Lessons Learned from Agatha Christie, My Children, & Batman: A Single Quirk Can Go a Looong Way.

When we create characters, we want them to be a person we can reach out, touch, talk with. And they must be more than mere dolls with that scratchy speaker embedded somewhere inside its stuffing that rasps out a limited number of lines. We want to create people who have thoughts and beliefs all their own. We want characters to be.

But how to grow such characters? Sometimes, one quirk is all it takes.

20170829_120446Take my kids, for instance. Bash often lays on his back with his legs crossed in the air. It’s a startling image: my father used to do the same thing all the time. Bash often crosses his legs while sitting, just as my father, grandfather, and uncles all did. It’s a strange habit that, once noticed, reveals a familial connection.

Blondie, my amazing girl: gifted with my memory for words and her father’s humor. A girl of giving heart…and also some of the worst traits of her parents. Like Bo, she does not like to work very hard on something for very long. A task will get a flurry of attention, and then is left to rot into the oblivion. Like me, she is quick in temper and prefers screaming at her brothers rather than talking through the problem. I still struggle with staying calm and not blowing up at them for throwing toys or fighting.

And then, of course, there are the quirks that are unique to each child. Biff, who is no longer constipated, thank the Lord, insists on being Master of Toilet Flushing. The second anyone uses the facilities there comes a frantic, “Can I flush it can I flush it FLUSH IT?!?!?!” He doesn’t throw anything else into the bowl–hell, he doesn’t even stick around to watch the swirling. He just needs to be the one who pulls the handle. My aunt, my husband, and I have all made the grievous mistake of flushing on our own. The tantrum that results is both epic and pathetic, nor will it not stop until someone else uses the toilet so he can FLUSH IT!

Like the food coloring mixed in the water for carnations, singular quirks can influence other traits. Yup, Biff has moments of extreme OCD. He may leave a pile of crashed cars in his wake, but don’t you dare leave any book face down. Blondie will freeze when school work gets hard and gets extremely frustrated when the solutions don’t come via guesswork. Bash loves using found things to tell a story, just as the grandfather he barely knew would do for his sermons. (Though I don’t recall my dad insisting on eating with several forks so every kind of food had its own utensil. That’s just weird, Bash.)

Fictional characters can grow a good deal from a single trait, too. Say what you will about toy-driven movies like The Lego Batman Movie: it took a single character element–in this case, Batman’s ego–to extremes both hilarious and fitting for the story. I wish I could share the entire opening sequence, but this song should give you a fairly rough idea on how Batman views himself:

No one can tell Batman what to do or how to handle the bad guys. He’s the best at everything, and “no one [else] has ever had a good idea. Ever.” It takes getting captured by the Joker and being sent to the Phantom Zone for Batman to see just what kind of jerk he’s been. It’s a change of heart that might seem obvious to adults, but that means kids see the transformation clearly as well.

51688eac587843905538e43286823004--famous-books-crime-booksI recently saw this single-trait strategy work well for Agatha Christie, too.  In Thirteen at Dinner (also known as Lord Edgware Dies, a far more fitting title) we meet Jane Wilkinson, a selfish film actress who wants her husband dead. But since she doesn’t “seem to run to gunmen over here [in England],” she asks Poirot to persuade the Lord Edgware to divorce her so she can marry a duke.

“I think you overrate my persuasive powers, Madame.”

“Oh! but you can surely think of something, M. Poirot.” She leaned forward. Her blue eyes opened wide again. “You’d like me to be happy, wouldn’t you?”

Her voice was soft, low and deliciously seductive.

“I should like everybody to be happy,” said Poirot cautiously.

“Yes, but I wasn’t thinking of everybody. I was thinking of just me.”

“I should say you always do that, Madame.”

He smiled.

“You think I’m selfish?”

“Oh! I did not say so, Madame.”

“I dare say I am. But, you see, I do so hate being unhappy.” (7)

Well of course, someone murders Lord Edgware, and of course, everyone suspects Jane since she’s been talking of nothing else but wanting her husband dead. Of course, clues arise to clear her. Of course, Poirot and Hastings visit the widow:

She looked like an angel about to give vent to thoughts of exquisite holiness. “I’ve been thinking. It all seems so miraculous, if you know what I mean. Here I am–all my troubles over. No tiresome business of divorce…Just my path cleared and all plain sailing…I’ve thought and I’ve thought lately–if Edgware were to die. And there–he’s dead! It’s–it’s almost like an answer to a prayer.”

Poirot cleared his throat.

“I cannot say I look at it quite like that, Madame. Somebody killed your husband.”

She nodded.

“Why, of course.”

“Has it not occurred to you who that someone was?”

She stared at him. “Does it matter? I mean–what’s that to do with it? The Duke and I can be married in about four or five months…”

With difficulty Poirot controlled himself.

“Yes, Madame. I know that. But apart from that has it not occurred to you to ask yourself who killed your husband?”

“No.” She seemed quite surprised by the idea. (49-50)

Selfish to the extreme, I’d say. But this selfishness is both a clue and a red herring because it’s Agatha Christie, and we should all know better by now.

Jane’s obsession with her own life and goals gives readers the impression of someone so self-involved that she doesn’t get how the world works. “Things just go right for me,” she says, and believes it. Other scenes in the story show her lack of knowledge about the law, culture, politics, etc. She comes off as, well, a bit of a bimbo.

Yet by story’s end we learn she’s not dumb at all. Oh, she’s selfish, make no mistake, but she’s not dumb. She found an actress who does impressions and had that actress impersonate her at a dinner party to provide an alibi. In the end, Jane did indeed kill her husband, since the duke did not believe in divorce. Jane wanted that duke; therefore, the present husband had to go. This then means that answering Poirot’s question seems rather silly. Of course she knows who killed her husband: she did.

The book ends with a letter from Jane in prison addressed to Poirot, explaining how she had managed to murder three times and elude detection for so long. Even here, the selfishness shines as brightly as ever:

 “I thought of that all by myself. I think I’m more proud of that than anything else. Everyone always says I haven’t got brains–but I think it needed real brains to think of that…I wonder if you are ever sorry for what you did. After all, I only wanted to be happy in my own way. And if it hadn’t been for me you would never have had anything to do with the case. I never thought you’d be so horribly clever. You didn’t look clever. It’s funny, but I haven’t lost my looks a bit…” (125-6)

It’s so easy to get caught up in the idea of making “complicated” characters, with all sorts of goodness and wickedness and everything in between. And sometimes, complicated works very well, just as several different flowers together make a garden. But a single seed grows, too, in ways both beautiful and unexpected. You’ve but to plant it, care for it, and see.

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Lessons Learned from Diana Wynne Jones: Yesterday Needn’t Stay in Yesterday.

While I frantically prepare a presentation on Diana Wynne Jones for my university’s literary conference, please enjoy an essay on I wrote last year but never posted.

I distinctly remember the sensation of pins, countless pins, all over my body.

“Stand still, Jean.”

The pins held paper shapes to my clothes, and I’m sure my skin.

“Turn this way, Jean. No, this way.”

My grandmother and my mother titted and tatted over the pattern and its potential for Sunday best. I stared at the green shag carpet and thought of a great green plain that led to a waterfall there, where my grandparents’ blue comforter ruffled by the floor. To mountains, where the white metal closet door clanged shut as my grandfather got his hat and announced he was taking my kid brother for a drive to the park.

Sure. He gets to go to the park. I have to be a mannequin.

Grandmother lets out a loud arc of a laugh that verges on a bark, but there’s a music to it, too, like a drunk opera singer. I still get a “stand up straight, Jean” from my mom, but my grandmother laughs until my scowls subside, and I can’t help but smile. The scent of old cigarette smoke clings to her fingers as she removes some pins, HOORAY!…only to re-pin the back paper shape down a bit.

Blast.

So I take off inside me across the green plains for the white mountains, and wait for life to be not-boring.

~*~

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Isobel, Diana, and Ursula. Photo from Publisher’s Weekly.

Diana Wynne Jones took the initiative to make her life not-boring. As the eldest of three, she was required to look after her sisters, and occasionally other village children, while her parents ran a conference center where adults could spend a week or weekend to experience some culture. Nine years old, and in charge of cooking and cleaning for two kids younger than she. To entertain them she would write stories, endless stories, since their parents would not allow made-up stories in their meager library.

