Welcome to July, friends around the world, and Happy 4th to my fellow Americans!
Yowza, July already! June whipped by thanks to summer school for the kiddos. Biff and Bash have been doing a class to help them get ready for 1st grade, which means time with the three R’s and some extra socialization. It also means me going through all their kindergarten work to pack up the most memorable bits, including their writing. After going through their pieces, I couldn’t help but ask Biff and Bash about their favorite work.
For a girl reticent about meeting new people and trying new things, it was a bit of a challenge getting Blondie to participate in summer school. With the bribe of a computer gaming class, I was able to sign her up for photography and geocaching. Lo and behold, she’s found those courses way cooler than playing ol’ computer games!
For some, summertime means going on adventures in far off places. But my experience with Blondie in the Horicon Marsh was a beautiful reminder that one doesn’t have to travel far to escape to other worlds.
So often we think we have to travel miles and miles to escape the humdrum.
We presume the truly fantastic is beyond the horizon, just out of reach.
But if we take a moment to step outside, we might just discover adventure awaits us in the here and now, be it in the nearby marshlands…
…or with the imaginations frolicking in our own backyard.
What are your imaginations up to this summer? Any recommendations of fun daytime-adventures with kids? Let’s chat!
Despite all the amassed resources and ideas all around, there seems to be an insurmountable physical obstacle. For Plankton, it’s his size. For me, it’s being a mom during the summer months in the United States, when kids are home nearly all day. Oh, I plan on getting them to read and write as much as possible (Bash is reading to me from the Owl Diaries as I type this very post). But there’s no denying the time crunch to cram whatever writing AND school work I can into the few morning hours they spend at the school. (More on their accomplishments in a future post, including a sample of Blondie’s photography!)
So this month’s world-building post is going to cheat, just a smidge. I’d like to compare how a classic novel and a more recent film each utilized words and/or visuals they felt the audience would understand to help engage them in the story’s world. One accomplishes this brilliantly.
The other, not so much. (To me, anyway. I get this is all subjective. Moving on!)
Let’s start with the beloved first paragraph of The Hobbit, including one of the best first lines in literature.
In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.
Consider that phrase “hole in the ground.” Lots of us know holes: rabbit holes, construction holes, water holes, badger holes, snake holes, buried treasure holes, etc etc etc.
But a “hobbit”? What the heck’s a hobbit? Considering what we know about holes, we imagine it to be some sort of digging creature, maybe a mole or some such beast. Certainly not one to wear clothes and enjoy afternoon tea.
(Unless, of course, you’re Mole from Wind in the Willows.)
The rest of the paragraph continues to lead readers away from their presumptions about holes and establishes that a hobbit hole is nothing like they we know as far as holes go. Once given the line “it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort,” readers immediately begin associating other things they know, this time the focus on familiar comfortable things, and building them into the hole.
Tolkien, of course, helps readers accomplish this with the second paragraph. No flying into adventure or action here; readers take their time entering the hobbit-hole and peering about.
It had a perfectly round door like a porthole, painted green, with a shiny yellow brass knob in the exact middle. The door opened on to a tube-shaped hall like a tunnel: a very comfortable tunnel without smoke, with panelled walls, and floors tiled and carpeted, provided with polished chairs, and lots and lots of pegs for hats and coats–the hobbit was fond of visitors….No going upstairs for the hobbit: bedrooms, bathrooms, cellars, pantries (lots of these), wardrobes (he had whole rooms devoted to clothes), kitchens, dining-rooms, all were on the same floor, and indeed on the same passage…
Readers, especially young readers, understand what halls are. They understand what kitchens are, bathrooms, all the rest. By providing the hobbit with rooms and possessions readers know from their own lives, readers can quickly and easily build the The Hobbit‘s setting in their own imaginations.
Another tactic Tolkien often utilizes in telling The Hobbit is directly addressing the readers.
This hobbit was a very well-to-do hobbit, and his name was Baggins. The Bagginses had lived in the neighbourhood of The Hill for time out of mind, and people considered them very respectable, not only because most of them were rich, but also because they never had any adventures or did anything unexpected: you could tell what a Baggins would say on any question without the bother of asking him. This is a story of how a Baggins has an adventure, and found himself doing and saying things altogether unexpected. He may have lost the neighbours’ respect, but he gained–well, you will see whether he gained anything in the end.
Readers have not even met this Baggins yet, but once again they can put their own knowledge to use: the humdrum uncle, for instance, that always plays life safe, or the old man down the street that goes through the same routine every gosh darn day.
In other words: boring. Kids know what boring looks like, and they’ll paint this Baggins fellow up with all the shades of boring they know. Tolkien starts readers on common ground so that when he’s ready to share the details of what they don’t know–like what a hobbit looks like–the readers can more easily integrate these details into their personal visualizations of the story.
Yet using common ground to engage the audience at story’s beginning can go wrong. Very wrong.
Enter 2018’s Robin Hood.
It’s an adventurous tale of heroes and villains, justice and evil. We all know the plot’s rhythm, the characters’ harmonies.
This film begins with a CGI book titled Robin Hood. The book opens to a stark black and white illustration of a town (and their artsy credits) an unseen narrator tells us: “So, I would tell you what year it was, but I can’t actually remember. I could bore you with the history, but you wouldn’t listen. What I can tell you is this is the story of a thief. But it doesn’t begin with the thief you know.”
So like The Hobbit, Robin Hood starts with a direct address to the audience. Unlike Tolkien’s narrator, who walks hand in hand with readers into the story, helping them find their footing in its fantasy world, the film’s narrator treats its audience with a bit of condescension–I’d explain things, but it’s not like you’d really listen, right? You think you know this story? Well you don’t! Ha!
The opening scene shows a lady in a buxom dress, sheer veil, and dolled-up face sneaking into a barn to steal a horse from the “toff” (ugh, the American accent takes all the fun out of that word) who lives there. The “toff” who catches her is–ta da! Rob. He gives her the horse for her name. Ta da! Marian.
In comes the narrator again, showing Marian and Robin being all cute and playful. “Seasons passed. They were young, in love, and that was all that mattered. Until the cold hand of fate reached out for them.”
The audience watches hands sign some curious paper, hands coming out some super-smooth grey leather sleeves.
The narrator continues to speak while a messenger takes all these ominous letters from Grey Sleeves and enters the town. Grey Sleeves stands up and whirls his giant Matrix-ish long coat around as he walks towards a balcony. The messenger continues into town; the town reminds me of something from a Renaissance Faire, a mix of periods for color, stone, and wood.
“He stole from the rich and gave to the poor. He became a bedtime story. But listen. Forget history. Forget what you’ve seen before. Forget what you think you know. This is no bedtime story.”
At long last, we are shown a huge metropolis that we can only presume is Nottingham, which is later called “the Bank of the Church, the beating heart of the Crusades“.
Not that viewers ever feel this depth of city, as they only experience one, maybe two streets the entire film.
All the curious papers are draft notices for the Crusades. So the audience is shuttled ahead four years to a stealthy unit of soldiers all dressed in sand-colored armor. It’s all sniper fire with arrows, complete with several repeating crossbows that act more like machine guns–yes, sound effects included.
The filmmakers have told viewers to “forget all you know,” removing the medieval style of warfare they’ve seen before so it can be replaced with scenes strongly eliciting scenes of modern-day conflict in the Middle East.
When Rob returns to Nottingham and finds Tuck, who’s ecstatic he’s alive even though viewers have never seen these two together before and therefore have no clue how deep or strong this friendship is, they learn ANOTHER two years have passed. Tuck dumps a bunch of exposition about the war tax and how the Sheriff has forced many townspeople to work in the mines.
You know, the mines that look like something out of Bladerunner, what with the towering exhausts of flames built into the endless frame of the mountain.
And at this point, I just had to give up trying to figure out this world.
