Lesson Learned from 2017’s #TheMummy: Don’t Put the Dark Universe Before the Story.

22552559_10159496649920346_2837675341111443380_nThis week I recruited a certain special someone to help cover this particular post. Bo’s been a fan of the Universal Monster films since childhood, so when Universal announced a “Dark Universe” series of monster films, we…weren’t that thrilled.

We first discuss what kind of character would have been a far more fitting choice for introducing an audience to this “new” universe.

Next, we go into the film/book industry’s obsession with investing in a story series instead of standalone stories. It gets us going on a comparison between the beginnings of the 2017 film vs. the 1932 version with Boris Karloff.

I then jump to the ending, and Bo patiently works me through my agony of an Egyptian god being defeated solely by Tom Cruise being Tom Cruise. “The Power of Cruise Compels You!”

So, as writers, what can we learn from this film? Bo reflects on this cautionary tale of a cinematic debacle.

Aaaand my recorder gave out. 🙂 Bo and I manage a little sum-up before it dies again.

Do not make the same errors in your story-world as these Dark Universe creators: don’t let the Power of Cruise compel you to think of the universe’s marketability instead of simply telling a good story.

Thank you all for listening this Halloween weekend. Think I should have Bo come back again?

 

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Writer’s Music: Bruno Coulais

51DgTPES9yL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_I recently finished Katy Towell’s Charlie and the Grandmothers, a spooky story about a boy and his sister sent to visit a grandmother they never knew they had. It’s a tale of children forced to become heroes in the face of losing family to an evil no grown-up ever seems to notice.

Not exactly an original plot line, but for the record, it was the perfect touch of creepy while driving to visit Bo’s grandmother.

 

The story actually put me in the mood for the soundtrack to Coralinea lusciously eerie stop-motion animated film based on Neil Gaiman’s award-winning book. Scored by French composer Bruno Coulais, the music embodies innocence, adventure, malice, terror–all of which comes together to create what I’d like to call “dangerous whimsy.”

The opening music is brilliant for this. I could certainly say the visuals add to the eerie factor, but let’s just focus on the music for now.

Strings play a major role throughout Coulais’ score. They are often light, be it the pluck of the harp strings are the airy-melodies of the violins. There’s an assured delicacy to their movements, like spiders upon their webs. Brass is rarely applied.  Children sing harmonies in major and minor keys using French gibberish, which has got to be one of the most gibbery gibberishes there can be.

Two particular stars shine more in this music than anything else, I think: the harp, and…and that sound…darnit, I wish I knew what it is! It’s like the sound of one’s wet finger moving round and round a glass’ rim: a note, but not quite.

The harp follow Coraline as she explores her new home, moving as her child feet through all the boring rooms of the house and eventually discovering the little door behind the wallpaper.

Coulais made a brilliant choice in keeping the harp and singer separate from the rest of the orchestra: the audience is seeing just how alone Coraline is as she struggles to find what could make this new home worthwhile. There’s also the loving touch of whimsy here as she explores the house, what with the harp’s off-beat touches and major-key melody.

But then we are taken through the door, and we meet the Other-Mother.

Here Coulais uses chimes, piano, and of course, those children singers. This time, though, their key is minor, turning all the harmonies into something…off-putting. That sound of the fingertip on glass hums ever in the background, making the music itself feel just slightly unreal. A xylophone and finger-cymbals keep the feel of the music light and playful, but all the harmonies are now in a minor key. The playfulness is gone, replaced with a sense of wonder, but wonder that one wants to step away from instead of toward.

Such is the joy of dangerous whimsy. Of course whimsy is a bit of the fantastic, a bit of fun. A bit of youth, and a bit of innocence. Dangerous whimsy is the whimsy that hunts the youth and innocence, luring with the fantastic and the fun to…well. The Pied Piper of Hamlin lured children into a mountain. Grandmothers lured Charlie into imagination mines. The Other Mother lured Coraline into her web of wonders to take her eyes. And because this is all whimsy, adults are either blind to it or duped into compliance with it.

