Hello, everyone! At long, long, loooooong last, my novella “Night’s Tooth” is alive and kicking on Amazon!
Once Biff, Bash, and Blondie are all in school, I hope to get “Night’s Tooth” on Draft 2 Digital so it’ll be available on other markets. Click here for an excerpt of the novella. The whole thing’s just 99 cents–easy on the wallet. 😉 Don’t forget to leave a review, too!
Like “Night’s Tooth,” Charlaine Harris’ An Easy Death is a mix of fantasy and western, but while my novella takes place during the “official” time period of the Wild West, Harris’ story is set in an altered, no-longer-United States. I picked up An Easy Death after reading SJ Higbee’s glowing recommendation, and after reading it I can see why Time magazine lists An Easy Death as one of its top 10 fantasy novels of 2018.
Let’s take a walk through the first two chapters and see how Harris builds this broken world.
In the morning I got Chrissie to cut off all my hair. Tarken and Martin would be tinkering with the truck, which was our livelihood….My neighbor Chrissie was not too bright, but I’d watched her trim her husband’s hair and beard as he sat on a stool outside their cabin. She’d done a good job. She sang as she worked, in her sweet, high voice, and she told me about her youngest one’s adventures with a frog in the creek.
I see a few key words in here that can make the imagination fill in some mighty big blanks. “Cabin,” for instance, isn’t a term for a home in an urban setting; therefore, we picture the two characters someplace rustic. A child playing with a frog in a nearby creek emphasizes the country-type of location here.
A truck tying to livelihood tells us we’re dealing with transporters of a sort–a cross-country kind of job. We should expect to see a lot of the story’s landscape with this narrator.
Chrissie and the narrator, Lizbeth, have a conversation on the second page. I’ve copied nearly the whole page here because, like Agatha Christie, Harris packs a lot of information in dialogue that only takes a few minutes to read. (Still, it’s a long passage to blog, so I’ll break it up a bit.)
“You heading out soon? I saw them farmers at Martin’s place, when I was coming back from the store.” Chrissie’s trousers had long tendrils of dark hair all over’em now. She’d have to brush’em.
“Yeah, we’re leaving as soon as it’s near dark.”
“Ain’t you scared?”
Sure, I was. “Of course not, the only ones should be scared are anyone who tries to get in our way.” I smiled.
“You’ll kill’em dead, bang, bang,” Chrissie said in a singsong voice.
“Yep. Bang, bang,” I agreed.
What have we learned? Lizbeth is leaving with some farmers, who must be riding in that truck, her livelihood. It’s Lizbeth’s job to kill anyone who tries to hinder them. Considering Chrissie’s innocent tone in describing this, killing people has become a mainstream profession, and by Lizbeth’s tone, we get the sense she knows what she’s doing…even if the job still scares her.
“Why are they going to New America?”
“The farmers? The part of Texas they live in got swallowed up by Mexico a few years ago. You remember?”
Chrissie looked dim. She shook her head.
“Anyway, the government down there has been telling the Texans that they’re not real Mexicans, and their land is forfeit.”
Chrissie looked even dimmer.
Their land is getting taken. So if they’ve got kin up north or anywhere, even in Dixie, they got to leave Mexico to have a chance.”
Dixie was so poor and so dangerous you’d have to be desperate to flee there.
What have we learned? America is weak enough that other countries like Mexico have taken control of its land. Notice Lizbeth doesn’t say “North America” or “United States,” but “New America” and “Dixie.” This isn’t the traditional 50 states of our reality.
Chrissie ran her fingers through the short hair on the left side of my head, and shook her head. “Anyone ever go to the HRE?” she asked.
“Chrissie,” I said. She bent around to meet my eyes.
“Oh, sorry, Lizbeth.” She began to work on the right side, following her own whim. I tried to remember if I’d ever seen her cut anyone’s hair besides Norton’s. “I forgot you don’t like them grigoris.”
No. I did not like magicians.
What have we learned? The HRE is not someplace you want to find yourself because–and this is the part that hooked me to the story–there’s magic in this world. Magicians are part of the normal fabric of society; not liked, maybe, but still, they are as normal as killing people to protect others fleeing the country.
So, over the course of two pages, we have a sense of narrator Lizbeth’s no-nonsense attitude thanks to her clipped prose and dialogue. We know her profession. We know she has some prejudices, and some inner conflicts. We know something of the world, though we don’t know why it is the way it is. All we know is that it’s dangerous, and people are desperate to flee from that danger. Harris successfully builds the world just enough that we can move forward without tripping on any exposition dumps.
A couple pages later we learn the term for Lizbeth’s profession.
I passed Rex Santino. “Easy death,” he said in his gruff way.
That’s what people wished gunnies. It made me feel good. I nodded back at him.
Not quite “gunslinger,” but it’s close enough to familiar terminology that readers get what Harris is going for. On this version of the North American continent, hired guns are a must for safe passage from one country to another. Connections like roads and rails, amenities like electricity and plumbing, they’re all as fickle as the law one finds from town to town.
We were on a good part of the road, one that hadn’t been broken. There were still stretches around like that. My mother had told me that once almost all the roads were smooth, and that when they cracked, they got repaired. It sounded like a fancy dream. ….
If the New America patrols stopped us, we’d be fine. People were legal cargo, and respectable people like this were even welcome in New America. But if bandits caught us, well, that was why Galilee and I were on duty. That was why the oldest brother had hired us to get the two families through the lawless land along the border between Texoma and New America.
What have we learned? When we consider how the roads were built to help unite a country, is it any surprise the roads are among the first things to rot in this fractured land? It’s also clear that the new countries don’t much care for watching each other’s borders, but will instead keep to their own; hence, the “lawless land.”
Chapter 1 ends with an ambush. All the gunnies but Lizbeth are killed, the truck destroyed. In Chapter 2, an injured Lizbeth tracks the bandits and farmers. She discovers the body of a teen girl along the way.
There must have been more gunfire after I’d been hit. She’d tried to run. Lots of families taught their girls to run, figuring that a bullet in the back was quicker than what waited for them after capture. My opinion, sometimes they were right.
What have we learned? The violence of the bandits tells us just how much human life is worth between the countries: absolutely nothing.
Lizbeth kills the bandits, rescues the remaining family members, and successfully escorts them to New America on foot. During this trek the farmers get to talking, which allows Lizbeth to think about historical context for the reader’s sake. (Last excerpt, promise)
“Since the president died, the world has gone to hell. God help us all,” Jeremiah said, and his brother nodded.
When people said “the president,” they meant the last elected president of the United States, Franklin Roosevelt. When he’d been assassinated in some city in Florida, before he could be sworn into office, the government had started down a slope that had gotten slicker and slicker…..After the white government had collapsed, the Indian tribes who could muster up a group of warriors had taken back the land that had been theirs….And bandits were everywhere, especially in Texoma, New America, and Dixie. I had heard that in Britannia, the area that had knelt to England, there was so much law that bandits were caught and hung quickly. The same for Canada, which had expanded to take in a lot of northern America. Canada had its horseback police, who were supposed to be crackerjack at their jobs. The Holy Russian Empire had a squad of grigoris and militia whose job it was to track highway robbers and kill them on the spot.
But in Texoma and New America, formal justice was scarce on the ground.
What have we learned? Ah, now we get the mother-load, for now we have a time frame to work with. FDR was indeed fired upon by Giuseppe Zangara in 1933. For those who don’t know, Franklin Delano Roosevelt took the helm of the United States during The Great Depression and remained in the presidency through much of World War Two. He’s the only president to have served more than two terms; in fact, the man had been voted to serve a fourth term when he died in 1945.
All the world was in flux in the 1930s. The aftermath of World War I, the rise of fascism and communism, the transformation of media and transportation….Life. Was. Changing. Just as a single assassination tipped Europe’s political scales into warfare in 1914, Harris shows us how the United States could have been broken by assassination in 1933. And when one considers the political climate of that time, are we really so surprised?
Now Harris doesn’t clearly state how much time has passed since FDR’s assassination, but when Lizbeth does meet two grigoris who want to hire her for a job, we learn a bit more about the Russian monarchy that escaped the communist uprising as well as magic’s role in this new world.
But that’s for you to discover in An Easy Death.
When a writer sets out to cut history’s timeline and paste it somewhere new, she has the advantage of using some common history to give the reader context before guiding the reader into unfamiliar territory. It’s a tried and true method used by many to their advantage, and there’s no reason you shouldn’t, either. It all comes down to pacing–rather like helping a rambunctious kindergartner glue string on top of his fish picture. Sure, you can just squirt a HUGE glop of glue on the page and just slather it everywhere; it gets the job done, but then all you both see is the glue smears over his nice fish. If you carefully squirt teeny dots all along the string, the string will remain in its place, and the fish is no longer smeary.
…sorry, that’s quite a mom-metaphor there. Point is, you don’t want readers to see nothing but the exposition. You want it to blend into the story, right? So don’t slather that world-building everywhere, blurring what could be an amazing story. Bead it along, letting it glue together scenes of conversation, conflict, and discovery.
Thanks so much for reading! I do hope you enjoy “Night’s Tooth.”
~STAY TUNED NEXT WEEK!~
The kids will be in school!
The kids will be in school.
(Honestly, it’s a mix of both.)
Anyway, September and the fall season await with more delightful author interviews, some studies of scary tales, a hunt for fun’n’freaky music, and hopefully some updates on my current WIPS–both novellas, both dark fantasy, and both spooooooookily inspired by Wisconsin’s North Woods.
We drive, kid-free, through the silent Wisconsin countryside. Clouds hang silver and heavy over the corn and soy fields. The occasional tractor turns earth, the sporadic cow chews cud, the episodic cyclist scowls.
Yeah, sorry about my use of the thesaurus here, but I couldn’t help myself, not when I saw “odd” is a synonym for “occasional.” For amongst the normal, humdrum sights in rural Wisconsin, Bo and I are going to a truly odd place. One of the oddest in all the States, in fact.
Bo finds just the right music for our mission.
“What I want to know,” Bo ponders as we park, “is why no Bond villain ever stationed himself here.”
I nod. Christopher Lee’s funhouse set-up in The Man with the Golden Gun has nothing on this house.
Like Dylan Thuras (in the above video), I also grew up hearing the tale that world-famous architect–and Wisconsin’s own!–Frank Lloyd Wrighthad spurned Alex Jordan’s own architectural designs, motivating son Alex Jordan Jr. to build The House atop a natural tower called Deer Shelter Rock…an area less than ten miles away from Taliesin. The tale is likely a crock, and yet…you know, why else would you build so flippin’ close to each other?
I’d only visited The House on the Rock once in my teen years. It’s the sort of place that sticks with you no matter who you are or where you’re from; one visit affected Neil Gaiman so deeply he set a piece of American Godsat The House on the Rock–and yes, they even filmed an episode of the television series there.
Sadly, my phone’s camera cannot do this place justice at ALL, but I do have a few snaps I can share mixed among the far better photos on the Internet.
One of the major architectural highlights is the Infinity Room.
It ain’t exactly a place you want to walk in when lots of people are there–it heats quickly, and, um, wobbles a bit. Still, I managed to get a shot with Bo while the natural light was good.
Once you exit the Original House and Gate House, things start to get really weird.
Ah, the vicious Lake Superior Squid duals with the tempestuous Duluth Whale of Doom.
(Them’s the jokes, folks. For legit humor writing, talk to Bo.)
Would it surprise you to know that tiny children sobbed as their parents dragged them by the whale’s teeth? I sure couldn’t blame’em–I was freaked out when I first saw all this, and I was old enough to drive a car. Bo, bless him, humors me as I grip his arm tight enough to leave a mark as we descend…yes, we not only have to climb up and around this mouth–we have to do it aaaaall again to get out.
Anyway, here we transition with a big ol’ organ into room, after room, after room, of these giant orchestral mechanics.
