#Author #Interview: #indieauthor @jamescudney4 discusses the ups and downs of #bookreviews, #bookblogging, #writing #mysteries, & the beautiful #writinglife

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Greetings, one and all! Guess who finally agreed to read her story

I’m so proud of Blondie overcoming her nerves and sharing her creativity–complete with character voices! xxxx She’s grown so much from the last time we talked about storytelling.

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I’ve not known James Cudney IV as long as Blondie, but he is without a doubt one of the most avid book bloggers I know, and a fellow mystery lover, to boot! I just had to have him for an interview to help celebrate the upcoming release of his latest installment in the Braxton Campus Mystery series.

Let’s have some niceties first! Tell us a bit about yourself, please. 

It’s always the general questions which stump me; where does one begin? I’ll be brave and take a chance here. I’m 42 and live in NYC. I worked in technology and project management for ~15 years before leaving my job and writing my first book two-and-a-half years ago. I’d always wanted to do it but never had the time, until I found myself starting over again. I absolutely do not regret the decision, as I was a walking ball of stress before this new career. I’m still open to going back to an office job, but it will be something very different, if I ever do. That said, I am a homebody and more of an introvert. I tend to follow a routine, but every once in a while, I surprise people with my choices. I spend a lot of time thinking about things before I ever tell others what’s going on inside my head, so when I do… it often seems to others like a quick decision. I’m a much happier person now that I’m writing and being creative. I still get stressed over editing and marketing, but it’s a very different type of monster. With no ‘real’ boss (okay, every reader IS my boss), I have more freedom to take chances on things. Luckily, my other half and our puppy keep me sane!

It says on your bio that you’ve done an extensive study of your family history. That is so fascinating! I’ve a distant cousin doing that very thing, and he’s so far discovered that our great-grandparents (or great-great? I get lost in all the great’s) were put in an internment camp in Wisconsin during World War 1 because they had German names. Is there a surprising story from your own family research you’d like to share?

I couldn’t find my cousin’s resources, but I found some interesting information on the WWII camps in Wisconsin, if you’re interested.

Genealogy is my favorite hobby! I am an only child, so I often spent time with my aunts, uncles, and grandparents rather than siblings. It developed a curiosity about the past, and since I am an introvert, I research everything. When a grandfather passed away, I connected with a long-lost cousin who attended his funeral and shared family history. I began researching it on my own, and now almost 25 years later, I’ve gone back to the 1700s for several branches. Don’t worry, I still get confused on second cousin and first cousin once removed, et al. I know the rules, but I’m less of a stickler for those details as I am finding the exact locations of an ancestor’s birth and death. It’s amazing and scary what you can discover about the past. Interment camps? That’s awful, and fortunately, I don’t know of anything like that in my family. I do have a German great-grandfather who had to change his last name. From what I understand, he had been caught up with the mob and gambling debts while he was a boxer. He disappeared and divorced a wife and three children (in the 1910s) only to resurface two years later with a new wife, name, job (beers / bars), and kids (one of which was my grandmother). I wish I knew the whole story, but the little that’s been retained is fascinating.-

Oh wow…now THAT is the stuff of story, to be sure! I bet you could create a whole wold around your great-grandfather–your own sort of literary journey into your family past. What other literary pilgrimages have you gone on?

Interesting question! Do you mean as a writer or a reader? And literally or figuratively! 🙂 Wait, who’s asking the questions here… I should be a better interviewee, huh?

Ha! Behave yourself, Sir, or I’ll force you to babysit my sons. Mwa ha ha!

Ahem. Anyway, you were saying…

James has written some terrific reviews on this series–click here to check them out!

I’ve never traveled to research a setting for a book or to visit a place I’ve read about. I have traveled a lot in the past, but when I go away, I tend not to read or write. I immerse myself in culture and relaxation. That said… a pilgrimage is like taking a risk toward something you believe strongly in. For me, that would be mysteries and cozy little towns. When I find a series and author I like, I tend to read everything all at once. I did that with the ‘Cat Who’ books by Lilian Jackson Braun; they were one of my first addictions in the sub-genre. 2019 is the year of catching up for me, so I’m saying ‘no’ to most new books and series, allowing enough time to get fully caught up on my TBR before adding to it again.