Our stories’ heroes deserve a world of wonders in which to both thrive as well as struggle. Whether your hero’s 38, 18, or 8, the villain–or even the setting–must engage the hero. Distract the hero, entice the hero, scare the pants off the hero. Whatever you do, the hero can’t know for sure what’s going on until she’s in too deep to stop. Give your hero a show of whimsical wonders, and she’ll never know the malice that creeps beneath.

Can’t open the music files? Special thanks to @ZoolonHub for finding a link to the soundtrack that will open outside the US.

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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.

She’s a pantser. He’s a planner. Can This Creative Duo Really Get Along?

Creation. It’s a process both universal and unique. We all create with words, or cameras, or music. That’s universal. But how we go about it is unique to each and every one of us.

I speak often here about the inspiration found in music and photography. I know my storytelling would be lost without it, while some of you dear friends have mentioned the need for silence while writing to be free of distractions. Reasonable, I suppose.

But one thing I’ve never been good with is a plan. Oh, I’ve had them. I’ve made them for National Novel Writing Month projects so I can barrel through the major scenes and reach that precious 50,000 word goal. I’ve used them in the revision process so I can figure out where the plot went wonky.

When I’m writing an untimed rough draft, though, I loathe them.

So of course, I’m now working with one of the planniest planners out there, Michael Dellert.

mike5aMichael created his Matter of Manred universe several years ago, but more recently brought it to the page with his books Hedge King in Winter, Merchant’s Tale, The Romance of Eowainand The Wedding of EithneMichael knows his characters inside and out. He knows the land and all its settlements. He knows the population of each settlement and how much they earn. Hell, he even knows the weather on any given day.

Me? I don’t know the weather until I need the weather to do something. I don’t know my characters until they speak up. I don’t have a clue what’s going to happen over the next hillside until they get there.

And somehow, these two different creative methods are going to make a cohesive story?

I admit, when Michael first approached me about co-writing a short story, I couldn’t help but think of a story told on Milwaukee radio years ago about “tandem writing”…

“It’ll be fun,” Michael promised.

Uh huh…

“Eowain and the Boar” will tell of King Eowain’s mysterious hunt into enemy territory accompanied by his men and my Shield Maiden Gwenwledyr. He sent me a character list, a plot outline. Information about hunting and horses. I stared at it all, rubbing my temples. When I wrote Middler’s Pride, I just went where Gwen took me. I didn’t think she’d actually make friends. I hoped she’d have a change of heart, and she did…sort of.

While I enjoy writing with Gwen’s mischievous and superior attitude towards everyone, I still get antsy working with characters whom I didn’t, well, raise. It’s rather like having a bunch of kids over for a birthday party: you want them all to get along and play the games nicely together, but you really don’t know those kids. You don’t know if they’re just going to shove each other down instead of race, or wreck one another’s airplanes before the flying contest starts, etc.

So I just did what I always do: I let Gwen blab.

54ac121481fa5e11e12f29c32bcfa83bYou again. I begin to think you loiter about awaiting entertainment that pleases you. Well, let the records show I am no bard, fool, or minstrel. Indeed, Master Peculiar Wayfarer from—ye gods, wherever people find your attire acceptable—I am a legend in these parts. I’ve slain magick-wielders, dueled soldiers, battled cursed warriors, wreaked vengeance—

Alone? Er, no, not entirely. I had a few of my fellow Shield Maidens along with me. They helped a bit.

But that’s not why you’re here. You’re like her ladyship—you want answers about that hunt, don’t you? Can’t say I blame you. It was a curious affair, to say the least, what with the king and his—

Hmm.

You’re not from their side, are you? I have seen a few of them with that sort of, I’ll say, look of the hair. No?

Amazing how quickly Gwen’s voice takes over. If I let her speak, a story started to spill out. Maybe this could work after all!

But I don’t know the King. Or the other characters. Or where we’re even going.

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Well, neither does Gwen. So for now I think I’ll let Gwen show me which characters she gives a toss about, and which she doesn’t even bother learning names. Somewhere in her incessant epic-weaving will be the pieces Michael needs to stitch up with his own narrator, the young acolyte Adarc. Somehow, two people who have never met in person will take two narrators who’ve never met in their universe tell a story. The story must be clear. It must ring true. It must be an experience felt in the senses and beneath.

