#WritingLife: The Neglected Garden

Gardening is really an extended form of reading, of history and philosophy. The garden itself has become like writing a book. I walk around and walk around. Apparently people often see me standing there and they wave to me and I don’t see them because I am reading the landscape.

Jamaica Kincaid

My love of nature is great, though my show of it is meager. The shadow of expectation, I suspect–my mother is an avid gardener with a number of bird feeders for the cardinals, orioles, woodpeckers, chickadees, and various other breeds flittering among Wisconsin’s trees. Those feeders are always stationed outside a window near the kitchen table, where no matter the season, my mother can enjoy her meal with the company of the nature she tends so lovingly.

My mom had a setup similar to this when we lived in the country. Noooo idea how she pulled this off.

Meanwhile, the bushes around my home have withered and died. Hostas–I think they’re hostas–have grown so wild and tangled in the back that I wouldn’t be surprised if the Rats of NIMH had made a second home beneath their roots. Our single shade tree’s losing its bark and many of its branches refuse to bud. Even the small potted cactus my mother had given me years ago for some sort of greenery in the house has long since died.

Years ago, I would simply blame all this botanical death on motherhood. I couldn’t focus on a garden with Biff and Bash running rampant. I couldn’t afford to garden when the basement flooded and we had to replace things like the furnace and air conditioner. I couldn’t afford to garden when the kids were in school because I was only working part-time and money’s needed elsewhere. I can’t afford to garden because I’m working full-time and time is always needed on the computer, not outside.

Yet my mother worked full-time all my life, and her gardens surrounding any home always thrived. Why?

The love was there. The passion. Just as she loved the beauty in growing things, I love the beauty of stories, of helping them grow. What has one to do with the other?

When I’m writing, I think about the garden, and when I’m in the garden I think about writing. I do a lot of writing by putting something in the ground.

Jamaica kincaid
This book is the inspiration for this post. 🙂

We do our damndest to bring nature to us through artificial means–ambiance videos of forest sounds, for instance. Pretty desktop pictures of gardens.

Yet no matter what pretty picture or sound we acquire on our screens, we’re drawn to our windows, to our doors, our porches. We want to feel the breeze that lifts the dandelion seeds to the air. We want to smell the fresh earth tilled by farmers beyond our borders. We want to see those first bright shoots of green reach for sunlight. We want to reach for that sunlight. We want our senses to revel in Nature because we want our readers to feel the worlds we create for them to explore.

We must break through that thick dark that buries us, and reach. We must break through, and grow.

The gardener just has to accept that gardening is not a set-it-and-forget-it activity…A gardener must know his plot. He must think about what he wants it to look like. Then it is the daily cultivation that leads to beauty, in a landscape and a life, too.

Laura Vanderkam

No small feat, this.

The soil and all its mysteries, the shadow of my own mother’s accomplishments–I find myself taking small steps into tending nature. Caring for birds felt a safer, easier place to start. After all, it’s just a matter of supplying birdseed, yes? Plenty of wild birdseed to be had. But then there’s all those specialized suets and seeds for special birds, special feeders for different breeds. Damn, there’s a lot to work out. I begin with a general birdfeeder and a suet holder for the woodpeckers.

I need this birdfeeder!

Chickadees, sparrows, cardinals galore! The children especially love to spot the pairs of cardinals and guess where their nests could possibly be. Mornings are filled with birdsong outside our front window. I can stand with coffee in hand to watch the sun rise above houses and farmland, the sky awash in orange and pink behind those early risers perched upon the feeder. It’s a daily joy to see so many birds make themselves at home on my porch. The morning doves have even taken to hanging out upon the roof. Of course, this also leads to hawks occasionally stopping by for breakfast and leaving their leftovers in our yard, but that just creates a fresh science lesson for the kids.

No woodpeckers, though.

Not a one.

And still, I leave the suet in hope one comes.

Bo kisses my head as I once again stare at the suet holder. He shakes his head. “That suet’s getting moldy out there,” he says, and hooks a plastic bag on my fingers. He’s right, of course. Only a few small steps into nature, and I’m already stumbling.

But is that not the way with writing, too? Even the safest, smallest of steps into story-worlds isn’t without some risk of falling. We’ve all the unfinished prose and poetry that pain us to think on. Does the pain prevent us from writing?

Perhaps for a while. But never forever. We find new words, new worlds. We peer into the gifts from loved ones and find new seeds, a new feeder.

New life.

New hope.

~STAY TUNED!~

Since Death on the Nile is coming to video in early April, I’m just going to save my next Christie post for when I can rent the film and watch it. I refuse to be foiled by a lack of a babysitter! More indie author interviews are also on the way, and Blondie’s just about done with the third chapter of her Elementals story.

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

Author #Interview: Let’s Chat with #IndieAuthor Alan Scott!

Welcome back, my fellow creatives! I’m thrilled to continue sharing some lovely indie authors I’ve met in our community. This month, please welcome the fantastical Alan Scott!

Let’s begin with your journey as a reader before you embarked as a writer. What literary pilgrimages have you gone on?