I don’t blame you for focusing on your TBR list. You have read a lot of books. Like, a TON of books. 500 reviews?! That’s AMAZING! So of course, I have to ask: Have you ever gotten reader’s block? If so, how did you overcome it?

When I was working full-time, I barely read a book every two weeks. Now, I’m able to read a few each week. In 2017, I began using Goodreads much more. I wrote a book review for everything I could remember from the past. I also wrote one as soon as I finished reading a new book. As of today, I’m at about 850, but I’m definitely forgetting hundreds from the past. I have gotten reader’s block a few times in the last 2+ years since I set my Goodreads Challenge in the 150+ books range. It often happens when I am writing my own book, then try to step away for a break. I find myself reading the book to find styles I like or ways to improve my editing, as opposed to just relaxing to enjoy a good book. In that way, writing books has ruined reading books for me. Sometimes, I also find myself just too tired to read, or in need of something vastly different so that I can escape. I won’t ever DNR (Did Not Read) a book. I try a few times, then put it aside and try again a month later. If it’s still not working, I’ll skim it and write a brief review, explaining why it didn’t work for me. If it’s a book an author specifically asked me to read, I won’t review it; I’ll share with them why I struggled and let them decide how to handle it. I don’t ever want to hurt another author if for some reason I’m just not in the right place to read that book.

That’s perfectly understandable, James. I like reading for escape from my genre, too; I love writing fantasy, but it’s so lovely to read mysteries for a little break. And indie authors do NOT have it easy out there in the virtual bookstore, so it’s wonderful that you focus on helping fellow writers rather than put them down.

All this reading and writing must mean you’re keeping a pretty sharp eye on the publishing industry. What do you consider to be the most unethical practice in the publishing industry, and what can we as writers do about it?

Excellent question! I do pay attention, but at the same time, I’ve always believed in doing what you feel is best and ignoring the status quo. For better or worse, the market is super flooded now. Anyone can write a book, which is good and bad. Reading is cheaper, given sites like NetGalley and electronic books; however, the quality of a book is much more questionable when it hasn’t gone through a rugged process to ensure it’s top notch. All I mean by that is that it’s a lot harder to choose books to read nowadays. Some indie books are WAY better than traditionally published books, and some traditionally published books have awful editing processes. For me, it really comes down to the book’s genre, summary, and themes. I don’t read reviews other people write anymore. Let me clarify that… I read reviews my friends write because I support them, but I don’t read reviews before deciding whether to read a book or not. Other people’s opinions have such a range… after reading over 1000 books, I trust my own judgment when choosing what to read. That said, I think the most unethical practice is probably paying for reviews when the book hasn’t actually been read. I’m totally in support of paying someone to read your book and write an honest review; however, if you pay sites to post bunches of positive reviews when the book wasn’t read, it’s not very honest and fair. I understand the desire to do it — you need positive reviews when you first get started, so that part makes sense. But there are better ways to accomplish it, in my opinion. My best suggestion to counter it is find friendly reviewers and ask for their help before paying for fake reviews.

Excellent advice! We have to keep in mind that readers can be very particular with their tastes; what could be a beautiful story to one could be a mangled mess to another. Plus, you know who can/will appreciate your own shift in writing tastes. Your first two novels, Watching Glass Shatter and Father Figure, are both pretty dark dramas when compared to the lighter tone of your Braxton Campus mysteries. What inspired this shift? Do you think you’ll ever shift away from cozies and into the darker realm once more?

I actually have the answer to these questions, phew! I have ZERO clue why I started with a dark family drama before a cozy mystery. I read cozies so much, how on earth did I not go with what I knew! The easy explanation is that Watching Glass Shatter stemmed from a dream I HAD to develop. It took me a year to finish the book and find a publisher. At the same time, I had been building my blog and decided to let my followers choose the scope of my second book. I published a post with 5 or 6 story ideas, then let votes decide. They picked Father Figure, another dark drama. I finished writing and publishing it in April 2018, then decided it was time to write a cozy. I’d published that I was planning to write a sequel to Watching Glass Shatter in late 2018 / early 2019, but I got sidetracked and wrote 4 books in the cozy mystery series because I saw the power of marketing behind a series, and the ideas kept flowing. At the same time, I fleshed out the plot for the Watching Glass sequel and began drafting the outline. I’m happy to report that I’ve begun writing it already. My plan is to publish the fifth cozy in the Braxton series in October 2019, as it will be a Halloween-themed mystery. Then, I will focus on the Watching Glass sequel with a mid 2020 target release. At the same time, I’m working on another mystery series, but it will not be considered cozy. I intend to write a book in all major genres if I can motivate myself even more this year!

