The Hidden Wickedness: A Study of Rural Villainous Deeds in Holmesian Tales

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Happy September, my fellow creatives! Fall is not too far away. School is starting for my three Bs while I tackle finals for the summer term. I was blessed to take my kids to see a beloved fellow blogger and friend, Peggy from Where to Next?, as she was traveling through the Midwest this summer. It was so wonderful to chat in person in the midst of Bash’s million questions! Our drive to meet her took us through a lot of rolling hills of bright green farmland, corn and wheat on the cusp of harvesting beneath sapphire skies.

Prologue: Life in Rural Wisconsin

Wisconsin’s countryside has always been near and dear to me, something I feel would be worth exploring in how other creatives like Michael Perry view it…but that’ll be a post for another day. Today, I’d like to return to something I once shared on this blog long long LONG ago about why I write stories set in Wisconsin.

The adventures of Sherlock Holmes resonate deeply with me for two reasons. First, they were dearly loved by my father, who would, on a rare evening when he could delay his church work, read a story aloud to me at bedtime. I still remember the thrill as he described Dr. Roylott’s fate in “The Adventure of the Speckled Band,” or the sadness in his voice when Watson discovers Holmes’ note by Reichenbach Falls. I devoured these stories, despite my mother’s attempts to interest me in more child-friendly works such as the Little House books. Nothing doing, especially after I read “Copper Beeches,” for that brings me to my second reason: our town, our state, really, fit the description Holmes gave of England’s picturesque countryside.Wisconsin is filled with hidden towns, small growths of community where railroads and highways meet, places that no one finds unless they mean to find it. Rock Springs was a town of 600 when I was a child, a little grain-fill stop for the railroad. We didn’t even have a gas station until I turned 5, and our library, a small portion of the town’s community center, could fit in a utility closet (it probably WAS a utility closet at one point). Farms and wild wood filled the gaps between towns. Unless, of course, you went towards Wisconsin Dells, where the wilderness is trimmed and prepped and ready for its mandatory close-up before the tourist rushes to the proper civilization of water parks and casinos.

We drove through those wild patches often. I never tried to occupy myself with books or toys in the car. There was too much to see, out there in those scattered homesteads, too much to wonder about. What happened inside that dying barn? Why is that gravel drive roped off, and where does it lead? Where are all the people for those rusted cars littering the field?

This is the Wisconsin I live in now. The land dips and rises in unexpected places. The trees may crowd a rural highway so much you can lose yourself driving, only to have the tunnel burst open to sunshine and a white-crested river running beneath a bridge you’d swear had never seen a car before. In Rock Springs, one could stand on the lone highway through town and hear snowflakes land beneath the orange street lights.

As a child, I was always making up stories in my head about the farms we passed. I didn’t think true evil could be committed in them. Only as an adult did I learn better.

This knowledge of Wisconsin’s hidden evils gave me a new appreciation for the Sherlock Holmes tales I loved as a kid–not because Holmes brought truth and justice to light wherever he went, but because he didn’t just stay in London. Holmes himself knew just how dangerous the countryside could be in spite of its picturesque beauty. Let’s peruse a few cases to see just how the rural setting played a role in his cases, shall we?

Case 1: The Adventure of the Copper Beeches

A woman seeks Holmes’ counsel as to a job offer with a bizarrely high salary with equally bizarre requirements. The minor suspicion leads to a mystery of deadly deception.

So this is the story with the iconic train ride into the country and the conversation Holmes and Watson have about rural England. Here’s the majority of that exchange:

It was an ideal spring day, a light blue sky, flecked with little fleecy white clouds drifting across from west to east. The sun was shining very brightly, and yet there was an exhilarating nip in the air, which set an edge to a man’s energy. All over the countryside, away to the rolling hills around Aldershot, the little red and gray roofs of the farm-steadings peeped out from amid the light green of the new foliage.

“Are they not fresh and beautiful?” I cried with all the enthusiasm of a man fresh from the fogs of Baker Street.

But Holmes shook his head gravely.

“Do you know, Watson,” said he, “that it is one of the curses of a mind with a turn like mine that I must look at everything with reference to my own special subject. You look at these scattered houses, and you are impressed by their beauty. I look at them, and the only thought which comes to me is a feeling of their isolation and of the impunity with which crime may be committed there.”

“Good heavens!” I cried. “Who would associate crime with these dear old homesteads?”

“They always fill me with a certain horror. 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.”