The opening narration told me to forget what I knew. Yet the opening scenes of the film insisted on showing me characters in modernized dress and modern cosmetics. For all the exposition about war tax driving people into poverty, they show plenty of clean streets. Sure, the people are all sooty from the mines. Mining for what? How do John and Rob jury rig so many ropes and pulleys into a frickin’ firing range in the old manor? Where the heck does food come from around here? How is a Sheriff living in a frickin’ palace that makes the castle in Prince of Thieves look like a rat hole?
If Robin Hood really wanted its audience to “forget all they knew,” then MAKE THEM FORGET. You want all the modern flair in an olden time? Go all out in a sub-genre like steam punk. How awesome would it be to see Robin with an array of amazing crossbows, Little John with a clockwork arm, or the Sheriff’s stronghold as some air-fortress circling Nottingham?
But the filmmakers didn’t want viewers to forget, not really. They wanted people engaged in the story, but today’s audiences don’t understand the medieval period, right? So throw some modern music in, make even the poor commoners capable of dolling themselves up in velvet and smooth fitted leather. Sure, the coins can be old, and people can ride horses. The font on their draft notices can be printed in medieval font so they look old (seriously, those things look like they’re printed from a computer). But nothing in this world feels old. I kept waiting for the Sheriff to check his phone for a text from the Cardinal. Jeez, DC’s Green Arrow is more medieval than this Robin Hood.
Don’t even get me started on how Muslim John can move around Nottingham with ease even after the Sheriff’s fear-mongering speech. He is the ONLY man of color in the city, and nooooobody ever pays him any mind.
Of course writers shouldn’t just go and do what’s already been done. How boring that would be! But there’s a difference between building world-bridges and burning them. Tolkien took elements of modern life that the audience would know and used them to help readers connect to The Hobbit‘s world of fantasy. The crew behind Robin Hood wanted everything to look cool, but that’s all it could do–“look” cool. There’s no age to the sets, no life beyond what the camera shows us. Audiences are left wondering how these peasants can dress so elegantly, why the Crusades look more like the Iraq war, why NO CIVILIANS seem to actually LIVE anywhere (again, just…Loxley’s manor and the Middle Eastern town, apparently, are tooooooooooooooooootally uninhabited). They told us to forget what we know, yet took exactly what we know from the here and now and did their damndest to stuff the Robin Hood story into it.
Gah, now I’m just rambling.
I love the story of The Hobbit. I love the story of Robin Hood. As a reader, I’m always ready to run headlong into these fantastic adventures because I want that escape from the humdrum everyday of the here and now. I don’t want to see the here and now used as some sort of tape to patch the fantasy together. No audience wants to see the tape hanging over the edges, blurring what’s underneath.
Only the beautiful fantasy world built with love, with time, and with care.
Thanks for following me through this meandering post! Next month’s posts shall be a bit more whimsical, as I’ve got interviews, marshes, creativity, and point of view ponderings to share.
Oh! And hopefully I’ll have everything set with the free fiction of the month and a newsletter, too. Have anything you’d like to share and/or plug? Let me know!
Happy Thursday, lovely creatives! I’m so, so excited to introduce you to Anne Clare. Not only is she one of the kindest, gentlest souls I’ve been blessed to meet, but she is a deeply supportive reader, writer, and artist. Well, I should probably let her introduce herself first. Take it, Anne!
Hi, all! I’m Anne. I live in the green, drizzly, Pacific Northwest of the U.S., but I spend a fair amount of time travelling the world via history books. I’m on the verge of celebrating the publication of my first WWII historical fiction novel. I write about writing and the real events of the tumultuous 1940s on my blog, thenaptimeauthor.wordpress.com.
I’m also a wife, mother of three, organist and choir director, part-time teacher, and coffee addict.
Like all marvelous writers, our love of storytelling is forged in the reading of our younger days. My favorite genre of choice was the cozy murder mystery: justice sought and earned while mayhem abounded in one British village after another. What kinds of stories did you enjoy during your formative years?
When I wasn’t trying to solve the mysteries of math class or painting play sets I enjoyed my fair share of Agatha Christie and other sleuth stories, too. I’ve always loved fantasy stories- Tolkein, Lewis and Terry Brooks were some of my first loves. I think it was in highschool when I first discovered Gail Carson Levine’s retold fairy tales and Harry Potter. Honestly, though, I just love a good story regardless of genre.
How true! It’s amazing how many cool stories we discover when we don’t limit ourselves to just a few authors. (Of course, it took college and those accursed required reading lists to help me learn that lesson, but I did learn it…mostly…) What’s the first book you read that sparked the fire of storytelling inside you?
Fairy tales played a big part of course- the earliest stories I “wrote” (i.e. dictated to my older cousin who knew HOW to write, and was kind enough to humor me)–
That’s the bestest kind of cousin, in my book. (ba dum CH!)
I know, right? So those stories were on thrilling topics like fairies, a city populated by talking dogs, and princesses. My first “novel,” started when I was twelve in spiral bound notebooks, was a portal fantasy with BIG nods to Lord of the Rings!
Aw, that’s just like Polly in Diana Wynne Jones’ Fire and Hemlock! I don’t recall liking Tolkien much as a kid, but I blame my sixth grade teacher’s reading of The Hobbit for that–ugh, what a horror. Are there any authors you disliked reading at first but have since grown into?
We read My Antonia in eighth grade- I didn’t like it at all. It was tedious and (spoiler!) the boy didn’t even get the girl in the end! Rereading it as an adult, I love it, in an emotionally teary sort of way. (Since having kids I’m such a sap…😊)
Ha! Heavens, don’t I know it. I bawled reading the end of DWJ’s Dogsbody. Any time something precious is lost, I’m in tears. Music has that power over my emotions too, when the mood is right. Plus, music can be a wonderful guide in the storytelling process. Do you have any favorite artists/composers you’d like to recommend? How do these folks inspire your writing?
I didn’t realize how heavily I depended on music for writing until our kitten, Mr. Meowgi, ate my headphones. I always have something playing in the background as I write.
As I write in the 1940s, I would have thought period music would be my go-to. While I enjoy Glenn Miller and others from the era, while writing I gravitate more toward modern music that fits my mood. The first novel required songs like Lana Del Rey’s Born to Die and the Decemberists “Crane Wife” album- I don’t know why, they just worked! For some reason, the second book seems to go better with Brandie Carlisle and Johnny Cash.
SECOND NOVEL?! Wooooah woah, slow down, Me. Anne’s here to talk about her FIRST novel. One book at a time, right?
Eeeeee, I’m so excited!
Whom Shall I Fear? is set in World War II on two fronts: the battlefront as well as the home front. What first inspired you to create characters in this time?
I’ve always been fascinated by history, but hadn’t pursued much study of it- between teaching and momming, I was just too busy! Then, I had a dream set during World War II, which became the climax of my novel. I blame the fact that I was reading a lot of Agatha Christie, while reading The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe to my kids, and watching James Bond with my husband. All three had some WWII references which must have leaked into my subconscious.
So, lots of World War II floating in your subconscious while you’re also reading and storing info in your consciousness. Oh, research…. I’m very much a “Google as I go” kind of gal, but you’ve been researching this period for quite some time. Can you share your process for researching as well as how you selected what information should be incorporated into the story and what information should stay on the notecards?
When I began this project, I was naiive enough to think that “Google as I go” would be all I needed. After all, I’d studied WWII, I knew the main events!
It didn’t take long to realize I knew nothing- or at least nothing close to the detail I’d need to do to pull off a convincing story.
I started by searching my library. One of the first books that popped up was Winston Churchill’s Memoirs of the Second World War. I snagged it, figuring that he ought to know what he was talking about. It was the abridged version, so only 1700 pages and change. I hadn’t read a serious history book since college, and it was an undertaking, but I’ll say this for Mr. Churchill- his grand, sweeping style of prose made the history very readable.
Of course, the challenge with researching history is that there’s always a filter between you and the events. The individual perspective of the recorder, no matter how unbiased they try to be, is going to effect their narrative. Reading Churchill’s book first gave me a great start, because I had an outline of the major events, how and when they happened, and one perspective on them.
