You’ve Got Five Pages, #BleedingHeartYard by #EllyGriffiths, to Tell Me You’re Good. #FirstChapter #BookReview #Podcast

Well, I’m back with a mystery, but I’m not happy about it.

As writers, we hear all the time that we’ve got to hook readers in just the first few pages or else. We’ve got to hook agents in the first few pages or else.

Whether you’re looking to get published or just hoping to hook your reader, first impressions are vital. Compelling opening scenes are the key to catching an agent or editor’s attention, and are crucial for keeping your reader engaged.

JEFF GERKE, THE FIRST FIFTY PAGES

Well then, let’s study those first few pages in other people’s stories, shall we?

Today I snagged from the New Release shelf:

Bleeding Heart Yard by Elly Griffiths

My curse on this podcast strikes again.

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

The prologue of Bleeding Heart Yard by Elly Griffiths is quite well-crafted and compelling and leagues ahead of the first chapter, which is an exposition dump detailing a separate character’s fast-track in her career with law enforcement. Now I can see that Griffiths herself is an avid mystery writer, winner of awards, etc., and the prologue shows me why. Writers would do well to study those first couple of pages to see how this first-person narrative shares a lot about the character without saying it directly. For instance, the first two lines read:

Is it possible to forget that you’ve committed a murder? Well, I’m here to tell you that it is.

This isn’t shocking necessarily, as the dust jacket alludes to the group of main characters committing murder during their school days. It’s how the paragraph ends that gets me:

…everyone [during the murder mystery game] would get drunk and forget the clues. This rather irritated me. I like following rules.

This speaks LOADS about the unique juxtaposition of character Cassie’s traits and morals, not to mention the way her mind works.

I was ready and willing to continue with Cassie, only the official first chapter just starts the story over again with a different character. Had Griffiths given us a bit more time with Cassie and smoothed that shift over to another character’s pov–ending a chapter with Cassie realizing this new character would be in attendance at a party, for instance–I think readers would be more intrigued to learn about her “friend” even if it takes sifting through an exposition dump to do so.

No matter what the season brings, keep reading!

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

You’ve Got Five Pages, #AGhostofCaribou by #AliceHenderson, to Tell Me You’re Good. #FirstChapter #BookReview #Podcast

Another January day, another mystery!

As writers, we hear all the time that we’ve got to hook readers in just the first few pages or else. We’ve got to hook agents in the first few pages or else.

Whether you’re looking to get published or just hoping to hook your reader, first impressions are vital. Compelling opening scenes are the key to catching an agent or editor’s attention, and are crucial for keeping your reader engaged.

JEFF GERKE, THE FIRST FIFTY PAGES

Well then, let’s study those first few pages in other people’s stories, shall we?

Today I snagged from the New Release shelf:

A Ghost of Caribou by Alice Henderson

Once again, we have a prologue, and once again, this is where the action happens.

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

On a technical level, the writing itself is fine: the pacing of the action is clear. The details help us see the woman being chased by a “thing.” Yet this prologue also feels very distant; we’re not really feeling things as the character feels, but merely stand as witness as this old woman runs and is eventually captured. And that’s something that snapped me back to reality, too: a seventy-two-year-old is outrunning what sounds like a drone through dangerous terrain in the dark. Whaaat?! It reminds me of the opening sequence to a tv episode like X-Files, where we’ve got to see someone in danger so we can be motivated to keep watching and see that person be saved.

But this is not TV. This is a book. And so we have the words and ability to gather the words that could help readers feel what someone in danger is feeling.

The first chapter’s opening pages continue to give me those “TV vibes.” After writing the characters’ full names for the reader, Henderson then has the characters say their names as if they’ve not seen one other in twenty years. “Alex Carter!” “Ben Hathaway!” But they did see each other only a year ago. Why this double-dump of information? It happens again when Ben asks if Alex wants to get something from the coffee shop. We get double-details that the shop is decorated with local art on the walls and has an “artistic” vibe. This kind of repetitive description simply isn’t necessary, especially since such an environment has become quite common in the western world and therefore is easy for readers to picture. Again, it feels like these details are there as if a script needs a quick setting description before the dialogue starts.

But this is not TV. This is a book, where every word counts. And when one’s writing a mystery, those words should always propel us toward the mystery’s heart rather than its “artistic” walls of generic detail.