Holmes strikes upon a critical point: isolation. Rural communities, then and now, are not nearly as connected as neighborhoods in the urban setting. Even with the internet and all our technological innovations, one can be very, very cut off in the countryside. I still distinctly remember visiting a friend at her farmstead many years ago, and feeling downright oppressed by the silence of the farmland’s night. Absolute, utter silence. No wind. No bugs. No cars. Nothing. The film Alien may have coined the phrase, “In space, no one can hear you scream,” but I put it to you that in the country, no one can hear it, either. That is partly why the villains of “Copper Beeches” were able to get away with shutting away their daughter and allowing her to literally waste away while they spend her money. Who could possibly hear her in the middle of nowhere?

This isolation can be a powerful tool for a writer, whether one’s creating atmosphere, parring down the “noise” and cast a busy setting requires, or even establishing influences that could drive characters to make certain choices.

Speaking of characters…

Case 2: The Adventure of the Silver Blaze

A famous racehorse goes missing, his trainer found dead out on the moor. The setting is a flat, barren land offering little to anyone without a horse. Few people, fewer hiding places. How could such a creature disappear where everyone knows anyone? The dog could tell you…

“Is there any other point to which you would wish to draw my attention?”

“To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.”

“The dog did nothing in the night-time.”

“That was the curious incident,” remarked Sherlock Holmes.

A rural community is going to be a small community. In the case of “Silver Blaze,” there are two competing horse stables in the north of Dartmoor. When the landscaped is described to us–

Holmes and I walked slowly across the moor. The sun was beginning to sink behind the stable of Mapleton, and the long, sloping plain in front of us was tinged with gold, deepening into rich, ruddy browns where the faded ferns and brambles caught the evening light….

–I was reminded of the southernmost area of Wisconsin, where the ground has leveled out to very flat plains. Ideal for farming, of course, but for hiding? Not so much. So for something as large as a horse to go missing in a bleak landscape seems like an impossible puzzle.

Now any brain would look at those two competing horse stables and presume Silver Blaze has to be SOMEwhere in those stables. Even Holmes considered as much (“The fact is that I could not believe it possible that the most remarkable horse in England could long remain concealed“). It’s doubly concerning that the horse trainer was murdered the same night the horse went missing. In such a bare, quiet place, where everyone knows everyone. How could such two awful things happen?

Just as the beautiful countryside can hide secrets, so can its people. This is partly why, I think, cozy mysteries have such an appeal. In their sparse setting and cast, there must be hidden layers, things no one has learned that must come to the surface. The clue of “the dog did nothing in the nighttime” reflects that someone familiar, someone known in that tiny, tiny community, took Silver Blaze away from his training stable. From that clue we must dig deeper into those who interact with the horse, and that is where we learn the trainer has a secret life complete with 2nd marriage lived away from Dartmoor. That second life spurred the trainer to attempt laming Silver Blaze for money, and in that process, Silver Blaze kicked him in the head and fled, killing him in the process. The competing stable found the horse–who wouldn’t in such a bleak landscape?–and did the, well, the least criminal thing they could have done in that tiny, tiny community: they painted Silver Blaze so he looked like any other horse. Then Silver Blaze wouldn’t be able to compete in the coming race and they could still gallantly “find” the horse after the race and look good to the neighbors as they return it.

So those familiar interactions, those habits so well known to others…those, writers, could be a marvelous tool in revealing the truth to the cast and readers alike.

The rural setting, though, need not always be cozy.

Case 3: The Final Problem

On the run from Professor Moriarty, Holmes and Watson cut about the continent, finally isolating themselves as hikers among the mountains of Geneva. They reach the falls of Reichenbach. Watson is summoned away on a hoax of a medical emergency. When he returns…Holmes is gone.

As I was gathering stories for this study, it occurred to me that Reichenbach is one of the few settings where Doyle/Watson spend an extensive time describing the scene. So often in the stories we get a sentence or two of sensory details, and then we move on. Not so with Reichenbach Falls.

It is, indeed, a fearful place. The torrent, swollen by the melting snow, plunges into a tremendous abyss, from which the spray rolls up like the smoke from a burning house. The shaft into which the river hurls itself is an immense chasm, lined by glistening coal-black rock, and narrowing into a creaming, boiling pit of incalculable depth, which brims over and shoots the stream onward over its jagged lip. The long sweep of green water roaring forever down, and the thick flickering curtain of spray hissing forever upward, turn a man giddy with their constant whirl and clamour. We stood near the edge peering down at the gleam of the breaking water far below us against the black rocks, and listening to the half-human shout which came booming up with the spray out of the abyss.