From there, I looked for as many sources from the era as I could. The BBC website has this wonderful archive called “The People’s War” where they invited people to send in their recollections of their life during the war.
Reading first-hand accounts was fascinating, and helpful in shaping my setting. As one of my main characters was in the British infantry, I found books by infantrymen. When I needed broader books for troop movements so that my fellas got where they were supposed to when they were supposed to, I sought books that used original sources like divisional histories etc, and tried to compare more than one source.
Culling information- well, that was another challenge. It was hard to know where to cut, but sometimes it was unavoidable. For instance, I initially wanted to send my infantryman, James, to North Africa. It sounded like a fascinating place to include- the struggles over Tobruk, fighting against Rommel’s tanks, the battle of El Alamein… I researched military groups in the area and decided he could be part of the 8th Army, and then after Africa I could send him to Sicily and Italy and learn about even more unfamiliar places!
I kept on reading and discovered that none of this would fit with the rest of the timeline for the story. Also, the 8th Army that fought across North Africa was almost completely different from the 8th Army that went to Italy. Sigh.
It was hard to eliminate fascinating pieces of history, but in the end, the research had to serve the story. If the history doesn’t forward the characters or plot, it isn’t going to do what good historical fiction should- make history come alive to the reader.
Now writing inside a well-known–hang on. By your very account here, there is still so much we never get a chance to learn about World War II, so I shouldn’t be calling it a “well-known period.” Let me back-track a wee bit and approach my question this way: in fantasy writing, storytellers create characters as well as the worlds they live in. In historical fiction, you’re creating characters that may or may not live alongside people who actually lived in your chosen period. What would you consider to be the ethics of writing about historical figures?
Ah, that’s tricky! I tried to avoid the issue as much as I could, particularly if the reflection on the historical person’s character might be…uncomplimentary. After all, it hardly seems fair to take a dig at someone who isn’t around to defend themselves, and, as I said before, there’s always the bias present of the person who’s recording their history.
For the few historical figures who did make it into the final novel, I tried to deal with them as my characters would have in real life.
The only real person who makes it “onstage” is Lord Woolton, for a brief cameo, since one of my characters works for the Ministry of Food (responsible for rationing etc) of which Lord Woolton was the Minister until sometime in 1943. The history books described his oversized suit and his friendly voice over the wireless- these made it into the book. Otherwise I tried to keep him neutral- he was just present to help reveal something about one of MY characters.
On the negative end, I did feel the need to mention Lady Astor. The first female MP, she gained notoriety with the troops in Italy by calling them the “D-Day Dodgers.” (i.e. they were somehow shirking by fighting in Italy, rather than in France.) Naturally, the men were furious, and composed a catchy and uncomplimentary song about the incident. In the years since, there’s been some question of whether she acutally made the comment or whether it was a misunderstanding, but my protagonist in Italy wouldn’t have known that, so he reacts accordingly.
I also hesitated to mention larger groups specifically. For instance, I mentioned the whole confusion over the make up of the 8th army above. To make sure that my group of infantrymen I follow in the story COULD have ended up where I sent them, I had to find a smaller group to “shadow” through the histories. I decided on the 2nd Battalion, Lancashire Fusiliers- they were at the battle of Monte Cassino, and other notable places. However, I don’t specifically mention them in the book- it felt presumptuous to tack my fictional men onto a group that really served in such dangerous places.
In the end, one of my major goals in writing about this era is in homage to those who sacrificed and served. Anything that would detract from that or turn into me editorializing on a time I didn’t live through, I took out.
An excellent plan to go by, I think.
Now, you used three different points of view to tell your story: your two protagonists as well as your antagonist. What were some challenges from writing with the villain and heroes’ points of view? What were some benefits?
As I mentioned, I was reading a lot of Agatha Christie when I started this book. She uses multiple points of view in her mysteries- sometimes to reveal, sometimes to misdirect. While my novel isn’t really a mystery, there are some of the same elements- mysterious strangers, tangled motivations, crimes of the past. I liked the flavor of the multiple points of view- how I could reveal clues to the questions from different perspectives and how I could have one character reveal information to the reader while keeping other characters in the dark.
The challenge is to create enough distinction between the perspectives so that the reader can “feel” the difference when they’re in a different character’s head. Also, I found myself tempted to head hop- to reveal information that the POV I was writing from couldn’t have known. I had to resist the temptation, and place my “reveals” carefully.
A temptation that we all struggle with!
You and I both have kids who haven’t taken our sanity from us (yet). You know how I’m always on the look-out for tips on finding some sense of balance between writing and parenting. Care to share your advice?
I discovered that I can’t hold myself to someone else’s expectations for the amount of time or words I write. Every day is a new day- some will be productive author days. Others will be “clean up kid vomit and read stories to them” days. There’s no guilt in either one!
And one final question…
Many thanks to you, Anne, and congratulations once more! Whom Shall I Fear will be available June 28th on Amazon.
All that Sergeant James Milburn wants is to heal. Sent to finish his convalescence in a lonely village in the north of England, the friends he’s lost haunt his dreams. If he can only be declared fit for active service again, perhaps he can rejoin his surviving mates in the fight across Sicily and either protect them or die alongside them.
All that Evie Worther wants is purpose. War has reduced her family to an elderly matriarch and Charles, her controlling cousin, both determined to keep her safely tucked away in their family home. If she can somehow balance her sense of obligation to family with her desperate need to be of use, perhaps she can discover how she fits into her tumultuous world.
All that Charles Heatherington wants is his due. Since his brother’s death, he is positioned to be the family’s heir with only one step left to make his future secure. If only he can keep the family matriarch happy, he can finally start living the easy life he is certain he deserves.
However, when James’s, Evie’s and Charles’s paths collide, a dark secret of the past is forced into the light, and everything that they have hoped and striven for is thrown into doubt.
Weaving in historical detail from World War II in Britain, Italy and Egypt, Whom Shall I Fear? follows their individual struggles with guilt and faith, love and family, and forces them to ask if the greatest threat they face is really from the enemy abroad.
I’ve not known James Cudney IV as long as Blondie, but he is without a doubt one of the most avid book bloggers I know, and a fellow mystery lover, to boot! I just had to have him for an interview to help celebrate the upcoming release of his latest installment in the Braxton Campus Mystery series.
Let’s have some niceties first! Tell us a bit about yourself, please.
It’s always the general questions which stump me; where does one begin? I’ll be brave and take a chance here. I’m 42 and live in NYC. I worked in technology and project management for ~15 years before leaving my job and writing my first book two-and-a-half years ago. I’d always wanted to do it but never had the time, until I found myself starting over again. I absolutely do not regret the decision, as I was a walking ball of stress before this new career. I’m still open to going back to an office job, but it will be something very different, if I ever do. That said, I am a homebody and more of an introvert. I tend to follow a routine, but every once in a while, I surprise people with my choices. I spend a lot of time thinking about things before I ever tell others what’s going on inside my head, so when I do… it often seems to others like a quick decision. I’m a much happier person now that I’m writing and being creative. I still get stressed over editing and marketing, but it’s a very different type of monster. With no ‘real’ boss (okay, every reader IS my boss), I have more freedom to take chances on things. Luckily, my other half and our puppy keep me sane!
It says on your bio that you’ve done an extensive study of your family history. That is so fascinating! I’ve a distant cousin doing that very thing, and he’s so far discovered that our great-grandparents (or great-great? I get lost in all the great’s) were put in an internment camp in Wisconsin during World War 1 because they had German names. Is there a surprising story from your own family research you’d like to share?