You get me.
This place just goes on….and on…and on…you move from room to room, warehouse to warehouse. You walk on yet another street of yesterday dedicated to cars, hot air balloons, airplanes. You pass hundreds of trinkets and trunkets of store displays, guns, circuses, dollhouses, DOOOOOOLLS, pipes, ivory carvings, costume jewelry, armor. Battle scenes complete with armored elephants and dogs.
Did I mention the dolls? Like the giant carousel FILLED with dolls?
And then there’s the room with the world’s largest indoor carousel.
In case you’re wondering what’s hanging from the ceiling, those are mannequin angels. Dozens, upon dozens, of mannequin angels.
Probably to fend off Satan from eating people.
I walked down Satan’s gullet, stumped.
“What’s wrong?” Bo asks as we step out onto Inspiration point.
The sudden exit from hours among electric candelabras and mannequins makes my head hurt a little, but the foliage and peace of the forest around us more than make up for it. We’re at Inspiration Point, or Deer Shelter Rock. You can just see the Infinity Room behind the trees.
We must have missed something, I say, staring at a lone red barn on the far hillside (that I failed to get a picture of–sorry!). Wonder what that farmer thought, watching AJ Jr. haul materials and build his crazy concocted collection year after year after year. Did that farmer pay to take a tour like so many others in the 60s? Or did he just wave it off as so many ol’ Wisconsinites do and get back to the plow?
“How?” Bo takes a swig of apple juice as we sit on a bench. It’s our first break in three hours of walking, as our bodies are quick to tell us. “There’s only one way through this whole thing. The staff haven’t let us go off-course. What could we have missed?”
I grimace at the glass wall behind us. “We didn’t see the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.”
Bo rolls his eyes. He doesn’t remember the Horsemen from his childhood visits, and has been skeptical of their existence. “Well we’re not done yet.”
But how much left can there be? I ask for my curiosity…and my legs.
“We gotta double-back for another level and…yeah, the map here shows we’ve got a whole ‘nother room yet.”
But I promptly told my leg cramps to shut up once we got there.
This is, by far, my favoritist place at The House on the Rock.
Pillars–no, trees of drums and lights with delicate, narrow stairwells that wound and wound like vines. It was an other-worldly realm, a land of machine and music bathed in softly lit scarlet. It was a sort of room where you knew, you knew, magic awakens when the right song is played.
But alas, we had to move on. There was but one more pathway to the exit out, a pathway that went around the top of the carousel…
…and there they were.
Gaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah that walkway is so close to these guys Bo could literally reach out and touched Death–
–not that he does, thank goodness.
At last, we find ourselves back by the Japanese Garden and the exit from this one-of-a-kind place.
If Life’s Road ever brings you into Wisconsin, you must find a detour, any kind of detour to bring you to this place. It’s a day you’ll not soon forget, I promise you.
Fangirl Quest and Web Urbanisthave amazing photo collections on The House on the Rock I only partly pillaged for this post. Check them out!
I think every land’s got to have a place like this–not something like The House on the Rock per say, but that unique oddity, that portal where the boundaries between reality and fantasy are frayed, and you can feel magic hum in the air you breathe. What would you say is your land’s portal to an Other-Where? Let’s chat in the comments below!
~STAY TUNED NEXT WEEK!~
The House on the Rock isn’t the onlyplace to inspire a story. I utilized a bit of history from the Mississippi River Valley to help me write my upcoming release, the novella Night’s Tooth. You can read about it here, and pre-order it for just 99 cents here!The novella officially launches next Thursday the 29th, when I share my study of Charlaine Harris’ own fantasy western, An Easy Death. Don’t miss it!
In short, Tchaikovsky is an amazing creative soul that we should all get to know a bit better. 🙂 How would you describe what you do, Sir?
So basically I mostly write books about spiders. Also dogs, AI, shapechangers, insect-people and anything else that lets me get out of a human skull. There’s not much more to me than that, in all honesty.
Considering the depth and breadth of your work, your imagination must have been nurtured with rich inspiration from little on. Are there any folks or favorite authors from your childhood that helped spark your passion for storytelling?
Absolutely – my great storytelling guru from teenage onwards was Diane Wynne Jones.
Oh yes, she vastly expanded my frame of reference as to what you can do with a story, how you can play with reader expectations, that sort of thing. The Homeward Bounders and Power of Three, especially. Jones pulls a number of switches on the reader in Power of Three, with regard to precisely what the setting is, who are the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ people, all that, which really opened my eyes. Before that, as well as cutting my teeth on Dr Who novelisations, I loved Tove Jansson, because she built such a wonderful world with her stories.
My home state of Wisconsin is a curious patchwork of farms and wild places. I love exploring this landscape in my mind, creating stories to give shapes to the shadows hiding just out of sight. Would you say the landscape around you inspires your writing, or has been utilized in some way to help build a story’s setting? That swamp you describe at the beginning of Guns of the Dawnfeels like this horrible place I knew near my summer camp…
So… actually no. I don’t tend to relate much to places I’ve been, per se. No more than places I’ve read about or seen pictures of. It all just feeds into the general melting pot in my head that I draw new creations from. I’ve never been in a swamp like that, but I seem to be able to imagine these places and put them on a page well enough to make them real to my readers.
All the more impressive, then, Sir, that you can stimulate the reader’s imagine to build such a real place known only in your own mind!
Now, let’s stick with Guns of the Dawn just a touch longer because it has an amaaaazing opener:
I killed my first man today…
The air was hot,muggy with moisture, filled with flies. Emily had not known hot before she came to these swamps. Hot had once been pleasant summer days with the corn ripening gold in the fields. Hot had been the good sun and the rich earth, and the labourers scaring crows or bringing a harvest in; a picnic on the Wolds, with a blue, blue sky cloudless above. Hot was a fierce fire burning in the study when the world outside was chill. There must be another word for this all-encompassing heat.
I’ve already told my husband I’m treating myself to this book after I complete my pedagogical training this summer.
So after a first line that provides the point of view, time, and controversial action, you launch us into a paragraph filled with extremely vivid sensory details further enriched by memories of the past. Thanks to these memories, readers get the impression of a narrator who cares more about the quiet life in the farm land–a stark contrast to one who’s said she’s killed a man. You strike a delicate balance of grounding readers in the present moment of the story while also flashing back into the narrator’s past and how the world once was. Can you describe your process of finding this balance?
This is going to sound very zen, which frankly I am not in any way, but there is a big subconscious element to that level of my writing. I was never formally taught about writing technique, I just read a whole hell of a lot, and then I wrote a whole hell of a lot, and my writing got better with each book I tried. Although there is a definite conscious input, and as I’ve got better I’ve become more aware of things I can do deliberately to create an effect, a great deal of it just comes out of the way the words spill onto the page in their raw form.
Well paint me green with storytellin’ envy, Sir, because your opening lines are as consistently effective as those created by Diana Wynne Jones. A wee survey of your stories uncovers hooks both big and small.
There were no windows in the Brin 2 facility—rotation meant that ‘outside’ was always ‘down’, underfoot, out of mind. The wall screens told a pleasant fiction, a composite view of the world below that ignored their constant spin, showing the planet as hanging stationary-still off in space: the green marble to match the blue marble of home, twenty light years away. Earth had been green, in her day, though her colours had faded since. Perhaps never as green as this beautifully crafted world though, where even the oceans glittered emerald with the phytoplankton maintaining the oxygen balance within its atmosphere. How delicate and many-sided was the task of building a living monument that would remain stable for geological ages to come.
From this paragraph we learn the story’s location, the time frame, and the narrator’s love of this created home. We are also left asking: “What happened to earth?” And we are driven to read on.
It went wrong for me when they made Sethr an outcast.
From this sentence we learn the story’s point of view, that there is some powerful “they” capable of ruining someone’s life, and because one person’s ruined, so is our narrator. We are also left asking: “Who is this mighty ‘they’? Why should Sethr’s fate mess up life for the narrator?” And we are driven to read on.
Writing compelling openers is surely one of the most important challenges any writer faces. Do you have any advice for writers who struggle crafting their hook?
I am going to raise a hand and say that good lord I’ve had books where the opener has been a problem, and it is super important. Often it’s a matter of where in the story you start – easy to start things too soon and have too much lead-in. And there’s a huge pressure to start with everything on fire, meaning that certain types of storytelling are virtually extinct in the genre right about now. Sometimes I’d like to feel people would just amble with me a bit at the start…
I love the idea of ambling…and with over thirty titles to your name, there’s lots of ambling to do! Some of your titles are stand-alones, like The Expert System’s Brother; some are in trilogies, such as Echoes of the Fall; and then you have your TEN-book series Shadows of the Apt. I tip my hat to you for building worlds unique and complete time, and time, and time again, just like Jones. What thrills you about building a new world? How do you avoid the temptation of re-using elements? No writer wants readers to get déjà vu and think they’re just reading the same story over again.
Building worlds *is* the thing that thrills me, and I have a whole host of ideas yet to come. So far repeating worlds hasn’t been the issue (outside of sequels obviously). I’m more worried about repeating themes, because obviously there are certain things you come back to, each writer to their own, and there’s a real danger that you end up telling the same snippets of story over and over if you don’t remember to give them a different spin.
Another common problem for many writers–as well as movie-makers, I’d say–is crafting an action sequence that moves quickly and fiercely without confusing readers as to what’s going on. I know this was one of the toughest elements to hammer out in my own novel, which contains battles involving several key players duking it out all over the place. Your novels contain intense action on both an epic scale as well as an intimate one. How do you keep the language quick-footed without losing readers along the way?
Action sequences are very much an art of their own. Having a good grasp of the shape of the sequence is important I think – I plan a great deal anyway, and action sequences get thought through in the same way. A chase or a fight has a mini-narrative of its own, including opportunities to bring out character, to foreshadow, and to have their own emotional beats. A particularly big action scene can almost be a book in miniature.
Another resource that’s always helped me write action scenes as well as stay focused on the feeling of any given moment is music. For every author that tells me he/she loves having music to help set the mood for writing a scene, I hear from another author that he/she needs silence in order to write. Which camp do you call home and why?
I tend to listen to music when I write and have a series of playlists for different moods, to help me focus and blot out distraction. I generally listen to instrumental music from film soundtracks, computer games, and music written specifically for trailers (a good source of consistently hammery action music), Some composers you might not know who have some interesting stuff include Kyle Gabler, Lorne Balfe, and Bear McCreary.
(Gasps) GODZILLA?! Hell to the yes! Sign me up for some new composers to study later this year!
One reason I depend so heavily on music is because it helped me write when my children were small and at home all day. Now that my kids are old enough to attend school, I can usually find an hour of peace to write. Still, it’s extremely tough some days to balance parenthood and writer…hood. Authorhood. You get me.Do you have any tips for balancing writing and parenting?
Honestly my son’s 11 now so he’s more self-sufficient. I write in the mornings and very late evenings, though, which is a convenient way of working around family commitments.
Lastly, let’s talk about the ever dreaded Kryptonite. Writing Kryptonite, to be precise. There’s always something that can sap all creative power away in a heartbeat. For me, it’s a phone call from my sons’ school principal. It takes a good long while of watching my sons lose themselves in their own adventures with droids, transformers, and wild animals before my own creativity sparks back to life. What would you call your Writing Kryptonite, and how do you overcome it?
Arguments with my son will do it, but as a sort of contributor to a general cycle of depressive ups and downs that are quite capable of just doing their own thing with me, without any actual outside stimulus. Writing is a big drive for me, though. If I’m not writing, it has a serious negative effect on my mental state all its own. So although a downswing can make it hard to get going, once I’m actually writing I can generally retreat into it from my problems.
My deepest thanks again to Adrian Tchaikovsky for taking the time to talk to us today! You can find him on Twitter, Facebook, Goodreads, and his website, too.