No matter what the season brings, keep reading!

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

You’ve Got Five Pages, #ThePersonalAssistant by #KimberlyBelle, to Tell Me You’re Good. #FirstChapter #BookReview #Podcast

We take a darker turn today into a thriller fueled by the virtual illusions created on social media.

As writers, we hear all the time that we’ve got to hook readers in just the first few pages or else. We’ve got to hook agents in the first few pages or else.

Whether you’re looking to get published or just hoping to hook your reader, first impressions are vital. Compelling opening scenes are the key to catching an agent or editor’s attention, and are crucial for keeping your reader engaged.

JEFF GERKE, THE FIRST FIFTY PAGES

Well then, let’s study those first few pages in other people’s stories, shall we?

Today I snagged from the New Release shelf:

The Personal Assistant by Kimberly Belle

Ironically, the prologue is my favorite part of the opening pages in Kimberly Belle’s The Personal Assistant.

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

These first two pages are a well-paced scene with balanced external action and sensory detail from the perspective of an unnamed girl without a dime to her name. Her car’s run off the road by a farmer in the middle of nowhere, her tire blows out, and she has no one she could turn to for money. The prologue ends with a mysterious man pulling up to her vehicle offering aid.

Now I mention in my episode that prologues make me nervous because they seem to be the author’s backup plan to hooking readers when they know the first chapter is a slog.

Lo and behold…

We meet protagonist Alex, a social media influence married to a financial talking head named Patrick who also does a lot on social media. The opening pages detail how happy she is with her rise to fame, his skepticism about why people care enough to follow her online, and how he never cared about her daughters.

+++CORRECTION+++ It is not clear in these opening pages if Patrick is the father of those girls or not. In the episode, I interpreted that he is, which makes him sound like an even bigger jerk than he is supposed to be. Upon checking later pages, he is not the father of those girls, so at least this guy is decent with kids. Just wanted to clarify that. +++

Kimberly Belle clearly knows how to craft a scene. Belle knows how to balance detail and action, and she knows how to use dialogue to relay information. If I spot another book by Belle, I’ll likely give it a try. I just struggle to read a story about this particular kind of character. For folks who enjoy the realm of social media drama, or thrillers with that social media flare, this fiction will fit right in with your tastes. As one who is not as keen on such drama, I struggle to relate to such personalities. So, I’m going to see what the next mystery from my library contains.

No matter what the season brings, keep reading!

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

You’ve Got Five Pages, #TheTwistofaKnife by #AnthonyHorowitz, to Tell Me You’re Good. #FirstChapter #BookReview #Podcast

Happy New Year, my fellow creatives! I’ve got a trove of mysteries from my library for this month.

As writers, we hear all the time that we’ve got to hook readers in just the first few pages or else. We’ve got to hook agents in the first few pages or else.

Whether you’re looking to get published or just hoping to hook your reader, first impressions are vital. Compelling opening scenes are the key to catching an agent or editor’s attention, and are crucial for keeping your reader engaged.

JEFF GERKE, THE FIRST FIFTY PAGES

Well then, let’s study those first few pages in other people’s stories, shall we?

Today I snagged from the New Release shelf:

The Twist of a Knife by Anthony Horowitz

CORRECTION: Over the course of the podcast I say The Twist of a Knife is the third book of Horowitz’s series, but it is actually the fourth. My apologies!

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

One of my favorite styles of writing is writing with personality. Horowitz’s The Twist of a Knife has plenty of personality in the prose because the narrator, Horowitz himself, IS a character in the series. It’s a delightful homage to the Watson-style storytelling approach Doyle took for chronicling the adventures of Sherlock Holmes–except in Horowitz’s case, the story begins with him and his Detective Hawthorn parting ways.

NOOOOOooooooo…..

Of course, they can’t stay parted. There is a whole book here, after all. But such a beginning does help establish some immediate conflict between protagonists that is bound to help make future points of plot–such as the murder of Horowitz’s critics–more challenging to overcome. The pair’s banter and chemistry were a joy to read, rather like the Thursday Murder Club in Richard Osman’s series. My one niggle here is that Horowitz opens his story with an exposition dump. While I appreciate we are getting exposition from the character in character voice that establishes the story-world, it’s still a bit of a slog, especially when compared to the quick, delightful dialogue that follows it.