Just like any other story.

But as the joy of storytelling is known to all, the joys felt by story-teller and story-listener are unique. And here we fade to a cold winter’s night, where a queen sits, heavy with child and fearful for her husband and king, waiting to learn the truth from two young adventurers…

 “You just make yourself comfortable, your ladyship, while Master-Know-It-All Adarc finds a midwife or three to catch your child…because—well, let’s face it, your ladyship: this isn’t the happiest of stories.”

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Want to hear Michael’s side of things? Click here.

And be sure to check out Go Indie Now on October 4th for a little chat Michael and I have about collaboration.

 

 

Writer’s Music: Emmylou Harris

Rage.f2abca9241eb60fdc6dca8b43b8a7c9c--irish-art-irish-mythology

Burning. Vicious.

Fearful.

Righteous. Determined.

Painful.

There are those songs that evoke a moment with such clarity that the world cowers behind a fog of silver. The universe narrows itself until all is void but for this bare ground and air, where beasts and heroes entwine. Such is “Fire in the Blood”–when done right.

I have used music from the score Lawless before, which also contains music from an artist I’ve used before, Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. But “Fire in the Blood” is different. Not only is it used three different times on the score, but it’s sung by two different artists with a different twist on it every time. Ralph Stanley’s weathered voice brings a nostalgic atmosphere with the lyrics. Nostalgia is not what I need.

Emmylou Harris’ first version is sweet and mild. The strings move fluidly as the river, indefinite as to melody or climax. Harris’ voice moves as footsteps across a river’s stones, guiding one to the meadow where fingers run through blades of grass and rake fresh earth.

But I do not want sweet or kind. I need a heart beaten and crippled and thrown into the corner. I want that cornered creature to look up wide-eyed in anger and panic, knowing the only way out is through the beast.

Here, the strings have soured in dissonance. Bows scrape indefinite sounds intended to be music. Harris’ own voice has gone widdershins against the wind, all harmony lost, its beauty not gone, but no longer what it was.

In this brief minute, I saw one of the turning points for my heroine Wynne: the moment her true love is captured by the wealthy, mysterious Prydwen, and crippled before her eyes.

Jean LeeSnarls rumbled in the low branches. Swift, eager sniffs and snaps of jaws. “Y-you c-c-c—“ I needed to speak, but fear found new footing inside me and crushed my heart. I struggled against the hold of that guard, but he was so bloody strong I could not break free. Oh for a weapon that day! “You can’t!”

A row of five muzzles broke through the foliage. I saw their lips quiver against yellowed, pointed teeth. Prydwen’s hand remained up. “Can’t I?” He snapped his fingers.

Vicious biting, howling, Morthwyl’s screams it was all so red, death could only be a blessing, Annwn take us both! But they would not attack me no matter how I screamed for them to find my throat. They only fought over Morthwyl’s leg for moment, after moment, after moment, when flesh and bone turned to mangled playthings among the hounds.

Prydwen snapped again, and the hounds dropped Morthwyl and ran into the night.

Blood rained from Morthwyl’s lips as he spoke, “No one will believe your story, I’ll tell the—“ Prydwen’s hand clamped Morthwyl’s mouth shut, and that smooth face stretched into…into I know not. Something unreal, un-right. “You will tell no one. Your very body will keep my secret for me. Such is the magick I know. I can guide your hand to drive a dagger through your chest if I so choose, but this gentle,” he shook Morthwyl’s mangled limb, “reminder should be adequate for my bride to understand her proper place.”

Morthwyl was breathing through his teeth, growling like the animal I knew Prydwen to be. How dare, how dare he do such a thing, but I…I felt so, so powerless… “Leave him, please, just leave him alone,” I was begging, and did not care, and crying, and did not care. He had broken and bewitched my love’s body. What hope could I hold for escape, for a future?