I, too, made up stories for myself. They rescued me from the boredom endured in fabric shops as my mother and grandmother pondered over fabric costs and pattern catalogues. I could see roads through the patterns, beasts in the shapes. There wasn’t a monster my trusty Pound Puppy Spike and I couldn’t handle.

Except for one.

~*~

Diana Wynne Jones’ mother often called her a “clever but ugly delinquent.” Jones and her sisters were never the priority when compared to work, which left the kids to fend for themselves. Often there was no food in the family residence, and if the kids went into the conference center, the cook shrieked at them to get out. The sisters’ garments were often cast-offs from the orphanage while the parents always had proper clothes. Diana’s sister Ursula even knotted her own hair to keep it out of her eyes. It took 6 months for their mother to notice. Sister Isobel was nearly strangled by the neck when they strung her up to fly about like a fairy. God forbid if they got sick; Diana went to school with chicken pox, German measles, scarlet fever and more because their mother insisted all their illnesses were “psychological.” No grown-up noticed them. Knew them. All they had was each other.

That kind of past is not easily forgotten.

~*~

time-of-the-ghost-1Published in 1981, The Time of the Ghost is Jones at her most autobiographical: neglected sisters whose lives mirror much of Jones’ childhood accidentally awaken an evil god. Time is not one of her most popular books—I’m not sure if it’s the time-jumping or human sacrifice that get people, but any time I hear of Jones, it’s never over this book. Maybe it’s because of her life story, and people take one look and think, “Yeah, right.” When I look at the past, cringe from the nightmare-years of sexual abuse no one else knew, and then see The Monster who made those nightmares still walking in the sunlight, I know how friends and family would react to such a revelation: “Yeah, right.”

It’s a harsh epiphany, realizing one’s “normal” childhood doesn’t fit the pattern of others. Memory darns the past to be presentable to the eye: there. Fit to be seen.

So long as no one looks underneath, and sees the desperate stitches and knots that hold the perception together.

Perhaps this is why I connected to Diana Wynne Jones as fiercely as I did: she pulled the old pain out of her closet, put it on, and stepped out into the world. Sure, it had the dark red glitter of a wicked fantastical god stitched on, but it was still her.

It only took her several decades to do it.

And if she could do it, then God-willing, so can I.

 

 

Lessons Learned from Ellis Peters & Agatha Christie: Hide Your Clues in History.

History has always been the most important and most dangerous field of study in my eyes. As a student, I found the world of wartime propaganda utterly fascinating–how with the right words and imagery, facts and past events could be tainted, twisted, even erased from the society’s memory.  As a Christian, I cannot understand why those of, say, the Amish life, live by “forgive and forget,” which has lead to a terrifyingly high rate of sexual abuse in families, since the abuser never faces any consequence for the act. He asks for forgiveness; therefore, the sin is forgiven and must be forgotten, and nothing prevents him from raping or molesting yet again. Without history, we lose our only true teacher of human nature’s scope: its heights of selflessness, its depths of wretchedness.

History is not something one often trips upon by accident. There is but the single weed budding from roots that run deep and far, or the curved stone in the dirt which, as one digs, and brushes, and digs, becomes a bone. History hides itself in the present mess, and hides well, just as any good mystery should.

Ellis Peters, aka Edith Pargeter, knew this all too well as she wrote The Cadfael Chronicles.  Her stories of this Rare Benedictine are set in the 12th century during a civil war between two monarchs vying for England’s throne. The time’s rife with secret messages, castle sieges, hidden treasures, betrayals and all sorts of other delicious things that make the period rich with living…and killing, but also living.

Some years have passed since I’d read a Cadfael, and I decided to rectify that when we traveled to the North Woods (the way up north where the bald eagles hang out in ditches and bears will meander down your driveway and turtle nests are smashed by an old Polish woman with a shovel). I can read in the car; Bo cannot, so he prefers to drive. (That, and I apparently drive a bit too crazy for his liking. Wuss.) This title was not adapted for the Mystery! series starring thespian treasure Sir Derek Jacobi, which meant the mystery would be new to me. Yay!

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The Hermit of Eyton Forest begins with, of course, death, but this one’s natural: a father dies of his battle injuries, orphaning his son who was already in the abbey’s care. When the abbey refuses to send him home with his scheming grandmother, who has a marriage in the works for this ten-year-old, the grandmother takes in “a reverend pilgrim” and his young assistant to live in the hermitage on her land between the abbey and the boy’s inherited manor (33). The detail quickly fades in a passage of time, and it sounds like this pilgrim Cuthred has changed the grandmother’s mind about suing the abbey for custody.

Act I winds down with a conversation between friends: Cadfael and the Sheriff of Shrewsbury. War-talk is very common in these books, especially since Shrewsbury isn’t far from the Welsh border, where many fugitives run. So when Chapter 4 meandered through a conversation about King Stephen holding Empress Maud under siege in Oxford, my eyes, erm, well, dazed over somewhat.

“There’s a tale he tells of a horse found straying not far from [Oxford], in the woods close to the road to Wallingford. Some time ago, this was, about the time all roads of Oxford were closed, and the town on fire. A horse dragging a blood-stained saddle, and saddlebags slit open and emptied. A groom who’d slipped out of the town before the ring closed recognised horse and harness as belonging to one Renaud Bourchier, a knight in the empress’s service, and close in her confidence too. My man says it’s known she sent him out of the garrison to try and break through the king’s lines and carry a message to Wallingford for her.”

Cadfael ceased to ply the hoe he was drawing leisurely between his herb beds, and turned his whole attention upon his friend. “To Brian FitzCount, you mean?” (53)

Blah blah, war things, blah blah. Get to the murder already!

But Peters is no fool. If she’s spending a little time on “war stuff,” it’s for a reason. On the one hand, this gives us a taste of how monarchs struggle to reach out for help in the midst of a siege. It’s an historically accurate strategy, and a fine moment on which to focus for a sharper taste of medieval warfare vs the typical “argh” and swords banging and catapults and the like we always see in movies. On the other hand, this past event is a clue to solve the murders: a nobleman hunting a runaway villein is found stabbed in the back, and the hermit Cuthred is also found dead. Peters buried the clue in that conversation of war, that which we readers would think is just material for the period, not for the plot.

Yet it all comes very much to the forefront in Act III. The nobleman’s son, for instance, sets the reveal into motion when he sees the pilgrim’s body:

“But I know this man! No, that’s to say too much, for he never said his name. But I’ve seen him and talked with him. A hermit–he? I never saw sign of it then! He wore his hair trimmed in Norman fashion…And he wore sword and dagger into the bargain,” said Aymer positively, “and as if he was well accustomed to the use of them, too….It was only one night’s lodging, but I diced with him for dinner, and watched my father play a game of chess with him.” (202)

It’s not like the medieval period had finger prints on database or, you know, pictures for comparison. Identity hinged on being known, and in that kind of war-torn world, you never know who’s going to know you. In this case, Aymer, son of the dead nobleman, unwittingly revealed this holy man to be a fraud, therefore ruining the grandmother’s schemes to have the holy hermit force her grandson to marry a neighbor’s daughter for more land. The nobleman had gone to the hermit, thinking his assistant might be the runaway villein he’s hunting–and here he sees the soldier he had played games with posing as a pilgrim.

So, who is this hermit that killed to keep his true identity dead in history, and who killed him? Not the nobleman, being already dead and all. And not the nobleman’s son.

Well, there is a falconer who has been loitering about the abbey, and who uses Empress Maud’s coins for alms. Cadfael, being a soldier in the Crusades before coming to the cloister, has his own opinions about divine duties in warfare, and chooses to say nothing rather than speak with the abbot, who is publicly aligned with King Stephen: “My besetting sin…is curiosity. But I am not loose-mouthed. Nor do I hold any honest man’s allegiance against him” (143).  Turns out this falconer is on a hunt for none other than the man who had taken off with the treasure and war correspondence from the bloody saddlebags discussed on page 53, and this thief was none other than the fake hermit Cuthred:

“He had killed Cuthred. In fair fight. He laid his sword by, because Cuthred had none. Dagger against dagger he fought and killed him…for good reason,” said Cadfael. “You’ll not have forgotten the tale we heard of the empress’s messenger sent out of Oxford, just as King Stephen shut his iron ring round the castle. Sent forth with money and jewels and a letter for Brian FitzCount, cut off from her in the woods along the road, with blood-stained harness and empty saddlebags. The body they never found.” (219)

Had Peters simply dumped this information on us at the end–as Agatha Christie has done a few times with Poirot–I would have been pissed. But Peters didn’t; she took advantage of Act I’s slow build and shared the clue inside her war stories. Readers may not remember this tale by story’s end, but Peters doesn’t cheat them with an absurd reveal thrown in at the end, either. She shares only the history that matters; it’s the reader’s responsibility to remember it.