Yowza, what a goal! But clearly, mysteries have pride of place in your heart. Was it a mystery novel that first sparked the storytelling passion inside you? If so, which story and why?

It began with Poe and Christie. I love solving puzzles, and being part of the story by playing detective is an amazing way to connect with the author. I also like secrets, at least in terms of trying to discover what someone else is keeping from me. I am not a secretive person myself, probably the opposite – I say too much! It’s definitely my go-to genre, so when I wrote my first book, it was about a family full of secrets. It wasn’t a typical mystery, e.g. in terms of “let’s solve who killed someone.” It was also an analysis of the impact of an emotional explosion on a family with real people we might know around us. My favorite mystery is Christie’s “And Then There Were None.” I recall reading and watching it in school when I was about 10 years old, then guessing the killer before (s)he was revealed. I had a inkling about the way the story was being written, and my intuition paid off… that pretty much clarified for me what type of reader I am.

To me, mysteries are a genre that do not allow for pantsing, but planning, planning, and MORE planning. Can you take us through your writing process for building strong mysteries?

I am definitely a planner. Once an idea formulates, I jot notes down on my phone, since it often happens when I’m out and about (which I dislike, since I said I was a homebody) or waking up from a dream. Once it’s strong enough to organize into a summary, I’ll prepare a 150-word overview. Then, I’ll write an larger outline. I begin with a bullet list of key plot points, then descriptions of characters. Once I know the details of the victim, I create the suspect list, including red herrings and real clues. From there, I create the 10 to 15 key scenes that will help readers solve the crime. I organize the timeline for all the events, then I break the detail into chapter by chapter summaries. Each chapter has 2 or 3 scenes. Each scene lists the characters and settings, as well as what info needs to be discovered and what open questions must arise. From there, it turns into a ~30-page outline that I read several times. This process takes about a week at most. Then I write 2 chapters per day, ignoring the desire to edit. After the first draft is written, I read it and rewrite a new outline without looking at the old one. I do this to see how much has changed, as this helps me figure out areas that are weak and strong. It’s back and forth at that point. I have a weird memory: I forget tons of things from the past, but I’ll remember every arc, red herring, or clue that need to be followed up on. It’s rare I leave anything open-ended in a first draft, but sometimes there are a few unresolved issues. I merge the two outlines, decide what new scenes need to occur and finish my second draft. At that point, editing takes over, then early alpha and beta readers help me identify when I need more suspense or stronger alibis and motives.

Thank goodness for trusted readers–and for this wonderful chat! Would you like to wrap this up with some encouragement for your fellow writers?

I was an English major in college. I’ll say right from the start, I know 90% of the grammar rules but have forgotten a few. I majored in English not because I wanted to be a walking grammar expert but because I enjoy reading and connecting with authors. I LOVE when a reader writes a review on a book and only talks about a grammar issue. I’ve had two where the reviewer only wrote “This books needed to go through more editing.” I laughed because that’s such a ‘useful’ review. I’m all for negative or constructive feedback and criticism, but what a reviewer writes is often a bigger characteristic of them as a person rather than the writer. An author takes 1000+ hours to write a book, not including all the other people that help her or him. A reader takes 30 seconds to write a review and chooses to be mean. There will always be people like that. They are the same people who bullied others. They are the same people who hide behind the Internet and couldn’t actually say it to your face. They are the same people who are probably miserable at home or like to hurt others because they can’t solve their own problems. That’s something I’d like to share with the rest of the writing community — People can be mean, but you need to ignore them when they are hurtful.

If there’s nothing valuable in their review, let it go and write your next book.