Prydwen arose. He brushed mud and scraps of Morthwyl’s leg off his cloak. He ran those ringed fingers through his hair, and at once he became the elegant tradesman of mystery my sisters swooned over. “Leave him alone, after my own hounds did such a thing? Not at all, my Lady. No, I will ensure his family is handsomely compensated for my beasts’ mistake, and that the boy wants for nothing. I will have a guard visit his home every day to check upon his health, his needs. He will be under my ever-watchful care day after day, year after year.” He stared hard at his own palms, then sighed deeply. “There is simply no other recourse. I care not for this, but even now, I see it in your face. You would betray me, even with such a gift lain at your feet.”

“A gi–!” I could not finish. His palm smelled of Morthwyl’s sweat and tears. To taste Morthwyl like this, and fear it the last!

“Your lips cannot speak of what has happened. You can only say you found the smithy’s son on your way to visit me, your betrothed. You cried out, and because of you, this boy will not die. Is that not so?”

His eyes burned as the slaver’s brand. He was burning me, burning my soul and heart for his own, his hate and want so powerful, too powerful for my love, too young love, I had to let Morthwyl go to save him—

—and yet something stirred in those ashes Morthwyl’s magick left in my mouth. Something new in me that I had not yet known found my heart, called it out of hiding for a different hope:

The hope of vengeance.

Find your hero’s song of vengeance. They will need that fire in their blood to conquer all you’ve placed in their path.

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?

 

 

 

 

 

 

Writer’s Music: Susanne Sundfør

Of all the “Writer’s Music” entries I’ve placed here so far, only one (sans my Christmas posts) has been a song with lyrics. This is the second.

Unlike most of my music shared, however, this isn’t a song that helped me into a character’s head, or visualize a scene.

The_Silicone_Veil_Album_ArtMusic engages more than just the ears. It brings colors to shape. It beckons scents from the breeze ever blowing just above our hair. And sometimes, it drops a piece of itself, a thing of some sort, into our hands.

Just so with Susanne Sundfør’s “Silicone Veil.”

I had never heard of the artist before my dear school friend Anne Clare, now online with her own writing as The Naptime Author, sent me a mix of songs that have helped inspire her own writing. A fabulous present—I had only heard of one group on the entire album.

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Anne Clare drew this cover, too! She’s awesome. 🙂

Normally I’m skeptical about newish fandangled lyrical music, I say as I harumph and thump my fist like my grandfather in the midst of a cribbage match. Oftentimes it all seems too weepy, repetitive, lacking any actual vocals and/or instruments, or as Grandpa would say, “Too loud!” (This from the man who was pretty much deaf already.)

Thanks to Anne and her own Writer’s Music, I experienced an epiphany for Wynne. When? Not sure, but it was a cold spring night, driving, listening, and knowing: That’s it.

Wynne of Beauty’s Price wasn’t much more than a brainstorm at that point. I was still finishing up Middler’s Pride, but I knew I had to have at least a few allusions to BP in order to establish a connection. I knew Wynne had a love, and another suitor, someone dangerous and powerful, who wouldn’t leave her alone. Wynne needed a tangible symbol of true love, something to reflect the fragility, steadfastness, and hope. Jewelry? Eh, that’s too easily noticed by nosy family members. Clothing, too. And tattoos weren’t exactly acceptable for her class in medieval-ish times. A mark on a tree somewhere? Pfft. Can’t carry that along. Dried flowers, or a lock of hair? Easily hidden, but just as easily crushed, too, or lost.

Then this song came on…

…and its lyrics gave me the answer:

Beauty is poisonous
Disruptive
Oh heaven must be an iron rose
Unfolding

Lyrics found at
http://lyrics.wikia.com/wiki/Susanne_Sundf%C3%B8r:The_Silicone_Veil

YES. There. The boy she loves is the smithy’s son of another village; of course he’d make her a token, something she could hold, caress, carry with her whenever she’s away from him.

Jean Lee“Oh…” Mother spoke of [orpines] often, promising many potential suitors we would plant them in our garden to divine which of my sisters they would marry. The three times she actually did instruct Father to purchase orpine for planting, however, one set grew straight as corn, one grew sick, and one simply died. Not one flower grew to touch another, and therefore promise marriage. Now I sat with one resting upon my arm. Morthwyl released his, and it leaned forward to grace the petals’ tips in the most chaste of kisses.