It’s been long and winding path. As a dyslexic, I was constantly told that I was thick and stupid, and that I should leave anything to do with being creative with the written word well alone. (Which is quite funny as I later learned that Agatha Christie, Jules Verne, F Scott Fitzgerald were all Dyslexic) Hence, although I read a lot in my youth, I never did any writing nor was encouraged to. Throughout my twenties and thirties, I continued to read a lot, mainly Fantasy or Science Fiction. It was not until I was in my early forties that I decided to sit down and write Echoes of a Storm and from there I have written 8 books in the Storm Series, 2 sci-fi books and of course my semi-autobiographical novella about being dyslexic in the modern world called. The Rain Dancer. I have spoken to library groups about being dyslexic and being an indie writer. I have also done The Lost Explorers Club podcast. I am now 52, so it has been a long journey. However, it’s one that has been very positive.

What a discovery of such a connection with your favorite writers! It’s wonderful to hear you are now sharing this journey with readers…and hopefully, inspiring other writers, too. If you could tell your younger writing self anything, what would it be?

You are not thick nor stupid. You will just have to wait 30 odd years until technology allows you to tell your tales. Keep reading all those books, it will pay off in years to come.

Let’s continue exploring your reading self a bit more before we explore your current writing self. What’s your favorite under-appreciated novel?

For me it’s a book by an author called Hugh Cook. It was called The Wizards and the Warriors and was the first book in a 10 book fantasy series where all the books had very similar titles for example book two was The Wazir and the Witch. I just loved the way Hugh created his world and the way each book whilst self-contained, built upon the last.

Have you read anything that made you think differently about fiction?

Yes, Richard Matheson’s book I am Legend. We mention short stories later; I am Legend is only about 175 pages, but within those pages it deals with so much and raises so many questions about society, what are monsters and the twist at the end is one of the all-time greats.

What was an early experience where you learned that language had power?

Being Scottish, I love Billy Connolly (A comedian) and here in the UK in the 80’s they was a series of shows called an “An audience with….” And a popular star of the time would come and preform to a celebrity audience. An Audience with Billy Connolly has gone down in history as a master class of storytelling and making people laugh. His use of language, timing and showmanship is impeccable. He had people crying with laughter. Not the fake polite laughter you get with some show, but with real howls of laughter. That, to me, was language and storytelling at its most powerful. As writers, I think sometimes we forget that our tales are there to entertain and for people to enjoy. Yes, you can slip in the occasional social commentary (I’ve done it myself) or create 7 new languages each with their own sub dialects. But if your story is boring then no one will read it. If your story is difficult to read, no one will read it.

I LOVE this point! Readers will forgive much if the story engages and intrigues; that’s why I enjoy working on my own podcast, You’ve Got Five Pages…To Tell Me It’s Good. If we as writers cannot engage readers from the get-go, all the flowery prose and profound ideas in the world will not keep them.

So at this juncture, let’s venture into your writing life. How did publishing your first book change your process of writing?

I self-published Echoes of a Storm over 10 years ago and don’t get me wrong I am very proud of that book and it holds a very special place in my heart. However, I made a lot of mistakes, which most likely cost me over the years. Since Echoes I got myself a really good proofreader, my writing style has improved a 100 fold, and the pacing of my stories is a lot better.

What kind of research do you do, and how long do you spend researching before beginning a book?

I don’t do a lot of research as such. However, I served 12 years in the Royal Air Force, so I have all that experience to draw upon when writing military characters. I’ve been that guard, standing in a guard box at 0200hrs with the raining pouring down on a cold Novembers night. I’ve also got a commendation in the New Years honour list for my work the Royal International Air Tattoo in 2000 . I have been dyslexic all my life and drew upon my experiences of that for The Rain Dancer I have also read a lot of very good fantasy authors like James Gemmell, Richard Matheson (when are they going to do a film that does justice to that fantastic book – I am Legend), Franz Lieber, Terry Pratchett, and many more. All of which have influenced my writing.

I can see by your Storm Series that you enjoy writing both novels and short fiction in a single universe. What is your process for choosing which stories are told in which form?

I started to write short stories and publish them on Amazon as a way of promoting my novels. Then after a year I realised I had enough to put them into a book and hence Stories for a Storm Filled Night came about. I thought it was just going to be a one of thing. Then I got thinking about one of my antihero characters that people really seemed to like. A man called Solomon Pace (I still don’t know why people like him) and suddenly stories involving him started to swirl around my head, and I started to write them down. That is how one of my most popular books came about Tales of Solomon Pace. There is something fantastic and very freeing about writing standalone short stories, that can be place in chronological order which enhance your main novels. You can explore different facet of your main story or a character personality in ways that you just cannot do in a novel. Due to pacing, size or editing issues. The third book of short stories Tales of Salvation and Damnation was a bridge between my two trilogies.

What is the most difficult part of your artistic process?

As an indie writer, simply finding time to do it.

Amen to that! I’m currently working on expanding some fantasy storytelling myself while also drafting some short stories for publication. My frustrations with word count and worldbuilding leads me to ask your opinion on the following point: Writing short fiction in fantasy can be extremely challenging due to the restrictions in word count: agree or disagree?