Doyle chooses not to have Holmes face Moriarity in some iconic spot of London. Doyle avoids any sort of city altogether. Two men of refinement are to face off where Nature is its most powerful, the force and height of the falls capable of slaying any man no matter how clever he may be. No law exists out here but for the laws of Nature, and Nature cares nothing for Man’s logic and cunning. Is it any wonder that when Watson returns, he sees his friend’s note and the footprints by the cliff and presumes Holmes and his nemesis are both dead?

It had darkened since I left, and now I could only see here and there the glistening of moisture upon the black walls, and far away down at the end of the shaft the gleam of the broken water. I shoulted; but only the same half-human cry of the fall was borne back to my ears.

It’s moments like this where I can see the appeal people have in reading/viewing stories where the sole conflict is Man Vs. Nature. You cannot reason with it or bargain with it. You cannot stop it. You can only survive it…if you are lucky.

And sometimes, we are.

Case 4: The Hound of the Baskervilles

Holmes and Watson accompany young Henry Baskerville to Baskerville Hall to claim his inheritance. Mysterious goings-on have already begun in London—would they continue on the Grimpen Mire?

We had left the fertile country behind and beneath us. We looked back on it now, the slanting rays of a low sun turning the streams to threads of gold and glowing on the red earth new turned by the plough and the broad tangle of the woodlands. The road in front of us grew bleaker and wilder over huge russet and olive slopes, sprinkled with giant boulders. Now and then we passed a moorland cottage, walled and roofed with stone, with no creeper to break its harsh outline.

Bo and I have watched many, many adaptations of this particular entry in the Holmes canon. It’s no wonder folks love telling this story over and over again–you’ve got a tight cast, a bleak, peculiar place. Strange signals in the night and suspicious residents. Forbidden romance and, of course, murder.

A particularly crafty move on Doyle’s part was to pull Holmes out of the story for a spell–oh, he’s watching from the Moors, yes, but as far as Watson knows, Holmes leaves him to watch over Baskerville while Holmes returns to London to investigate other avenues or some such excuse. Watson writes daily reports to Holmes and, being the romantic that he is, allows himself space to write about the landscape, too:

The longer one stays here the more does the spirit of the moor sink into one’s soul, its vastness, and also its grim charm…We found a short valley between rugged tors which led to an open, grassy space flecked over with the white cotton grass. In the middle of it rose two great stones, worn and sharpened at the upper end until they looked like the huge corroding fangs of some monstrous beast.

Such rocks remind me of the formations one can see in the western half of the state, where the hills grow tall and the wilderness is not so keen to have farmers for company:

A person could die trying to climb these rocks, but the difference between these Wisconsin rocks and England’s Grimpen Mire is that the Mire doesn’t look threatening. It’s merely a wide expanse with grass and mud like any other field…until one steps in it. Only then does one realize they are in a kind of quicksand they cannot escape. We are told early on of a pony that had wandered onto the Mire and was slowly sucked under, crying out and crying out, and then nothing. This hidden wickedness is not always thought of, however, for the Legend of the Hound is on everyone’s mind, including the killer Stapleton’s. By taking a large dog and starving it on the Mire, he’s created his own living murder weapon. It worked once on the elder Baskerville, but Henry Baskerville is protected by Holmes and Watson. The starved dog is shot, and Stapleton escapes to the Mire.

Somewhere in the heart of the great Grimpen Mire, down in the foul slime of the huge morass which had sucked him in, this cold and cruel-hearted man is forever buried.

In some stories, Justice will come by Nature, not Man.

Epilogue: the Lonely Land

There will always be those souls who revel in the city life: the dense gathering of peoples, places, and secrets will always provide writers with bountiful writing inspiration. But outside the city limits, in the dark, in the stillness, we wander and survive. We live in Countryside, Anywhere. We keep ourselves to ourselves. We keep Nature at bay (most of the time). We keep our wickedness hidden from the lackadaisical eye.

But if you, fellow creatives, pause…imagine…look…perhaps, yes, perhaps you will see us, and find us out.

“But look at these lonely houses, each in its own fields…think of the deeds of hellish cruelty, the hidden wickedness which may go on, year in, year out, in such places, and none the wiser.”

–Sherlock Holmes, “The Adventure of the Copper Beeches”

~STAY TUNED!~

I’ve been listening to Nature a lot lately. Come take an explore with me through its own quiet music…

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

Author #Interview: Let’s Chat with #IndieAuthor @AValdiers!