~STAY TUNED NEXT WEEK!~
We’re going to meander through some gorgeous western scores in anticipation of my upcoming Night’s Tooth.
Mississippi River Valley, 1870s. The white man wields rails and guns to bring law to the land. But there are more than wild animals hiding in the territories, and it will take more than guns to bring them down.
Sumac the bounty hunter needs no guns to hunt any bandit with a price on his head, even one as legendary and mysterious as Night’s Tooth. But Sumac didn’t count on other bounty hunters coming along as competition, nor did he expect hunters sharing his own magical gifts.
It’s one man against a gang and a mystery, all to protect a train that must cross the territories at all costs…
Inspired by classics like For a Few Dollars More and fantasy cult favorites like Highlander, “Night’s Tooth” is a western with a fantasy edge set in the Fallen Princeborn universe.
We’ll also do some adventuring about Wisconsin and do a wee worldbuilding study of a recent western fantasy,Charlaine Harris’ An Easy Death.More author interviews are on the way, too. I hope you’ll join me!
I wish I could tell you just when it started, this love for the western. It should have been decades ago, when my brothers and I watched our old recorded VHS on the making of Star Wars yet again while Mom just wanted to sit and watch John Wayne in a classic like Stagecoach or The Searchers. But I had no patience for the kind of western where women clutch their aprons while Native Americans gallop by with villainous intentions and only John Wayne with his swaggering cadence can talk a coward into being a brave man just long enough to shoot the savage and save this little refuge of civilization.
Oh no. Iiiii had to sit and watch a rogue with a laser gun help out wizened old man and a snot-nosed kid who thinks he’s smart in the saddle hold out from attacks by corrupt powers….heeey…sounds, um…
Sounds kinda like a western. (More on that later.)
But aren’t westerns just glorified propaganda for western civilization uprooting native cultures? Don’t all their shoot-outs result in a lot of powder in the air, women swooning, and men clutching their chests going, “Aaaurgh!”?
What is it about this period spanning thirty years (or sixty, depending on whom you ask) that draws us back again and again?
I can’t speak for others, but dammit, I’ll speak for me.
A Hero uncivilized and unrestrained.
A couple weeks ago I wrote about the antihero, and how this individual for good or ill lives by his own code to meet his own ends. In the western this character certainly exists, but there are plenty of heroes, too, who are out to right a wrong and carry out some justice…only, their means ain’t exactly pretty (see High Plains Drifter for the ugliest justice there is). Plus, these folks are by no means super-heroes or ramped up by crazy technology (unless, of course, you’re in Wild Wild West).
The hero–or antihero–of the western is often one of minimal means caught up in a conflict where the other side has more bullets, more men, more high ground. Jack Shaefer, a writer of westerns, elaborates on this point:
The western story, in its most usual forms, represents the American version of the ever appealing oldest of man’s legends about himself, that of the sun-god hero, the all-conquering valiant who strides through dangers undaunted, righting wrongs, defeating villains, rescuing the fair and the weak and the helpless — and the western story does this in terms of the common man, in simple symbols close to natural experience . . . depicting ordinary everyday men, not armored knights or plumed fancy-sword gentlemen, the products of aristocratic systems, but ordinary men who might be you and me or our next-door neighbors gone a-pioneering, doing with shovel or axe or gun in hand their feats of courage and hardihood.
This is why I love Clint Eastwood in so many of his westerns. He’s shot, beaten, left to die in the desert, and God knows what else. We see him lose as much blood as he draws. He, John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, Jeff Bridges, and loads others show their struggle for a better self in a world that rewards the greedy and vicious. The price to be paid when doing the right thing can be pretty damn high, and the heroes are willing to sacrifice it all, including their own goodness, to pay it.
Which brings me to my next point. (And to one of the happiness quotes I was challenged by the lovely Lady Shey to hunt down and share.)
Action! Bang bang, punch kick kapow, boom blam CRASH!
In case you didn’t know from other posts, I’m something of an action junkie. (The fact that 1987’s Predator is another one of my all-time favorite movies should tell you a lot about me.) Westerns promise action. There may be tons of gun fights, or only a few. There may be a total blood bath such as in Django Unchained, or a drawn….out….showdown…years…in…the making….
That’s part of the western’s beauty. The climax can be a chess game of men, where pawns are removed one by one until all that remains are the kings of the board…and, perhaps, a rook. We have to watch their necks sweat, fingers twitch, eyes narrow, and wait, wait, wait for the moment where Hell will break loose–
Or, bullets fly and characters die in epic battle fashion, such as in The Magnificent Seven; we’re not sure who will survive the climactic battle, and because we know these heroes experience the broken bone and spirit of mortality, we cannot be certain any of them will make it at all.
(Unless, of course, you’re the townspeople of Blazing Saddles’ Rock Ridge, who all wind up breaking onto the set of another film and then the studio’s commissary for a huge food fight.)
Speaking of settings…
A landscape beautiful, terrifying, and untameable.
Western civilization may have crossed into the territories, but it is by no means in control of the land.
Communities are rarely large, and their ties with “proper” society–towns and cities east of the Mississippi–are tenuous at best. The first transcontinental railroad wasn’t completed until 1869, the first transcontinental telegraph only a few years before that. If someone travels west, they travel a lonely road, or a railroad often unguarded. They enter territories that never belonged to them, and yet are determined to keep them.
I figured this riverside town would be the perfect place to set my western fantasy novella Night’s Tooth. Wisconsin earned its statehood in the 1840s, sure, but it’s not like all of it was paved with pristine society by the end of the Civil War, right?
Well…the first settlers established the community of La Crosse in the 1840s a few years before that statehood, so yeah, Wisconsin still had a bit of wildness to it as far as governance goes, but by the end of the Civil War the log cabins had been replaced by a full-on city with one of the country’s first swing bridges for the Southern Minnesota Railroad.
No longer did rail cars have to be ferried across the great river to journey west. The White Man had brought his roads and buildings and built them all square and orderly to the Mississippi River Valley. Man had conquered Nature.
As far as Wisconsin was concerned, the Wild of its West was lost.
I can’t write a story where the West ISN’T Wild!!!
The idea of La Crosse being so damned orderly and efficient at growing really galled me. It galled me so much I figured my main character, a bounty hunter named Sumac, would be galled too, and call it a damn shame.
Then it hit me.
Use the city’s history in the story. Show how this final bastion of “civilization” before the territories had its own moments of dark dealings. Perhaps, if I am very careful, sew some patches of magic goings-on onto time’s quilt of history, and in their threads tell a new tale of hunters who hide among us…
Mississippi River Valley, 1870s. The white man wields rails and guns to bring law to the land. But there are more than wild animals hiding in the territories, and it will take more than guns to bring them down.
Sumac the bounty hunter needs no guns to hunt any bandit with a price on his head, even one as legendary and mysterious as Night’s Tooth. But Sumac didn’t count on other bounty hunters coming along as competition, nor did he expect hunters sharing his own magical gifts.
It’s one man against a gang and a mystery, all to protect a train that must cross the territories at all costs…
Inspired by classics like For a Few Dollars More and fantasy cult favorites like Highlander, “Night’s Tooth” is a western with a fantasy edge set in the Fallen Princeborn universe.
Intrigued? I sure hope so! 🙂 I’ll be posting an excerpt from the story in this month’s Exclusive Free Fiction from the Wilds. Once I’m done mucking through the formatting business, I’ll publish Night’s Tooth as an e-book and set its price for 99 cents. If all goes well with children and teaching, Night’s Tooth will be available near the end of this month.
In the meantime, I’d love to hear about your favorite westerns in the comments below! You may also enjoy watching Cinefix’s very interesting breakdown of favorite westerns from across the decades, including the changes of tone and theme created by different directors in countries. (If you’re wondering when Star Wars was supposed to come up again in this post, watch the video.)
~Stay Tuned Next Week~
I’m super-stoked about next week’s interview! He’s a winner of the Arthur C. Clarke Award as well as a fellow fan of Diana Wynne Jones. After that we’ll study a new and unique Wild West set in an alternate America, then take a tour through some amazing composers for westerns before finally (fingers crossed and turning thrice widdershins) launching Night’s Tooth into the publishing wild!
Happy Thursday, everyone! Summer school is winding down for the kids, which means August will be a month of Blondie, Biff, Bash, and I driving each other crazy–I mean, being creative together. 🙂 No matter what, though, I hope to keep writing here, finishing up my latest release (more on that at the end of this post!), and connecting with more of you beautiful souls! x
It’s been such an honor to connect with so many different authors from across the world. Today I am pleased to introduce you to Australian poet Frank Prem. Take it away, Frank!
Hi Jean, thanks
for the opportunity to chat today.
I’m a writer of free verse poetry, for the most part, resident in a small town in Victoria (Australia). I’ve been writing and developing my approach to poetry for over forty years, now, and have recently become the Indie published author of two collections. The first – Small Town Kid – came out in December 2018, while the next – Devil in the Wind – was released in May 2019.
When I’m not
actively pursuing writing and other authorly pursuits I work as a psychiatric
nurse, here in the town, in a small long-term rehabilitation unit.
The town I live in – Beechworth – is a pretty little place of around 3,000 residents. We have a gold mining history dating back to the 1860s, and the township itself is very well preserved, with a lot of stone buildings hewn from the local honey granite (a warm, pinkish colour in the rock).
We have become a tourist town, with thousands of visitors passing through each year, and most of them making a beeline for the well known Beechworth Bakery (https://www.beechworthbakery.com.au/).
It’s mostly a
quiet life, but very pleasant, all in all.
You may have noticed how much I love to share the music that inspires my writing. Do you also enjoy music to write, or do you require silence? If the former, would you like to recommend any favorites?
Yes, music is such a gift to us, Jean, and it has influenced my writing immesurable. In case you’re wondering, my personal taste always leads to me to find a wonderful voice – regardless of genre. The voice I have gravitated to most is that of Emmy Lou Harris, who is mostly known as a Country singer, but actually able to sing anything.
I generally write
in silence, but the music in language is quite critical to my work. My usual
approach is to create a melody of some sort in my head and to sing my work
(silently) line by line to try to imbue it with a sense of song. My often
repeated mantra is that ‘rhyme should be invisible, while free verse should be
Beautifully said, Sir.
Have you ever gotten reader’s block with another poet or prose writer? How did you overcome it?
Yes I have, Jean.
I’m a very poor reader of the work of other poets. I worry very much that I
will get other work in my head and inadvertently plagiarise or otherwise stray
from my own track.
With prose, I tend
to return over and over to a few favourite writers as my mainstay, with a
greater willingness to branch out and experiment with reading speculative
fiction. In recent times, particularly space opera fiction. Bang-bang
shoot-em-ups in the stars are a wonderful freedom for me, that is far enough
from any realities down here on earth to be completely enjoyable.
I think with my general reading I am looking for inspiration in my own work. Recently I read the entire translated work of a French Philosopher named Gaston Bachelard, who died back in the 1960s.
He explored the phenomenology of poetry and poetics and used imagery in such a way that my imagination was fired and I could hardly read more than a couple of lines without having to put the book down and write a poem that his thoughts had triggered in mine. I ended up with around 800 new poems out of that experience.
That’s a hard act
to follow, but I think I’m constantly looking for a similar experience when I
800 poems just from the course of studying one philosopher. That…wow. That, Sir, is an impressive exploration of language. What was an early experience where you learned that language had power?
I think I’ve
always known it, Jean. As long as I can remember I have played with words, in
my head and in my speech. Twisting and contorting words and finding their
nuance and inflection and emphasis has always held pleasure for me.
An example comes
from my secondary schooling when I didn’t want to complete a pretty boring
essay that required a certain number of pages of work to be presented. Instead
of completing the task in the usual way I, for some reason, submitted a poem.