Genealogy is my favorite hobby! I am an only child, so I often spent time with my aunts, uncles, and grandparents rather than siblings. It developed a curiosity about the past, and since I am an introvert, I research everything. When a grandfather passed away, I connected with a long-lost cousin who attended his funeral and shared family history. I began researching it on my own, and now almost 25 years later, I’ve gone back to the 1700s for several branches. Don’t worry, I still get confused on second cousin and first cousin once removed, et al. I know the rules, but I’m less of a stickler for those details as I am finding the exact locations of an ancestor’s birth and death. It’s amazing and scary what you can discover about the past. Interment camps? That’s awful, and fortunately, I don’t know of anything like that in my family. I do have a German great-grandfather who had to change his last name. From what I understand, he had been caught up with the mob and gambling debts while he was a boxer. He disappeared and divorced a wife and three children (in the 1910s) only to resurface two years later with a new wife, name, job (beers / bars), and kids (one of which was my grandmother). I wish I knew the whole story, but the little that’s been retained is fascinating.-
Oh wow…now THAT is the stuff of story, to be sure! I bet you could create a whole wold around your great-grandfather–your own sort of literary journey into your family past. What other literary pilgrimages have you gone on?
Interesting question! Do you mean as a writer or a reader? And literally or figuratively! 🙂 Wait, who’s asking the questions here… I should be a better interviewee, huh?
Ha! Behave yourself, Sir, or I’ll force you to babysit my sons. Mwa ha ha!
Ahem. Anyway, you were saying…
I’ve never traveled to research a setting for a book or to visit a place I’ve read about. I have traveled a lot in the past, but when I go away, I tend not to read or write. I immerse myself in culture and relaxation. That said… a pilgrimage is like taking a risk toward something you believe strongly in. For me, that would be mysteries and cozy little towns. When I find a series and author I like, I tend to read everything all at once. I did that with the ‘Cat Who’ books by Lilian Jackson Braun; they were one of my first addictions in the sub-genre. 2019 is the year of catching up for me, so I’m saying ‘no’ to most new books and series, allowing enough time to get fully caught up on my TBR before adding to it again.
I don’t blame you for focusing on your TBR list. You have read a lot of books. Like, a TON of books. 500 reviews?! That’s AMAZING! So of course, I have to ask: Have you ever gotten reader’s block? If so, how did you overcome it?
When I was working full-time, I barely read a book every two weeks. Now, I’m able to read a few each week. In 2017, I began using Goodreads much more. I wrote a book review for everything I could remember from the past. I also wrote one as soon as I finished reading a new book. As of today, I’m at about 850, but I’m definitely forgetting hundreds from the past. I have gotten reader’s block a few times in the last 2+ years since I set my Goodreads Challenge in the 150+ books range. It often happens when I am writing my own book, then try to step away for a break. I find myself reading the book to find styles I like or ways to improve my editing, as opposed to just relaxing to enjoy a good book. In that way, writing books has ruined reading books for me. Sometimes, I also find myself just too tired to read, or in need of something vastly different so that I can escape. I won’t ever DNR (Did Not Read) a book. I try a few times, then put it aside and try again a month later. If it’s still not working, I’ll skim it and write a brief review, explaining why it didn’t work for me. If it’s a book an author specifically asked me to read, I won’t review it; I’ll share with them why I struggled and let them decide how to handle it. I don’t ever want to hurt another author if for some reason I’m just not in the right place to read that book.
That’s perfectly understandable, James. I like reading for escape from my genre, too; I love writing fantasy, but it’s so lovely to read mysteries for a little break. And indie authors do NOT have it easy out there in the virtual bookstore, so it’s wonderful that you focus on helping fellow writers rather than put them down.
All this reading and writing must mean you’re keeping a pretty sharp eye on the publishing industry. What do you consider to be the most unethical practice in the publishing industry, and what can we as writers do about it?
Excellent question! I do pay attention, but at the same time, I’ve always believed in doing what you feel is best and ignoring the status quo. For better or worse, the market is super flooded now. Anyone can write a book, which is good and bad. Reading is cheaper, given sites like NetGalley and electronic books; however, the quality of a book is much more questionable when it hasn’t gone through a rugged process to ensure it’s top notch. All I mean by that is that it’s a lot harder to choose books to read nowadays. Some indie books are WAY better than traditionally published books, and some traditionally published books have awful editing processes. For me, it really comes down to the book’s genre, summary, and themes. I don’t read reviews other people write anymore. Let me clarify that… I read reviews my friends write because I support them, but I don’t read reviews before deciding whether to read a book or not. Other people’s opinions have such a range… after reading over 1000 books, I trust my own judgment when choosing what to read. That said, I think the most unethical practice is probably paying for reviews when the book hasn’t actually been read. I’m totally in support of paying someone to read your book and write an honest review; however, if you pay sites to post bunches of positive reviews when the book wasn’t read, it’s not very honest and fair. I understand the desire to do it — you need positive reviews when you first get started, so that part makes sense. But there are better ways to accomplish it, in my opinion. My best suggestion to counter it is find friendly reviewers and ask for their help before paying for fake reviews.
Excellent advice! We have to keep in mind that readers can be very particular with their tastes; what could be a beautiful story to one could be a mangled mess to another.Plus, you know who can/will appreciate your own shift in writing tastes.Your first two novels, Watching Glass Shatter and Father Figure, are both pretty dark dramas when compared to the lighter tone of your Braxton Campus mysteries. What inspired this shift? Do you think you’ll ever shift away from cozies and into the darker realm once more?
I actually have the answer to these questions, phew! I have ZERO clue why I started with a dark family drama before a cozy mystery. I read cozies so much, how on earth did I not go with what I knew! The easy explanation is that Watching Glass Shatter stemmed from a dream I HAD to develop. It took me a year to finish the book and find a publisher. At the same time, I had been building my blog and decided to let my followers choose the scope of my second book. I published a post with 5 or 6 story ideas, then let votes decide. They picked Father Figure, another dark drama. I finished writing and publishing it in April 2018, then decided it was time to write a cozy. I’d published that I was planning to write a sequel to Watching Glass Shatter in late 2018 / early 2019, but I got sidetracked and wrote 4 books in the cozy mystery series because I saw the power of marketing behind a series, and the ideas kept flowing. At the same time, I fleshed out the plot for the Watching Glass sequel and began drafting the outline. I’m happy to report that I’ve begun writing it already. My plan is to publish the fifth cozy in the Braxton series in October 2019, as it will be a Halloween-themed mystery. Then, I will focus on the Watching Glass sequel with a mid 2020 target release. At the same time, I’m working on another mystery series, but it will not be considered cozy. I intend to write a book in all major genres if I can motivate myself even more this year!
Yowza, what a goal! But clearly, mysteries have pride of place in your heart. Was it a mystery novel that first sparked the storytelling passion inside you? If so, which story and why?
It began with Poe and Christie. I love solving puzzles, and being part of the story by playing detective is an amazing way to connect with the author. I also like secrets, at least in terms of trying to discover what someone else is keeping from me. I am not a secretive person myself, probably the opposite – I say too much! It’s definitely my go-to genre, so when I wrote my first book, it was about a family full of secrets. It wasn’t a typical mystery, e.g. in terms of “let’s solve who killed someone.” It was also an analysis of the impact of an emotional explosion on a family with real people we might know around us. My favorite mystery is Christie’s “And Then There Were None.” I recall reading and watching it in school when I was about 10 years old, then guessing the killer before (s)he was revealed. I had a inkling about the way the story was being written, and my intuition paid off… that pretty much clarified for me what type of reader I am.
To me, mysteries are a genre that do not allow for pantsing, but planning, planning, and MORE planning. Can you take us through your writing process for building strong mysteries?