Then Morthwyl’s own hands unfolded as a flower, revealing two orpines of iron. They were but the length of our thumbs, woven wound one another, leaves embracing, heads touching intimately.

As much as I depend on music’s inspiration for my writing, Anne and Sundfør reminded me that music’s not just about vision or atmosphere. Sometimes it’s about the sign we pass on the journey that tells of the next turn, that reminds us where we are between A and B. It’s not like we pick that sign up and carry it around with us. It remains where it is, and we walk on. Sundfør’s song revealed a vital element to me; now I can listen to the song for enjoyment while continuing on with other music to enter my story’s world.

Think carefully on the lyrics of your beloved songs. What poetry hides within them? Let their language bring light to what remains in story’s shadow.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah.”

“So what’s the problem?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Constipated

5bf3e97af6decac557b6b499cc6e30a4Our family lives in the toilet.

“That’s not Lightning McQueen. That’s Lightning McPoopie!”

“Can Mater swim in pee-pee water?”

“What happens when someone eats poop?”

“I don’t want toasted cheese, I want toasted poop!”

Ever since Bo and I went on the offense in the Potty Wars, everything’s become poop and pee-pee water. It’s the subject of every car ride: “Do you need to use the potty before we go? Did you make pee-pee water and poop, or just pee-pee water?”

It’s the subject of most text messages between me and Bo: “Did either boy poop yet today?” “How does something this big come out of a butt that small?” (Yes, he includes photos.)

It comes up every breakfast and bedtime routine: “Did you use the big toilet or the little potty?” “DON’T RUN WITH THE POTTY FULL OF PEE-PEE WATER!”

It’s a source of bragging rights for Blondie: “I don’t need the little seat any more, Mom!” “I made two sausage poops after supper!”

It’s a source of pride for Bash: “I used the potty at school today, Mommy!” “I made five big poops! Can I have a new train?” (Trains make for great bribes. Bash has his own steam and diesel fleet…squadron…collective? Murder of trains, I don’t know what their group’s called.)

And then, there’s Biff.

I don’t know whether to admire his will-power or have him checked for an extra colon. He wears underwear without (much) of a fight. Yay! He’ll pee in the potty without a problem. Yay yay! But no poop.

I let him have as many peanut butter and jelly sandwhiches as he wanted. Raisins galore. Pouches of prunes and broccoli and any other fiber-rich produce I can think of (yes, pouches. Eating fresh produce is a whooooooooole ‘nother war I’m not ready to fight yet.) Nothing after two days. Three days. Four days. Five days. And he still goes on stealing food from his brother whenever possible. Where in Hades does he keep it all in that little body?

Patoots aren’t the only places that get backed up. I’ve been feeling it in my head, too. And all the poop talk doesn’t exactly lend itself to inspiring imagination, especially when I’m struggling with one. Bloody. Line.

middlers-pride-7The ending for Middler’s Pride needs another scene so Gwen could stand before her trainer, father, and king’s brother to find out whether or not she passed boot camp. Considering how long Gwen had waited to have her father’s undivided attention, I couldn’t just gloss over this moment.

Chapter 54

The world lost its clarity in all those campfires. Only the stars above had a sharpness to them. Some of those stars told stories, too, of battles and heroes. Some told the way East, North, West. South. South and East lay the Khaibe.

Gwen felt her feet move—they were moving east, to the campfire, rank, and family—and wondered: How many steps east and south would it take to reach the Khaibe?

But first stop:

“And this will be Gwenwledyr, daughter of Lord Aillil,” Captain Vala’s voice sounded bile-free for the first time in weeks. Well, bully for her. She still had the look of someone who’d been kicked by a horse, especially when Cinaedh spoke.

“Would you look, lovey!”

“Don’t. Call me. Lovey.” Terrwyn’s glare almost, almost, brought a laugh out of Gwen. But this was serious business, despite Cinaedh.

“Oh pish, look at our girl, she’s lost it at last!”

Lord Lorcan smoothed away a drawing between he and Terrwyn, something that looked like a large hand. “Gwenwledyr, daughter of Lord Aillil, I’ve been told you of all the recruits followed all orders to the letter.”