I hope you’re ready for a few more mysteries to get you through these coming weeks. 🙂 No matter what the season brings, keep reading!

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

#WriterProblems: The Absent Protagonist (or, a Quick Rant about a #MissMarple #Mystery)

Featured

Happy New Year, my fellow creatives! I hope 2023 is a kind one to us all. I’m eager to work with my university to develop strong goals as an educator, an advocate, and as a writer. That includes chatting with you here, and (fingers crossed) getting something published before 2023 ends.

To start the year off right, I picked up a cozy mystery my husband Bo had given me for Christmas…in 2021, but better late than never. Miss Marple has really grown on me over the past couple of years, and since I’ve not read all her books, I wanted to see if I could cover the rest in 2023. So, here we are with her third mystery, The Moving Finger.

One of the creepier covers.

And I’m peeved.

Not deeply peeved, mind you. The mystery itself is rather good. A brother-sister pair settle in to the countryside for a few months while the brother recovers from a back injury. With the peaceful setting situated, the “harmless” crime of poison pen letters begins with a flurry of notes to different members of the community–Jill’s a floozie, Tim’s not your husband’s child, etc. Even the urban siblings receive a letter that they’re not really siblings. The town gossip burns bright, but no one really takes the letters seriously.

That is, until a woman apparently commits suicide. When her maid is later found murdered, the letters suddenly feel like ticking time bombs. When will the next letter lead to the next death? Cue Miss Marple….

…a few dozen pages before the end.

That’s what brings me here for a brief rant/chat with you all. I know my blogging was rather sporadic last year as I continue to find my place academically and creatively, but one thing that I hope will help is to keep my blog posts shorter than the 5k essays I’d been writing. The short story collection I began in November reminded me just how much fun creative writing can be when we give ourselves time to actually write. We must still take a moment to learn from others, though, and that’s why we’re here.

No Pevensie to be found here!

When one writes a series, one cannot just use the same group of characters over and over and over again. A story-world is usually populated by more than a dozen folks, yes? So, there must always be someone new to the mix. Perhaps that new person is a side character, or perhaps that new person is a real first-stringer, a protagonist in their own right. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this in an established series so long as we establish why the, well, “established” protagonists are on the sidelines. For a big example, see the Chronicles of Narnia. The four Pevensies are only protagonists in two of the books; two Pevensies are protagonists in a third with their cousin, and then that cousin is a protagonist with a schoolmate in another book. Two books have nothing to do with the Pevensies at all, yet they’re still in the series because the series is focused on the world, not those characters.

Okay, let’s look at a series based on a character–James Bond. Bo, who chides me for not having read the Bond books yet (shall I remedy that this year?) explained that The Spy Who Loved Me, Fleming’s ninth Bond novel, doesn’t bother introducing Bond into the story until around the halfway point. Because the story is told from a civilian woman’s point of view, we can’t just pop over to wherever Bond is, even though this is technically a James Bond novel. We’ve just got to wait for him to show up.

I assume a moped is involved in the story somewhere…

Diana Wynne Jones also has some stories like this in her Chrestomanci series. Technically, technically, Witch Week is a Chrestomanci novel because he has to get involved to make things right in the chaos of a world where burning witches is the law and schoolchildren are on the run for their lives. But like Marple, Chrestomanci does not show up until Act III of the story.

Yet I’m not peeved about Chrestomanci’s late arrival like I am with Miss Marple’s in The Moving Finger. Why?

It has to do with agency. Chrestomanci may have been late to the Witch Week party, but he took action. He dealt with the witch-burners and saved the children. He DID SOMETHING.

Includes The Magicians of Caprona, which also fits my concerns with the absent hero, too.

I’m not going to spoil the resolution of The Moving Finger, but I will say that Marple’s interactions with others can be counted on one hand. Readers don’t see her talking to police or many townspeople. She’s with the vicar’s wife, and she talks to the urban siblings. That’s it. Yet she gets the pages of explaining the mystery at the end? What did she DO???

For the record, I think the mystery’s plot is fine. The characters are a little cheesy with the romance, but not to the point of irritation. What bothers me is that Marple’s absence from the story would not alter the story’s outcome. A little tweaking of interactions with the regular cast here would lead to someone realizing the truth and catching the culprit. Miss Marple had no real agency in her own story, and that just leaves me confused as a reader: why is this a Marple story at all?