On the flip-side of this, when someone hacks up a mystery by throwing history at us too early, I get rather miffed. Murder on the Orient Express is guilty of just such a crime.

No, no, not the book. There’s a reason so many look to this particular Poirot title as one of Christie’s masterworks. The first Act establishes Poirot on his way home from a case on the continent; this is why he eventually boards the Orient Express with other passengers.  The body’s discovered in Chapter 5, and it’s in Chapter 7 we get the history-reveal:

Orient-ExpressThe doctor watched [Poirot] with great interest. He flattened out the two humps of wire, and with great care wriggled the charred scrap of paper on to one of them. He clapped the other on top of it and then, holding both pieces together with the tongs, held the whole thing over the flame of the spirit lamp….It was a very tiny scrap. Only three words and a part of another showed.

-member little Daisy Armstrong. (161)

This clue both slows and tightens the pace: Poirot and his comrade recall this kidnapping and murder of the child Daisy a few years ago. It turns out the murder victim at their feet was that same kidnapper. From here the identities of the other passengers are worked out as well as their connections to the Armstrong child.

No, the book is not the guilty party. That verdict belongs to the 1974 film.

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It begins with a newspaper/newsreel montage about the kidnapping and murder of child Daisy Armstrong. It lasts a minute, and that’s a minute too long.  

It then jumps to five years later, and the gathering of characters to the train.

For one who’s unfamiliar with the book, this jump from dead child to Istanbul has got to be really confusing. For those who read the book–like me–this little montage kills the mystery. What does that footage do? Well, it shows readers that there’s a revenge in the works. We already want justice for that little girl, so whoever gets killed on the train deserves it before it even happens, which means readers won’t dare to connect with any of those other characters because they know one of them’s a wretch who needs justice bled out of him. In the book, we know nothing incriminating about any of the characters in Act I. In Act II, we’re still getting over the shock of a murder happening in an isolated, snow-bound train, where we know the murderer must still be hiding among innocent lives who sure need protection, and then, then, we find out the victim was a child murderer. It’s a double-whammy of a reveal thanks to present and past smashing together.

But when readers learn the history first, they know what to expect in the present. This is a must for so many aspects of life and story alike, but in mysteries? Part of what makes a mystery a mystery is not knowing what to expect.

PS: I dare to get excited about the upcoming Branagh version of the story despite Branagh’s mustache. Your thoughts?

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lessons Learned from Agatha Christie: How Much Stock Should One Put Into a Title?

Memorial Day weekend in a North Woods cabin: restful, right? Lots of time to write surrounded by nature and all its spring glory, riiiight?

Well when one spends a long, rainy weekend with four sedentary in-laws and three hyper-active children in a space roughly the size of a one-bedroom apartment, “restful” does not come to mind.

Thankfully, parenthood has given me the ability to read despite screams and comfy animal battles about my legs and thrown cars and training potties full of urine positioned in dangerous places upon the floor, so I decided to allow myself some time with a couple mysteries Bo gave me at Christmas:

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At the outset, the titles didn’t strike me as anything unusual. Christie’s titles always connected to the story, so I was sure that when I opened up The Big FourI would indeed be reading about a group called The Big Four. Sure enough: the antagonist of the story was a crime syndicate run by a group of bosses known as The Big Four. Poirot saves the planet, everything is awesome, I got to read an entire book in one day, which I hadn’t done in ages. Could I get through another book before the weekend was out?

I began Murder on the Links with high eagerness. I wasn’t planning on doing a close study of these books for this blog–I wanted to read for fun. (Crazy concept, I know.)

But the more I read, a question began to niggle my inner writer. Something felt off about this story. Oh, the plot read plausibly with a strong balance of clues and red herrings. The dialogue was so-so, but not nearly so heavy-handed as Poirot’s Christmas. What the hoobajoob was wrong here?

I closed the mystery, completed, and saw it: the title.

One look at the title, and one expects golf to play a major role in the story. After all, the Nile was quite the set piece in Death on the Nile.  Murder in Mesopotamia was as exotic as it sounds. The train doesn’t just fade into the background in Murder on the Orient Express. Murder is definitely committed under the sun; ergo, the title Evil Under the Sun.

Bo noticed my scrunched face as I glared at the golf course on the cover. “What’s wrong?” I explained my niggle. “Well, did the murder happen on the golf course?”

“Yeah.”

“So what’s the problem?”

The-Murder-on-the-LinksAnd that was the thing, I guess, that really got to me: technically, the title fit. The murder itself occurred on land being turned into a golf course. Christie didn’t fib. Murder did indeed happen on the links.

But with the other stories I mentioned, the place was more than just a location. Whatever was mentioned in the title carried influence into the story, be it through the culture, method of crime, strategies of investigation, etc. I thought back to other stories I’ve covered in my “Lessons Learned” posts and their titles–were any lame titles in those?

Howl’s Moving Castle: Heroine Sophie is cursed and seeks help from the Wizard Howl. His castle moves because of a curse between Howl and a fire demon that Sophie promises to break. So, pretty important.

Charmed Life: Cat Chant and his elder sister Gwendolyn are taken on by the great sorcerer Chrestomanci to learn more about magic. There’s more magic in Cat than he realizes, which is finally revealed with his sister’s villainy. By book’s end Cat is destined to be the next Chrestomanci. That’s about as charmed a life as you can get.

Five Little Pigs: Poirot sets out to solve a murder committed 16 years ago. He considers the five living suspects like the five little pigs; the rhyme comes up every time he meets another suspect.

The Name of the Rose: I admit, I had to read a bit more into this one. I knew there was some sort of connection with language, since the mystery fixates upon the danger of language and ideas.  How fitting, then, that Eco found a poem reflecting that a thing destroyed is preserved in its name. I found Eco’s own explanation for the title:

 

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Eco states in the Postscript to the Name of the Rose that Bernard’s poem is also the source of the novel’s title and last line —

Stat rosa pristina nomine; nomina nuda tenemus.”
(Yesterday’s rose endures in its name; we hold empty names.)

— meaning that in this imperfect world, the only imperishable things are ideas.

“Since the publication of The Name of the Rose I have received a number of letters from readers who want to know the meaning of the final Latin hexameter, and why this hexameter inspired the book’s title. I answer that the verse is from De contemptu mundi by Bernard of Morlay, a twelfth-century Benedictine, whose poem is a variation on the “ubi sunt” theme (most familiar in Villon’s later “Mais ou sont les neiges d’antan”). But to the usual topos (the great of yesteryear, the once-famous cities, the lovely princesses: everything disappears into the void), Bernard adds that all these departed things leave (only, or at least) pure names behind them. I remember that Abelard used the example of the sentence “Nulla rosa est” to demonstrate how language can speak of both the nonexistent and the destroyed. And having said this, I leave the reader to arrive at his own conclusions.”

With Murder on the Links, however, golf had absolutely nothing to do with the crime. The setting bore no real influence upon the clues, the body, or even how characters moved about the scene of the crime. The course is where the murder just so happened to, well, happen. It could have been on the grounds of the mansion or in the ditch of the freeway–it would have made no difference.

Perhaps that, more than the title, was what bothered me. Or it was because the title gave importance to something that carried none–a red herring from the off.

I remember feeling annoyed like this once before with Louise Erdrich, an amazing American author whose award-winning novel Love Medicine was my one reading joy from those years in graduate school. It was a family drama spanning years–not normally my thing at all, but her portrayals of the Native American life and landscape gripped me from the start. I read more of her work after school, but stopped with Beet Queen. Why?

33315Because this Beet Queen chick didn’t show up until the last few pages, dammit!

Now granted, I can see now that wasn’t entirely true. The character who grows up to become the Beet Queen–the beauty queen of the town–is born halfway through the book, and the first half of the book is about the family into which she’s born–that’s typical Erdrich. At the time, I couldn’t understand why the title fixated upon that final moment, that social title bought by the girl’s family so that she could feel special at last. Now I can see that the title embodied the desperation of the family to do what it could for the love of this girl, to make her socially acceptable, to make her happy…and how this girl, a rather selfish brat, held it all in contempt. Family drama, spanning generations. The title fit.