“I did my best, Sir.”

“That you bested all with spear, sword, axe, and dagger.”

“Mostly, Sir.”

“That you carried an ox’s burden upon your shoulders.”

“I did? Oh, yeah, I did, Sir.”

“That you discovered a lethal creature of magick in the forest and took measures to destroy it.”

“Not alone, but yes, Sir.”

A pause. Saffir glowed through her own fatigue, hand firmly upon Lord Aillil’s. In that moment, he still looked upon Gwen with such…warmth, kindness, but more than that. He was looking at her as one of his own.

But…

“Well, Captain Vala, if you’re in agreement—“

Those rat-heart eyes beat slowly, be it due to drink or recovery. “I am.”

“Then Gwenlwedyr—“

“My lord, can I say something?” Lord Aillil’s brow furrowed. Uh oh. But it wasn’t right, and Gwen so badly wanted it to be right. “Perhaps Captain Vala and Chief Murchadh haven’t said, but I want it known that I was, well…” Is there even a formal way to say it?

Lord Lorcan stroked his braids with his three-fingered hand. “Yes?”

Hold your hands tight behind your back. Stand straight. Believe in truth. Your truth. “I was a git when I first came here. I was pompous and nasty and rude to all no matter what their rank.” Chief Murchadh allowed a laugh to rumble through him, stirring his granddaughter to sleepily ask if a storm was coming. “It took, well, it took giant rats and those girls over there who are far, far better souls than me and divine intervention to make me see that. Gods know what I’d be like without them. Dead by poisonous snake, for a start.” Terrywn set her pipe upon her knee. Her eyes never left Gwen’s face. “I won’t have my entry into the Shield Maidens based on pretty tales, Sir.”

Another pause, and it was a big one. Well, mostly big. Cinaedh’s earrings jingled as he looked at Lord Lorcan, Captain Vala (who blushed), Terrwyn, everyone. His eyes sparkled like silver. “See? I told you she lost it!”

“Lost what?” asked Lord Lorcan.

Terrwyn tapped her pipe against her iron leg with a thin clang clang. “The chip on her shoulder. Can’t imagine where she got it from.” She slowly looked at Lord Aillil and stuck that pipe firmly between her teeth for a fresh puff.

Lord Aillil looked down. The warmth, it was fading! Wait, no, not fading. Just a bit swamped by something Gwen had never seen on him before, but it was something she was starting to know pretty well: shame.

“Ah.” Lord Lorcan leaned forward and looked upon Gwen with kind eyes. “I do take these things into consideration, recruit. I met you as you were, and I see what you have become. And you, Gwenwledyr, are as true a Shield Maiden as Captain Terrwyn. You do your kith and kin proud.”

Saffir’s grin had a magick all its own—pity it didn’t run in the family. But no matter Nutty and Muirgurgle, this was her moment. Gwenwledyr’s moment.

Saffir nudged Lord Aillil, and his gaze lifted up to Gwen. Eyes bright, sadness gone, Father said: “Yes. She does.”

In that moment’s passing comes the end of Gwen’s story. Anything after is drawing things out. I mean, she does need to get back to her fellow recruits to sit and soak up what she was told. But I can’t afford to let her–well, me–ramble on. So that final scene needs to be lickety-split quick, a sense of completion for Gwen, but not the other Shield Maidens.

Hmmm. Well, I’ve always loved the way Diana Wynne Jones gave her stories a sense of character completion but not world-completion, soooooooo:

To the Diana Wynne Jones Shelf!

I find four stories that stand alone just fine, but also have sequels and pseudo-sequels: Cart and Cwidder is the first of the Dalemark Quartet; Charmed Life begins the Chrestomanci series; Howl’s Moving Castle has two other stories set in the same universe; the multiverse magic-enforcing Magids are introduced in Deep Secret and come back in at least one other story.