On the positive side, as I want to end the interview that way, writers have the best job in the world. They can do anything they want. They can use it for good to promote awareness or provide entertainment. They can use it to help themselves process through pain or emotions. They can use it to make an income. They can use it to express creativity and ideas inside their head that yearn to be released. Aren’t we lucky? I also love how we all support one another and promote each other’s work rather than think of it is as a competition. That’s the best kind of world to live in. So thank YOU!

And thank YOU, James, for all that you do! You’re a wonderful fellow writer and supporter in these crazy publishing waters. I’m sure your latest mystery, Mistaken Identity Crisis, is going to be awesome!

BLURB: A clever thief with a sinister calling card has invaded Braxton campus. A string of jewelry thefts continues to puzzle the sheriff given they’re remarkably similar to an unsolved eight-year-old case from shortly before Gabriel vanished one stormy night. When a missing ruby is discovered near an electrified dead body during the campus cable car redesign project, Kellan must investigate the real killer in order to protect his brother. Amidst sorority hazing practices and the victim’s connections to several prominent Wharton County citizens, a malicious motive becomes more obvious and trickier to prove. As if the latest murder isn’t enough to keep him busy, Kellan partners with April to end the Castigliano and Vargas crime family feud. What really happened to Francesca while all those postcards showed up in Braxton? The mafia world is more calculating than Kellan realized, and if he wants to move forward, he’ll have to make a few ruthless sacrifices. Election Day is over, and the new mayor takes office. Nana D celebrates her 75th birthday with an adventure. A double wedding occurs at Crilly Lake on Independence Day. And Kellan receives a few more surprises as the summer heat begins to settle in Wharton County.

You can find James on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Goodreads, and more via his websites This is My Truth Now and James J. Cudney. Click here for his Amazon Author page.

Stay tuned next week for another interview, this time traveling back to the 1940s and its war-fronts abroad and at home.

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

#Writing #Music: #AlexandreDesplat II and my #Author #Interview with @bidwellhollow

My previous music post connected with quite a few genres of storytelling: mystery, horror, and adventure. I’d like to spend a touch more time on mystery, as I’m currently writing the third novel of the Fallen Princeborn omnibus, whose plot is riddled with mysteries both solved and begun.

Finding the right atmosphere for mysteries is not always simple. Is this a murder mystery with a steady body count, death threats and chases galore? Or is this mystery more slow-burn style, a hunt for the conspiracy with little blood seen but destined to be found if the mystery isn’t solved?

I love both kinds, so of course my book’s a mix of both. While scores like Mad Max: Fury Road, Batman Begins, Bourne Supremacyand others of heavy percussion help with action-heavy moments, it’s important to find the music to counter-balance that. Mychael Danna’s Breach has some lovely tension-filled moments, but I’d like to highlight another score of beautiful, unsettling ambiance: Alexandre Desplat’s The Imitation Game.

Once again, Desplat’s use of the piano is superb. Those first few seconds of solo piano and a low running bass note immediately establish a sense of problem, of not-rightness. The repetitive run of four notes throughout the entire track also gives that feeling of mechanization, of clockwork not in our control. The strings that swell in around the 40-second mark bring a bittersweet air to them, harmonizing with the piano, but more often in a minor key than a traditional major one. Woodwinds are held off until the last minute of the track, and here, the oboe gets a chance to shine. I’m usually not a fan of the oboe (I blame one of my elementary school classmates in band who had one and NEVER learned to play it correctly. Honestly, nothing sounds worse than an awful oboe except maybe an awful violin played by me, ahem.), but when done right the oboe provides a strong yet light tragic air to a melody before it subtly fades into the quiet.

Even Desplat’s percussion is kept relatively light.

With another arpeggio, this time in a lower key, and a few percussion instruments like rhythm sticks, Desplat creates a menacing air fitting for the wartime conflict. This story is, after all, not one of the front lines and bomb raids, but the one fought out of sight, where coded words are as deadly as any missile strike. Even xylophones and chimes are put to use, but unlike Danna’s score for Breach, though here patterned melodies provide that feel of mechanization…but not the circuitry of some computer. Here it is time to follow the journeys of logic to decode nature and language.

Whether you are a reader or writer of mysteries, I heartily recommend Desplat’s The Imitation Game to create that air of hidden conflicts and pursuits for truth. Give characters the unspoken need to embrace the mystery.