Correct number of pages, but very few words. I received a high mark (because
poetry hadn’t been seen in my school since the previous century, I suspect),
and have been writing poetry ever since.
Since you say you live with a fellow creative who’s a puppeteer, I just have to ask: do you write anything for the puppets to perform? This is a totally selfish question, I know, but when I was younger I used to write puppet plays and then perform them for the kindergartners at my elementary school. Loved every second of it.
That’s a lovely
story of your own, Jean. Thanks for sharing it.
Leanne my wife has
been performing puppet shows in pre-schools and kindergarten centres for many
years, on and off. We have spoken often of a show that would be aimed at older
students or adults, using my voice to read the poetry of the show, while Leanne
performed with the puppets.
That may be
creeping closer as an option with my transition into the authoring field.
collaborated in other ways in the past however.
Leanne designed my first attempted foray into book production some years ago, and from time to time has put poems I’ve written into music.
If you (or
readers) care to listen and read, this link will take you to the poem ‘Time
Comes’, on my poetry blog. I recently resurrected the piece to commemorate my 3
year anniversary as a blogger.
You are very, very concise with your word choices in your poetry, so much so that when you have a line longer than four words I sit up and take notice. (an observation made with “#Somme (8): two pennies up (for the ambulance)”). When would you say you discovered this concise style within yourself, and how do you nurture it today?
An excellent question
that touches on an aspect of writing that I think about a lot.
My discovery has
been gradual. When I look at early work, I have used long lines, almost
paragraph, in style. I think I started to seriously challenge myself with this
when I started reading poetry at the various open mic venues in Melbourne that
were available to me for a few years when I was starting out. I found that long
lines and blocks of text were difficult to read under the lights and in front
of a microphone.
I began experimenting
then with writing to mimic speech – nuance and inflection, pause and
enjambment. SO much so that it is now my writing style and unique to me, as far
as I know.
More, though. I believe this approach of using line breaks to emphasize small pauses and inflections, and stanza breaks for breathing are a way to assist young folk to read more fluently. I won’t take up space here to expound my thesis but I have written on the subject over at my author page. I’ll be interested in your thoughts.
Oooo, thank you kindly! I look forward to reading it.
Now,You’ve re-issued one collection of poems—Small Town Kid. It’s a journey through your childhood, reminiscent of Seamus Heaney’s District and Circle. Do you find this period of life to be a common ground between poets and readers, and if so, why do you think we never tire of walking such grounds?
The first attempt to publish Small Town Kid was a wonderful adventure in book design and creativity between Leanne and myself. Unfortunately, it was back in the dark ages of printing, and to achieve cost efficiency it was necessary to purchase hundreds of copies of the book. I wasn’t ready to market myself or my books in that way, so the attempt was put to sleep until Print On Demand presented itself as an option.
I have been quite amazed by the strength of positive reaction to Small Town Kid. It certainly seems to resonate with readers.
I wonder if the
reason for this connection is not akin to my reasons for writing the collection
in the first place.
When I had small
children of my own, I would routinely talk about what I and my friends had done
when we were young – the freedom to roam, unsupervised is the chief
characteristic of those times, in my mind. My kids, however, didn’t believe my
stories. They seemed to be simply too far-fetched to be true.
I realised that a
whole era of childhood (the 1960s and 70s) had disappeared by the mid-1990s. We
had begun to supervise our children. To deliver them to friends and to school,
and to collect them afterwards. Television and hand-held devices had begun to
stories down seemed to make them more legitimate, in some way.
What I find with readers is that if I read, for example, the long poem ‘Crackers’ about bonfire night preparation and execution, I will have a line of people, mainly men, who have a bonfire lit in their eyes as they want to share with me their own experience and memories.
I think it is the
imagery combined with the voice-song of telling or reading that allows the
reader to enter their own best memories of childhood, and I believe it is the
recollection of childhood freedom that makes these stories so attractive.
If you could tell your younger writing self anything, what would it be?
Not to be in a
hurry for fame and success. I’ve always been a person who wanted things to
happen immediately. If I was pursuing my career, I should get the next
promotion. If was writing a poem, surely it was a most worthy creation and
should be published immediately.
Learning to let go
of that kind of pressure, placed on myself by myself, has been a great lesson
I’ve found that
the gift of time has allowed me to mature and become a better person, a better
worker, a better poet.
I completely understand. Not only do I see it whenever I look at an old draft–heck, the first draft of my novel was written in 2010–but I can feel the change in my own perspective thanks to the growing creative expressions of my children.They tire me out, my little B’s, but I wouldn’t want them any other way. Writing helps my soul breathe and my passion to stay alight; does writing energize or exhaust you, and why?
For me, writing is
like breathing, so there is no real question of growing tired from it. I can
take a day or two off from writing, but I don’t really like to. I enjoy this
part of myself very much.
What is tiring is attempting
to master the ancillary roles – being an Author. Mastering the myriad details
of properly publishing paperback and e-book formats. Marketing (oh lord, how
tiring marketing can be!)
All part of the
deal, though, so no point in wailing.
energizing, though, and what I know has a direct and beneficial effect on the
quality if my writing, is reader feedback.
A comment or
conversation with a reader is stimulating. A positive review is absolutely
exhilarating, and I want, immediately, to sit down and write the next thing.
Bigger, better, more astounding . . .
You get the drift, I’m sure. I love my readers and reviewers and the effect they have on me as a writer.
You and me both, Sir. You and me both.
My deepest thanks to Frank for taking the time to talk to me! Here are his vitals so you can find more information on Frank Prem and his work.
Happy Thursday, everyone! I’m please to introduce you to J.D. Stanley. He’s an award-winning fantasy writer of novel and script as well as a Bardic Druid of the OBOD. It’s an honor to share his thoughts with you today on this, the writing life.
First, let’s talk a little about your background. I see you’ve done some work on radio and studio engineering. That’s so neat! It reminds me of Celine Kiernan, who spent years as an animator for Don Bluth before beginning her own writing career. How would you say your time with language-aloud influences your language-written?
It really was a neat experience. What a blast for a day job! Studio engineering and writing were the reasons I went into radio broadcasting in 1986. For a creative, nerdy introvert, all the behind-the-scenes stuff was super appealing. Audio engineering is a singular, unique avenue of creation – all you have are the sounds to build a world. I still love it. Without solid writing, though, no matter how good the production, it won’t sound realistic. Writing for that still makes me hyper-critical of my dialogue and narration today.
When I studied Radio in college, there was
a great deal of focus on learning to write words meant to be spoken – so
commercial copy, radio plays and show scripts. And the flip-side, how to speak
that writing, too. The point was, to craft something that didn’t sound scripted
even when it was. I was lucky enough to get picked up by a program director who
heard some of my freelance work and jobbed-out halfway through. Getting thrown into
the deep end like that really hammered it home. Knowing listeners would hear my
writing live shortly after I put the words down or a sponsor would pay more
than tens of thousands of dollars as soon as I produced or voiced a spot was…
terrifying. Nothing like having your feet to the fire to hone skills. Those lessons
will never leave me and my continued voiceover work as well as coaching written
and spoken communication keeps it fresh in my head.
I would say, all that time with language-aloud
makes me remember to read my writing outloud to check with my ears for
believability. The human ear is extremely sensitive to the naturalness of
speech, the nuance of humans speaking, and it strikes you when it’s fake. In my
opinion, it’s the best gauge a writer can use to check not only the flow, but
human believability of what’s written. I think it can help us make better
connections with our readers. If we can reach them as another human, be
accepted as a companion on a journey with them, we can connect. And when we can
connect, then what we write can mean something to them. But if we sound like
their Lit teacher? Dude, that’s just not gonna happen.
I once attempted a bit of screenplay writing some time ago, and…okay, not going to lie. I stunk at it. What challenges do you feel are unique to screenwriting as opposed to novel writing? What advantages? Do you have a preference between the two?
I really don’t have a burning desire to write screenplays daily and do prefer novel writing. I actually prefer fixing other people’s work, being a script doctor, over writing them if I’m being totally honest. I enjoy helping other people’s words work better. A script doctor gets no credit and most people don’t even know that’s a job.
There’s a specific pattern to the storytelling
in screenplays aspiring screenwriters need to learn. If you want to be a rebel
and not do it that way, that’s cool. But understand, that may be the reason
you’re not selling anything. It may be an interesting concept, for instance, so
someone takes a peak. And then they’re judged on a single page where there’s
supposed to be a predictable beat and it’s missing, so their work gets
round-filed. Or they don’t know the first thing about proper format and think
their story is so extraordinary everyone will look past that and give them gobs
of money anyway. Or they can’t write a logline to save their life, so no one ever
goes past the logline to read the script. Or they’re actually bad writers operating
under the delusion it doesn’t take good writing skills to write a screenplay.
I’d tell anyone thinking that screenwriting
is a cool career choice… First? Understand the chances of selling one are slim
to none. Once you get over that, you can move on. Practice the shit out of your
writing and, especially, educate yourself from film industry professionals. Study
books like Blake Snyder’s Save The Cat, read their blogs and absorb a
crap-tonne of successfully produced screenplays – there’s a million available
online – so you can see what it takes. And forget all those no-name Internet
screenwriting contests held by genre enthusiasts who aren’t writers and don’t
know what goes into a decent script. Sure, you’ll get something to put in your
credits. But winning a contest not hosted by industry professionals isn’t
validation of your talent as a screenwriter. If you thought it was? That’s
probably why you aren’t selling any scripts after the contest is over. Pick
contests held by actual screenwriters, directors and producers. They know what
they’re looking at. And a lot of them include feedback in reply for free even
if you don’t place. They’ll be harsh, you’ll hate everything they tell you and will
probably make you cry, BUT they’ll tell you exactly what to do to your script
to turn it into a saleable product. Use them as your university.
You’ve quite a rich variety of favorite authors shared on your website. Do you think you can pinpoint which author and story first sparked the passion for storytelling inside you, and why you think it was that story more than any other?
No, I can’t say there was any single author or story that sparked it for me. I could read and write before I started kindergarten, so was a bit ahead in that area and when I started writing my stories down consistently from when I was about nine, I hadn’t read any of those authors yet. My first love was sci-fi and that’s where I started writing, so maybe Gene Roddenberry was probably my earliest influence? I grew up on Star Trek in the ’60s, though didn’t know him as a writer at the time.
When I was about twelve, I’d read
everything I was allowed by that point and got special permission from the
local library to have an adult library card, so I could read more books. Real
books. Normally, you had to be eighteen to have one of those puppies. Then I
read everything in the adult fiction section. And all the poetry books. And
then went through all the reference books. You want to know the depths of my
nerdiness? I do, in fact, still relish the secret thrill of reading
encyclopaedias and the dictionary for fun. Not even kidding. Back then, I read
so fast, I started at one end of the adult section and used to take out thirty
books at a time. Just clear them off the shelf all in a row, any genre, any
author, and bring them home. I read one a day, sometimes two, and read every book
from one end of the library to the other. Hence the massive list of authors.
Sad as it is, I couldn’t even tell you who the rest of those fiction authors were, but I remember the stories. When I was thirteen, I read the John Jakes saga The Kent Family Chronicles and I think I can say around there was when I realised I had an affinity for historical stories. And then after ingesting more books, I fine-tuned that down to historical fantasy for what I most often prefer to write. Reading for pleasure, though? Just about every genre as long as the story is good. I wish there were more gunslinger books. What an under-represented genre.
Out of that ocean of stories, three will resonate with me until I’m dead – Robin Hood, The ThreeMusketeers and Don Quixote. And overarching all of them is The Crystal Caveby Mary Stewart and all Arthurian legend. I’m a total junky. And, of course, Lord of the Rings. Definitely a common theme. I’d like to think that says something about my character, but probably more what I would hope to aspire to and will never achieve. I think I was born in the wrong century. New things, like technology and science, fascinate the hell out of me and I continue to love sci-fi. But old things and old centuries make me feel at home.