Murder on the Links, a fine mystery, has a title that pays heed to the least important aspect of the crime. I suppose being bludgeoned by a five iron or discovering a collection of heads in a caddy’s locker would have all been a bit much, but it’s nice to see titles that connect on more than just a technical level.

What of your title? Does it embody the struggle, the hero, the villain? Does it give a wink and a nudge towards a special clue to reveal the truth? Or does it just hang there, stating its purpose and nothing more? After all, some stories have made such titles work brilliantly for them: The Lego Movie, The Peanuts Movie, The Care Bears Movie, The Lego Batman MovieBut notice how all these titles are a)geared for children using b)easily identifiable toys/characters OF their childhood for c)a visual presentation. Kids know they get to watch Legos, Snoopy, and so on. That’s all they want.

But in stories to be read, we want titles that grip and hold. Don’t warp that grip into a bait-and-switch. What influences the characters? What place affects the plot? What taunts your hero from afar, that if he could just push himself a little bit more, he can touch it, taste it, know it? Your answers hold the key to a title of relevance, spirit, and strength.

Lessons Learned from John Kaag: Re-Route, Re-Root.

Salvation can’t be accomplished in isolation.
-John Kaag, American Philosophy: A Love Story

Words have a tendency to change meaning from profession to profession. In the world of  university adjuncts, for example, you may hear the words “professional development.”

We adjuncts hear “time suck.”

I’ve sat through webinars on sexual harassment in the work place (I teach from home), the importance of making time for yourself for the sake of your students (um, have you met my kids?), the costume choices used in different versions of Pride and Prejudice (because a literary festival requires a book to be present in some fashion, ha ha), and all sorts of meetings where we cheer on and on for our ever-present awesomeness for students all over the globe. “You are all so awesome!” My chair/CEO/dean/provost/etc. roots from my screen.

Yay.

51Ek3onp4tL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Such was the situation to bring John Kaag’s American Philosophy: A Love Story into my hands. I had to fill at least an hour of professional development somehow, and I was sick of “how to keep students focused/use stand-up comedy in seminar for engagement” kinds of webinars. A different department was holding a monthly book club, with Kaag’s latest being May’s choice.

I had “studied” philosophy in college, and by “studied” I mean I audited the 400-level course without any previous credits in philosophy courses. Yeah, not my brightest move. But it promised deep discussions with at least two really cute guys and the teacher was one of those rare men who by all appearances balanced philosophy and faith with ease. I was intrigued then. Don’t remember a lick of it now. But Kaag’s title brought that old intrigue back. Why not? I liked stretching my lit boundaries, and it would earn me a PD hour in the process. I contacted the PhD in charge: I’m in.

~*~

At one point, philosophers like Pierce could determine the very language we use. They had the power to define reality. (25)

“So yeah, I guess it was pretty good, but I had a hard time sympathizing with the narrator.”

“It was informative, but I just couldn’t root for the guy, you know? I mean, he left his wife. Why should I cheer for that?”

The Google Hangout felt way too much like grad school for comfort. It was the dust bunny-addled classroom all over again with cracked plastic chairs and classmates declaring a book unworthy of them solely because they didn’t like the main character.

I was stymied, and conflicted. These people, especially the Dr. So-and-So in charge, should be better at this sort of discussion. Why such shallow comments? Why wasn’t anyone looking past this need to “cheer” a hero and not see the journey Kaag risked showing us? Because I understood this kind of journey. Any one buckled under by depression would.

“Yeah, I mean, talk about a first-world, white-privilege problem.”

~*~

May was not a good month in my house. Family crashed upon us in waves for not one, not two, but three parties for Blondie’s birthday. The church threw some extra duties my way because apparently no one thinks anything has to be done until mere hours before a major retirement dinner. Friends got married upstate, which meant more family gatherings to butter up the baby-sitting and to travel and to get back and to grade final projects and to START a new term and and and AND.

And, it was not a good month. When you’re an introvert, and would love nothing better than a few uninterrupted hours to read and write, this social storm nearly drowned me. Many nights ended in tears. My children noticed: on the “My Mommy” cards Biff and Bash made with their teachers, it was revealed that this is what Bash remembers more than anything:

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How did I respond? With sobs on the front porch. Fuck the neighbors, let them watch, it’s not like they have yet another conference about their sons kicking and fighting the teacher again, Mrs. S forgot this at church can you get it again, Jean we need to talk about the party food again, I need to clean the house again I need I need I need

I. Needed. Out.

So did Kaag. He does indeed leave his first wife, and he does indeed write about his alcoholism. Yet while my colleagues saw these as reasons to put the narrator down, I couldn’t help but think of my own postpartum depression, how my own marriage struggled with the arrival of children. Here I’d managed to write about my sexual abuse, but I couldn’t fathom writing about the purgatory my marriage wandered in for years.

Maybe another well-meaning American philosopher would find the library, but not the books. Maybe, on the drive back to my unhappy marriage, I’d get in the fatal crash I often imagined. Maybe I wouldn’t be able to find my way back. (38)

I thought nothing of salvation and immortality at Durgin-Park, opting instead to drink myself senseless. At the end of the night I stumbled home and tried to convince my wife I wasn’t drunk. I was looking for help in all the usual places, all the wrong places. (14)

I couldn’t do alcohol, not after losing one uncle and nearly one sister-in-law to it. Motherhood: some days, it just fucking strangles the soul.

When that kind of feeling wraps round the heart, I knew I had to get out. If I didn’t, all the poison inside would dig itself in and suck my love dry. I lived through that once. Not going back there.

I envied Kaag his ability to simply uproot and begin again. What started as a small conference away from Harvard diverted to an exploration of self and of William Ernest Hocking, himself a philosopher who gathered thousands of books and letters that together charted the roots and growth of American philosophy. In Hocking’s library, surrounded by old lives and skittering rodents, Kaag felt something new:

Alone in an empty library, in a deserted wood, in a nearly forgotten field of American philosophy, I felt momentarily at home. (32)

I’m betting that, for the first time a long time, he could breathe.

I’m familiar with such a moment.

~*~

But eventually I came across, quite by accident, what I desperately needed to find. (31)

Another fun piece to May was the road work that cut off my town from the town where Blondie’s school is located. Thank God for Google Maps–a new road to the north, and a cut through hilly farmland. On the way out of town I passed this sign: Charles Langer Family Park.

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A park? Where? Farmland as far as the eye could see. For the kids, invisible = nonexistent, so we continued in our new ruts.

Then one day–in May, for like I said, all things happened in May–Blondie had to attend yet another birthday party, but this one was rather short. It wasn’t worth going home just to rile the boys up with “WHERE’S MOMMY GOING!?” when it was time to retrieve the girl. I could drop Blondie off and–gasp, read! But where to read? The library was packed with their book sale (not worth it). The riverside park was packed with geese, who don’t much care for human beings.

And then I remembered. And knew.

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I watched the tractors work before driving on.

Where would this road take me? Considering the proximity of Madison, a small part of me hoped that I, too, would discover a forgotten library, or at least some literary treasure of equal awesomeness.

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I parked. The place looked popular, but…no playground? At least the nature trail looked promising. Once again, I’m out before spring’s taken full effect. Oh, Wisconsin, you are so temperamental. Yet you cannot dim the sun’s magic cast upon the water and the leaves, nor can you silence distant birds, calling together. Perhaps that’s why these rocks were set up as an auditorium: for nature talks.

Ting!

I think nothing of the goofy metallic noises and watch the river.

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I walked on.

The point, if one could call it that, was to experience the sublime in the mundane. And this experience, so common yet so rare, had intrinsic value, the sort of value that made a life worth living. (70)

Ting!

What the–

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DISC GOLF?!

You mean to tell me that my town, unable to support a grocery store or a pub or any normal amenity, can maintain a large, gorgeous disc golf course?

I couldn’t stop laughing. Yes, I pissed off one couple, who seemed to be doing this as a date (she sure looked thrilled) and a group of hipsters from Lord-Knows-What-Suburb.

I kept walking, and laughing, probably looking a little crazy, surely feeling a little crazy, but the more I walked along old tree roots, the less I felt like drowning. I was on dry land after all, with life still moving forward if I didn’t clean that day, if the retirement table wasn’t ornate enough, if the cake wasn’t to my in-laws’ preference. The kids would fight, but they’d hug, too. They’d wrap their little arms round me so tight, so strong, and hug until I laughed myself out of breath.

kids

And it occurred to me: I was breathing.