I am definitely a planner. Once an idea formulates, I jot notes down on my phone, since it often happens when I’m out and about (which I dislike, since I said I was a homebody) or waking up from a dream. Once it’s strong enough to organize into a summary, I’ll prepare a 150-word overview. Then, I’ll write an larger outline. I begin with a bullet list of key plot points, then descriptions of characters. Once I know the details of the victim, I create the suspect list, including red herrings and real clues. From there, I create the 10 to 15 key scenes that will help readers solve the crime. I organize the timeline for all the events, then I break the detail into chapter by chapter summaries. Each chapter has 2 or 3 scenes. Each scene lists the characters and settings, as well as what info needs to be discovered and what open questions must arise. From there, it turns into a ~30-page outline that I read several times. This process takes about a week at most. Then I write 2 chapters per day, ignoring the desire to edit. After the first draft is written, I read it and rewrite a new outline without looking at the old one. I do this to see how much has changed, as this helps me figure out areas that are weak and strong. It’s back and forth at that point. I have a weird memory: I forget tons of things from the past, but I’ll remember every arc, red herring, or clue that need to be followed up on. It’s rare I leave anything open-ended in a first draft, but sometimes there are a few unresolved issues. I merge the two outlines, decide what new scenes need to occur and finish my second draft. At that point, editing takes over, then early alpha and beta readers help me identify when I need more suspense or stronger alibis and motives.
Thank goodness for trusted readers–and for this wonderful chat! Would you like to wrap this up with some encouragement for your fellow writers?
I was an English major in college. I’ll say right from the start, I know 90% of the grammar rules but have forgotten a few. I majored in English not because I wanted to be a walking grammar expert but because I enjoy reading and connecting with authors. I LOVE when a reader writes a review on a book and only talks about a grammar issue. I’ve had two where the reviewer only wrote “This books needed to go through more editing.” I laughed because that’s such a ‘useful’ review. I’m all for negative or constructive feedback and criticism, but what a reviewer writes is often a bigger characteristic of them as a person rather than the writer. An author takes 1000+ hours to write a book, not including all the other people that help her or him. A reader takes 30 seconds to write a review and chooses to be mean. There will always be people like that. They are the same people who bullied others. They are the same people who hide behind the Internet and couldn’t actually say it to your face. They are the same people who are probably miserable at home or like to hurt others because they can’t solve their own problems. That’s something I’d like to share with the rest of the writing community — People can be mean, but you need to ignore them when they are hurtful.
If there’s nothing valuable in their review, let it go and write your next book.
On the positive side, as I want to end the interview that way, writers have the best job in the world. They can do anything they want. They can use it for good to promote awareness or provide entertainment. They can use it to help themselves process through pain or emotions. They can use it to make an income. They can use it to express creativity and ideas inside their head that yearn to be released. Aren’t we lucky? I also love how we all support one another and promote each other’s work rather than think of it is as a competition. That’s the best kind of world to live in. So thank YOU!
And thank YOU, James, for all that you do! You’re a wonderful fellow writer and supporter in these crazy publishing waters. I’m sure your latest mystery, Mistaken Identity Crisis, is going to be awesome!
BLURB: A clever thief with a sinister calling card has invaded Braxton campus. A string of jewelry thefts continues to puzzle the sheriff given they’re remarkably similar to an unsolved eight-year-old case from shortly before Gabriel vanished one stormy night. When a missing ruby is discovered near an electrified dead body during the campus cable car redesign project, Kellan must investigate the real killer in order to protect his brother. Amidst sorority hazing practices and the victim’s connections to several prominent Wharton County citizens, a malicious motive becomes more obvious and trickier to prove. As if the latest murder isn’t enough to keep him busy, Kellan partners with April to end the Castigliano and Vargas crime family feud. What really happened to Francesca while all those postcards showed up in Braxton? The mafia world is more calculating than Kellan realized, and if he wants to move forward, he’ll have to make a few ruthless sacrifices. Election Day is over, and the new mayor takes office. Nana D celebrates her 75th birthday with an adventure. A double wedding occurs at Crilly Lake on Independence Day. And Kellan receives a few more surprises as the summer heat begins to settle in Wharton County.
Happy Saturday, Friends! While Bo and Blondie attend a baseball game and I take the twins to a swimming pool (PRAY FOR ME), please welcome fellow Young Adult author Ann Hunter!
First things first! Tell us a little about yourself, please.
I like to say I’m a Mom first, a writer second, and all around ninja. I’m a dyed and true Hufflepuff #badgerfierce, love dark chocolate and red velvet cake. And I love YA literature. I love mentoring other writers, too, and teens as well. I’m assistant teacher at the Taekwondo Dojang I train at with my daughters, and I’m so grateful for my epic husband– he really is too patient with me.
Oh my g.o.s.h., you serious? My brother is a teacher in Taekwondo! Both of them have black belts. I, however, was enrolled in dance class for a summer.
(Don’t ask how that went.)
Anyway, my own three wee hooligans keep me inspired, not to mention on my toes. One phone call from the principal, though, and my creativity’s shot for the day. What would you call your writing Kryptonite, and how do you overcome it?
My biggest Kryptonite is my ADD (clinically diagnosed in college). I have a hard time getting started and staying focused unless I have my ritual/routine down. I use noise canceling headphones and http://brain.fm.
I also sprint with other writers in a dedicated chat room on slack. It helps a lot to have friends and support.
I struggle with energy, too. My best-selling series, North Oak, is so emotional that it’s very taxing physically and mentally.
I’m currently developing a class that I’ll be presenting at Fyrecon later this month on how to be a word warrior without burning out.
Uffdah, burnout is right. I’m in the midst of overhauling my platform while also grading finals while also having Biff, Bash, and Blondie home for summer break. How on EARTH do you balance writing and parenthood, anyway? I’m always hunting for tips.
Not just a writer and mom, but a ninja too! I also do Taekwondo and I’m working toward my black belt in 2021. I plan on competing at the World Taekwondo Federation National Championships this July. My daughters do Taekwondo with me, so when they’re in class I’m often in the Dojang office working on book stuff.
I’m really blessed that my husband is very supportive of my writing. He’s even my business partner in our publishing LLC. He’s happy to take care of the kids whenever I need to get writing done, usually in the evenings and on weekends. In turn I’m supportive of him and try to let him sleep in and nap on said weekends before I’m working.
That’s so lovely to hear your husband’s been with you throughout the entire writing of your North Oak series!
Now, these novels feature a young protagonist and her relationship with amazing horses. The blurb for Book 1, Born to Run, mentions Walter Farley’s Black Stallion. Is that a favorite book of yours, a source of inspiration, or both?
I had a hard time getting into Black Stallion as a book series when I read them as a kid. My big inspiration is the Thoroughbred Series by Joanna Campbell (and later Mary Newhall Anderson). I liked Dick Francis, as well, and I’m a sucker for the Black Stallion movies and Phar Lap.
My biggest inspiration, however, was my parents breeding Arabians when I was little. I gained a sense of horsemanship by running around half-naked and barefoot with our herd on the Wasatch Front.
Woah! You’ve such a love for horses bred and nurtured in you. I can’t help but wonder, then, if stories had that same kind of connection with you when you were small. What was an early experience where you learned that language had power?
I remember being in first grade and writing a story about a rabbit pulling a carrot out of the ground. I drew a little action “kapow” around the word POP, and my teacher really liked that. I also remember my aunt giving me this gorgeous book on Shakespeare’s works when I was, like, 4, and I desperately wanted to know what the words said. Needless to say, I was reading Shakespeare by age 6.
But it wasn’t until I was ten that I truly realized the power of words, when I had to write my first official story. The words poured out of me as though they came from somewhere else. They weren’t mine. My hand couldn’t keep up with my brain. I spent the next 6 years writing 20 novels in the same fashion.
TWENTY NOVELS?! That. Is. AWESOME! So writing a long-running series like North Oak must be easy peasy, what with Book 7 coming out in July.
Well, I shouldn’t say “must” be easy-peasy, because I imagine every writer has his/her challenges with series writing. What challenges do you face, and how do you overcome them?
I started writing this series 25 years ago at the age of 12 (July 24th– Happy Anniversary!). So I’ve known the whole story for a long time. It’s gone through several incarnations until I finally knew its purpose and what I needed to do with it for today’s youth. My biggest challenge is keeping everyone the right age and not fudging timelines. I’m going to have to make up a chart or something one of these days as I plan to take the series well into book 20 and onward.
What would you say has been the most difficult scene to write in the North Oak series, and why?