You can catch Alex on Twitter and on WordPress!

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 explorer of the speculative, Alex Valdiers!

In our correspondence, you mentioned you began writing 25 years ago. I was like that as well! When I was four, I took to making picture books because I didn’t know how to write words yet. What was an early experience where you learned that language had power, or what experience led you to begin writing your own stories?

I remember vividly the day I decided to become a writer. I was 8 years old. At school, at that time when I was still interested in school, I was faster than the other kids. Whenever there was a test, I would finish it with plenty of time to spare, then I’ll get bored. To keep me occupied, teachers would send me to the school library. On a math test one day, I got sent to the library after I handed out my copy, but I didn’t want to read other people’s stories, I wanted to create my own. So I stayed in class and wrote my first short story. After the test, the other pupils asked me what I wrote, so I read it to them and the response was overwhelming. People were touched and reacted positively to something I had created. From that point on, my mind was made-up, I wanted to become a story-teller.

Photo by John-Mark Kuznietsov on Pexels.com

What literary pilgrimages have you gone on?

Until I turned 25, I wrote in notebooks. During my school days I changed establishments every year, spending two years in boarding schools. The first boarding school was very grim, very violent. I read a lot of Lovecraft back then and spent most of my free time writing similar stories in my notebooks (as we all did with Lovecraft!). At 18, I moved to Australia without a plan. I crossed the country, writing poetry, in buses, in cafes, by the beach, in the vineyards, etc. Then back in Europe, I took long walking trips across France and Belgium, notebook in hand, writing either poetry or plans for future stories. I wrote a lot in cemeteries, especially in Aachen, Germany. I used to visit the main cemetery once a month during my University days in Liege, Belgium. I wrote my best poetry amongst those green alleys full of history.

I have never been able to dabble in poetry, but it sounds like your writing crosses many mediums; you have written plays, novels, and poetry in your native French language. I’d love to hear your process on knowing what medium was the best structure for the story you wanted to tell! (That is, how did you know the story needed to be a play, or a novel, or a poem, etc.?)

At the time I wrote plays and poetry, I was very influenced by the French Surrealist and the Absurdist movements (Breton, Vian, Cocteau, Anouilh, Sartre, etc.). And I followed the Greek rule of unity for writing plays (1 action, 1 location, 1 day). When stories were about dialogue and mood, plays in four acts were my favorite medium.

For poetry, Pushkin and Charles Cros were my biggest influences, then there was L’Oulipo, a surrealist group of the mid-sixties and seventies pioneered by Queneau, Calvino, Perec, amongst many writers and mathematicians. L’Oulipo taught me one of the most important literary lessons which still influences me to this day, ‘literature as an art form is about shortcuts’. It’s about giving life to words and letting them take control of the narrative voice, it’s about links and ellipsis. Sometimes when I correct a draft and I feel my writing isn’t good enough, I go back to my Oulipo days to find an answer, a spark.

I only wrote novels when stories were character based and commended to be told in prose, in greater length.

Does writing energize or exhaust you?

I consider writers like pro athletes. When writing, you need to build stamina, amongst many things (habits, structure, etc.). When my job only allowed me to write once or twice a week, writing was mentally exhausting. I would do stints of 500 words, then would take a nap, start again, 500 words in 2 or 3 hours, then a nap, then again. At the end of the day, I would be drained.

Now, things are different, I have a low paying job with zero responsibilities, I get to write everyday, so I never unplugged and I’ve built great stamina. I can do stretches of 12 hours straight behind the desk, writing 5k on one story, correcting another, planning the next one. My energy reserves are rarely depleted. In fact, when I’m feeling down, physically and mentally, writing is the best remedy.

Five thousand words in one day?! That is AMAZING! Clearly, when you find your groove, you are in it. Now let’s flip this. What is your writing Kryptonite? For instance, when my children’s school principal calls, all desire to create leaves my soul. There’s no writing when there are school problems.

Money problems are an issue that can linger in my mind and block me for a few hours at a time. Otherwise, there’s hardly anything else. I’ve made space in my life for writing without restrictions and with time I’ve become more selfish, in a good sense.

As a teenager in France, growing up in violent environments (outside my family and hometown), fighting or schemes to avoid fighting were a big part of my life. My mind was so preoccupied by injustice, racism, violence, that I couldn’t even read at times. I got away from all this. It is part of the reason I’ve left France.