100% disagree. You can write fantastic fiction in only a few words. For example *** Jane kissed her husband passionately on the lips, before placing his severed head back into the fridge. Humming a happy little tune that was currently playing on the radio. She turned off the device, before picking up her car keys and mobile phone from the kitchen table, grabbing her coffee cup, quickly drained it of its contents, and walking swiftly to the front door and exiting her home. Jumping in her car, she started the engine and made her way carefully out of the drive, and onto the road. Where she drove in happy silence along the quiet suburban leafy area in which she lived. The tranquillity was broken when her mobile went off. Jane picked up the phone and answered. “Hello Detective Inspector Jane Grant speaking.” *** Yes, I know it’s a bit rough and needs polishing. However, as an example of the length of short stories it works. You could stop at the first para and have a very short monster horror story, or you could stop at the end of the third para and have a slightly longer psychological horror short story. Or you could add 10’000 words and keep adding layers. For me the skill with short stories is to try and give hints and suggestions for the reader to pick up on and then let their imagination fill in the gaps.

You share your perspective well! You remind me of some wonderful writers who’ve done brief stories in the past: Joy Pixley and J.I. Rogers come to mind. I agree that with the right word choices, you can pack a lot into a tight space, for you can trust your reader’s imagination to fill in a lot of gaps. Sometimes we cannot help wanting to share more detail, though. 🙂 Does writing energize or exhaust you?

Writing definitely energizes me. When I am in the zone and the plotline is being built in my head and the characters are doing their thing. It’s brilliant. When I write, It’s like I am a director making a film and the characters are my actors. I have a general idea of what I want to happen, but there is always a great deal of improvisation by the characters. Which has lead to a few intriguing and thought-provoking outcomes.

Thank you so much for taking the time to share your writing and reading journeys with us, Alan! Let’s end on a fun one here. I’m a HUGE fan of building music playlists for my writing time. Do you have any artists/composers you’d like to recommend for other writers looking for mood-setting music?

Oh yes. I love using music when I write and for each book, I produced a soundtrack. Some examples of the music I use are:

For my main character Nathaniel West:

  • Got you (Where I want you) by the Flys (from the Album Rock Band classics)
  • The Seer by Big Country
  • Behind Blue Eyes by the Who.

For one of my characters called Jane:

  • Deadlock by Tristania (from the album World of Glass)
  • Weak by Skunk Anansie

The last stand of the old guard:

  • Open Book by Gnarls Barkley (from the album The Odd Couple)

For my character Mancer:

  • Don’t let me be misunderstood by Nina Simone

For the Queen:

  • The Other Side by Sirenia (from the album Nine Destinies and a Downfall)

For my character Kathleen:

  • The Howling by Within Temptation

For a battle:

  • Pretend Best Friend by Terrorvision

For Twever the magnificent and his invisible psychopathic pet Ardo…well, there are more but I won’t bore you with them.

No worries, Sir! I’m just thrilled to have more music to seek out for inspiration. “Behind Blue Eyes” has always been the theme for one of my own characters as well, so seeing you share that song here immediately got me excited. 🙂 Thank you again, and Godspeed to you on your future wanderings through story-lands dark and fantastical.

~STAY TUNED!~

Blondie is tidying up her third chapter and I’m tidying up my notes about Death on the Nile and how this story’s adaptations reveal a common writing problem many of us face. We’ll see who finishes first!

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

#KidWriter Blondie Returns with Chapter 2 of The Elementals! #DragonStories #ProudMom

Greetings one and all! I’m having a smile and then some as I rediscover my research on the humor found in everyday misadventures. While I complete that blog post for you, please enjoy Chapter 2 of Blondie’s dragon-filled adventures. x

Click here for Chapter 1 of Blondie’s story!

Forward: Hello, everyone! As I promised, here is chapter 2 of The Elementals. Enjoy!

Blondie the dragonmaster

CHAPTER 2

“Where is she?!” Inferno huffed. “She’s been gone for nearly an hour!”

Rainbow gazed at the sky. “She’ll be back any minute now.” she said.

“That’s what you said one bloody hour ago!” Inferno shouted.

“Oh, shut up you two. Here she comes.” Boulder said sternly. Hurricane glided over to where the other dragons were hiding, bleeding in several places.

“Hurricane!” Rainbow yelled, “Where have you-“

“I don’t want to talk about it.” she murmured, glumly shuffling to a tree.

“What did you do to yourself, you soggy fish?” Inferno glared at the soaking dragon. “Where’s Gila?” Comettail asked hopefully. Hurricane just stared at the sea.

“Oh.” Boulder whispered. A screech wailed behind them.

“Come on! We can’t just sit here!” Inferno hissed. “RUN!” The five of them scrambled madly to the middle of the forest. Wingbeats fluttered after them.

“In here!” Rainbow headed towards a hollow in a willow. Everyone soon was squished inside. The screech sounded again, but it seemed frustrated. The wingbeats faded away into the distance.

“Wow. That was close.” Hurricane sighed, relieved.

“Thanks, Mr. Willow.” Rainbow patted the bark.