-les-mondes-de-chrestomanci,-tome-1---ma-soeur-est-une-sorciere-2928412Charmed Life: Young protagonist Cat Chant has just finished helped Chrestomanci defeat Cat’s wicked elder sister Gwendolen. The boy’s a wreck: he just found out the last blood relative he had had been keen to kill him and steal his magic. He’s left with Chrestomanci, Chrestomanci’s family, and a girl named Janet, stuck in Cat’s world thanks to Gwendolen’s spell.

Janet looked at Cat and laughed. And Cat, though he was still a little lonely and tearful, managed to laugh, too.

Cat’s had it lousy from infancy on. The book begins with him clinging to his sister, whom we later learn not only killed their parents, but has killed Cat himself several times. The reason he’s even called Cat is because Gwendolen said he has nine lives, which, in this magical multiverse, means Cat’s destined to be a sorcerer like Chrestomanci. This little kid’s got to accept that all he knew was not as it was. By his final response, we know he’s having a hard time with that, but we also know he already has a stronger, better “sister” in his life, who is able to act positively with him and bring out the better things in him. Life will be okay.

71sst0-sdELHowl’s Moving Castle: With the Witch of the Waste and her nasty fire demon defeated, Sophie frees Calcifer and Howl from their curse. Calcifer takes off, and Howl proposes to Sophie. He promises lots of hair-raising adventure–only to be interrupted by Calcifer’s return, back in the fireplace where he always burned, ready to help the magic of the castle.

“You didn’t need to do that,” Howl said.

“I don’t mind, as long as I can come and go,” Calcifer said. “Besides, it’s raining out there in Market Chipping.”

I love the sense of home this instills. All Calcifer has wanted is to be free to leave the castle’s hearth, and with the curse broken, he can finally do so. Readers already know Sophie and Howl are happy and geared for a crazy life together; now we know Calcifer has found where he belongs, too.

Deep Secret: Most of this book works with two points of view: Magid Rupert and p51ZHL-Yn+0L._SX328_BO1,204,203,200_otential-Magid Maree. The last chapter, however, is from Maree’s cousin Nick. Why? Well, only Nick could really explain how Maree’s life was recovered from the Deep Secret of Babylon, and the Magid leaders of The Upper Room wanted that information. The book ends with Nick’s determination to cheat The Upper Room and remember all that had happened despite the erasure of his memory.

Blow that about deep secrets! Rupert and Maree say that the basic job of a Magid is to gradually release the special knowledge anyway. And besides, I want to remember. It strikes me as one of the best ways of forcing that Upper Room to make me a Magid too. That was what I’d been going to ask for, until I had to ask for Maree instead. Now I’ll have to get to be one another way round.

This particular last line feels far more open to a sequel than the other books, even though Jones hadn’t been planning a sequel. It took a particular request from a child during signing–“I don’t think Nick’s story is done yet!” that got her started on the pseudo-sequel The Merlin Conspiracy. 

51UbR9v-AwL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Cart and Cwidder: This one’s a bit peculiar. Moril has used the magic cwidder’s song to close a mountain pass. The nasty threat of South Dalemark has been stopped, young Moril’s siblings are safe, and now he’s ready to abandon them and go on more adventures with another singer named Hestafan.

“Please,” Moril said to him, “will you take me with you when you go?”

“Well,” Hestafan said dubiously, “I was thinking of slipping off now, when nobody’s noticing.”

“I know you were,” said Moril. “Take me, too. Please.”

Hestafan looked at him, a vague, dreamy look, which Moril was positive saw twice as much as most people’s. “You’re Clennen’s other son, aren’t you?” he said. “What’s your name?”

“Tanamoril,” said Moril. “I’m called Osfameron, too,” he added, as an inducement.

Hestafan smiled. “Very well then,” he said. “Come along.”

Aaaaand then we hear nothing of these people until the fourth book.

Of the four, this one has the feel of a story that would be picked up immediately in the next volume, but that’s not the case. Jones doesn’t do that anywhere, actually. Oh, she’ll jump back and forth in time–Crown of Dalemark, the fourth book, does exactly that–but there’s never an immediate linear continuance. She merely leaves it open.

Endings are not easy. I find them the hardest part. You don’t know whether to stop with everyone just at the end of the adventure, and not knowing what really happened to Aunt May or Uncle Joe, or to make sure that the right people are going to be happy and the wrong people not, or even whether to go on and tell what happens in the next twenty years….