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Many, many thanks to the lovely folks of Bidwell Hollow for interviewing me on their site! You can read the interview here.  I’m so excited by their coming podcast series on writers and poets. Please check them out when you have a chance!

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

#Writing #Music for the #FirstChapter in your #NewAdventure: @HansZimmer, #DavidHirschfelder, @Junkie_XL, & #StephenFlaherty

Gosh, did I score on music this winter.

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Sure, there’s some sweet Christmas music in there (Yay, more Alan Silvestri!) but also plenty of fantasy and adventure, too. It’s the sort of gathering that makes me eager to close my invites me to hide from my kids for a few minutes with headphones, a chance to close my eyes and explore the possibilities…

…but which way do I go?

It’s a crossroads moment, to be sure. Maybe I need to be like Anastasia, and wait for a sign, like a magically house-trained dog covered in Don Bluth cuteness.

Whenever I feel tired of writing, this song makes me excited to get back into it again. There’s adventure in the mind, hidden deep in trees born of words and dreams. One just needs to take that first step in to see.

Perhaps that first step transports you into the night. Something stalks you in the dark…or perhaps you are the stalker, hunting the threat before It escapes among the Innocents.

Rain begins to fall, and you fall into line, the world unsuspecting of the mystery that runs amok in night’s grit and fervor.

Or…

Perhaps that first step transports you to impossible heights. Clouds kiss your feet.

Your comrades call to you, waiting for you to join them in the descent down, down to where adventure rides sunbeams and waterfalls, tunnels through ancient tombs of fallen kings.

Or…

Perhaps that first step transports you into the heart of The Storm. Lightning flashes, and you see the grey, grassy field you’re in goes on, and on, and on in all directions but one.

Lightning flashes, and you see you are not alone.

Lightning flashes, and you see nothing.

You hear a breathing not your own.

Lightning flashes, and–

Who knows?

So many stories, so little time!

But I’ll make the time. I have to, since now I’m creating new fiction to be shared with newsletter subscribers. You can see the hub for it on the home page of my website now: “Free Exclusive Fiction from the Wilds.” When you click there, you’ll see whatever the new fiction is for the month: a Fallen Princeborn story, maybe, or something for my Shield Maidens of Idana. A character dialogue, perhaps, or maybe just a standalone story I felt like writing. Every month will bring something awesome, so awesome it’s gotta be locked up with passwords, mwa ha ha ha! The newsletter will have the password to unlock the fiction.

(And now I suddenly feel like I’m in a Zelda game, going to such’n’such place for the yadda yadda key to unlock the neato treasure. Ah well, you get me.)

In the meantime, I’m still working on the novels for my Fallen Princeborn Omnibus. Still teaching and family-ing. But Bo’s got me mixed up in a challenge that, by default, I’m going to inflict on you.

The Whole30 Diet.

In the briefest of terms, Whole30 says eat meat and produce, nothing else: no dairy, no grains. Coffee and tea are okay so long as you’re not adding stuff to them. You do this for 30 days to “reset your gut,” as it were, training it to burn fat instead of sugar for energy.

Bo really wants to tackle his weight this year, and I want to support him by doing it, too. I think we all learned last year that I’m not the best at adhering to diets, so I’m hoping that by holding myself accountable here, I can stay on task and therefore help Bo stay on task.

This means I’m going to try blogging for 30 days straight.

Not, you know, extensive pontificating for 30 days. Just honest reflection on how it’s going. Maybe something cool I’ve read, or some awesome quotes to get you thinking as you write or read. Some interviews of amazing Indie writers, some more music to inspire, and hopefully a “lessons learned” post about series writing that touches on a legit gripe many readers have about storytelling today.

And since I’m try to trim m’self down with Bo, then let’s just top this off with a sale on my novel, Fallen Princeborn: Stolen. For the entire month of February, Stolen will be 99 cents.

So, bring on the February! Bring on the cold, the coffee, and the dreams of stories not yet finished, not yet begun!

Something tells me it’s going to be a crazy-beautiful adventure. 🙂

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

Lessons Learned from Agatha Christie: Even a B Novel Should Have an A Title.