There’s nothing wrong with a different cast shining inside an established protagonist’s universe. The key is to make sure that established protagonist still has a moment to shine themselves. So long as readers know their favorite hero(ine) is still ACTIVE in the story-world, they will be happy to see others take action, too.

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

You’ve Got Five Pages, #TheHouseAcrosstheLake by #RileySager, to Tell Me You’re Good. #FirstChapter #BookReview #Podcast

Hello, my fellow creatives! A New Year means a time to reflect…on a mystery. Dunh dunh DUNH!

As writers, we hear all the time that we’ve got to hook readers in just the first few pages or else. We’ve got to hook agents in the first few pages or else.

Whether you’re looking to get published or just hoping to hook your reader, first impressions are vital. Compelling opening scenes are the key to catching an agent or editor’s attention, and are crucial for keeping your reader engaged.

JEFF GERKE, THE FIRST FIFTY PAGES

Well then, let’s study those first few pages in other people’s stories, shall we?

Today I snagged from the New Release shelf:

The House Across the Lake by Rile Sager

Welp, we’re back to prologues.

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

Thankfully, the prologue is brief–a little over a page–and does accomplish two important things. First, there is a childhood memory used to establish the ominous mood and setting where the story takes place. Second, the narrator is very restrained and a little ominous in her word choices to the point where we can’t–or shouldn’t–trust her as a narrator. The first chapter shifts into the present time, a casual interrogation between a police detective and our narrator, Casey. The dialogue is very taut, and any exposition relays to the action, including the narrator realizing she has to lie to the police.

I’m not a fan of time-jumping between the prologue and first chapter (and the by looks of it, several chapters throughout the book), but I do appreciate Sager’s choice in keeping the narrator’s inner reflections to a bare minimum. Sager doesn’t want readers to trust the narrator, so the narrator’s language reveals very little. Some readers may not care for such a small amount of insights into our narrator, but a mystery can’t remain a mystery for very long if too much is revealed too soon. So, if you are keen for a cozy mystery situated in the cold, silent autumnal woods, then I think Sager’s tale will set your nerves on edge perfectly.

And what will we find on the library’s New Release shelf next week? I can’t wait to find out. 🙂 Cheers!

No matter what the season brings, keep reading!

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

You’ve Got Five Pages, #TheManWhoDiedTwice by #RichardOsman, to Tell Me You’re Good. #FirstChapter #BookReview #Podcast

Hello, my fellow creatives! After a bout of illness and some time writing for NaNoWriMo, I am finally back and able to read the opening chapters of various new releases at my local library.

As writers, we hear all the time that we’ve got to hook readers in just the first few pages or else. We’ve got to hook agents in the first few pages or else.

Whether you’re looking to get published or just hoping to hook your reader, first impressions are vital. Compelling opening scenes are the key to catching an agent or editor’s attention, and are crucial for keeping your reader engaged.

JEFF GERKE, THE FIRST FIFTY PAGES

Well then, let’s study those first few pages in other people’s stories, shall we?

Today I snagged from the New Release shelf:

The Man Who Died TWICE by Richard Osman

It’s been a while since a story truly tickled me, and Richard Osman’s The Man Who Died TWICE did exactly that.

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

Here we watch a group of four friends having lunch after their “Murder Club” meeting, where they get together to study cold cases. I didn’t even realize this was the second book of the series until I caught this brief exposition in the first chapter, and thankfully, that was all I needed to be brought up to speed. The chemistry and personalities of these characters will have readers chuckling before they’ve even gotten to the third page, let alone to any murder. When a writer can establish four unique characters through a single lunchtime conversation, then you know their writing is worth a study! For those who need a lift in the heart and spirit while also tucking into a good mystery, then I have a feeling Osman’s Thursday Murder Club series will be the perfect fit for you. I know I’m excited to find the first book!

As always, I love hearing what’s on the shelves of your own libraries. No matter what the season brings, keep reading!

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

You’ve Got Five Pages, #TheFamilyChao by Lan Samantha Chang, to Tell Me You’re Good. #FirstChapter #BookReview #Podcast

Hello, amazing fellow creatives! Here’s to more fun perusing the library’s new releases to see what strikes our fancy. As I mentioned in an earlier post, I’ve retitled Story Cuppings to better fit the premise of the podcast.