The United States definitely has its share of these problems as well. Reading, at least, helps us escape if but for a moment. What’s your favorite under-appreciated novel?

My answer to this question is about to become outdated because the TV show based on the novel is coming soon (with Kate Mulgrew!!), it’s The Man Who Fell To Earth by Walter Tevis (another atrociously translated writer in French). It is my favorite novel, I read it once a year. It’s the novel I would have liked to write. I connect on every level with Walter Tevis’ prose and his personal life. I get the true meaning of the novel, which I don’t want to spoil here. I’ll just say that what happens at the end of the novel is my greatest fear as a writer and a person.

So, this novel doesn’t really count, and if I answer Boris Vian’s L’Ecume des Jours (Froth on the Daydream), you’d think that’s an indie novel I haven’t heard about. It’s not an indie novel. It is one of the most read and celebrated novels ever written in the French language, and it will remain so for decades and centuries to come. According to a report from 2013, the novel has been selling between 80,000 and 270,000 copies every year since its second edition in 1962. Sadly, it is an impossible novel to translate (I wrote a short story about it entitled Missing Pages), because of its reliance on word meanings and figurative speech.

So, my true unsung novel would have to be Neverness by David Zindell. It’s one of those perfect novels, it has everything and more. I don’t understand why it’s not more read, and why it hasn’t been ‘rediscovered’ yet.

I admit, I had to look this one up. Seeing a title with “never” in it got me thinking immediately of Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman, but I see Neverness takes us to distant time and space for plenty of adventure. I’ll have to check it out! Are there any authors you disliked at first but then grew into?

There’s only one name that comes to mind, Stephen King!

Nowadays I read one Stephen King’s novel per week, but until December 2021, I had only ever finished one King’s novel, The Shining, which I disliked.

There’s a combination of factors at play which caused me to dislike King for many years. First of all, I was a dumb kid, swearing only by the classic authors, rejecting all popular and contemporary novels as garbage lit. Then, there were the translations. Reading a work in translation is hit or miss, in every language. SFF and Horror translations in France can be atrocious. I tried several times to read King as a child and teenager but I could not get past the atrocious writing. Yes, Stephen King’s pen in French is bad. It’s not the case in the original form though and it was The Gunslinger which finally got me into Stephen King, and allowed me, at last, to discover his wonderful craft.

You’re not the only one who ignored contemporary genre writing. My instructors in my graduate program were SHOCKED I mentioned Stephen King and writing fantasy. They drove us to focus solely on literary fiction; everything else was garbage. How dull the world would be without stories beyond our humdrum world! Still, I would be remiss if I did not admit that genre fiction–especially Scifi/Fantasy–can be prone to publishing in fads or phases. (The fad of Young Adult Dystopian fiction comes to mind.) Do you try more to be original or to deliver to readers what they want?

As a ‘rounder’ as I call all the writers who actively submit to pro-SFF markets, you have to read the latest SFF magazines and novels and see what the trends are. It gives you two indicators: what’s in demand and what is outdated or not wanted.

I always write the stories that I want, otherwise, I don’t get excited and the story turns out crap. So I’ll never write a story in a particular genre or fashion because it is what sells, I’ll write the kind of fiction I want to write and I’m very careful about avoiding all the unwanted tropes and themes.

When it comes to writing fantasy and your favorite genre of science fiction, we writers have to take special care to avoid those worldbuilding exposition dumps. Yet we also can’t just leave the reader to guess what on earth is going on by jumping into the middle of the action. How do you balance making demands on the reader with taking care of the reader?

I abide to Ben Bova’s rule about worldbuilding, borrowing is being lazy. Every SFF element has to come from my own pen and mind. I don’t do info dumps, I don’t explain how a tech or magic works, I show what it does. When writing dialogue, I place myself in my character’s shoes. When I speak to my siblings, we don’t reference the Indochina war that forced my mother to flee Laos in the 1950’s, we all know it. The same goes for characters in fiction, realistic dialogue doesn’t have infos dump about a war that happened fifty years ago or a tech breakthrough being explained. It’s assumed by the characters because it’s part of their lives. If you and I met today, you wouldn’t explain to me how a smartphone works, we both assume we know how they work. Infos dumps in dialogue are cringe and often lead to DNF.

Fantasy and science fiction also invite some delightfully creative approaches to naming folks, places, and so on. How do you select the names of your characters?