Some weeks ago I shared my conundrum over Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Links and how the title fixated on the least important element of the mystery. While I don’t want to drag you over that ground yet again, I did want to point out that even so-so stories can have cunning titles.

514b777c3e455ce895e946b3f0573ba7--dead-man-productsI’ve read Christe’s F game (see Poirot’s Christmas). I’ve read Christie’s A game (see ABC Murders). My latest acquisition, Dead Man’s Follywould be, I’d say, her B game. There are a few obvious clues, as well as one dumb bit of New Information At The End that of course explains the motive. Yet there are also some surprises that, looking back, you realize were there all along, beginning before the killer gets a’killin’.

Poirot’s foil in the post-Captain Hastings years is a mystery writer named Ariadne Oliver. This time she’s invited Poirot to a manor where she’s created a “Murder Hunt”–a hunt for clues to solve a fake murder for prizes.

Now it sounds like this is where the title comes from, doesn’t it? A fake murder + a game= Dead Man’s Folly. Simple enough approach, but functional.

Oliver senses something sinister is brewing around her, but can’t figure out what it could be and wants Poirot to help. They meet on the grounds and she describes the manor’s residents, which leads us to our first mention of the architect and his job on the estate:

“Then there’s Michael Weyman–he’s an architect, quite young, and good-looking in a craggy kind of artistic way. He’s designing a tennis pavilion for Sir George and repairing the Folly.”

“Folly? What is that–a masquerade?”

“No, it’s architectural. One of those little sort of temple things, white, with columns.” (23)

Like Poirot, I had to pause here. I’d never heard of a Folly before, but then I live in Wisconsin, where any used gazebo’s got thick-as-you-can-get bug screens, or else.

Further on it sounds like this Folly’s called a Folly for another reason:

“It’s bedded down in concrete,” said Weyman. “And there’s loose soil underneath–so it’s subsided. Cracked all up here–it will be dangerous soon–Better pull the whole thing down and re-erect it on the top of the bank near the house. That’s my advice, but the obstinate old fool won’t hear of it…If the foundations are rotten–everything’s rotten.” (27-8)

So we have a rich man, apparently a fool, who’s insisted on erecting this lovely bit of architecture in the worst possible place for no apparent reason. The stereotype works beautifully in Christie’s favor, as the lord of the manor seems frivolous in wife, jewelry for aforementioned wife, and more. This Folly is just one more way he spends without thinking.

Or is it?

Foolish talk from a child about a body found and hidden in the woods. Snide remarks from an old man about the manor’s bloodline. A mysterious yachtman from a foreign country arrives to see the lady of the manor. Suddenly the lady is missing, the child strangled to death in the very spot where a fake corpse was to be found for the Murder Hunt. Days later the old man has drowned in an “accident.” All of it swirls and overlaps until Poirot connects the talk to the actions, to the behaviors, to the past…which, sadly, is where the New Information at the End kicks in. Despite this, Poirot’s last reveal to a suspect connects all with such deftness that even I’m willing to forgive that Late Clue Drop:

“Listen, Madame. What do you hear?”

“I am a little deaf…What should I hear?”

“The blows of a pickaxe….They are breaking up the concrete foundation of the Folly…What a good place to bury a body–where a tree has been uprooted and the earth already disturbed. A little later, to make all safe, concrete over the ground where the body lies, and, on the concrete, erect a Folly…” (223)

What was originally presented as a bit of foolishness by the New Rich Guy turns out to be the clever cover by the Old Family Bloodline. The old man’s snide remark is true about the family, the tale the child told is true about the body, and the strange foreigner who insists on seeing the lady of the manor would have exposed an evil the lord and lady were hiding. All was rotten from the start, even pointed out to us as such in that opening chapter, but only now upon the last page do we understand just how rotten the manor–and its family–had become.

Was Dead Man’s Folly a thrilling read? No. In fact, I’d put it on par with Murder on the Links (har har). But whereas I kept reading Links expecting a deeper connection to golf, I was pleasantly surprised by the many-fold meaning of the Folly. In the end, the title helped the book become a more satisfying read because it foretold and still surprised, just as a strong title should for a story of any grade.

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.

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 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.

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Coraline, 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.

 

Writer’s Music: John Carpenter

a2192220213_10Let’s try something different.