Ting. 

For all the love and wonder we hold for words, there is a time when words are the last thing we need. Sometimes we just need to pull ourselves up and away to a place so utterly outside of our normal, we can’t not take it in.

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Salvation is revealed in the long road of freedom and love.
-J. Kaag

Lessons Learned from Neil Gaiman: Take the Commonplace & Turn It Villainous.

Before my sons were banned from the library, I always took a moment to peruse the giant poster of Newbery Award winners. Some titles fascinated me, like the 1949 winner King of the WindSome titles I knew and loved, like the 1972 winner Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMHAnd then, I found some I wanted to read for myself, here in the now, like 2009’s winner The Graveyard Book. The coolest achievement in this particular work by Neil Gaiman isn’t in the premise of ghosts raising a living child, or the humor, or the ability to maintain taut pacing while still covering thirteen years (These are, for the record, cool achievements, just not as cool.). No, the real brilliant element comes from the villain(s). Gaiman took something old and often overlooked in current society and transformed it into pure menace.

51tAOAlaH7L._SX334_BO1,204,203,200_What could it be? I’m talking about a single, mono-syllabic name:

Jack.

No, not Jack Nicholson, freaky as that guy can be.

It all begins with a single phrase, one rooted in Elizabethan English (according to Wikipedia, anyway): Jack of All Trades.

We’ve all heard that phrase. Sometimes it’s paired with “master of none.” It’s not a very nice phrase, depending on the connotation. Gaiman takes hold of the phrase and pulls it up by the root, tracking every dirty, worm-entwined tendril to other Jacks polite society endeavors to avoid by crossing the street, turning up its nose, rolling its eyes, anything it can do to not see these Jacks:

Jack Frost.

Jack Ketch.

Jack Dandy.

Jack Nimble.

Jack Tar.

Gaiman gathers up these weeds of forgotten history, lore, and song. He plants them in his own story, and lets them twist, strangle, and meld with the other tender shoots finding their place in his earth. Gone is the mocking tone, the condescension. One can never look down on Jacks of all Trades such as these:

The white-haired man took another step closer to the grave. “Hush, Jack Tar. All right. An answer for an answer. We–my friends and I–are members of a fraternal organization, known as the Jacks of All Trades, or the Knaves, or by other names. We go back an extremely long way. We know…we remember things that most people have forgotten. The Old Knowledge.”

Bod said, “Magic. You know a little magic.”

The man nodded agreeably. “If you want to call it that. But it is a very specific sort of magic. There’s a magic you take from death. Something leaves the world, something else comes into it.” (270)

So are all these Jacks parading about in the entire novel, flaunting their evilness and wicked magic? After all, the first sentence of the book is:

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There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife. (2)

This is how readers meet “the man Jack.” He has just finished killing Nobody (Bod) Owens’ family, and is now on his way to killing baby Bod. I’m not sure if there is a more obvious flaunting of evil than watching a man eager to kill a baby.

But flaunting often hides a deeper motive, doesn’t it? Take “the man Jack.” We may read of him cleaning his knife and leaving a bedroom with a dead child in it and think monster and that there’s all there is. He’s just a bogey man who needs to be stopped. But Gaiman makes it very clear we are dealing with a man. Because we do not yet know of the Jacks of all Trades, the “the” is a brilliant little misdirect, too: we think this man acts alone until the chapter’s ending, where we find out he is working under orders.

In the little town at the bottom of the hill the man Jack was getting increasingly angry. The night had been one that he had been looking forward to for so long, the culmination of months–of years–of work.

The man Jack was methodical, and he began to plan his next move–the calls he would need to pay on certain of the townsfolk, people who would be his eyes and ears in the town:

He did not need to tell the Convocation he had failed.

Anyway, he told himself, edging under a shopfront as the morning rain came down like tears, he had not failed. Not yet. Not for years to come. There was plenty of time. (32)

This man’s a planner, and he answers to someone, someone who wanted Bod and his family dead for reasons unknown.

Who holds these reasons? At the halfway point of the novel we meet “The Convocation.” Our fellow “the man Jack” is there, but we also meet some other Jacks, like Mr. Dandy.

“I still have time, Mister Dandy,” the man Jack began, but the silver-haired man cut him off, stabbing a large pink finger in his direction.

“You had time. Now you just have a deadline. Now, you’ve got to get smart. We can’t cut you any slack, not any more. Sick of waiting, we are, every man Jack of us.” (169)

Once again, Gaiman takes a common phrase people would use offhandedly, in this case one that would show a sense of unity, and thrusts it into darkness. If all these men share the same name, then they share the same skills, too. The same nature. The same need: to kill Nobody Owens. It’s the reader’s first glimpse on just how large a scale the threat to Bod is, and how many hands move to act upon it…with knives.

Surely there can’t be a way for readers to connect with villains such as these.

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But Gaiman knows what he’s doing (because of course he does). These Jacks have been blending in with society for centuries. It’s part of their power: to be overlooked and unassuming (save for Jack Nicholson). Since Gaiman has been writing with third person omniscient, he takes advantage of a second-string character from early in Bod’s life and has her return in Chapter 7. Her ignorance is the perfect tool for Gaiman to bring blind eyes to the graveyard. Her point of view couldn’t possibly see anything more than an older man making rubbings of gravestones…

His hair was thinning, and he smiled hesitantly and blinked at her through small, round glasses which made him look a little like a friendly owl.

Mr. Um said his name was Frost, but she should call him Jay… (221, 225)

This man, Mr. Frost (AHEM), is extremely kind to the girl. He takes her out to eat, assists her with work, and even helps her open up about her parents’ divorce. He’s fatherly and kind, something Scarlett has been missing dearly. What reader can’t sympathize with a young girl who just wants a father back in her life? His goodness inspires much talk with Scarlett’s mother, too…

“You know, Scarlett actually used to play in the graveyard when she was little. This is, oh, ten years ago. She had an imaginary friend, too. A little boy called Nobody.”

A smile twitched at the corner of Mr. Frost’s lips. “A ghostie?” (226)

Mr. Frost knows exactly who Scarlett found in the graveyard. But not once does he betray his true intent, not even when Scarlett gets Bod out of the graveyard to meet Mr. Frost:

Scarlett had worried that Mr. Frost would ask Bod lots of questions, but he didn’t. He just seemed excited, as if he had identified the gravestone of someone famous and desperately wanted to tell the world. He kept moving impatiently in his chair, as if he had something enormous to impart to them and not blurting it out immediately was a physical strain. (252)

As far as Scarlett and Bod are concerned, this man is a mentor, a helper. His demeanor and his actions all relay as such. Only when Bod and Mr. Frost are alone does Mr. Frost thaw…or freeze. Whatever, the guy changes.

“We know he has dark hair,” said Bod, in the room that had once been his bedroom. “And we know that his name is Jack.”

Mr. Frost put his hand down into the empty space where the floorboard had been. “It’s been almost thirteen years,” he said. “And hair gets thin and goes gray, in thirteen years. But yes, that’s right. It’s Jack.”

He straightened up. The hand that had been in the hole in the floor was holding a large, sharp knife.

“Now,” said the man Jack. “Now, boy. Time to finish this.”

Bod stared at him. It was as if Mr Frost had been a coat or a hat the man had been wearing, that he had now discarded. The affable exterior had gone. (255)

What a transformation! I love how Gaiman describes it as a piece of clothing easily removed. On the one hand, we’d consider a coat or hat a rather ridiculous disguise, wouldn’t we? But that’s because such disguises are strictly external. There’s no hiding what’s beneath the coat.

With Jack Frost, the disguise is internal. By transforming his manners and personality, his entire exterior develops that “friendly owl” look that disarms Scarlett so completely.

Bod threw himself down the stairs…in his rush to reach Scarlett….

“Him! Frost. He’s Jack. He tried to kill me!”

bang! from above as the man Jack kicked at the door.

“But.” Scarlett tried to make sense of what she was hearing, “But he’s nice.” (256)

Readers met “the man Jack” when he was in control; when his target toddled away from him, he maintained that control. Yet there’s something about this final face-off between Jack Frost and Bod that gets me thinking.