If I understand your writing process correctly, I get the impression you’re something of a “pantser”—one who doesn’t plan out a story, but runs with the story as it comes. How on earth do you balance the madcap writing this method requires while also having kids? I got three, and there’s no way in Hades I can focus on my own story when they’re crashing Transformers and Enterprises into the land of Care-A-Lot.
Well, nowadays, my four kids aren’t little, so I’m at a different stage. Though every stage comes with its own unique challenges. I also no longer drive due to my cataract, so have built-in writing time while commuting everywhere which I use to my advantage.
The ability of life to persistently work to steal our focus never ends, though. I just got the kids all self-sufficient and almost out of the house (two down, two to go!), but now have different roadblocks. My dad has declining dementia from a brain injury sustained from a fall, so now? Two of the kids still need me for some things, and alternating between being with my dad at long term care after work until about midnight, and travelling an hour-and-a-half across the city to look after my mom and helping maintain their house. I’m basically writing long-hand wherever I can get it in and it’s weeks before I get to sit down to transcribe it. Or I’m doing everything on my phone and tablet on the go. It’s not the way I prefer to work and it’s slow, but it still lets me get it in there. Because I have to do it or my brain will explode!
When the kids were small, though? Honestly,
if I was a different person and they were different kids, it probably wouldn’t
have worked. I’m a super analytical control freak with troop movement-level organisation
skills, so there’s that. Okay, and a life-long insomniac, so have more awake
hours at my disposal than normal people. My most productive writing time is midnight onward, so it actually worked in my favour when
they were little. I used to go to bed at 7:30
or 8:00pm when they did and woke up at 12:30 or 1:00am to write.
I also got the laundry and cleaning done then to leave me free time to focus on
the kids in the day – every time I got up to make a coffee, I did one task. Once
a month I planned all the meals and snacks on a chart that I made shopping
lists from so I wouldn’t waste time or money. Sundays I cooked five full
dinners and parcelled them up in the fridge with labels on them to save time in
the week. I wrote a lot long-hand sitting on benches waiting for them to finish
swimming lessons or martial arts or whatever else I had them signed up for. Somewhere
in there, I cranked out five full first draft novels. I didn’t go on trips. I
didn’t go out. My entire life was kids and writing or consignment art. And I
was totally okay with that. Someone else? Maybe wouldn’t be.
I have very clear priorities. I’m also very
clear on what I’m willing to sacrifice. My mother wasn’t ever a well person, so
I learned early how to squeeze in things I really wanted to do between looking
after her, raising my two sisters and working part-time to help my dad. I
already had the experience when I found myself in the position of being the only
parent of my own four kids.
Okay, so the “pantster” thing… I can say,
with all honesty, I’ve never “pantsted” anything in my life. Being this
consistently, incredibly busy, most times? There’s no opportunity to write plans
down. But let’s be honest, a lot of the kid stuff wasn’t rocket science and it
left my brain free. So I trained myself to do it in my head. All of it. All the
figuring out, all the plotting. By the time I had a block of time to sit down
in front of a keyboard or with a pen and paper, I could just write my ass off.
All my “outlines” start the same way – with a super-descriptive hinging scene,
usually the story conflict or premise, with an important exposition of the main
character. It’s my brain shorthand for the whole story, a memory trick. Then I
start telling myself the story – the who, what, where, when, why – and it
morphs into the opening lines and I just keep going. The story is already done
in my head and I’m basically transcribing by that point. I do it that way now,
because that’s how it needed to happen then or it wasn’t getting done. And it
not getting done is unacceptable to me. Since I still don’t have a lot of time,
I’m still outlining in my head. At least when I have stolen moments, I can write
like a demon and not have to waste time plotting.
Wisconsin’s landscape has a been a HUGE source of inspiration for my fantasy fiction. Your first novel, Blood Runner, is set in Canada—just like you! Do you find yourself utilizing special places from your life for settings in your stories, or is the landscape itself a muse?
I’d say it’s more the landscape that’s the muse. There’s a few countries I have a huge affinity for, for no particular reason, though more in the historical sense – ancient Ireland, Britain, Rome, Egypt, Sumer, Japan. I’ve studied a lot about them over time, so have a lot of fodder in my head for inspiration. I can’t go to those places, because the ancient versions I want to visit no longer exist. So instead, I use them to write from. Being immersed in one of those places is like taking a visit back in time to me. It’s cool, like owning your own time machine, y’know?
In the grand scheme of things, Canada isn’t that old and doesn’t fit in with the
affinity I have for some of those other ancient places. But the forests here are
old and I do love that. The trees and rocks have been around a very long while.
There’s forest here with trees hundreds of years old and the Canadian
Shield is right underneath us and that’s been there since the last
ice age. How cool is that? I’ve spent a lot of time in the forests, so love to
write about them. Thinking about them is uplifting to me. I’m big on nature overall
and love to write longhand outdoors when that’s possible. I find that very
inspirational, sitting outside under a tree scratching words out.
What kind of research do you do, and how long do you spend researching before beginning a book?
Well, I’m a research junkie, so I’m doing research all the time, often not even toward a purpose, but because I love it. I have so much useless information in my head. So, the length of time I study is moot. With that much constant input, my subconscious has a tendency to make connections between seemingly unrelated things while I’m busy with life. When one of those connected circumstances bubbles up, that’s when I sometimes do extra research to fill in the holes. I can’t write about anything until I can speak about it with authority and I need to have it all in my head before I start. It’s what we do as writers, isn’t it? Become forty-eight hour experts on anything from rocket science to earth worms. When I know enough, then I write. To get to that point could be a few weeks, but could also be years. Since I don’t work on only one story at once, it’s always in rotation.
I do a lot of book studying, but depending
on what I need, also do practical study. Fight scenes or any hand combat, for
instance, I do, in fact, act out to make sure they’re plausible. I’m lucky, because
my eldest son does stunt work and is a multi-disciplined martial artist,
swordsman, archer and edge weapon aficionado. He helps me physically block out
my fight scenes for authenticity. I’ve done an extreme conditions survival
course where they drop you in the forest in the middle of winter and you need
to build a shelter, fire, find food and the like. I love camping and living off
the land and know how to fish and clean animals and find edible forage. I had
an organic garden when the kids were growing up, but it wasn’t only that – it
was major practical study. I read up on everything about crop rotation, pioneer
techniques for vegetable gardening, organic pest control and composting,
practiced it everyday, became a Master Composter, and tracked the results and
weather patterns complete with sketches in a large binder over all the years I
had it and still have that research data for reference. I also study, make and
use herbal remedies myself, so that’s ongoing, and have a great interest in
living off the grid, so currently practicing those behaviours as I work in that
direction. Over time, anything I needed to know about, I taught myself and
picked up that skill from jewellery-making to calligraphy to hand quilting to
home renovation to ceramics to building a hydro generator in a stream.
When the zombie apocalypse happens and it’s
end of times? You can come with. I plan on building a town. Only people I like
get to live there. 😉
I also find it interesting that you created a fresh take on vampires. How much research did you do on vampires before choosing the path you took for Blood Runner?
I’ve been a big Anne Rice fan for a long time and loved Bram Stoker’s Dracula, but actual vampire research for that story? Zero. Is that bad? I had actually been stuffing my head full of Ancient history and mythology from Egypt and Babylon for another story. And me being me, kept going backward in time, because for whatever reason, it became important I got to the root mythology and first organisation of city-states and society. That history fascinated the holy crap out of me and still does. When I studied the bits of translated mythology available at the time (there’s more now), I couldn’t stop. For whatever reason, I couldn’t leave it alone.
There’s a myth about a man who cannot eat or drink. And in their mythology, a dead body can be reanimated by the Water of Life – blood. To me, that sounded like some kind of proto-vampire. I stitched elements of a few myths together to create the premise. Gave him a nemesis, a real historical figure in the invading Akkadian king Naram-Sin who was painted in myth as pure evil and cursed by the head of the pantheon. The Great God Enlil’s disdain for humanity was so well-documented as was a whole soap opera of inter-family pantheon conflict, the story told itself. It turned into a tale of mistaken vampire identity.
I still have so much story left that never
made it into Blood Runner, a whole universe. I think once I’m done getting it
out, it’ll lose its association with vampires and people will see what it
really is. Vampires are cool and I love them, but that’s not the story focus,
so I really didn’t need the depth of research in that area I might have
otherwise. It was only a device.
Your latest book, The Seer, is about a Druid named Bronan, and I see you yourself are a Bardic Druid. I would love to hear how your spiritual nature influences your writing; or, would you consider your storytelling to be its own “faith,” as it were? I can’t help but ask because I myself am a Christian, but I rarely include elements related to faith in my fiction. Severed Selves, you could say.
I don’t think I can separate those things, because it’s both – inspiration as well as the storytelling being its own brand of sacredness, since words come from the soul. I’m lucky, from the fantasy writer side of things, because Druids and magic are popular story topics with readers. I know a lot about modern Druids and history and mythology, so can speak with some authority in that space. Besides, people love that stuff. And why not? I’m just like everyone else – the ancient Druids are just as mysterious and fascinating to me, because there’s really so little known about them. And magic is, well, magical!
I write foremost to amuse myself and being
immersed in those magical worlds is escapism. Right up there with dreaming of
flying and imagining we’re superheroes when we’re kids, right? I mean, it’s a
sad fact that the more life imposes arbitrary boundaries and traps us in expectations
and responsibilities, we lose those dreams. It’s limiting. I think we need to escape
into times of unfettered brainspace to balance off all the other crap. Druidry
is the continuous responsibility to keep balance on a cosmic level and this is
exactly the same thing to me. When we can immerse ourselves in a world where
those boundaries aren’t grinding us down, even for only the length of time it
takes to finish reading a story, we can regain some inner balance and
perspective. As a reader, I love that. And as an author? I consider it a public
Words are my medium as a Bardic Druid, my
divination, and how I connect with universal consciousness. I walk the path of
knowledge, so seek out universal truths, those things that are real and true for
everyone. That’s where we all connect, so goes hand-in-hand with taking a
reader on a journey. A lot of my writing to amuse myself is speculative, where
I’m figuring these things out and pushing down my own thought barriers. As a
Druid, I embrace the responsibility to maintain balance, speak the truth and especially
to oppose injustice and be an agent of fairness for everyone around me. I’ve
been told that makes me some kind of throwback, dying on a hill of my own moral
code, and they may be right. But to me, treating people right and standing up
against wrong is simply the right thing to do and not because of a prize at the
end. I know all this stuff influences my writing and you can see it leaking out.
In the sense of all that, being a writer is more than a job to me. It’s rolled
into my spiritual path and there’s no way to tell where one ends and one
I think the biggest influence on my writing
is probably hyper-awareness about what I’m capturing in words. To me, words are
so much more than only letters arranged on a page. The writing should be real
and true, should be honest, and should allow us, as human beings, to meet there
on common ground. We can laugh together, get riled-up together, cry together, I
can lift people up and that’s all about keeping balance. Speaking about
injustice within the confines of a fictional story is giving voice to it, but
in a way less uncomfortable to explore. I can write about universal truth. Or
that, in fact, we’re all the reluctant hero, working through our own
myriad life crap and evolving as we go while learning to step up about bad
things even when we don’t want to. It’s easy to relate to, because we’re all on
that same journey. In that way, we can connect with people we’ll never know on
a very deep, emotional level. That’s so powerful, y’know?
Magic is simply intention charged with our own energy and that’s carried into writing for a writer. From our perspective, there’s an element of sacredness to it, because we do, in fact, tear those words out of our soul to get them on the page. Whether we know it consciously or not, that ability through writing is the greatest magic there is. If you want to get super existential about it… From that perspective?
Lastly, do you have any tips or encouragement for your fellow writers?
