?
When I was writing this character of Wilfred, I partly based him upon my own Grandad, who I was very close to. Due to this closeness, I was naturally drawn to writing this elderly character this way, probably in a bid to bring him back alive, in the only way that I can. To enter into the mindset of these different characters I tend to use an acting technique called ‘the Magic If’. Which is basically if I was that character how would I feel, how would I think, how would I react. This helps me to try to become that person whom I’m writing about.
Thank you so much, Jean, for asking me such thought provoking questions. It has been a joy to answer them.
And many thanks to you, Jason, for taking time to chat with us! I’ll be watching for Kings of Munster to appear at my virtual bookshop. If you, my friends, haven’t had a chance to hear a sample of Beyond the Elven Gate, you can listen to my podcast episode on Story Cuppings.
October is coming! We simply must get a bit spooky. I’m keen to share the roads diverging on that “Blue House Doll” snippet I shared with you in my last post. Perhaps we’ll uncover some music to inspire a fright, or perhaps visit a beloved tale from my childhood. Or shall we wander Wisconsin to find a haunted home both beautiful and lonely? Let us see. x
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…
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 Carrénovels 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.
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 Countywas 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.
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.
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.
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 reviewsite for more information on what she writes and reads.
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
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 inHigh 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 Djangoseries 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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.”
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 myFallen Princebornnovels. 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.
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?”
“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 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…”
“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.”
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.
I have written about The Hobbit’s worldbuilding before. If you’d like to read about that, click here.
If there are any stories you would like to recommend for sipping on this podcast, let me know in the comments below! I’d also welcome reading any indie authors’ own stories. I keep discovering more and more fantasy books I’d like to try, so perhaps we’ll stick with fantasy? Or perhaps not! I’m enjoying the promise of possibility far too much. x
If there are any stories you would like to recommend for sipping on this podcast, let me know in the comments below! I’d also welcome reading any indie authors’ own stories. Let’s all enjoy different genres and styles of storytelling throughout the year, shall we? xxxxxx
Happy Wednesday, one and all! I’ve officially got the first episode of my podcast done and done. To help celebrate Wyrd and Wonder–and because it’s just been recommended so gosh darn much–I chose to start with Raybearer by Jordan Ifueko. 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 together.
I hope you enjoy this sip from the story with me. Any feedback on the podcast itself will also be greatly appreciated, as I hope to make this a weekly thing. x
A collection of book reviews by Patricia Skalka — A Chicago native, life-long reader and author of "Death Stalks Door County," "Death at Gills Rock," "Death in Cold Water," and "Death on a Ferry," the first four volumes in the Dave Cubiak Door County mystery series.