There are 3 types of scenarios. 1. The name comes by itself, early on, when I’m writing the outline of the story. 2. During pre-work, I get tired of writing ‘the female gunslinger with the rabbit tattoos’ and I make up a common name, like Jenny, Mary, Rose. Sometimes that name stays, sometimes I invest time to look for a more fitting name.

3. I decide the origin of the character, then look up websites with popular baby names per country. I pick one I have an affinity with, one that sounds right, but often I get inspired by a name and create a variation of that name. If the character is alien, I respect Asterix laws (from the Goscinny cartoons), names from a common alien origin must be consistent (e.g. in Asterix, all the villagers have named ending in -ix, in Rome all the name end in -us)

Ah, a blend of the ancient and the future with your name rules–I dig it! I love digging through name books for ideas, and those names sometimes help inspire certain traits in the character. What other kinds of research do you do, and how long do you spend researching before beginning a story?

The amount of pre-work can really vary, and I think the decisive factor is plotting. Stories that are heavily plotted require more work, from writing the plot outline, to writing key parts of the story beforehand, backstories for every character and locations, etc.

Stories relying on mood are much faster. I decide on the location, the theme and the characters I want to use for this particular story, then I just get on with the story without any pre-writing, research or backstory developments.

You’ve gotten quite a few stories into online magazines over the past couple of years. What are your favorite literary journals for reading and/or querying?

Escape Pod is the first mag that comes to mind, it is one of my objectives and dreams to be featured on this magazine. The quality of the stories is incredible. I read most stories on Daily SF, Hexagon, FIYAH, Interzone, Metaphorosis, Analog, F&SF, Clarkesworld, Beneath Ceaseless Skies.

We who love to write are definitely in it for the long haul, but we’d all be liars if we didn’t admit to those spells of discouragement. What motivates you to keep going when the publication process gets tougher than tough?

Writing isn’t a choice, it’s the way I live, nothing else can bring me fulfillment. With the years, I’ve eliminated everything that kept me from writing. I’ve reached a point of no return where becoming a pro writer is my only option. So now, even when I feel devastated after a story I cared deeply about gets turned down by a big market after being held up for consideration for weeks and months, I just take the hit and I get back to work, because there’s nothing else for me to do. History and experience proved that stories are rejected for a reason, even if one doesn’t see at the time. One has to keep writing, keep improving and then the issues with a particular story become clear.

Thanks so much for taking time to chat, Alex! It’s been wonderful to hear from another lifelong lover of words. Feel free to plug anything you’d like.

I want to shout out to the editors and staff of all the pro, semi-pro and non-paying SFF markets out there. We know most of those magazines are run at a loss and outside the SFF writing world, not many people know who the people behind the scenes are. The work, the efforts and sacrifices they put in to discover, develop and support new and existing writers is a gift. These ‘infrastructures’ are the reason I left France, one of the dominant literary countries in the world, yet the infrastructures are not there in France. There are no short story markets for emerging writers to graduate from, SFF is disregarded as a genre, and the only option for emerging writers to break in, is write a full novel then hope it will get picked up by a major publisher. However, there’s a lot going on behind the scene, who the author is, what her or his social and ethnic origins are sadly more decisive than the novel itself.

Writing in France is still an elitist affair. If it’s the case in France, I can only imagine what the publishing industries are like around the world, especially in countries we are less accustomed to reading writers from, such as Sudan, Kazakhstan, Vietnam, Venezuela, etc. I cannot help but think about the countless talents our civilizations have lost because the country these people were born in had no infrastructure to develop their talent and give them a chance to be read. It saddens me, and I didn’t want to be a victim of these inequalities by staying in a country where publishers berated me for my skin color or who I was. 

Therefore, it truly is a chance and a privilege to have all those SFF markets willing to read and give a chance to any writer in the world, regardless of her or his origins and social status. For that I am grateful beyond measure.

What a powerful message! Yes, thank you to all who help make these markets of the fantastic and impossible possible for the indie writer. Folks, I hope you’re able to check out Alex Valdiers’ stories in the links sprinkled throughout the interview.

~STAY TUNED!~

It’s time to take a trip down the Nile. How many folks do we take along? It should be up to you. Or is it up to the plot? Hmmm…..

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

Of Monks & Marigolds & Murder: A Nature Walk with Brother Cadfael

Welcome back, my fellow creatives! The Summer Solstice has come and gone, leaving Wisconsin with a collection of thunderheads eager to crack our air with lightning and thunder and blanket our countryside with rain (and sometimes hail). Had I knowledge of seeds and soil, such weather would be fit for a plot of sprouts (well, not the hail, but you get me). But alas, my neglected garden remains…neglected. Well, save for the one onion I threw into the mud for a lark. That’s actually sprouting! Now to make sure I don’t mow it down by accident…

In a few days’ time, a group of fellow educators and I are getting together to celebrate nature in literature. Some are eager to discuss the beauty of nature in poetry, others the power of nature’s presence in nonfiction.