Wait, yes. If you’re not already lost down
that road, take an ice cream scoop and dig out that part of your brain telling
you it’s a good idea and go get a real job. You’ll thank me later.
Seriously, though, remember you’re playing
a long game. If you’re doing it to become rich next week and can’t understand
why you’re not famous after your first six months? Take your ball and go home.
While that would be lovely, that’s not the reality for most writers. You really
do have to do it, because you get something out of it, out of the creation. You
have to do it, because it makes you sacrifice for it and you don’t care about
that. You have to do it, because you can’t think about not doing it or
you’ll go insane or die. If that’s not where you live? Adjust your sails and
get that ship on course. And newsflash, you have to actually love writing or
you won’t stick with it through the length of time it takes. I’ve seen some
“writers” who apparently woke up one day and thought they’d become famous and
make millions of dollars at writing after having never written a day in their
life previous to that. They thought it looked like an easy gig. *Cue massive
I’ve been a working writer, writing every
day, mostly for others and getting paid for it, for over thirty-five years. Did
it make me famous? Nope. It kept the lights on and bought groceries and clothes
for the kids. And yet? It’s fantastic to me, because I made money doing the
thing I love the most. How many people can say that? With the kids now grown, recently
I shifted to focus on only my writing and that new reality takes time to build.
No matter how much previous experience I have, it doesn’t matter. I’m fully
prepared for the length of time that comes with creating a new reality. You’re
no different coming in thirty-five-odd years behind me. Creating any new
reality takes time and that’s where you have to live in your head every day. My
goal now is the same as when I started back in college – do the thing I love every
day and aspire to make that my entire supporting income. If you don’t, you’re
going to have a lot of heartache and frustration. I think that’s a solid,
realistic and attainable goal adjustment for new writers to make.
Ask yourself if you want to be famous or successful – they’re two very different things. Thinking about becoming famous is setting yourself up for disappointment. Think about becoming successful instead. Don’t waste energy on whether anyone else is getting famous or rich before you and put all your focus and energy into honing your craft. Other writers aren’t your competition, dude, they’re your compatriots. Stop worrying about their pay check and worry about your own. Good writing means you can get paid, so never think you’re a good enough writer. That self-doubt can be your continued catalyst – it makes you extra careful about what you’re putting down there on the page and prevents you wasting time churning out garbage no one’s ever going to give you money for. I live in a constant state of terror myself. LOL If you keep your head down that way, you’ll end up becoming a polished, hard-working, consistent producer which is exactly where you want to be even if that magical fame unicorn never makes a stop at your house. Plain and simple, success takes hard work and hard work produces better writing.
It does indeed, JD. Thanks so much for chatting with me!
Despite all the amassed resources and ideas all around, there seems to be an insurmountable physical obstacle. For Plankton, it’s his size. For me, it’s being a mom during the summer months in the United States, when kids are home nearly all day. Oh, I plan on getting them to read and write as much as possible (Bash is reading to me from the Owl Diaries as I type this very post). But there’s no denying the time crunch to cram whatever writing AND school work I can into the few morning hours they spend at the school. (More on their accomplishments in a future post, including a sample of Blondie’s photography!)
So this month’s world-building post is going to cheat, just a smidge. I’d like to compare how a classic novel and a more recent film each utilized words and/or visuals they felt the audience would understand to help engage them in the story’s world. One accomplishes this brilliantly.
The other, not so much. (To me, anyway. I get this is all subjective. Moving on!)
Let’s start with the beloved first paragraph of The Hobbit, including one of the best first lines in literature.
In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.
Consider that phrase “hole in the ground.” Lots of us know holes: rabbit holes, construction holes, water holes, badger holes, snake holes, buried treasure holes, etc etc etc.
But a “hobbit”? What the heck’s a hobbit? Considering what we know about holes, we imagine it to be some sort of digging creature, maybe a mole or some such beast. Certainly not one to wear clothes and enjoy afternoon tea.
(Unless, of course, you’re Mole from Wind in the Willows.)
The rest of the paragraph continues to lead readers away from their presumptions about holes and establishes that a hobbit hole is nothing like they we know as far as holes go. Once given the line “it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort,” readers immediately begin associating other things they know, this time the focus on familiar comfortable things, and building them into the hole.
Tolkien, of course, helps readers accomplish this with the second paragraph. No flying into adventure or action here; readers take their time entering the hobbit-hole and peering about.
It had a perfectly round door like a porthole, painted green, with a shiny yellow brass knob in the exact middle. The door opened on to a tube-shaped hall like a tunnel: a very comfortable tunnel without smoke, with panelled walls, and floors tiled and carpeted, provided with polished chairs, and lots and lots of pegs for hats and coats–the hobbit was fond of visitors….No going upstairs for the hobbit: bedrooms, bathrooms, cellars, pantries (lots of these), wardrobes (he had whole rooms devoted to clothes), kitchens, dining-rooms, all were on the same floor, and indeed on the same passage…
Readers, especially young readers, understand what halls are. They understand what kitchens are, bathrooms, all the rest. By providing the hobbit with rooms and possessions readers know from their own lives, readers can quickly and easily build the The Hobbit‘s setting in their own imaginations.
Another tactic Tolkien often utilizes in telling The Hobbit is directly addressing the readers.
This hobbit was a very well-to-do hobbit, and his name was Baggins. The Bagginses had lived in the neighbourhood of The Hill for time out of mind, and people considered them very respectable, not only because most of them were rich, but also because they never had any adventures or did anything unexpected: you could tell what a Baggins would say on any question without the bother of asking him. This is a story of how a Baggins has an adventure, and found himself doing and saying things altogether unexpected. He may have lost the neighbours’ respect, but he gained–well, you will see whether he gained anything in the end.
Readers have not even met this Baggins yet, but once again they can put their own knowledge to use: the humdrum uncle, for instance, that always plays life safe, or the old man down the street that goes through the same routine every gosh darn day.
In other words: boring. Kids know what boring looks like, and they’ll paint this Baggins fellow up with all the shades of boring they know. Tolkien starts readers on common ground so that when he’s ready to share the details of what they don’t know–like what a hobbit looks like–the readers can more easily integrate these details into their personal visualizations of the story.
Yet using common ground to engage the audience at story’s beginning can go wrong. Very wrong.
Enter 2018’s Robin Hood.
It’s an adventurous tale of heroes and villains, justice and evil. We all know the plot’s rhythm, the characters’ harmonies.
This film begins with a CGI book titled Robin Hood. The book opens to a stark black and white illustration of a town (and their artsy credits) an unseen narrator tells us: “So, I would tell you what year it was, but I can’t actually remember. I could bore you with the history, but you wouldn’t listen. What I can tell you is this is the story of a thief. But it doesn’t begin with the thief you know.”
So like The Hobbit, Robin Hood starts with a direct address to the audience. Unlike Tolkien’s narrator, who walks hand in hand with readers into the story, helping them find their footing in its fantasy world, the film’s narrator treats its audience with a bit of condescension–I’d explain things, but it’s not like you’d really listen, right? You think you know this story? Well you don’t! Ha!
The opening scene shows a lady in a buxom dress, sheer veil, and dolled-up face sneaking into a barn to steal a horse from the “toff” (ugh, the American accent takes all the fun out of that word) who lives there. The “toff” who catches her is–ta da! Rob. He gives her the horse for her name. Ta da! Marian.
In comes the narrator again, showing Marian and Robin being all cute and playful. “Seasons passed. They were young, in love, and that was all that mattered. Until the cold hand of fate reached out for them.”
The audience watches hands sign some curious paper, hands coming out some super-smooth grey leather sleeves.
The narrator continues to speak while a messenger takes all these ominous letters from Grey Sleeves and enters the town. Grey Sleeves stands up and whirls his giant Matrix-ish long coat around as he walks towards a balcony. The messenger continues into town; the town reminds me of something from a Renaissance Faire, a mix of periods for color, stone, and wood.
“He stole from the rich and gave to the poor. He became a bedtime story. But listen. Forget history. Forget what you’ve seen before. Forget what you think you know. This is no bedtime story.”
At long last, we are shown a huge metropolis that we can only presume is Nottingham, which is later called “the Bank of the Church, the beating heart of the Crusades“.
Not that viewers ever feel this depth of city, as they only experience one, maybe two streets the entire film.
All the curious papers are draft notices for the Crusades. So the audience is shuttled ahead four years to a stealthy unit of soldiers all dressed in sand-colored armor. It’s all sniper fire with arrows, complete with several repeating crossbows that act more like machine guns–yes, sound effects included.
The filmmakers have told viewers to “forget all you know,” removing the medieval style of warfare they’ve seen before so it can be replaced with scenes strongly eliciting scenes of modern-day conflict in the Middle East.
When Rob returns to Nottingham and finds Tuck, who’s ecstatic he’s alive even though viewers have never seen these two together before and therefore have no clue how deep or strong this friendship is, they learn ANOTHER two years have passed. Tuck dumps a bunch of exposition about the war tax and how the Sheriff has forced many townspeople to work in the mines.
You know, the mines that look like something out of Bladerunner, what with the towering exhausts of flames built into the endless frame of the mountain.
And at this point, I just had to give up trying to figure out this world.
The opening narration told me to forget what I knew. Yet the opening scenes of the film insisted on showing me characters in modernized dress and modern cosmetics. For all the exposition about war tax driving people into poverty, they show plenty of clean streets. Sure, the people are all sooty from the mines. Mining for what? How do John and Rob jury rig so many ropes and pulleys into a frickin’ firing range in the old manor? Where the heck does food come from around here? How is a Sheriff living in a frickin’ palace that makes the castle in Prince of Thieves look like a rat hole?
If Robin Hood really wanted its audience to “forget all they knew,” then MAKE THEM FORGET. You want all the modern flair in an olden time? Go all out in a sub-genre like steam punk. How awesome would it be to see Robin with an array of amazing crossbows, Little John with a clockwork arm, or the Sheriff’s stronghold as some air-fortress circling Nottingham?
But the filmmakers didn’t want viewers to forget, not really. They wanted people engaged in the story, but today’s audiences don’t understand the medieval period, right? So throw some modern music in, make even the poor commoners capable of dolling themselves up in velvet and smooth fitted leather. Sure, the coins can be old, and people can ride horses. The font on their draft notices can be printed in medieval font so they look old (seriously, those things look like they’re printed from a computer). But nothing in this world feels old. I kept waiting for the Sheriff to check his phone for a text from the Cardinal. Jeez, DC’s Green Arrow is more medieval than this Robin Hood.
Don’t even get me started on how Muslim John can move around Nottingham with ease even after the Sheriff’s fear-mongering speech. He is the ONLY man of color in the city, and nooooobody ever pays him any mind.
Of course writers shouldn’t just go and do what’s already been done. How boring that would be! But there’s a difference between building world-bridges and burning them. Tolkien took elements of modern life that the audience would know and used them to help readers connect to The Hobbit‘s world of fantasy. The crew behind Robin Hood wanted everything to look cool, but that’s all it could do–“look” cool. There’s no age to the sets, no life beyond what the camera shows us. Audiences are left wondering how these peasants can dress so elegantly, why the Crusades look more like the Iraq war, why NO CIVILIANS seem to actually LIVE anywhere (again, just…Loxley’s manor and the Middle Eastern town, apparently, are tooooooooooooooooootally uninhabited). They told us to forget what we know, yet took exactly what we know from the here and now and did their damndest to stuff the Robin Hood story into it.
Gah, now I’m just rambling.
I love the story of The Hobbit. I love the story of Robin Hood. As a reader, I’m always ready to run headlong into these fantastic adventures because I want that escape from the humdrum everyday of the here and now. I don’t want to see the here and now used as some sort of tape to patch the fantasy together. No audience wants to see the tape hanging over the edges, blurring what’s underneath.