“What are you thanking a bloody tree for?” Inferno said.

“Mr. Willow told me about his hollow right before whatever-that-was got us. You should be more grateful!” Rainbow huffed, insulted.

“I oughta-” Inferno snarled. A shrill caw pierced the air. Comettail jumped.

“S’okay, Comettail. Just an ol’ crow.” Boulder said, glancing outside. “C’mon, everyone. Let’s get out of this hole.” Hurricane grunted as she hoisted herself out.

When everybody was out, the caw sounded again. A large, black bird was perched on a twig, its black pearl eyes staring at them.

“Uh, hi!” Rainbow greeted the crow. It cawed again, flying off into the underbrush. The crow’s head popped up again, cawing at them to follow.

“I think it wants us to go with him.” Comettail said uneasily. “I have a bad feeling about this.”

“C’mon, guys! Let’s go!” Rainbow said enthusiastically.

“Wait, you sheephead! It could be a trap!” Inferno yelled. But she was already gone. “Dratted dragon will get us all killed, I’m sure of it.” she grumbled as she tore after her.

They eventually found Rainbow in a clearing absolutely FILLED with vines. The crow sat on top of the biggest one, cawing nervously. “Look! There’s a dragon caught in there!” Rainbow pointed a claw towards a lump in the center of the vines.

“Oh my foxes…” Boulder whispered.

“Red Dragonroot. The most poisonous plant of all time.” Comettail stated, shivering.

“Well, don’t just stand there! Help me!” Rainbow said.

“You’re the plant dragon! Don’t look at me!” Inferno shouted.

“Shut up!” Hurricane boomed. Everyone looked at her in shock. “Rainbow, try to coax the vines to let that dragon go. If that doesn’t work, Inferno can burn them.” she recited, as if she had been thinking this up all along.

“Hmph. At least I can make something pay.” Inferno grumbled.

Rainbow grunted as she conversed with the Dragonroot. “It’s not working!” Rainbow cried, ” And I have the MOTHER OF ALL HEADACHES.” “Burnin’ time.” Inferno grinned as her claws glowed a bright orange. She sank her talons into the nearest vine. It shriveled into ash. Comettail scooped up some Red Dragonroot ash into a glass vial he kept in a pouch around his waist. “Could use this stuff for later.” he said.

Sooner than later, all the vines were burnt. In the center laid a jet-black dragon, groaning as she stood up.

The crow screeched gleefully and landed on her shoulder. “Thanks, Pitch.” the dragon wheezed. Pitch nuzzled against her snout.

“Who the bloody heck are you?!” Inferno said, her claws still sizzling.

“Why, my name is Raven.” the black dragon said. Her voice sounded like a spilling waterfall, one word flowing over another. It was almost entrancing. She also had one silver diamond earring.

“Uh, what particularly were you doing inside a cluster of Red Dragonroot?” Comettail squeaked.

“I was on a quest, of course,” Raven explained like it was the most obvious thing in the world. “For the Forest Shard.”

TO BE CONTINUED…….

Make sure you stay tuned for chapter 3 of The Elementals in February!

We’ll hold you to that, Kiddo! And I better finish that research…

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

#AuthorInterview: C.S. Boyack of @StoryEmpire Discusses #Character Voices and #Writing #SpeculativeFiction

Happy November, my fellow creatives! I hope you’ve found time to explore some fun music and story prompts during this year’s NaNoWriMo.

I’m always happy to cheer you on–especially this year, as I’m recovering from COVID. Thankfully our symptoms are mild and we are pacing ourselves carefully. Be thankful for every healthy moment!

In the meantime, I’m happy to have an author interview with someone I’ve followed for some time in the indie author sphere but have never had a chance to interview until now. My friends, please welcome Craig Boyack!

What was an early experience where you learned that language had power?

This won’t have anything to do with the written word, but it was still powerful. All of my elders went through World War II in some fashion. They would quote statements made by the leaders of the day, and as a child, you knew they were important. Some of this carried through the Kennedy years, but then Nixon came along and everything changed.

Have you read anything that made you think differently about fiction?

Hopefully, everything. I love how new things evolve that capture our imaginations. Things like Steampunk or Cyberpunk come along and get us thinking a new direction. Urban fantasy is another take on this concept.

What literary pilgrimages have you gone on?

Wow! Tough question. I’d have to say none, to be honest. It isn’t like I can actually visit Jurassic Park or Diagon Alley for real. This has to do with the kind of stories I write.

My wife and I visited New Orleans a few years ago. Two of my novels had scenes there, but the visit was after the fact. We took a midnight Voodoo tour with a guide that was quite fun. Got to visit a couple of Voodoo shops along with Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop. Decent place to visit for someone who’s written pirates.

What’s your favorite under-appreciated novel?

This has to be the hardest question here. I spent many years reading the “appreciated” novels. I worked my way through Jaws, Mountain Man, Clan of the Cave Bear, Jurassic Park, Harry Potter, etc. I didn’t read many that didn’t draw popular attention. I also read a lot of classics.

These days, I mostly read work by friends. All of them are under-appreciated. Such is the life of an indie author.