What Scarlett saw was not what Bod saw. She did not see the Sleer, and that was a mercy. She saw the man Jack, though. She saw the fear on his face, which made him look like Mr. Frost had once looked. In his terror he was once more the nice man who had driven her home. (284-5)

“The man Jack” is running out of time. He needs to find Bod, and he is in that graveyard trying to figure out how he lost the boy’s trail so many years ago. He, this killer, is afraid of failure, and uses that internal fear to penetrate his exterior and become a disguise that fools the common individual. When the Sleer takes him, fear takes him, too.

Villains are more than silent feet and knives. They want. They need. They fear. But all of this, the feeling and motivation and all the rest, must stem from somewhere. Perhaps you plant the seed in a favorite urban legend of the community, or in a beloved song of your church. Or perhaps you walk further back, off to those forgotten corners of your world, where the childish things have grown wiry and wild with time. There’s no telling what knowledge their roots sip in the dark.

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Lesson Learned in Writer’s Music from the Rolling Stones: Don’t Misunderstand your Villain.

sympathy_for_the_devil_coverA rare moment when I get to listen to music of my own choosing during the daylight hours. The moment comes with sacrifice: no writing.

Normally, when I take the boys to school, I walk to a bookshop a few blocks away and settle in for a morning of school work and writing. Today, however, was Parent Visitation Day at my daughter’s school one town over. “You can come this time, right Mommy?” Her toothless smile looked tenuous. She was so used to hearing “I can’t come because I’d have to bring the boys.” “I can’t leave the boys behind.” “I can’t when I have work, honey.” I can’t, I can’t, I can’t. I’ve written before how hard it is to get time without her brothers. This time I gave her a hug and said, “I can’t come for the whole thing.”

She groaned.

“But, I can be there in the morning for a little while.”

Blondie’s smile broke loose and spread to her toes, throwing her into a hopping frenzy. “You can dance with me at brain break! And see my desk! And hear my story!”

So here I am, driving between schools, with, of all things, the Rolling Stones blasting because it’s the only CD that’s not Weird Al” Yankovic or Veggie Tales. “Sympathy for the Devil” comes on, and my mind starts to wander…

Why, of all beings in the big ol’ Cosmos, would we give sympathy to the Devil? Yet, well, as writers, that is what we want to do. I’ve read stories where the villain has less development than Snidely Whiplash of the Dudley Do-Right cartoons, all cackles and mustache twirling, and have been utterly, utterly bored.

Now 2-D characters do have their place, like, say, Michael Myers of Halloween, but slasher films are where cookie-cutter characters thrive best: The Virgin. The Jock. The Slut. The Jealous Boyfriend/Girlfriend. The Nerd. Etc.

When it comes to novels, we need more than one-note characters: we need songs, harmonies, percussion, the whole sonata. And not just from the hero.

We want to be just as intrigued with the one whom the hero is up against.

Please allow me to introduce myself
I’m a man of wealth and taste
I’ve been around for a long, long year
Stole many a man’s soul to waste

There’s something to the tribal feel of the percussion here counter-balancing the piano. A unique style of class. It makes me picture a man with tailored suit and cane, someone at ease in the bar who for all his drink loses not one iota of wit, something like Alex from Clockwork Orange. Just listen to that opening stanza: He’s polite. Rich. Cultured. Seasoned. Sounds rather like a philanthropist, doesn’t he? One who smiles sincerely as he offers you a drink and a stool in return for your ear…

…and soul.

And I was ’round when Jesus Christ
Had his moment of doubt and pain
Made damn sure that Pilate
Washed his hands and sealed his fate

He starts with one of his oldest and dearest triumphs. You’d think this would turn you away, that you’d never want to listen to someone who sealed the fate of Christ. Yet you’re still sitting there, because here’s a man who reveals Christ had doubt. He takes the Big Good Guy and shows He’s no better than the rest of us. Everything feels a bit more level now, doesn’t it? Those Hoidy-Toidies ain’t got nuthin’ better than us.

Pleased to meet you
Hope you guess my name
But what’s puzzling you
Is the nature of my game

How curious this man wants us to guess his name. But he, like most villains, wants to be known. Understood. And what drives him? All villains need something to keep them on the path they’ve chosen.

And for this particular fellow, it is one of the most basic and most frightening of motivations.

He’s bored.

All that he shares with you is part of his “game,” and as he shares, the music builds and you find yourself awestruck and horrified and fascinated all at once…

I stuck around St. Petersburg
When I saw it was a time for a change
Killed the czar and his ministers
Anastasia screamed in vain

I rode a tank
Held a general’s rank
When the blitzkrieg raged
And the bodies stank

I watched with glee
While your kings and queens
Fought for ten decades
For the gods they made

I shouted out,
Who killed the Kennedys?
When after all
It was you and me

How can we possibly sit at this man’s side and listen to him share all this like it doesn’t matter?

Hey, a game is not supposed to be serious. A game is fun, harmless.

But his actions are everything but. Why, why listen?

Because we like him. Because he’s not simply “evil”–he is a complete creature with a nature that gets bored and wants to have fun.

Just.

Like.

Us.

Just as every cop is a criminal
And all the sinners saints
As heads is tails
Just call me Lucifer
‘Cause I’m in need of some restraint

This must reside in the core of our villain’s creation: they must have some essence of us, of the everyday person. Even the most alien of villains can have a nature with passions and repulsions. When we forget to give our villain a nature, we deny our heroes a true conflict. Without conflict, we deny our readers a true story.

And you know the cost of such a sin.

So if you meet me
Have some courtesy
Have some sympathy, and some taste
Use all your well-learned politesse
Or I’ll lay your soul to waste, mm yeah

Songwriters: KEITH RICHARDS, MICK JAGGER
© Abkco Music, Inc.
For non-commercial use only.
Data from: LyricFind

Lessons Learned from Neil Gaiman: Some Questions Ought Not Be Answered.

As a child, I spent most of my time with cozy mystery writers like Agatha Christie, P.D. James, Colin Dexter, Ellis Peters, and, of course, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. By saturating myself with mysteries, I grew accustomed to quick character development, red herrings, plot twists, and, of course, explanations. A good mystery must show the whodunnit, howdunnit, and whydunnit. If the mystery isn’t solved, then the protagonist is clearly not worth his weight in pages.

It’s with this mindset, cemented over, oh, a couple of decades, that I entered the fantasy worlds of writers like Diana Wynne Jones and Neil Gaiman via film adaptations of their stories.

 

While both films take great liberties with the stories, I saw enough to get hooked on these writers for life.

Now I’ve got to admit something shameful: The first time I read Coraline–before motherhood and writing were serious endeavors–I was deeply disappointed. All these kudos on the back cover about how awesome the story is, it’s the new Alice in Wonderland, blah blah blah. Gaiman doesn’t EXPLAIN anything! What IS this button-woman? Why rats? Did no one else ever notice that giant door? Surely other people lived in the flat before that. Humbug, I say!

Five years later, I hope I can say that hearts change, and that what I felt about the book before: that was a humbug, as George C. Scott’s Ebenezer Scrooge put it.

Does this mean I discovered the answers to those questions? Nope.

It means I’m okay with there being questions unanswered.

Current culture revels in creating backstory questions the initial stories were not asking:

What made Michael Myers so evil? See the movie!

When did Anakin Skywalker turn to the Dark Side of the Force? Answers revealed!

How did Hannibal become Hannibal the Cannibal? Find out now!

Why do magic ladies go bad? Disney’s got the goods on The Wicked Witch of the West and Maleficent

Everything has to be explained. Everything has to be known.

Part of what makes fantasy fiction so enjoyable is its unknown, the extant of not-like-reality it contains. Neither the film nor book of Coraline explain what’s with the door between worlds, why there’s only one key, why sewing buttons into a child’s eyes keeps him/her in the other world, or even what the Other Mother is.

Because guess what–a kid don’t care. Coraline knows the Other Mother has her parents. She knows the Other Mother uses buttons to trap kids. She knows the Other Mother wants that key.

When I studied point of view, I realized just how vital that ignorance/acceptance trait is with a child character. While the writer knows how the world works, he can’t imbue that knowledge into the child. The child takes in the world as it enters her immediate perception, and she absorbs what impacts her personally. Coraline initially enjoys the Other Mother’s world very much, but when she’s asked to give up her eyes for buttons, she prefers her own home. Only then does the predatory nature of the Other Mother’s world become clear.