And then there’s me, eager to talk about how nature can be used to kill us.

Don’t worry, I’m not digging into any eco-terror-type tales. No, I went to my beloved mystery series, for of course I had to. I gathered a batch of Sherlock Holmes stories where the rural isolation played a role in the crime, and a batch of Brother Cadfael mysteries where flowers played a role in the whodunit with the Rare Benedictine. If you’d like to explore the Holmesian Countryside with me another time, let me know! In the meantime, let’s take a stroll among the flowers that will never ever grow under my care (though considering the poisonous nature of some, that’s probably for the best).

~*~

I’ve only written about Brother Cadfael once or twice previously, so here’s a brief refresher:

The Cadfael series is a mystery series set in 12th century England featuring a Benedictine monk who had served in the Crusades before taking Orders. His time in the world not only taught him a wide variety of herbal remedies and apothecary skills, but also the depth and breadth of human nature.

Cadfael’s peace, though, is always to be found in the garden.

He doubted if there was a finer Benedictine garden in the whole kingdom, or one better supplied with herbs both good for spicing meats, and also invaluable as medicine. The main orchards and lands of the Shrewsbury abbey of Stain Peter and Saint Paul lay on the northern side of the road, outside the monastic enclave, but here, in the enclosed garden within the walls, close to the abbot’s fish-ponds and the brook that worked the abbey mill, Brother Cadfael ruled unchallenged. The herbarium in particular was his kingdom, for he had built it up gradually through fifteen years of labour, and added to it many exotic plants of his own careful raising, collected in a roving youth that had taken him as far afield as Venice, and Cyprus and the Holy Land. For Brother Cadfael had come late to the monastic life, like a battered ship settling at last for a quiet harbour…He saw no contradiction in the delight he had taken in battle and adventure, and the keen pleasure he now found in quietude. Spiced, to be truthful, with more than a little mischief when he could get it, as he liked his victuals well-flavoured, but quietude all the same…

A Morbid Taste for Bones

Don’t we all, Brother. Indeed, don’t we all.

First, a visit to The Rose Rent.

We are not quite in Brother Cadfael’s herb garden within the cloister’s walls, but we are now on abbey grounds. This home, you see, was willed by a widow named Judith. She gifts it to Shrewsbury Abbey with the request of being given a single rose from her late husband’s rose bush as a form of rent. The rose bush itself is quite impressive, as our flora-loving monk will tell you.

A snow of white, half-open buds sprinkled it richly. The blooms were never very large, but of the purest white and very fragrant.

Many men seek the attention of the pure, beautiful Judith, but she refuses all. Even the young monk charged with caring for the rose bush falls in love with the widow, but he is soon found dead alongside the plant. The authorities assume the rose bush was simply wrecked in the attack, but Brother Cadfael thinks otherwise.

“What was done to the rose-bush,” said Cadfael firmly, “was not done with that knife. Could not be! A man would have to saw away for half an hour or more, even with a sharp knife, at such a thick bole. That was done with a heavier weapon, meant for such work…”

Why is the rose bush as brutalized as the boy? THAT is a crucial piece of the mystery, for someone wants the Rose Rent as broken as Judith’s ties to the past. But who could it be?

For that, you will have to read the mystery.

Come, let us visit Brother Cadfael’s workshop now. I hear he keeps cherry wine here as well as many balms and salves. Just take care with the Monk’s-Hood!

Monk’s Hood

While many plants served their purpose in healing mixtures, some could be powerful healers as well as killers. Monk’s-Hood is one such plant. Named for the cowl-like shape of its petals, this lovely flower plays a critical role in attending the aged in the abbey’s infirmary. The risks of using it, however, cannot be understated.

“But keep it carefully, Edmund, never let it near your lips. Wash your hands well after using it, and make sure nay other who handles it does the same. It’s good for a man’s outside, but bad indeed for his inside. … [the oil is] the ground root of monk’s-hood, chiefly, in mustard oil and oil from flax seeds. It’s powerfully poisonous if swallowed, a very small draught of this could kill…”

When a hard-headed landowner is found poisoned not only by food from the abbey but with the Monk’s-Hood salve Cadfael makes for the infirmary, the Benedictine must act quickly to clear the abbey and reveal the killer.