‘Tis the life of an indie author, indeed! I love that you and several other amazing writers have come together to create an inspiring and educational site for fellow creatives. Can you please tell the tale of the genesis of Story Empire and how this collaboration has benefited your writing life?

Story Empire is something I’m quite proud of. It all started when Mae Clair and I were talking about doing some mutual promotion for the Halloween season. She wanted to bring in some others to share the effort. We never did do that promo, but created the blog instead.

Our goal is to share things we’ve come across with other writers. We don’t charge, and people are allowed to disregard something that doesn’t fit their style. It’s a great place to discuss the topic of the day. We’ve been around long enough that it’s become a good resource for authors. I find myself pointing out the search tool in recent posts, because there is quite a bit that could help a struggling manuscript.

As a personal benefit, I get to hang out with some incredible authors and hope some of their talent rubs off on me. These people are genuine friends and we chat frequently about all kinds of things.

You have been publishing indie speculative fiction since 2014. In these past seven years observing the publishing industry, what would you say is the most unethical practice that needs to change?

I get disappointed by how many schemes are out there charging for promotion that doesn’t work. There doesn’t seem to be anything that charges less than the promotion might bring back, and most of them are losing propositions. We all want more readers, and are willing to spend a reasonable amount on promo. It seems there is no magic bullet to make that happen.

Would you say publishing your first book, Wild Concept, changed your process of writing? If so, how so?

I hope I’ve changed. I leave these older books online as artifacts of my journey. To be honest, they’re a little rough around the edges compared to what I produce currently. Still, Wild Concept, has an intriguing main character, and a decent theme about prejudice and controlling influences.

The process is much the same. Use my weekends to hack out as much as I can. Spend weeknights trying to repair the speed writing I did. Repeat the process.

I’ve taken up some changes, like storyboarding and working ahead, but the process is largely the same.

I love how your characters have also inspired you in unique ways beyond their stories. Lisa from Wild Concept, for instance, had her own voice on your website for quite a while, and she even interviewed characters from other novelist’s stories. She’s since retired, and that’s okay, but that series must have been fun for you both. What other collaboration and/or marketing strategies would you recommend to your fellow creatives?

Lisa Burton will always be with me. She still shows up on the blog when I have some spare time to dedicate. She still poses for posters to advertise my new books, and goes on the occasional blog tour.

Lisa Burton Radio was a ton of fun, and it moved books for indie authors. The best part is that it was free. Eventually, I started begging authors to participate to keep it going. I decided those authors had to have skin in the game, too. If they didn’t put some effort into my free promos, why should I. Those hours are best spent elsewhere.

I would encourage authors to try something different. Lisa’s posters are still quite popular, and they give someone an image for Pinterest. They look good on social media. Since there is a link to my work, it does nothing but help me.

As one who’s a big fan of writing music, I got a big kick out of the playlist you share in correlation with your Hat series. Firstly–do you struggle writing while people sing? I always get muddled with my words when someone else is singing words. 🙂 Secondly–do you prefer to build the music playlist before you begin drafting, or does the playlist grow as you write?

I’ve often considered taking the playlist down, and haven’t updated it for a while. I think it has three likes in two years. Music inspires me like nothing else. I like to reference it in my stories.

Having said that, I can’t write with it either. Even instrumental pieces steal my focus. These days, I have an extensive playlist on my phone. I listen to that during my commute, and it entices the Muse to ride along.

Speaking of the Hat series, you recently published the fourth book of the series earlier this year. What inspires your selection of supernatural villains for Lizzie and her transdimensional hat to face?

It comes from things I’ve enjoyed over the years, but I take effort to put a new spin on them. If I write about a popular movie-class monster, readers automatically know what I’m talking about. I’m not afraid to create my own, but those can be a lot harder to sell. When my vampires turn out to be rodeo cowboys, I think readers are pleasantly surprised.

You have a fair amount of novels as well as short story and microfiction collections. Can you share a bit of your process in working out whether a story requires a few hundred words or a few hundred thousand?

Process? What process? I believe a story should be as long as it needs to be. Obviously, I put some thought into it, but if I wind up with a short story instead of a novel, I’m not disappointed. I will say, The Hat Series consists of short novels on purpose. My reasons are two-fold.

First, I like to have something for everyone. If all a reader has time for is a bit of micro-fiction, I like to have something available. Short novels are a good market for me.

Second, because of the style of comedy, I’d rather leave readers wanting more than wear them out with it. That way they come back next year to see what the characters are up to. Lizzie and the hat bickering are funny, but there is a chance of having it go on too long.

Let’s face it–we all have that writing Kryptonite. Mine strikes me down in the form of a phone call from my sons’ principal. What’s yours, and how do you overcome it?

It’s hard to complain about it, but I need solo time to write. Someone else watching television, music in another room, even company will stop me cold. I find that I get what I need, and make room for all the other things. Sometimes we just have to put it aside and take life as it comes.

Speculative fiction can be a tough gig. You have to ground readers somehow, but you also want to push the limits of the suspension of their disbelief. How do you balance leaving readers to work things out with taking care of the reader and guiding them by the hand through your story-worlds?