Every book has its most challenging scene. I want the books to MEAN something to the reader. I’m writing them so today’s youth have a heroine to look up to who is going through many of the same scary issues they face daily.
North Oak #6: Dark Horse forced me to look at my own demons though, and was very hard to write. I didn’t want to deal with my own depression that Alex, my main character, had to face. A lot of the books in the series have multiple points of view, but Dark Horse only had Alex. I wanted the reader to feel alone, because that’s a big part of depression. You can be in a room full of people who are crazy about you and still feel alone.
In North Oak #5: Far Turn, I made myself cry. I won’t give spoilers, but it was a funeral scene and I chose the song “I Can Only Imagine” as they played the life video of the departed. That was tough.
Oh, character deaths and their memorials are always so painful to write. You dive into some other tough youth issues in your series, too—bullying, suicide, and sexuality, for a start. Are these things you wanted to discuss through your stories, or did the themes just appear because of what the characters were going through?
A little of both I think. I knew today’s youth were facing some scary stuff, and I wanted to give them someone to look up to. I want them to find me someday and say “You wrote this for me.” And I’ll hug them and say “I know.”
Especially the LGBTQ+ community. There’s nothing else like North Oak on the market. I pray every night before I write that I’ll be a vassal for what the Lord wants His youth to hear. And it’s love. Everyone deserves love.
This has been such an awesome chat, Ann! Any closing words of inspiration and encouragement for your fellow writers?
Failure isn’t the opposite of success. It’s part of it.
Perhaps it’s the video of boys that connected me so quickly and so completely to this song. I see the parents desperately saving their son at the end, and my mind races to when I came so close to losing my own, each in different ways.
I had to learn more about this creator of narrative music.
Ludovico Einaudi is Italian born and bred; like me, his love of music is rooted down and in with his love of family. A scholarship to the Tanglewood Music Festival exposed him to the blossoming movement of American minimalism (a style developed in part by another favorite of mine, Philip Glass). He’s been composing music for stage and screen since the 1980s, but has also produced solo albums, the first–le Onde—being inspired by Virginia Woolf’s short stories.
How curious to listen to a man inspired by fiction to compose music while his music inspires me to compose fiction!
Here’s a lovely example of the minimalism present in one of his more recent albums, Elements.
I’m so happy to have found a live version of this song for the visual of this minimalism. No orchestra here–just a piano, a violin, a cello, a guitar, and a percussionist. Yet with these few instruments, you feel the world about you fill with sound, trickle-slow, like water moving through a child’s crafted wall of river stones. This steady build fits beautifully with the rise of tension in a scene, or of a character’s resolve to face the darkness.
Like young Lucy opening a wardrobe door to another world, Einaudi’s “Primavera” welcomes us into another world of magic created by trills and arpeggios–fitting touches in a melody for a song entitled “Spring.” And because spring is not always a delicate season, Einaudi makes the wise choice of building the strings up at the 2:00 minute mark to send them cascading like a downpour upon us. They run up like lighting, the bass notes rumble as thunder, and we are left standing in the deluge until the harp arrives to soften the rainfall and crack the clouds.
Einaudi’s talent for building darker worlds can be found in another album, In a Time Lapse.
It is another song that builds, yes, but there’s a menace this time. The relentless snare drum forces us forward on whether we wish to or not. At roughly 2:00 a violin cries out, a plea for…for what? A plea to listen, to change, to stop. There’s tragedy in that relentless march, and if we don’t escape, we will lose our hope. The lone piano that ends the song tells me…well. What it tells me and what it tells you may be two different things.
That’s one of the great beauties of narrative music: interpretation.
Music is a life-force. It moves our hearts to beat, our souls to breathe. May Einaudi’s compositions beat in your characters’ hearts and breathe across the fantasy-scapes of your worlds with all the magic of a thunderstorm on a summer’s eve.
Stay tuned for author interviews galore! We’re going to learn more about some beautiful historical fiction set in World War II, a cracking cozy mystery, and a series of Young Adult novels set in the cut-throat world of horse-racing.
In my January post about character death, we discussed the traumatic moment of a beloved character’s death. I loved reading your comments on how character deaths can be utilized to help strengthen stories. The ever-lovely author Shehanne Moore nailed it when she said:
A threat is a threat. End of. People can’t go up against the big guns and come out unscathed, or be labelled ruthless warriors and then be pussy cats. On another level life doesn’t always end happily with rose tinted sunsets.
These past few months, I’ve been struggling with the Act 1s of stories littered with murder and mayhem–mainly mayhem. It hit me, then, or at least while describing a corpse, that the Unknown’s Death can do wonders in making a story compelling to readers.
Now I’m not just talking typical Red Shirt Deaths. The lovely Cath Humphris referred to this kind of death back in January:
Which deaths irritate me? Well, it’s not so much in books, as on screen, and hopefully these days less usual to see. I mean those dramas when you can pick out who who will be ‘knocked-off’, pretty much from their introduction, because of their race or gender. A lot of the old ‘B’ movies and detective series were extremely lazy about the introduction of ‘canon fodder’ characters. It’s such a shame, because some of these stories were otherwise entertaining.
I and many others label these “Red Shirt Deaths” in honor of the original Star Trek show. Whenever the Enterprise crew explores an alien planet, some random security officer dies.
The Red Shirt Death is meant to make the “life or death” stakes clear to both the characters and the audience of that given episode. The audience, however, knows full well that Shatner and Company aren’t going to get killed, so there’s not exactly much tension when a Red Shirt dies.
But the Unknown Character Death done right can burn into your reader’s psyche and leave a scar for years, and years, and years.
I mean, you know that scene.
The kind that traumatized you as a child. The kind that glued you to the story even though your little brain’s utterly horrified and wants your body to flee to the safety of your mother’s lap, your father’s desk.
Who Framed Roger Rabbitcame out when PG meant “Pare down the Gore.” So long as characters didn’t have sex, drop F-bombs, or remove each other’s intestines on screen, the movie was considered family friendly.
I still. Remember. That screaming.
A shoe, screaming.
You only saw the shoe in that one scene.
You sure as hell didn’t forget it.
And just look at the reactions of Detective Valiant and the other officer. They are horrified. When grown men who carry guns are horrified of a toon dying, you bet your boots a kid in the audience is cowering behind her dad while he talks about Star Trek V (Dad talked A LOT during movies.)
In this one moment, we get:
The judge’s disregard for toon life
That toons, previously thought impervious to death, can actually die
That the protagonist humans regard toon life with at least some respect
That the protagonists would rather protect a toon wanted for murder than hand him over to this judge
The stakes have officially been raised because we now have visual evidence of the consequences that will be met if Roger Rabbit is captured. We now know the lengths to which the villainous judge will go in order to have his way. Detective Valiant now knows what he’s up against.
We the audience now know what the good guys are up against, and we’re scared to death for them because we’ve seen what will happen if the bad guys get them.
Another ’80s example comes in Jim Henson’s fantasy epic Dark Crystal. The scene’s so terrifying that YouTube won’t even let me share the scene, so I’ve got to link you to the moment where an evil Skeksi is draining the life essence from a podling and traumatize you that way.
Does the podling die? No.
Then it’s not character death, Jean!
Hush, yes it is. This creature’s life has been drained. We’ve witnessed a living being undergo a damning transformation into a zombie.
This may as well be death.
Once again, this is a moment that
establishes the power of the evil Skeksis
displays the evil Skeksi’s disregard for innocent life
That’s what makes these deaths so horrifying:
We’re watching the innocent and vulnerable be rendered lifeless.
These aren’t armed podlings. The shoe wasn’t trying to kick the judge and take him down. These are innocent, unarmed creatures completely unable to fight against the threat.
When we see them die, we realize the villains are without mercy or conscience. We must watch on to see the heroes take the villains down because those villains must be held accountable for their actions.
How to swing this in a book?
Let’s return to Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation. I wrote a post on this book some time ago as a great study in world-building; this time, let’s see how they handle a character death in the first two chapters.