As writers, we hear all the time that we’ve got to hook readers in just the first few pages or else. We’ve got to hook agents in the first few pages or else.

Whether you’re looking to get published or just hoping to hook your reader, first impressions are vital. Compelling opening scenes are the key to catching an agent or editor’s attention, and are crucial for keeping your reader engaged.

JEFF GERKE, THE FIRST FIFTY PAGES

Well then, let’s study those first few pages in other people’s stories, shall we?

Today I snagged from the New Release shelf:

The Family Chao by Lan Samantha Chang

We see the return of the prologue in The Family Chao by Lan Samantha Chang, but I’m pleasantly surprised by how much she packs into that page of text.

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

She establishes the setting of the Chinese restaurant that prospers in Wisconsin; however, the townsfolk are “indifferent” to the family’s actual struggles and relationships. Even readers are kept carefully in the dark by Chang, who makes the cooking of parents Leo and Winnie the focus of her prose, full of sensual details that get your mouth watering. Yet little phrases like breadcrumbs do drop between the lines, and we realize that much is happening behind the kitchen doors that the Family Chao does not want us to see.

The first chapter introduces readers to the family Chao’s youngest son James, a pre-med student who seems almost proud of not holding onto his Mandarin or family traditions. Yet meeting an old man at the train station pleading for help in Mandarin sparks something in James…just in time to see the old man die. At the end of five pages, the man has collapsed while boarding the train. James is unable to revive him. This opening with death isn’t melodramatic, nor is it coarse; rather, it’s a compelling choice on Chang’s part to bring the Old World into New World James’ life as he, a college student, is on his way home to his own “Old World.”

As always, I love hearing what’s on the shelves of your own libraries. Libraries Rock!

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

You’ve Got Five Pages, #HatchetIsland by Paul Doiron, to Tell Me You’re Good. #FirstChapter #BookReview #Podcast

Hello, amazing fellow creatives! Here’s to more fun perusing the library’s new releases to see what strikes our fancy. As I mentioned in an earlier post, I’ve retitled Story Cuppings to better fit the premise of the podcast.

As writers, we hear all the time that we’ve got to hook readers in just the first few pages or else. We’ve got to hook agents in the first few pages or else.

Whether you’re looking to get published or just hoping to hook your reader, first impressions are vital. Compelling opening scenes are the key to catching an agent or editor’s attention, and are crucial for keeping your reader engaged.JEFF GERKE, THE FIRST FIFTY PAGES

Well then, let’s study those first few pages in other people’s stories, shall we?

Today I snagged from the New Release shelf:

Hatchet Island by Paul Doiron

The opening pages of Hatchet Island is, sadly, a return to prologues. We meet a nameless character suffering insomnia, one who has simply given up on life in college and in general. After months of isolation, he finally ventures out into the world…only to throw himself from a bridge.

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

Now I’m sure some readers will be intrigued by what happened to this nameless character. Why did this character make that choice? Was it the birds and the birdkeeper he worked for that drove him to kill himself? How could living with birds do such a thing?

For me, though, this prologue put a sour taste in my mouth. I’m all for a good murder mystery, but when life is lost in a story, it should mean something. Like Colleen Hoover’s Verity, I felt like killing off a nameless person for the sake of shock value in the first few pages dulls the impact of any future loss of life later in the story. Plus there are so many other ways to show that time on an island has transformed a person for the worse: their habits, their language, their little actions. All these can steadily impact those around them and lead to other, bigger transformations down the road. I know not every writer feels this way, but I will always appreciate a chance to peel back layers to find the rot, rather than simply smashing the fruit underfoot to send that rot flying in bits all over the ground.

As always, I love hearing what’s on the shelves of your own libraries. Libraries Rock!

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

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

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

Prologue: Life in Rural Wisconsin

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

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

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

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

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

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

Case 1: The Adventure of the Copper Beeches

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

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

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

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

But Holmes shook his head gravely.

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

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

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

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

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

Speaking of characters…

Case 2: The Adventure of the Silver Blaze

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Case 3: The Final Problem

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

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

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

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

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

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

And sometimes, we are.

Case 4: The Hound of the Baskervilles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Epilogue: the Lonely Land

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

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

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

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

~STAY TUNED!~

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

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