That is tough, and you have to understand that every reader is different. I want to net as many happy customers as possible, but have to allow for a few to escape. Some tales require more work than others. Science Fiction, or Fantasy come to mind. Since The Hat Series is more Urban Fantasy, I don’t have to dedicate as much space to world building. We all understand parking garages, roundabouts, and food trucks.

What would you say are common traps many aspiring writers fall into, and how can they avoid them?

The biggest one I hear about is writer’s block. I took steps years ago to combat that. The Muse serves me well. I get more ideas than I know what to do with. If I find myself dwelling on one, I write it down. They start in the Notes app on my phone.

If they want to grow, I usually start a rudimentary storyboard. I add to this over time, and eventually, they start looking like finished outlines. I never find myself lacking for something to work on that way.

Thank you for inviting me over. I love that our community supports each other, and I try to return the favors.

Thank you so much for chatting with me this fall, Craig! I hope your writing adventures are as magical as the season ahead. Stay tuned to my podcast–I’ll be highlighting one of your books!

~STAY TUNED!~

Blondie promises to collaborate with me this December! What is she going to give us? I’m honestly not sure, but I’m really excited!

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

#NaNoWriMo #Remix of #Music and #Inspiration (Because I’m Stuck Grading)

Well, bugger.

I had planned on exploring the fun of writing humor with you today, but the torrent of finals has not yet subsided. As my husband Bo reminds me time and again, it is VITAL to respect my limitations. The finals will soon be graded, and then I can return to sharing more than story cuppings with you.

(I think I’ll spend November sipping more indie brews. I hope you’ll join me!)

In the meantime, let me share some music and one of my favorite stories from Diana Wynne Jones about her writing life. I first shared these posts back in 2015 when I participated in National Novel Writing Month. Six years later, this music still grips me and these words still inspire me.

Take heart, my fellow creatives! Whether or not you join in thirty days and nights of literary abandon, your stories will always be there inside you. You will find the time to write them, and you will find a way to share them.

We all will. x

Originally Posted November 1, 2015

National Novel Writing Month is upon us. You’ll have to pardon me as I wish to dedicate my time write–feeble as it is–to the challenge of 50,000 words in 30 days.

So rather than blog, per say, I shall share music I find useful for various elements of story. For starters, a starter: music that marks the beginning of adventure. James Newton Howard’s score for PETER PAN has an excellent bit of fantastic to inspire you: a light giddiness that builds into the dramatic departure of the known for the unknown.

Are you ready to embark on Thirty Days and Nights of Literary Abandon? Don’t be afraid. Let your story hold out its hand. Take it, and fly.

Originally Posted: November 8, 2015

In celebration of passing the 15,000 word mark, some music.

There’s something blissfully cool about the first meeting of two companions, be they friends or moreso. John Powell’s How to Train Your Dragon has one of the most beautiful themes ever created in the spirit of friendship, and that this friendship transcends the ordinary makes it all the more powerful. Treat your characters to a first meeting that is nothing short of memorable.

Originally Posted November 15, 2015

John Powell again? You bet.

In celebration of reaching the halfway point of my story, I think it’s time for a chase. Any story, especially one with murder, kidnapping, and other intrigues, has got to have a chase. Plus, this chase from BOURNE SUPREMACY has some excellent percussion/string sequences for fighting. Now, set a fire under those characters and set them a’runnin’.

Originally Posted November 22, 2015

At some point, I hope, your characters seek something that will help fulfill a goal, or quest, or what have you. In my case, my characters are seeking a member of their group who’s been taken. Stakes are always high in such situations, and it gives a writer the challenge of laying clues that readers MUST be able to see without feeling obvious, for characters to drop verbal clues without sounding like they’re being dropped. It’s a delicate balance, not often achieved in a single draft. Still, that doesn’t mean we can’t try, and if a little bit of mysterious air can help, all the better. Let Alexandre Desplat’s music from the final Harry Potter story help provide the necessary ambiance for the mystery woven in your plot.

Originally Posted on October 27, 2015: “Just Bash on and Do It.”

With National Novel Writing Month just a few days away, I think it’s worth pausing my own nonfiction and lessons from my favorite writer until December. However, to help those who also revel in the Thirty Days and Nights of Literary Abandon, I shall continue sharing Writer’s Music posts throughout the month.

That said, I wanted to talk about something from Diana Wynne Jones’ Reflections that feels especially appropriate on the cusp of NaNoWriMo.

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In 2011, Charlie Butler interviewed Jones in her home. At one point he asks about her writing process, and if others, such as editors, see the work in progress. Jones is very clear that this is NOT how she works:

hate being edited, because my second draft is as careful as I can get it. I try to get it absolutely mistake-free, and absolutely as I feel the book needs to be. Then some editor comes along and says, “Change Chapter Eight to Chapter Five, take a huge lump out of Chapter Nine, and let’s cut Chapter One altogether.” And you think, No, I’m going to hit the ceiling any moment. Then I call for my agent before I get my hands round this person’s throat.