Let’s try music we never tried before.

Music that has no roots in a film, though its creator does.

John Carpenter has been on my mind these past few days. I’ve been brainstorming up a bit of short fiction I wanted to share here to analyze the relationship between my immediate settings and the stories I create. While I have a sense of what I want to do, the rhythm’s still missing. The piece can’t afford to build too quickly; it’ll need a slow build to grip the readers. I need the readers to see the menace, know it’s coming, shake their fists at the protagonist as they cry, He’s right behind you!”

Aha! Just like Carpenter’s HalloweenThere’s a movie without flash or whimsy: everything’s done on a shoe-string budget while everyone gives their 200%. This is the movie that made Jamie Lee Curtis the Scream Queen, after all. And Carpenter’s score is legendary, as is his method. (“I’m the cheapest, and I know I’ll get it done on time,” He said. Sort of. Look, ask Bo, he’s read all about him.) Carpenter uses his synthesizer to score nearly all his movies. Sure, his melodies are simple, but they cement themselves into the audience’s memory, and fast. The theme for Halloween is nothing short of iconic, right up there with Superman and Batman.

But like John Williams, this can mean that the music lets a writer think of nothing else but Michael Myers walking down a shadowed street.

Enter the Lost Themes.

In the last few years Carpenter has produced two new albums of instrumental music totally unconnected to his films. They still keep his minimal style of percussion, synthesizer, and occasional piano. The result? Desired aural atmosphere without the Pavlovian reaction. Every track smacks of 80s: arcade tournaments and puffy vests, rolled-up denim and disco fries. Occasionally Kurt Russell in an eye patch appears in one’s imagination, but he’s too smart to interrupt the story at hand.

So, over the next week I’m going to see how far these albums can take a character I created years ago. He’s been kicking the table for his own story, but I was never sure what to do for a novel. Well, problem solved now.

We got work to do, Dorjan.

Let’s go.

Writer’s Music: Jim Parker

Music tells such marvelous stories. Sometimes, though, music written so perfectly for one story never fits anywhere else. Many of John Williams‘ themes, for instance, are cemented in their iconic-ness: Superman, Jaws, Indiana Jones, Star Wars–even Harry Potter. The themes for those characters fit. Period. For a sample of Williams’ work, this is a decent mix:

But then there’s the occasional surprise: an iconic sound that still produces a fresh image far removed from the music’s original universe.

Take Jim Parker‘s theme for Midsomer Murders. The original novels were written by an amazing old granny named Caroline Graham. Never have I seen point of view shifts performed so smoothly and so often than in her work–a “Lessons Learned” post is coming, I promise you. For now, though, let’s listen.

The discovery was something like an apple to the noggin. I had experienced a very, very weird dream brimming with potential for a kid’s adventure story, but I wasn’t capturing the bizarreness of the world: the details felt, well, lame, like a flannel-graph presentation for teenagers. I was desperately flipping through Hans Zimmer, The Beatles, The Who, and even Joel McNeely to get me into…well more like “out of.” I needed to feel the fall out of the humdrum and into the crazy. But without the right music, I just couldn’t get over the edge.

Now this is back when Biff and Bash were still wee and nursing. I often had a show locked’n’loaded in the player for late-night feedings. Weary of our home’s offerings, I had picked up Midsomer Murders from the library earlier that day. 2am: Biff and Bash are hungry. I situate the pillows, crook the boys to the boobs. On comes the title sequence and that clarinet like water in a shopping mall’s fountain: a quiet fluttering one only notices on the corner of perception. Then come the theremin and the strings. They float about like the bedsheet ghosts one hangs from trees on Halloween: eerie, a touch off, but not nightmare fuel. The sort of music for spooking kids, filling a night with as many giggles as shrieks…

YES! I could picture it all now: the kid stuck in the middle of nowhere who meets another bored kid who isn’t a proper kid at all, the trip down below to the goblin king and his mastery of giants–Brilliant, must write! But the boys are still nursing. Suckle faster, dammit!

It’s amazing what sights and sounds can spark up our imaginations, especially when we’re worn out by all that life requires of the grown-up. Let Jim Parker give you a break from adulthood and run loose as a kid, full of mischief for the humdrum village outside.