Mysteries thrive on what’s hidden: a character’s past, a buried piece of setting, and so on. But what’s hidden must also be exposed in order for a mystery to fulfill its promise to readers. Even mysteries for children will do this, as I’m currently learning from Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit for the gazillionth time, as it’s my kids’ favorite movie.

coralineCoraline, however, is not a mystery as far as the genre’s concerned. It is a perilous adventure through a dark fantasy land, something which kids are not often exposed to.* The world both excites and tests the protagonist, and because the protagonist is as young as the readers, the readers share in the experience.

As Reality often proves, there just simply isn’t an explanation for everything that occurs in our lives. We have to learn how to accept the unknown as it comes as well as how to overcome it. These require courage, strength, determination, and wit–all traits Coraline uses to survive the Other Mother’s world.

No explanation required.

 

 

 

 

Lessons Learned from Agatha Christie: Let Dialogue & Point of View (Mis)Lead Readers.

Nothing annoys like repetition. “Mom, can I have a cookie?” “No.” “Can I have a chocolate chip cookie?” “Not until supper’s done.” “Can I have a cookie now?” “I said no.” (pause for approximately twenty seconds) “Can I have a cookie now?” (exasperated scream and toss of graham crackers) “Oooh, crackers.” (munching) “Can I have a cookie?” (head bangs wall)

I feel the same way when I read repetition–not just in my students’ essays, but in novels by those who should know better. The characters in Hercule Poirot’s Christmas had some very annoying spells of repetition that revealed no inconsistencies in circumstances or any sort of human nature. They were just part of the interrogation. Other lines had equally annoying bouts of foreshadowing directed at…nothing.

“He’s like the faithful old retainers of fiction. I believe he’d lie himself blue in the face if it was necessary to protect one of the family!”

bookcoverI wanted to believe Christie was better than that with her dialogue. I wanted to see some proof. So I took a risk and picked a story I knew would be more dialogue than anything: Five Little PigsIt’s a cold-case situation: a young woman comes to Poirot asking him to discover the truth about her parents. Everyone says her mother poisoned her father; the mother was tried and executed for it. Yet her mother’s last letter claims innocence. The daughter, now fully grown, wants to know the truth.

The truth must be found in the memories of others, and to get those memories Poirot must dig through dialogue.

 

There is nothing so dangerous for anyone who has something to hide as conversation!

Hercule Poirot, The A.B.C. Murders

Poirot speaks with a few legal members involved with the court case, and then five other people present in the home at the time of the murder. This comes to nearly 240 pages of conversation.

And none of it felt dull, let alone repetitive.

Clearly, Christie’s attentions were more focused on this story. One can feel it in the tight prose and pacing. Her descriptions of the characters are brilliantly precise:

Philip Blake was recognizably like the description given him by Depleach–a prosperous, shrewd, jovial-looking man–slightly running to fat. (58)

[Poirot] would never have recognized [Elsa] from the picture Meredith Blake had shown him. That had been, above all, a picture of youth, a picture of vitality. Here there was no youth–there might never have been youth. (104)

The dialogue also reveals a lot about the characters, such as the governess.

“Men–” said Miss Williams, and stopped. As a rich property owner says, “Bolsheviks,” as an earnest Communist says, “Capitalists,” as a good housewife says, “Black beetles,” so did Miss Williams say, “Men.” (117)

Besides the court personnel, who only witnessed the characters after the murder, there are five perspectives being tapped for details from the same time frame. This should welcome lots of repetition, considering these people are coming to the same house, dining together, conversing together, and so on.

Yet the repetition doesn’t happen. I’ll use one moment in the plot for an example.

Painter Amyas has brought his model Elsa to live at the house while he paints her. His wife Caroline does not like her; it goes without saying Elsa and Amyas are having an affair, which is normal behavior for Amyas and his models. Something seems different this time, though, and Amyas’ friends, the brothers Philip and Meredith Blake, warn him as such. Amyas shrugs them off. Caroline’s teenage sister Angela also lives at the house under the care of the governess Miss Williams.

What follows are four accounts of the same moment in the book: when Elsa announces to all she’s going to marry Amyas…despite Amyas still being married to Caroline. The police officer shares bits and pieces of Philip Blake’s account, so for the sake of sticking with points of view present at the situation, I’ll keep him out.

Philip Blake (considering the length, I felt photos the easiest way to share):

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Elsa: And in the end I broke down. Caroline had been talking of some plan she and Amyas were going to carry out next autumn. She talked about it quite confidently. And I suddenly felt it was too abominable what we were doing–letting her go on like this–and perhaps, too, I was angry, because she was really being very pleasant to me in a clever sort of way that one couldn’t take hold of.  And so I came out with the truth. In a way, I still think I was right. Though, of course, I wouldn’t have done it if I’d had the faintest idea what was to come of it. The clash came right away. Amyas was furious with me for telling Caroline, but he had to admit that what I had said was true. (183-4)

Miss Williams: On this day, September 17th, as we were sitting in the drawing room after lunch, [Elsa] came out with an amazing remark as to how she was going to redecorate the room when she was living at Alderbury. Naturally, [Caroline] couldn’t let that pass. She challenged her and [Elsa] had the impudence to say, before us all, that she was going to marry [Amyas]. She actually talked about marrying a married man–and she said it to his wife! .. [Amyas] came in just then and she immediately demanded confirmation from him. He was not, unnaturally, annoyed with [elsa] for her unconsidered forcing of the situation. Apart from anything else, it made him appear at a disadvantage, and men do not like appearing at a disadvantage. It upsets their vanity. He stood there, a great giant of a man, looking as sheepish and foolish as a naughty schoolboy. It was his wife who carried off the honors of the situation. He had to mutter foolishly that it was true, but that he hadn’t meant her to learn it like this. (194-5)

Angela: The very first intimation I had of the whole thing was what I overheard from the terrace where I had escaped after lunch one day. Elsa said she was going to marry Amyas! It struck me as just ridiculous. I remember tackling Amyas about it. In the garden at Handcross it was. I said to him: “Why does Elsa say she’s going to marry you? She couldn’t. People can’t have two wives–it’s bigamy and they go to prison.” Amyas got very angry and said, “How the devil did you hear that?” I said I’d heard it through the library window. He was angrier than ever then and said it was high time I went to school and got out of the habit of eavesdropping….I stammered out angrily that I hadn’t been listening–and, anyhow, I said, why did Elsa say a silly thing like that? Amyas said it was just a joke. (199-200)

Notice the extensive detail Philip provides as opposed to, say, Miss Williams. Philip’s bias against Caroline and for Amyas highlights special touches of tension in his telling: “Elsa had got under her guard all right.” “Poor old Amyas…he went crimson and started blustering.” Then you have Miss Williams noting how Caroline “did not lose her dignity,” and later “walked like an empress” from the scene (193). Elsa’s telling revolves primarily around her feelings more than anything else, and Angela’s gets into something new: that Amyas  said it was all a joke.

Sure didn’t sound like a joke in that room.

One moment, told again and again, yet with new language and observations every time. This layering through multiple viewpoints gives readers the pleasure of digging for the unknown information and hidden emotions not known from the police account. Christie takes great care pacing out these plot reveals, too–Angela’s account, for example, isn’t given until the second to last chapter of the book.

The key here is that the information differs with each account: there’s always something new to learn. Even the lack of telling can be telling. Notice how Elsa breezes over this moment? You’d think she’d want to rub in how Caroline reacted to being told her husband was leaving her. Yeah, there’s a reason Elsa doesn’t share too much.

(Dunh dunh DUUUUUUUNH)

Now I get that this style of multiple points of view will not fit many kinds of story, nor can every story be told in a series of conversations. But if I’ve learned anything from my own point of view experiment, it’s that one’s got to try different styles of storytelling. Even if what you create isn’t fit for human eyes, you still stretched your brain. All those story-starts I did with Dorjan are going to remain stopped. They’re not going anywhere. But in writing them I did get to thinking about that character’s life, and other pieces that may be worth telling. And then, I got to thinking about other characters from the story and their lives…it goes on.

We don’t always find the right voice for a story in the first go. It might require a process of elimination to discover the true narrator. Or, maybe you’d rather have the different perspectives tell the story together. After all, Christie took a bunch of conversations and wove them into a taut mystery readers couldn’t leave alone. Just imagine what that kind of layering could do for your own fiction.