On page one, we meet the expedition team into the mysterious Area X, and the narrator of this novel is the biologist. The others are the psychologist, the surveyor, and the anthropologist. Why no names?
I would tell you the names of the other three, if it mattered, but only the surveyor would last more than the next day or two. (9)
The stakes feel raised at this point. We know something goes wrong with the surveyor and psychologist, but we don’t know what. We follow the biologist and her team investigate a peculiar structure near the base camp of abandoned by previous expeditions, and wonder when things will go wrong.
We don’t have to wait long.
The anthropologist was gone, her tent empty of her personal effects. Worse, in my view, the psychologist seemed shaken, as if she hadn’t slept. … “Where is the anthropologist?” the surveyor demanded, while I hung back, trying to make my own sense of it. What have you done with the anthropologist? was my unspoken question… (38-29)
The surveyor and biologist go into the structure and walk the seemingly eternal stairs downward to discover new footprints, and beyond them, they discover:
It was the body of the anthropologist, slumped against the left-hand wall, her hands in her lap, her head down as if in prayer, something green spilling out from her mouth. Her clothing seemed oddly fuzzy, indistinct. A faint golden glow arose from her body. … Something clicked into place, and I could see it all in my head. In the middle of the night, the psychologist had woken the anthropologist, put her under hypnosis, and together they had come to the [structure] and climbed down this far. (60,63)
We’re only in Chapter 2, and one character–one of the only four characters in this novel–is already dead.
It’s not like we knew the anthropologist. The biologist seemed to barely know her, let alone care about her as a human being. But by killing a character this early in the story, we know the stakes are raised. Not only do we see what Area X can do to a human being, but we realize one of the human beings in this expedition is willing to kill to achieve her ends. We readers need to see that psychologist be held accountable. We need to see the biologist escape Area X, so we read on.
There’s a power in the sacrifice of the innocent life to the villain’s ambition.
Use it wisely.
How about you? Have you ever seen/read the Unknown Character Death used effectively? I’d love to know!
~STAY TUNED NEXT WEEK!~
Things are going to get personal here about family, friends, and the future of Jean Lee’s World.
“Why isn’t Huck Finn’s dad nice to him?” Blondie asks from behind her beloved stuffed dog Sledgehammer.
Bo closed The
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and stared at the cover a good long moment
before answering. “Some parents are not that nice, kiddo,” he says, and goes on
to talk a bit about alcohol addiction.
I came in after her prayers as I always do to give her a hug
and kiss goodnight. “I hope Huck gets away soon,” she says.
“He can’t have any adventures if he doesn’t.”
Blondie nods, then brightens. “I can’t wait until my
So it goes when talking to an almost-nine-year-old: from horrifying parents to birthday celebrations in the blink of a beautiful eye.
It struck me, then, how few stories I read during my own childhood that contained positive parent figures. There’s no parents in the Chronicles of Narnia that I recall. Ramona Quimby had a mom, I think…but she wasn’t a major character, or at the very least, memorable. Fairy tale parents are usually evil or inconsequential. Babysitter Club books are usually about girls solving their own problems without parental help (why else would a babysitter be around?). I don’t recall Nancy Drew having extensive scenes with her folks. Few of the detective novels I read had much of anything to do with family, come to think, unless you count Sherlock’s brother Mycroft. But that’s a brother, not a parent, and he only shows up twice.
Huh. No wonder Blondie’s reaction to Huck Finn sticks with me still: I didn’t have that kind of exposure to the Nasty Parent at her age. Even the evil stepmom of Cinderella doesn’t go on drunk binges and whip Cinderella with a belt. Huck Finn’s dad is nasty. Scary-nasty. The sort of nasty that’s talked about on the news or in a television series, not a kid’s book.
Now why am I going off like this? Because here in the U.S. Mother’s Day approaches, and I want to celebrate the positive parent characters in children’s literature. Seriously, they exist! Like…um…oh! Ray Bradbury created a loving relationship between father and son inSomething Wicked This Way Comes. Even Diana Wynne Jones, who had a miserable relationship with her own parents, could still create some flawed yet very loving parents in books like Archer’s Goonand The Ogre Downstairs.
Today, I’d like to look at one of the strongest moms in fantasy fiction, a widow with four young children, one of whom’s gravely ill.
I am, of course, talking about Mrs. Frisby.
Or Brisby, if you knew her by the Don Bluth film like I did.
With all due respect to Robert C. O’Brien, the book moves with a much…quieter, calmer pace, I’ll say, than the Bluth film.
And, well, let’s face it: O’Brien doesn’t have any electro-magic wielded by rats voiced by the majestic Sir Derek Jacobi, let alone a soundtrack composed by the ever-wonderful James Horner.
Bluth’s version of Mrs. Brisby is a widow just like the Mrs. Frisby of the book, and both versions do have four children and one suffering from pneumonia. But unlike Mrs. Frisby of the book, Mrs. Brisby is constantly facing certain death in order to protect her kids. From standing in the bones of other mice to speak with the Great Owl…
…to running under the farmer wife’s feet in order to sedate Dragon, the barn cat that KILLED HER HUSBAND, Mrs. Brisby puts her life on the line time and again for her family. I can still remember the terror racing through my little-kid heart when the giant rat guard tries to electrocute Mrs. Brisby at the gate into the rose bush…
…or when the Brisby home begins sinking in the mud and all the kids inside are gasping for air.
But because I felt the terror then, and saw this little mommy mouse defy her fears to run into a moving tractor to disable it while the ceiling started to cave in around her sick son, because I felt the panic in her pulling rope after rope around her sinking house to keep her children from drowning—because I felt all the fear Mrs. Brisby experienced, the courage she also displayed resonated with me very, very deeply; it resonates with me still, thirty years later. In a story of mice and electro-magic rats, I saw motherhood in its purest form:
Love, fearless and boundless, strong and eternal.
May our own hands brave the fire to protect those who matter most.
What positive parent characters appear in your favorite stories? Please share so I can give Blondie something to look forward to…
I’ll be the first to admit the moms of my own fiction are, shall we say, some nasty pieces of work. Scope out my novel and free short stories on this site to find out more.
My name is Christopher Lee and I am the author of Westward, a Channillo exclusive serial release occult fantasy that blends X-Files and the Magnificent Seven.
What made you choose publishing your work as a serial as opposed to a collection/novel?
DAN: I have collections with my publisher GenZ, Lapping Water, Humbled Wise Men Christmas Haikus, and Home other places I’ve yet to see. Channillo has been a good place for projects of mine that I view as smaller endeavors.
CHRIS: For one I love to write as if my story were being presented as a TV show, each chapter I write feels like an episode of a show to me, so it made sense to present it this way. The format of serial publication allows me to work on my story at the same time as I get feedback from readers on previous chapters, etc which in turn helps make the story better down the road.
What benefits have arisen with plot, character development, and/or voice as you write a serial?
DAN: It’s fun to write these poem-letters in “Weathergirl.” I call it soap opera poetry.
CHRIS: It takes a huge load off of the authorś shoulder to know that they don’t have to crank out a huge manuscript in order for readers to access their work. There is a flexibility that I mentioned before that allows the writer to breath, take a step back, and then return to the keyboard recharged and excited to write the next chapter of the story, not to mention it keeps the readers hungry for more.
I concur about that load being shirked off! However, I know one problem I have when posting my own Young Adult Fantasy MIDDLER’S PRIDE is publishing on time.
What challenges have you faced writing serials?
CHRIS: Honestly, I have not faced any, save that classic HIT THE DEADLINE. When I began to write Westward, I had a fully developed story arc with complete show/chapter ideas. This allows me to simply sit down and write the next installment, whereas had I not done so I might have run into an issue of keeping the story straight, so to speak. Ultimately it is all about consistency when running a serial. You need to market it consistently and produce the content on time so that your readers know they can count on you. After all, there is nothing worse than investing time as a reader in a story that dead ends.
DAN: Letters to the Weathergirl is about a man writing to a news anchor and the reader doesn’t know if he is a deranged fan, or a fan, or her actual lover and I haven’t had any problems developing that. I’m very fortunate.