Thank God it was the days before computers. I said, “Send me the typescript back and I’ll see what I can do.” So she did, and I cut out the bits she told me to alter, in irregular shapes, then stuck them back in exactly the same place with Sellotape, only crooked, so it looked as if I’d taken the pieces out and put new pieces in. And then I sent it back to her, and she rang up and said, “Oh, your alterations have made such a difference.” And I thought, “Right! Hereafter I will take no notice of anybody who tries to edit my books.”

Now while I can only dream of having this woman’s confidence and ability to write sideways and backwards and ALWAYS create something awesome (such as Hexwood), she still marks the point that it is the SECOND draft she makes perfect. Her first draft was always written by hand, and she accepted that chunks of it would need to be done over: “If you want to make your story as good as you can get it, you have to go over it and get it right.”

For some of us, who are on draft #8 (ahem), “getting it right” in only one or two rewrites still sounds like a miracle. But it is nice to know that one whose plots knot every which way and still produce these beautiful woven works does not expect it to be right the first time. Yet another reason NaNoWriMo is so wonderful for writers: it forces us through that first draft–in Jones’ words, “Just bash on and do it.” Then, with the time crunch gone, we can take our time, pick the story threads apart, and concentrate completely on “getting it right.”

I hope you enjoyed that little trip back in time! I’m still lost in the past myself, as my 2019 crack at NaNoWriMo resulted in the start of a story that transcends seasons, a tale of bloody magic set in the deadly quiet snows of Wisconsin’s northern wilderness. All Hallows Eve may have passed, but Winter is on Wisconsin’s doorstep. It is only a matter of time before snow and spirit meet…

Just in case you’re interested, those NaNo chapters can be found in my Free Fiction section.

All right, back to grading. When we return, let’s enjoy a chat and a laugh before I put my daughter Blondie to work. 🙂

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

The #Writing #Inspiration Found in Local Lore

Huzzah, fall is here at last! My favorite season of sunlight caught in autumn leaves and chilled breezes. Granted, summer had its highlights. My family met with fellow indie author Anne Clare’s family in July for a day, and it was…oh, just a day to fill the heart. Our kids played together, Bo got to catch up with his longtime friend, Anne’s husband, and I got to sit and talk with Anne about life, storytelling, reading–the lot.

Just a couple of creative kindreds. 🙂 Love ya, Anne! xxxxx

Bo and I also took our three Bs northward to Eagle River for a few days of mini-golf, fishing, and swimming. No Paul Bunyan days, sadly, but it’s probably for the best that I didn’t bring Biff and Bash near any chainsaws.

The one morning my kids slept in: a dawn all to myself.

Actually, that trip northward is why I changed my topic for today’s post. I originally intended to discuss everyday absurdities and how they can play nicely into humor writing (don’t worry, we will get to that before 2021 is over), but visiting a Wisconsin “monster” got me thinking about the oddities created where we are and how they can inspire our storytelling.

Back in October 2018 I shared a few of Wisconsin’s peculiarities with the fantastic author Shehanne Moore. This land is the birthplace of an infamous source of inspiration for horror and suspense icons. Tucked among the rocks is a house so strange the gods didn’t even believe it could be real. The state’s stunning natural beauty hides dangers both imagined and…well, “discovered” by lumberjacks.

I wasn’t able to touch much on the history of this local monster in previous posts, so allow me to share a few highlights from The LaCrosse Tribune. The beast was first mentioned in the news back in 1893 by a lumberjack named Gene Shepard. Reports transitioned from killing hodags to capturing a live one that was then exhibited at a county fair in Rhinelander, Wisconsin. Was the beast real? Well, its hide was made of actual animal hides, so there’s that. It also moved about in its cage (thanks to the puppetry work done by Shepard’s friends), causing many to cry out in fear as they were shuffled quickly through the small, dim tent “for their safety.” Shepard did confess to his prank…well, after East Coast newspapers picked up on his story and hailed it as a scientific discovery. Shepard’s life took a downturn, and Rhinelander did not mourn his death in 1923. After about a decade, though, the town started to take a liking once more to the Hodag, using it as a mascot for schools, businesses, and the town itself. You can get a really nice detailed history from this Wausau Daily Herald article if you’re interested.

Why oh why would Shepard make up something like this Hodag, and how on earth could the story have been considered legit? First, there are Native American legends to give a bit of history to this “discovery.” The Anishinaabe spoke of an “underwater panther” called the Mishibizhiw, whose depictions in art strike a number of similarities to the Hodag. Lumberjacks could have easily seen such art and spread the tale through the woods of Canada and down into the Midwest. The Wausau Daily Herald article then notes that the lumber industry was stagnating at that point in Wisconsin, and in the North Woods, the lumber industry was EVERYTHING. Plus, it’s important to add that towns in the northern half of Wisconsin are often very small, and very widespread among the forests there. Wisconsin’s got a lot of farmland, sure, but that mainly lies in the southern half of the state. North, only small farms took hold in the wilderness. In fact, driving by such farms in my youth inspired one of the settings in my Fallen Princeborn series. They are isolated and alone in the unknown, and when one’s walled in among endless tall pines, maples, oaks, and birches, the calls of cougars, bears, wolves, and eagles can sound like just about anything.