Only the beautiful fantasy world built with love, with time, and with care.
Thanks for following me through this meandering post! Next month’s posts shall be a bit more whimsical, as I’ve got interviews, marshes, creativity, and point of view ponderings to share.
Oh! And hopefully I’ll have everything set with the free fiction of the month and a newsletter, too. Have anything you’d like to share and/or plug? Let me know!
I’ve not known James Cudney IV as long as Blondie, but he is without a doubt one of the most avid book bloggers I know, and a fellow mystery lover, to boot! I just had to have him for an interview to help celebrate the upcoming release of his latest installment in the Braxton Campus Mystery series.
Let’s have some niceties first! Tell us a bit about yourself, please.
It’s always the general questions which stump me; where does one begin? I’ll be brave and take a chance here. I’m 42 and live in NYC. I worked in technology and project management for ~15 years before leaving my job and writing my first book two-and-a-half years ago. I’d always wanted to do it but never had the time, until I found myself starting over again. I absolutely do not regret the decision, as I was a walking ball of stress before this new career. I’m still open to going back to an office job, but it will be something very different, if I ever do. That said, I am a homebody and more of an introvert. I tend to follow a routine, but every once in a while, I surprise people with my choices. I spend a lot of time thinking about things before I ever tell others what’s going on inside my head, so when I do… it often seems to others like a quick decision. I’m a much happier person now that I’m writing and being creative. I still get stressed over editing and marketing, but it’s a very different type of monster. With no ‘real’ boss (okay, every reader IS my boss), I have more freedom to take chances on things. Luckily, my other half and our puppy keep me sane!
It says on your bio that you’ve done an extensive study of your family history. That is so fascinating! I’ve a distant cousin doing that very thing, and he’s so far discovered that our great-grandparents (or great-great? I get lost in all the great’s) were put in an internment camp in Wisconsin during World War 1 because they had German names. Is there a surprising story from your own family research you’d like to share?
Genealogy is my favorite hobby! I am an only child, so I often spent time with my aunts, uncles, and grandparents rather than siblings. It developed a curiosity about the past, and since I am an introvert, I research everything. When a grandfather passed away, I connected with a long-lost cousin who attended his funeral and shared family history. I began researching it on my own, and now almost 25 years later, I’ve gone back to the 1700s for several branches. Don’t worry, I still get confused on second cousin and first cousin once removed, et al. I know the rules, but I’m less of a stickler for those details as I am finding the exact locations of an ancestor’s birth and death. It’s amazing and scary what you can discover about the past. Interment camps? That’s awful, and fortunately, I don’t know of anything like that in my family. I do have a German great-grandfather who had to change his last name. From what I understand, he had been caught up with the mob and gambling debts while he was a boxer. He disappeared and divorced a wife and three children (in the 1910s) only to resurface two years later with a new wife, name, job (beers / bars), and kids (one of which was my grandmother). I wish I knew the whole story, but the little that’s been retained is fascinating.-
Oh wow…now THAT is the stuff of story, to be sure! I bet you could create a whole wold around your great-grandfather–your own sort of literary journey into your family past. What other literary pilgrimages have you gone on?
Interesting question! Do you mean as a writer or a reader? And literally or figuratively! 🙂 Wait, who’s asking the questions here… I should be a better interviewee, huh?
Ha! Behave yourself, Sir, or I’ll force you to babysit my sons. Mwa ha ha!
Ahem. Anyway, you were saying…
I’ve never traveled to research a setting for a book or to visit a place I’ve read about. I have traveled a lot in the past, but when I go away, I tend not to read or write. I immerse myself in culture and relaxation. That said… a pilgrimage is like taking a risk toward something you believe strongly in. For me, that would be mysteries and cozy little towns. When I find a series and author I like, I tend to read everything all at once. I did that with the ‘Cat Who’ books by Lilian Jackson Braun; they were one of my first addictions in the sub-genre. 2019 is the year of catching up for me, so I’m saying ‘no’ to most new books and series, allowing enough time to get fully caught up on my TBR before adding to it again.
I don’t blame you for focusing on your TBR list. You have read a lot of books. Like, a TON of books. 500 reviews?! That’s AMAZING! So of course, I have to ask: Have you ever gotten reader’s block? If so, how did you overcome it?
When I was working full-time, I barely read a book every two weeks. Now, I’m able to read a few each week. In 2017, I began using Goodreads much more. I wrote a book review for everything I could remember from the past. I also wrote one as soon as I finished reading a new book. As of today, I’m at about 850, but I’m definitely forgetting hundreds from the past. I have gotten reader’s block a few times in the last 2+ years since I set my Goodreads Challenge in the 150+ books range. It often happens when I am writing my own book, then try to step away for a break. I find myself reading the book to find styles I like or ways to improve my editing, as opposed to just relaxing to enjoy a good book. In that way, writing books has ruined reading books for me. Sometimes, I also find myself just too tired to read, or in need of something vastly different so that I can escape. I won’t ever DNR (Did Not Read) a book. I try a few times, then put it aside and try again a month later. If it’s still not working, I’ll skim it and write a brief review, explaining why it didn’t work for me. If it’s a book an author specifically asked me to read, I won’t review it; I’ll share with them why I struggled and let them decide how to handle it. I don’t ever want to hurt another author if for some reason I’m just not in the right place to read that book.
That’s perfectly understandable, James. I like reading for escape from my genre, too; I love writing fantasy, but it’s so lovely to read mysteries for a little break. And indie authors do NOT have it easy out there in the virtual bookstore, so it’s wonderful that you focus on helping fellow writers rather than put them down.
All this reading and writing must mean you’re keeping a pretty sharp eye on the publishing industry. What do you consider to be the most unethical practice in the publishing industry, and what can we as writers do about it?
Excellent question! I do pay attention, but at the same time, I’ve always believed in doing what you feel is best and ignoring the status quo. For better or worse, the market is super flooded now. Anyone can write a book, which is good and bad. Reading is cheaper, given sites like NetGalley and electronic books; however, the quality of a book is much more questionable when it hasn’t gone through a rugged process to ensure it’s top notch. All I mean by that is that it’s a lot harder to choose books to read nowadays. Some indie books are WAY better than traditionally published books, and some traditionally published books have awful editing processes. For me, it really comes down to the book’s genre, summary, and themes. I don’t read reviews other people write anymore. Let me clarify that… I read reviews my friends write because I support them, but I don’t read reviews before deciding whether to read a book or not. Other people’s opinions have such a range… after reading over 1000 books, I trust my own judgment when choosing what to read. That said, I think the most unethical practice is probably paying for reviews when the book hasn’t actually been read. I’m totally in support of paying someone to read your book and write an honest review; however, if you pay sites to post bunches of positive reviews when the book wasn’t read, it’s not very honest and fair. I understand the desire to do it — you need positive reviews when you first get started, so that part makes sense. But there are better ways to accomplish it, in my opinion. My best suggestion to counter it is find friendly reviewers and ask for their help before paying for fake reviews.
Excellent advice! We have to keep in mind that readers can be very particular with their tastes; what could be a beautiful story to one could be a mangled mess to another.Plus, you know who can/will appreciate your own shift in writing tastes.Your first two novels, Watching Glass Shatter and Father Figure, are both pretty dark dramas when compared to the lighter tone of your Braxton Campus mysteries. What inspired this shift? Do you think you’ll ever shift away from cozies and into the darker realm once more?
I actually have the answer to these questions, phew! I have ZERO clue why I started with a dark family drama before a cozy mystery. I read cozies so much, how on earth did I not go with what I knew! The easy explanation is that Watching Glass Shatter stemmed from a dream I HAD to develop. It took me a year to finish the book and find a publisher. At the same time, I had been building my blog and decided to let my followers choose the scope of my second book. I published a post with 5 or 6 story ideas, then let votes decide. They picked Father Figure, another dark drama. I finished writing and publishing it in April 2018, then decided it was time to write a cozy. I’d published that I was planning to write a sequel to Watching Glass Shatter in late 2018 / early 2019, but I got sidetracked and wrote 4 books in the cozy mystery series because I saw the power of marketing behind a series, and the ideas kept flowing. At the same time, I fleshed out the plot for the Watching Glass sequel and began drafting the outline. I’m happy to report that I’ve begun writing it already. My plan is to publish the fifth cozy in the Braxton series in October 2019, as it will be a Halloween-themed mystery. Then, I will focus on the Watching Glass sequel with a mid 2020 target release. At the same time, I’m working on another mystery series, but it will not be considered cozy. I intend to write a book in all major genres if I can motivate myself even more this year!
Yowza, what a goal! But clearly, mysteries have pride of place in your heart. Was it a mystery novel that first sparked the storytelling passion inside you? If so, which story and why?
It began with Poe and Christie. I love solving puzzles, and being part of the story by playing detective is an amazing way to connect with the author. I also like secrets, at least in terms of trying to discover what someone else is keeping from me. I am not a secretive person myself, probably the opposite – I say too much! It’s definitely my go-to genre, so when I wrote my first book, it was about a family full of secrets. It wasn’t a typical mystery, e.g. in terms of “let’s solve who killed someone.” It was also an analysis of the impact of an emotional explosion on a family with real people we might know around us. My favorite mystery is Christie’s “And Then There Were None.” I recall reading and watching it in school when I was about 10 years old, then guessing the killer before (s)he was revealed. I had a inkling about the way the story was being written, and my intuition paid off… that pretty much clarified for me what type of reader I am.
To me, mysteries are a genre that do not allow for pantsing, but planning, planning, and MORE planning. Can you take us through your writing process for building strong mysteries?
I am definitely a planner. Once an idea formulates, I jot notes down on my phone, since it often happens when I’m out and about (which I dislike, since I said I was a homebody) or waking up from a dream. Once it’s strong enough to organize into a summary, I’ll prepare a 150-word overview. Then, I’ll write an larger outline. I begin with a bullet list of key plot points, then descriptions of characters. Once I know the details of the victim, I create the suspect list, including red herrings and real clues. From there, I create the 10 to 15 key scenes that will help readers solve the crime. I organize the timeline for all the events, then I break the detail into chapter by chapter summaries. Each chapter has 2 or 3 scenes. Each scene lists the characters and settings, as well as what info needs to be discovered and what open questions must arise. From there, it turns into a ~30-page outline that I read several times. This process takes about a week at most. Then I write 2 chapters per day, ignoring the desire to edit. After the first draft is written, I read it and rewrite a new outline without looking at the old one. I do this to see how much has changed, as this helps me figure out areas that are weak and strong. It’s back and forth at that point. I have a weird memory: I forget tons of things from the past, but I’ll remember every arc, red herring, or clue that need to be followed up on. It’s rare I leave anything open-ended in a first draft, but sometimes there are a few unresolved issues. I merge the two outlines, decide what new scenes need to occur and finish my second draft. At that point, editing takes over, then early alpha and beta readers help me identify when I need more suspense or stronger alibis and motives.
Thank goodness for trusted readers–and for this wonderful chat! Would you like to wrap this up with some encouragement for your fellow writers?
I was an English major in college. I’ll say right from the start, I know 90% of the grammar rules but have forgotten a few. I majored in English not because I wanted to be a walking grammar expert but because I enjoy reading and connecting with authors. I LOVE when a reader writes a review on a book and only talks about a grammar issue. I’ve had two where the reviewer only wrote “This books needed to go through more editing.” I laughed because that’s such a ‘useful’ review. I’m all for negative or constructive feedback and criticism, but what a reviewer writes is often a bigger characteristic of them as a person rather than the writer. An author takes 1000+ hours to write a book, not including all the other people that help her or him. A reader takes 30 seconds to write a review and chooses to be mean. There will always be people like that. They are the same people who bullied others. They are the same people who hide behind the Internet and couldn’t actually say it to your face. They are the same people who are probably miserable at home or like to hurt others because they can’t solve their own problems. That’s something I’d like to share with the rest of the writing community — People can be mean, but you need to ignore them when they are hurtful.