Now while I myself have never published any poetry, I find it a pleasure to read! It seems to fit well with the serial form. Because I’ve written Middler with the serial publishing platform in mind, I find myself constantly looking for little arcs or episodes to write within the larger novel-arc. How do you feel your writing and/or genre’s been affected by publishing it in a serialized form?
DAN: Letters to the Weathergirl is weekly so when holidays turn up I like writing themed segments. The arrows on the clock are pointing at me was like a fun dumping ground for unpublished poems and I hope to maybe start another series like that. Venus Fly Trap kept my haiku skills sharp and Little Silver Microphone explores recordings both home and live.
CHRIS: I primarily write in the fantasy genre, which I believe is aided by the format. Fantasy in some ways suffers from the drudgery of 600+ page novels that remain inaccessible to the general public at large. Many consumers of media want smaller bites that they can digest while they ride the bus, an Uber, or just before bed, etc. Just look at Netflix and the advent of binge watching or in this case binge reading.
What do you think draws readers to read serial (non)fiction?
CHRIS: Accessibility and consistent content creation are the two major things for me. One that readers can have an a la carte or buffet experience with different genres, authors, and styles. Two is that there isn’t a huge delay between content dumps from the authors, its the exact opposite of the George R.R. Martin effect, for example waiting for years for a conclusion to the story you as the reader have invested time in.
Do you receive any reader feedback on your writing as it’s posted? What do you do with those reader comments? DAN: Yes, I do. I’ve gotten great feedback that has meant a lot to me. Sometimes I post quotes about my series on the work’s homepage.
CHRIS: If I am being honest, I have not received much in the way of comments via the Channillo platform, but I have been contacted via Twitter, Facebook, and email from readers who have given me some of the most constructive feedback I have gotten to date. It is a really cool experience to have that level of connection with the reader. Usually what I do with said commentary is to implement whatever makes the most sense to the story, all while keeping the core message of the reader close to heart.
What advice do you have for fellow writers who want to give serialization a go?
CHRIS: First and foremost you need to have a fully developed story before you kick the thing off. If you don’t have that, then you run the risk of hitting a dead end that could cause you massive problems. Ultimately a plan will save your booty if you get in a pinch.
DAN: Make sure you do your installments on time with interesting material to help build an audience.
I found this quote published inThe Washington Postback in 2015, and I’d like you to comment on it:
Critics will undoubtedly moan that serialization would favor literature that’s heavy on cliffhangers and light on subtlety — and that it would corrupt more “serious” works. … Yet it requires the same characteristic any worthy novelist already seeks: momentum — a value that needn’t come at the expense of integrity. –Hillary Kelly, “Bring Back the Serialized Novel”
CHRIS: Kelly makes a great point, though the critics of serialization see it as low art or cheap in quality, I find the process to be far more rigorous. You can simply slap crap together and throw it at the wall and hope that it sticks. In fact, you have to take even more time to craft a tight narrative, then you would in the case of a novel. To run a successful serial you have to keep your readers hooked. In the traditional method, example a fully fledged novel, once they buy your book, the transaction is largely done, you have the readers money, whether or not they come back for subsequent books is altogether another animal. With a serial, you have the flexibility that you don´t have in the traditional sense, and that is the true strength of serialization.
Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts, guys, and good luck building those Channillo stories! You’re reminding me I need to update what’s going on with Meredydd…
In the meantime, check out these authors and other amazing folks at Channillo. You can scope out their amazing store of stories FREE for thirty days. Who knows? Maybe you’d like to write for them, too!
Greetings, one and all! While I run around a massive education conference for my university, please enjoy this lovely chat I had with Indie Fantasy Author Marsha A. Moore.
What was an early experience where you learned that language had power?
As a child, instead of having a bedtime story read to me, my father prompted me to create oral stories with him. Together over a few years, we conjured a series of fantasy tales called The Land of Wickee Wackee. Our characters and sub-plots interwove. Nothing was more exciting than creating new stories in that make-believe world! Bedtime was amazing!
Have you read anything that made you think differently about fiction?
Natasha Mostert’s Season of the Witch changed how I view my role as an author of fantasy fiction. In her book, magic causes mental effects for both the giver and receiver. I find the complexity of that sort of magical system riveting, something I strive for in my own work.
It’s so cool to find a story that pushes us to think beyond how we’ve previously built our worlds. That kind of care surely takes time. Unfortunately, we don’t always see this kind of care in books currently published by indie writers, do we?
have a growing dislike for the indie practice of pushing books out so fast that
quality is sacrificed. The trend worsens each year. Books are produced that
lack originality and depth, and writers burn out and then teach their
methodology for “success” only because they were unable to maintain the arduous
pace long term. Art requires reflection.
Indeed! It took me eight years of writing, revision, reflection, and more writing to make my own first novel worthy of publication. What is the most difficult part of your artistic process?
Picking up writing a particular story after I’ve left it for a while and it’s gone cold, absent from my daily thoughts. That is a beast I definitely dread tackling.
I’d love to hear more about your series, The Coon Hollow Coven Tales. What inspired you to bring witches and magic to the Midwestern setting?
My series, Coon Hollow Coven Tales, is set in my version of a real place near where I lived in southern Indiana as a child. With its rolling forested ravines and artist residences tucked away in sleepy, rustic log and limestone cabins, the place captured my imagination and never let go.
place is Nashville, Indiana, which lies south of Bloomington. In fact, all of
Brown County and its rolling hills inspires this series.
unusual tiny town in the county, Story, Indiana, is now privately owned and run
as a small bed and breakfast resort. It’s a living fairy tale! And some of the
buildings are haunted! The Blue Lady lives in the rooms above the
inn/restaurant/old general store. If you get a chance to visit, you must!
In Witch’s Mystic Woods, I adapted that little village, renamed it “Fable” and gave it to my Summer Fae King and his faeries to run. In the book, I needed a location to throw a Winter Solstice party. Who else would be better party hosts than fae? So the inn of Fable opened its doors to the witches of Coon Hollow Coven for a memorable night.
The books in my Coon Hollow Coven Tales series are rich with a warm Hoosier down-home feel as well as mysterious magic that lurks in the ravines of those deep woods.
Did Coon Hollow Coven Tales require lots of research? I can’t help but imagine so, considering the subject matter.
Writing Coon Hollow Coven Tales has given me a terrific reason to spend inordinate amounts of time researching all kinds of witchcraft, from group to solitary practices, green witchcraft, wiccan work compared to paganism, Cherokee shamanism (for Witch’s Windsong), and even necromancy (the raising of the dead, for Witch’s Cursed Cabin).
But the most interesting witchcraft I learned about was that of a Hedge Witch, an old, old practice. It relies upon communication with the world of faeries going through the “hedge” or “veil” into their realm. These Hedge Witches are the true-life, Appalachian granny witches, also knowns as “root doctors” or “wildwood mystics.” Their skills riveted me and became the background for my book Blood Ice & Oak Moon. During the past year, I’ve begun a new series, a YA alternate reality/historic fantasy. The series is set in the year 2,355 in what was once the United States, well past an apocalypse that occurred at the end of the Civil War. I’ve done considerate research about the Civil War and how different areas of the country were affected. One of my best references for small things, which books or YouTube cannot convey, has been one of my former high school students who has been an avid 18th and 19th century reenactor for decades. I treasure her advice!
As a writer, what would you choose as your spirit animal?
In preparing to write Witch’s Windsong, the most recent in my Coon Hollow Coven Tales, I studied with a local shaman. My main character, Keir, is a shaman, and I wanted to portray his work accurately. The local shaman taught me how to journey into the different realms and helped me locate and meet my spirit animal, the Coyote, who often teaches me valuable lessons.
The Coyote helps in with my general outlook, including my
writing, always poking at me to take time to “play” with my creative process.
When I listen, the process becomes hugely more rewarding, as much or more than
achieving the final outcome.