“If you can make medicines from this plant,” said Prior Robert, with chill dislike, “so, surely, may others, and this may have come from some very different source, and not from any store of ours.”

“That I doubt,” said Cadfael sturdily, “since I know the odour of my own specific so well, and can detect here mustard and houseleek as well as monk’s hood. I have seen its effects, once taken, I know them again.”

Cadfael uses his knowledge of the oil’s smell and stain to bring the killer to justice, for few realize just how poisonous such a potion can be. The sheriff certainly didn’t until Cadfael tested the main suspect by asking him to drink the monk’s hood to calm his nerves–and he would have if not for Cadfael’s intervention.

But why was the landowner killed? For that, you will have to read the mystery.

Plants can not only help heal, but they can also help provide place. We can visit a nearby shepherd’s hut so you can see and smell for yourself.

One Corpse too Many

The clover’s quite heady isn’t it? Clover was often used as a perfume for altar lamps in this time period, but it was also grown by farmers to feed livestock. Goose-grass, too, was quite handy for feeding farm animals, but even Brother Cadfael could put such a clingy plant to use in making salves for wounds.

It’s this particular combination of clover and goose-grass that helped Cadfael uncover a murdered man’s body among King Stephen’s executed prisoners. Only the murdered man had the smell of clover and the burrs of goose-grass (as well as different strangulation marks, but that’s nothing to do with the plants), so by finding the barn with both plants, Cadfael was able to uncover the murder weapon and other clues to the killer.

The dry grass was well laced with small herbs now rustling and dead but still fragrant, and there was a liberal admixture of hooky, clinging goose-grass in it. That reminded [Cadfael] not only of the shred of stem dragged deep into Nick Faintree’s throat by the ligature that killed him, but also of Torold [Blund]’s ugly shoulder wound.

With war among the monarchs, everyone, even those cloistered, are caught up in the bloodshed, the betrayals, and the espionage. Cadfael must show the king that this singular corpse could crack his credibility beneath the crown…hopefully without losing his own life in the process. Does he succeed?

For that, you will have to read the mystery.

One last stop, I think. The hawthorn hedge is beautiful this time of year, its white petals falling as gently as snowflakes upon the ground. Did you know those of this time period believed the crown of thorns placed upon Christ’s head came from a hawthorn plant? Such a connection with the divine should be revered…and put to good use…

A Morbid Taste for Bones

One of the young monks under Brother Cadfael’s supervision frequently experiences visions and extreme spams, so Cadfael must often give the monk poppy juice to help still the boy’s body and mind. When some other ambitious monks “interpret” the boy’s visions as a plea from a Welsh saint to dig up her bones and bring them to Shrewsbury, Cadfael (being Welsh) has no choice but to accompany this band of Brothers into Wales to exhume the saint.

Not surprisingly, this venture leads to conflict between cloister and Welsh, and one morning soon after their arrival, the leader of the Welsh village is found dead. Cadfael is not wanting for suspects, but once he discovers his poppy juice supply has been drained, he quickly works out the identity of the killer.

To cease the conflict in the village and protect the saint whose bones his abbey so desperate wants, Cadfael chooses to put that reverence for hawthorn to use in a display of “divine” intervention.

Over altar and reliquary a snowdrift of white petals lay, as though a miraculous wind had carried them in its arms across two fields from the hawthorn hedge, without spilling one flower on the way, and breathed them in here through the altar window.

Why the ruse? For that, you’ll have to read the mystery.

~*~

Is it any wonder that Cadfael inspired my character Arlen? Both men of nature and healing, of principle and justice. Both called in dire days to summon past skills. Both fiercely loyal, giving, and kind.

We could use more Cadfaels in this world right now. But perhaps they are already among us–in the streets. In the battles.

Or, perhaps, in the gardens.

This season, do take a moment to explore a beloved park, forest, or other sanctuary of nature. Such places of color and quiet can be a balm to soothe the tired soul.

~STAY TUNED!~

If you’d like to meander through the Holmesian countryside, do let me know! Otherwise, I’ve finally seen Kenny B’s adaptation of Death on the Nile, and I have thoughts–not just about his take, but on how big or small a cast should be. Considering how the cast size of Death on the Nile changes over the course of a novel and three different film adaptations, it’s worth asking ourselves as writers just how many characters and subplots one needs in a tale to keep it clipping along.

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

#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!