PS: In the spirit of Sarah J. Higbee’s weekly book cover studies, I wanted to share some of these designs for Five Little Pigs. Frankly, I feel gripped by none of them: not the childish ones, certainly not the giant pig. The one with the flowers is way too busy, and the beer glass of all things emphasizes THE biggest clue in the mystery. I see why later covers tended to focus more on the painting, as it is the catalyst for the murder.

 

Point of View Blows Up in My Face (or, the end of the “Normal’s Menace” experiment)

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(Photo credit:YURI CORTEZ/AFP/Getty Images)

Point of View makes–and breaks–good stories. Sometimes omniscience helps move the story along at a good clip, but other times it burdens readers with tangential thoughts and details irrelevant to the story at hand (I’m looking at you, Hercule Poirot’s Christmas…gosh, I hated that book…).  If we choose to write from inside a character, or even alongside one particular character, then we’re limited to that character’s knowledge–or lack thereof. We’re stuck with the vocabulary and worldviews, and we better stick with them, or else. Readers have a knack for calling bullshit on adult terminology coming from a five-year-old, or a character knowing the particulars of past events never actually discussed.

When I first brainstormed “Normal’s Menace,” I imagined it a story for Dorjan, a secondary character from an old WIP. I also wanted to make good on an oath I had sworn to some other indie artists about naming a story “Quiet Mound,” which…um…okay, so that part didn’t happen. I ended up commandeering something else from their work, for which I’m sorry, but it was just too damn perfect to use. Incognito Cinema Warriors, I humbly beg your forgiveness for stealing the most perfect name in the world:

Captain Whiskers.

That’s when the story in my head shifted away from Dorjan and re-centered itself around Millie, a lonely kid who befriends a strange cat that’s able to bring her daydreams to life. Not long after the cat arrives, Dorjan comes to take the cat away.

In my previous post, I shared what happened from Millie’s perspective. The next phase of this experiment intended to re-tell the story from Dorjan’s perspective and mark out each telling’s strengths and weaknesses.

Note the word “intended.”

Oh, I tried. I tried three damn times to get a handle on this story from Dorjan’s point of view. Yet each take, just…it was like trying to hold a snowflake. I had it, it was so sparkly and awesome, and then–plop. Just another drop of water on the cement.

Here’s Take #1:

Nothing sets my hackles off like a stray pissing on the rules. They want all of home’s comforts without the obligations to obey. And who’s to tell them otherwise? The mother, father? One likely can’t talk outside of instinct, while the other is gone completely, or dead.

Well, as an exile, let me just say: no.

You don’t get to play that way.

Our kind treats central America as a sort of wasteland, a place to mow down the strange growths of life and culture they consider unimportant in the big scheme of things. They did it with Rome, with Germany, then got bored and decided to find a new sandbox to trample. The dullest corners they transformed into prisons. My family’s in one. Why not me? Because I was a bloody coward and hiding at the time, that’s why. Shut up, I’m not talking about it.

But a mixed blessing, as Uncle says. No one’s teaching the rules anymore. No one’s tracking the new breeds.

So I do what I can in this land: the Midwest, I heard it called. When I catch wind of a new litter, I teach what I can. When strays wander in, I take them to a crossing to live with others.

I stopped. I didn’t want to get long-winded about Dorjan’s family, as they’re the center of my WIP. This short story needed to focus on taking Thorn down, not Dorjan’s family tree.

Okay, start again. Take #2:

The problem with strays is that they don’t want to understand the rules. They like the taste of a child’s dreams and think nothing of devouring a young soul whole. They don’t care about exposure of our kind, or the impact upon the social mores rippling throughout the class system of various societies and blah, blah IT’S DAMN WRONG.

Thorn learned the hard way. Twice. Not often one survives the first lesson.

 The first time came with his arrival to boundary lands between the prison and the rest of life as you know it. A farm with guest lodgings sits there. If you are fully grown and hold your life in any worth whatsoever, then I strongly recommend guesting yourself elsewhere.

The farm was run by normal human beings, whom I usually left alone in order to avoid being shot. Several more had shown up that day for a party of sorts—lots of children, fire-cooked meats, freshly baked pies, and snowballs everywhere. The air positively reeked with celebration. If I hadn’t stayed to enjoy the smells from behind the barn, then I would have missed Thorn altogether.

He wandered in from the highway, looking like a blown-about broken twig. I caught a whiff of his foreignness, and watched.

The adults ignored him. Just another cat on a farm.

But the children… one little boy waddled over in his pillowy pants. “Kitty!” He said, all precious. The others stopped their snow-battle and ooed and aaahed and starting petting him…

…and they stopped talking. They all huddled about him, barely breathing. All are like that when their dreams are unleashed and souls exposed.

He was going to devour them all without a second thought.

None of the adults had guns.

I had to do it.

I ran.

The children didn’t even scream when my muzzle pushed them aside. Parents did plenty of that, though.

Someone screamed about a shot gun while I chased Thorn down the drive and off the borderland. I would have sunk my teeth in him then and there, but the Lady’s henchman got him first, and flew him off into the prison.

I stopped. Again, this path would take me into the inner workings of the WIP. A short story doesn’t have time for extensive backgrounds or world-building. If I continued this way I’d have to explain who the henchman and Lady are, why they’re in the prison, why Dorjan can come and go from the prison but his family can’t….AAAAARGH!

Ahem.

Start again, this time at Millie’s farm. That should avoid the need for history, yes? Take #3:

I shake the water out and sniff to gauge my surroundings: still winter. Another farm. The little pisser hasn’t left the region, then.

The ground has a lot to offer a nose, too. Cat. Human: female. Rubber. Peanut butter. Something grape-ish. Tobacco. Gunpowder. The last two were faint. The first two were strong, dangerously so. Hope that peanut butter keeps the human stuck to the ground, because humans haven’t the heart’s fire to survive the water road. Curious it comes to a pond rather than a proper exit. Must have been a place of magic for the Old Ways…

I study the land for his path.

DAMMIT DAMMIT DAMMIT.

No. All wrong. I’m diving into terminology I won’t have time to explain. I could treat the situation with the air of magical realism and make readers deal with it, but why should they? They’re not attached to the character or the situation. They’ve no reason to work at keeping up.

By sticking with Millie, we don’t have to explain why things happen as they do. Millie doesn’t try to figure out how Captain Whiskers does what he does; she accepts it and moves on. She lets the mystery remain a mystery for herself, but also lets readers pick up on odds and ends from the details she shares. For instance, readers know the cat is capable of physically changing things, like Millie’s pocket knife. We learn he’s feeding off her somehow, what with all his getting fat by licking her person and eventually her blood. We also know that Millie doesn’t connect the dots because she’s too fixated on escaping reality. Through Millie’s perspective readers receive an intimate look at the power the cat has over her.

This story is about a girl’s life ensnared by a cat.

Were I to tell the story from Dorjan’s perspective, everything alters: the stakes, the motivations, all of it.

Therein lies the reason I stopped time and again: Dorjan has no real stake in this situation. Millie’s the one with, as Shehanne Moore and Sarah Higbee aptly put it, the most to lose. If I wanted Dorjan to be the narrator, then the story needed to center around him.

There would have to be a first meeting and a sin against Dorjan to set him hunting. This would require establishing another setting, the rules Captain Whiskers/Thorn goes about breaking in such a way to motivate Dorjan to wreak deadly justice–basically, a lot of world-building that can’t fit into a short story. Now I admit, it’s tempting to go into that bit of his life. His fierce desire to protect mortal children is a subplot in my WIP, and I wouldn’t mind exploring where that comes from.

But that, as Maz Kanata says in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, is “another story for another time.”

Only that IS the case here rather than a cheap cop-out to avoid a plot hole. Millie is the one who interacts with the cat, who suffers at the paws of the cat, and is left to die by the cat. If I tell this story from Dorjan’s perspective, he’d have to witness that whole arc, not just the end. How the hell would that happen? Or something would have to happen to make Millie tell all of this. That sounds as much fun as a sit-down with a librarian over appropriate behavior for children around a microfilm machine.

Experiment conclusions: stick with Millie’s point of view. Oh, and change that title. “Normal’s Menace” sounds…not kid-like, that’s for sure. And while I wanted to use “Quiet Mound” and fulfill my oath, the story isn’t about the mound. It’s about the cat.

“The Stray.”
Ah…now there’s a title…
That snowflake, I caught on my tongue instead of my hand.
Totally worth all the plops.