Imagination is a powerful thing. All it takes is a single sight, a single sound, a single story to manifest into that which cannot be forgotten. Even if the legend transforms year to year, its root remains the same.

Or in another case, its face.

A lone doll in an attic window may not sound like much of a story, but in a small, isolated town in Minnesota, that doll has been the source of many stories ghostly and tragic. The Janesville Doll, as it is known, sat in this window for decades. It watched my parents travel to Minnesota for college. It watched me travel to Minnesota for graduate school.

Oh yes. I saw this doll, and I saw it often. It was impossible not to when driving at night through Janesville and the only light upon the street came from that attic window. The doll transformed into a dark specter at night, its features lost until dawn. Some say it walked the attic. Some say it cried out in the night. Some say it was a memorial created by parents who regretted isolating their daughter from the town only to discover her hanged in her room. Some say the doll was an old man’s revenge against the community after its children mocked his disabled grandson and drove the child to hang himself. Some say it was just a curious discovery by a local antique collector who wanted to display something in the attic window and left it there. Some say the truth is locked away in the town’s time capsule, only to be revealed in a hundred years.

No matter what some say, the legend left its porcelain handprint upon the Midwestern imagination. Years later I still think upon that doll, and I think on what could be–not likely, and yet–true.

BLUE HOUSE DARE

You stand outside Blue House with a candy bar in one hand and a pocket knife in the other. I’m behind the light pole, where the attic window’s light cannot reach. I try to tell you how important it is that The Doll shouldn’t see you first, how the attic light itself is how The Doll touches the world beyond Blue House, but you don’t care. You’re new here. You have something to prove here. I do not.

Cam and his gang go quiet from their hiding place under the Sunderson Porch. Everyone knows the Sundersons have the only house older than Blue House because of the fire back in 1903, so anyone brave enough to watch a Blue House Dare always hides somewhere on or near the Sunderson Porch. That a bunch of football players can squeeze themselves under there is beyond me. All I know is I will not fit with them and that you should have said No.

You think we’re stupid for being afraid. I saw it in your face when our bus stopped for the stop sign outside Blue House this morning and everyone—everyone—went quiet except for you. Sure, you thought it was something you said at first, but then you noticed us all looking away from Blue House.

Don’t look, I whispered. Never look at Blue House from a bus. It looks for eyes.

So of course you looked with your bright green eyes.

Why? You didn’t even whisper. It’s just a shitty house. Is that…fuck, there’s a doll in the window. Shit, that’s creepy.

Only after the bus turned onto School Street away from Blue House did anyone else say anything, let alone breathe.

The hell is wrong with you? You asked, even laughed. One of Cam’s gang was sitting in front of us—the shock of white hair above the right ear marks all of them. His glare shut your laugh up quick enough.

Stories move quickly through a small school in a small town. Maybe if you had moved in during summer, I could have prepared you better. But your family didn’t arrive until yesterday, and they sent you out this morning assuming small town equals safe town.

Idiots.

Comments or feedback on the tale so far? It’s a strange yet delightful pleasure, writing these Outer Limits style stories. 🙂 Perhaps a look into your own local lore will uncover peculiar tales that are bound to spark something new in your storytelling, something strange, something that could not be told anywhere else but where you are.

Time to start digging.

~STAY TUNED!~

I’m really excited to share the rest of this story with you next month, as well as a little conundrum I have with worldbuilding here. Another author interview is on its way, too! Plus, Blondie promises to share some of her latest story with us, and yes, I AM going to talk about humor for realsies. After watching my children interact with a Hodag, how can I not?

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

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

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

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

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

Niceties first! Please tell us about yourself.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


~STAY TUNED!~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joseph Campbell’s Hero of a Thousand Faces

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

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

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

James Neibaur, The Clint Eastwood westerns.

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

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

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

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

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

Victoria Lynn Schmidt, 45 Master Characters

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

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

Unleash the vengeance.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~STAY TUNED!~

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

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

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

#Podcast: Crown of Feathers by Nicki Pau Preto. #FirstChapter #BookReview #FantasyFiction #PrideMonth

Welcome back, my fellow creatives! It’s been a whirlwind of a week with my university’s literature festival, where I got to present on the diverse representation Outsider Hero in film and the joy of finding humor in everyday experiences. Let’s take a break from academia now to fly away with Crown of Feathers by Nicki Pau Preto.

What does a reader experience in those opening pages, and what does a writer learn? Let’s find out!

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

I hope you enjoy this sip from Crown of Feathers with me! If there are any stories you would like to recommend for sipping on this podcast, let me know in the comments below! I’d also welcome reading any indie authors’ own stories.

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

#Juneteenth #Podcast: Juneteenth by Ralph Ellison

Happy Wednesday, one and all! With Juneteenth Day just around the corner, I would like to take a moment to step back from fantasy this Pride Month and focus on the power of a different kind of story: Juneteenth by Ralph Ellison.

This will not be a typical tasting of the story. A sip of the introduction, a sip of the first chapter. And so very much to savor.

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

As always, I welcome recommendations of classic, contemporary, and indie stories to read here. x

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