If there’s nothing valuable in their review, let it go and write your next book.
On the positive side, as I want to end the interview that way, writers have the best job in the world. They can do anything they want. They can use it for good to promote awareness or provide entertainment. They can use it to help themselves process through pain or emotions. They can use it to make an income. They can use it to express creativity and ideas inside their head that yearn to be released. Aren’t we lucky? I also love how we all support one another and promote each other’s work rather than think of it is as a competition. That’s the best kind of world to live in. So thank YOU!
And thank YOU, James, for all that you do! You’re a wonderful fellow writer and supporter in these crazy publishing waters. I’m sure your latest mystery, Mistaken Identity Crisis, is going to be awesome!
BLURB: A clever thief with a sinister calling card has invaded Braxton campus. A string of jewelry thefts continues to puzzle the sheriff given they’re remarkably similar to an unsolved eight-year-old case from shortly before Gabriel vanished one stormy night. When a missing ruby is discovered near an electrified dead body during the campus cable car redesign project, Kellan must investigate the real killer in order to protect his brother. Amidst sorority hazing practices and the victim’s connections to several prominent Wharton County citizens, a malicious motive becomes more obvious and trickier to prove. As if the latest murder isn’t enough to keep him busy, Kellan partners with April to end the Castigliano and Vargas crime family feud. What really happened to Francesca while all those postcards showed up in Braxton? The mafia world is more calculating than Kellan realized, and if he wants to move forward, he’ll have to make a few ruthless sacrifices. Election Day is over, and the new mayor takes office. Nana D celebrates her 75th birthday with an adventure. A double wedding occurs at Crilly Lake on Independence Day. And Kellan receives a few more surprises as the summer heat begins to settle in Wharton County.
Perhaps it’s the video of boys that connected me so quickly and so completely to this song. I see the parents desperately saving their son at the end, and my mind races to when I came so close to losing my own, each in different ways.
I had to learn more about this creator of narrative music.
Ludovico Einaudi is Italian born and bred; like me, his love of music is rooted down and in with his love of family. A scholarship to the Tanglewood Music Festival exposed him to the blossoming movement of American minimalism (a style developed in part by another favorite of mine, Philip Glass). He’s been composing music for stage and screen since the 1980s, but has also produced solo albums, the first–le Onde—being inspired by Virginia Woolf’s short stories.
How curious to listen to a man inspired by fiction to compose music while his music inspires me to compose fiction!
Here’s a lovely example of the minimalism present in one of his more recent albums, Elements.
I’m so happy to have found a live version of this song for the visual of this minimalism. No orchestra here–just a piano, a violin, a cello, a guitar, and a percussionist. Yet with these few instruments, you feel the world about you fill with sound, trickle-slow, like water moving through a child’s crafted wall of river stones. This steady build fits beautifully with the rise of tension in a scene, or of a character’s resolve to face the darkness.
Like young Lucy opening a wardrobe door to another world, Einaudi’s “Primavera” welcomes us into another world of magic created by trills and arpeggios–fitting touches in a melody for a song entitled “Spring.” And because spring is not always a delicate season, Einaudi makes the wise choice of building the strings up at the 2:00 minute mark to send them cascading like a downpour upon us. They run up like lighting, the bass notes rumble as thunder, and we are left standing in the deluge until the harp arrives to soften the rainfall and crack the clouds.
Einaudi’s talent for building darker worlds can be found in another album, In a Time Lapse.
It is another song that builds, yes, but there’s a menace this time. The relentless snare drum forces us forward on whether we wish to or not. At roughly 2:00 a violin cries out, a plea for…for what? A plea to listen, to change, to stop. There’s tragedy in that relentless march, and if we don’t escape, we will lose our hope. The lone piano that ends the song tells me…well. What it tells me and what it tells you may be two different things.
That’s one of the great beauties of narrative music: interpretation.
Music is a life-force. It moves our hearts to beat, our souls to breathe. May Einaudi’s compositions beat in your characters’ hearts and breathe across the fantasy-scapes of your worlds with all the magic of a thunderstorm on a summer’s eve.
Stay tuned for author interviews galore! We’re going to learn more about some beautiful historical fiction set in World War II, a cracking cozy mystery, and a series of Young Adult novels set in the cut-throat world of horse-racing.
Blondie finished the school year with a straight-A report card. She was particularly proud of her last story for writing class: “The Invention that Changed the Chicken World.” It’s a suspenseful tale of action and intrigue as Zach, a lowly chicken residing on a dairy farm on the slopes of Mount St. Helens, discovers that special rocks from the volcano will help him build a jet pack. He successfully builds a model only to be discovered by a nefarious squirrel…well here, you read it:
Little did Zach know that two sinister eyes were watching from the trees. Later Zach was walking back to the coop when suddenly, a squirrel jumped in the way! He was wearing an eyepatch on his right eye! Worst of all, he was pointing a GUN AT HIM!!!
“Gimme your rocks, sonny. Then you can have anything you want,” said the squirrel calmly.
“What do you want with MY rocks? Go get your own!” shouted Zach. The squirrel leaped at him, took the rocks, adn sprinted away. Chickens, you might say, aren’t very fast. Zach, however, was just the opposite. Zach ran like a lightning bolt and caught up with the squirrel and took the rocks.
Blondie, “The Invention that Changed the Chicken World”
The tale continues, but Blondie refuses to read it out loud for me, the stinker. 🙂 Her story was such a hit with Biff and Bash that Biff even started his own story:
Blondie’s promised us all more stories about Zach the chicken this summer, and I’m excited to see Biff truly enjoy drawing and writing. Bash, meanwhile, is turning out some amazing creations with Lego; even we will set them apart so that no one else can wreck them.
But even though the kids are wrapping up their school year, my current term at the university has a ways to go. Plus, I’ve taken on a new job as substitute teaching aid at another town’s school district. It’ll help the family income, plus it gives me a chance to work with kids aged 4-18. If I want to write for these people, I should probably, you know, hang out with them’n’stuff…
(Side Question: Why the heck does anyone think four-year-olds can learn to walk on stilts? These kids can barely remember to use a kleenex, let alone tie shoes, and we trust them to walk with GIANT METAL RODS?!)
The plans had been to publish the entire series over the course of a few years, starting with Books 1 and 2 to come out pretty close to each other. We individually published six short stories over the summer and fall to help promote the first novel, and on October 31, 2018, Fallen Princeborn: Stolen hit the shelves.
Well. You might have noticed the second novel’s not out yet.
The folks at Aionios Books chose not to continue with my series.
Am I bummed? Of course I am. It feels like that moment in A Fistful of Dollars when Clint’s caught by the baddies after helping a girl escape. They beat him to a pulp, taking extra care to cripple his shooting hand. One look at him, and you’d think he’s a goner.
Only he’s not. He manages to escape despite his injuries and hides away in an old mine. Over the course of his recovery, he slowly, surely, tenaciously, teaches himself to shoot with his other hand.
Yeah, I may be down, but I’m a professional, dammit. It’s a wild world out there in indie publishing, and every fighter’s got to do what he/she can to survive. Aionios made the call they felt was best for them. So, we just need to do our own parts in helping Fallen Princeborn: Stolen stay alive while also adventuring off in our own directions.
In my case…well, first I’m learning to shoot with the other hand.
This means I’ve got to do a complete overhaul of my platform: website, social media, the whole kit’n’caboodle. Don’t be surprised if a link’s down one day and up the next–we’re talking years’ worth of posts to revise.
I intend to rework and re-release my six short stories of Tales in the River Vine.
I’m also excited to publish a new tale, a tale that hearkens to those wild days of territories stitched with railways and bounty hunters ready to kill for a few dollars more…
“Between you and me, I doubt they’ve got the know-how to outsmart Night’s Tooth.” Sheriff Jensen narrows his eyes at the poster like he could scare it. “No proper description of the man, and a modus operandi as bizarre as hell.”
“Why bizarre?” Sumac pulls the poster from its pin and stares thoughtfully at Night Tooth’s name.
Now the sheriff goes all quiet again, thinking. He’s really sizing Sumac up this time, like as not making sure Sumac’s not crazy as a loon. “Because they find bite marks in the rail cars’ walls, that’s why. This man’s got a wolf with him, somethin’ big as a bear and twice as smart.”
That’s a whap Sumac’s not expecting. No doubt his lady employer would have a good laugh over that one. “Well, as I see it, Sheriff, some creatures are born into killin’ like others are into dyin’. I reckon Night’s Tooth is of that first camp, wouldn’t you?”
The wind whistle-whines against the glass. Another train cries out from the rails beyond La Crosse’s commercial center.
Sumac smiles. He knows he doesn’t have to answer.
And, God-willing, before 2019 ends I’m going to publish the next installment of the Fallen Princeborn series.
The name sucks the air clean out of Charlotte’s mouth. Her lungs shrivel, her mind bleached like bones in the desert—
Someone stands out in the middle of the Wild Grasses. Pale arms hang perfectly still against a sparkly shirt. The breeze plays with red hair too bright to mistake. It carries the scent of bus and berries to Charlotte’s nose and stings her eyes to tears. A pink bubble inflates out of the mouth. Baby blues shine like search lights.
Pop. “I’m still waiting for you, Charlie.” Pop.
The Voice rushes to the bellows within Charlotte, brings air and feeling back to her lungs. One, two, don’t let Orna get to you.
Charlotte heaves a breath as deep as she can. Her legs don’t want to move, she can’t move, but she will move. She forces one foot forward, then another, commands her back to straighten, and she screams, “I know who you really are!” She chews the unsaid words “you bitch!” like gristle, wishing desperately to spit them out at The Lady wearing her sister’s shape like some Halloween costume. But even the shape of Anna forces the hateful speech to stick between Charlotte’s teeth. “Go back to your hole!”
should have died in the Pits, Charlie. She’s got something a lot worse planned
for you now.”
“’She’?” It was just a tiny word, but its reference jabs the Voice in Charlotte’s heart good’n’hard.
Blues grin like some damn playground secret.
“Don’t fuck with me, Orna.” Charlotte’s walking before she knows it, wading into the Wild Grasses, arms swaying fists, teeth clenched, “You’re the one never leaving this land alive, I swear!”
The berry and bubble gum stink to Charlotte’s nose now, all its pungent sour sweetness driving its way up into her sinuses and stinging behind her eyes.
More and more red hair blows over the Baby Blues, more hair than Anna ever had, and it grows longer, longer. She’s engulfed in hair like some Ginger-fied Cousin It.
Charlotte’s almost close enough to grab a lock and yank it off. “Take my sister off!” She lunges forward—
But Cairine’s teeth close upon Charlotte’s shirt, her nose a sharp chill on Charlotte’s neck. Cairine pulls Charlotte back as a bubble pops under all that impossible hair. A new voice grinds under Anna’s punctuated soprano:
“Let’s not rush. I’m still owed a sweetheart.”
Red hair spins round, tightens, stretches, into a giant red bubble. It floats above the wild grasses and pops to the echoes of girlish laughter.
In the meantime, I’m excited to spend June celebrating my dear friend Anne Clare–she’s releasing her debut novel this summer!
I’ve known Anne for decades, and like me, Anne’s been balancing teaching, family, and her writing life. For years she’s been researching and crafting a story that spans countless miles and years–just like our friendship. xxxxx
I am so, so proud of you, Anne!
I’ll be interviewing Anne and the impeccable James J. Cudney, who has another cozy mystery on its way to bookshelves next month.
What else lies in store? Oh, some world-building craft, methinks, and a study of the incredible Italian composer Ludovico Einaudi. I shared one composition of his weeks ago, but it haunts me still. Let this song carry you on its magic into next week, where we sit, and listen, and imagine together.