My feeling is that the best stories leave the reader trying to imagine what happened after the story stopped.

– Diana Wynne Jones, “Some Hints on Writing”

So, what do do?

Well, I want more than linear continuance. Beauty’s Price works with Wynne’s perspective, which will call for a slight rewind into the last few scenes. Now the danger with that is getting repetitive and boring readers before Wynne’s story has a chance to really start. So, at the end of Middler’s Pride, I have Gwen note a few things about Wynne’s strange behavior and leave them unexplained. This will allow me to give the roots of Wynne’s behavior at the start of Beauty’s Price and establish what’s at stake in her life.

First, though, Gwen’s got to bow out.

So again, me, what do do?

  1. Complete Gwen’s transformation. Show Gwen’s no longer the pompous know-it-all.
  2. Act I mirror. I’m a sucker for coming full circle. It probably comes from teaching basic essay structure for over ten years. But what to mirror? Not her pride. The flies are dumb. Not the swimming. Not the suitor. So, what? Well, she does do the “defend our honor!” in both Acts I and II, so that could be useful. But it’s not enough…well, she reminds herself that she is Gwenwledyr, Shield Maiden. In all her daydreaming she was giving herself different names…ooooo….
  3. End it open. The problem established at the beginning of the four Jones stories are all solved, but Jones doesn’t dictate that the universes are ever closed. I dig this–it gives the readers a chance to imagine what happens next. While I do have plans for Gwen after this night, she doesn’t know that. Besides, there’s one thing on her mind that must be done before winter’s tide…

Gwen stood by Tegan and faced those farmlands around the thorp. Beyond them lay the forest, then the river. She imagined she saw tiny floating candles—no, silly, fireflies. Dancing fireflies. And birdsong? Yes, that, too. Even the river’s rush whispered of victory.

Hail, Gasirad.

May your current never weaken.

May your fish be fat and plentiful.

May your plants grow thick in every season.

May your water’s song never end.

I think I see you, Gasirad, listening to our prayers as fresh orchid petals fall as snowflakes upon your hair. I don’t think you’re alone, either—the other trickster is back with you, and I’m guessing she’s got something to tell us when the time’s right. Your torque, maybe, to bring healing to the land. Or revenge against the Cat Man. Or trap a cursed breed of bloodthirsty trout, who knows?

Well here I am, River Goddess, always ready to defend your honor, for you called me a Shield Maiden. And if a goddess calls you something, then you bet your boots your are that something.

So.

I am Gwenwledyr, Shield Maiden of Droma.

Killer of the Magickal Snake.

Slayer of the Cursed Snake of Poisoned Doom.

Eh, too long.

Gwenwledyr, Shield Maiden and Giant Snake-Slayer.

Ooooo!

And Scourge-To-Be of the Khaibe!

Man, I have got some serious legending to do this summer…

However you choose to end your story, don’t let the story’s end be the end of that world. Let the promise of more wet the air like a coming storm. The rain may fall, it may not. But rest assured, readers will feel that promise on their skin. They will look up to wonder…and hope.

 

 

Jean Lee & the Case of the Curtain Call Conundrum

Mere paragraphs from the end, and Middler’s Pride is bloody stuck.

It seems every story’s got to have franchise potential or it’s not worth the investment. Diana Wynne Jones proved that writers can set multiple stories in the same universe and reuse characters without creating some sort of epic story arc. House of Many Ways, for instance, is the third book of the so-called Howl trilogy; Howl and Sophie are only in it as 2nd and 3rd string characters, but they do serve the plot, and readers get to see what their favorite leads from Howl’s Moving Castle are up to. Jones didn’t force Castle in the Air or House of Many Ways to have direct plot ties to Howl’s plot arc, but did maintain the characters’ presence in their established universe. I suppose that’s the sort of thing I’d like to do: I don’t want the stories to be some stiff jumpsuit of a uniform, nor a bloated mumu. I want a smart-looking ensemble, something worth stepping out in together, but can also be appreciated as individual pieces.

So, how to do it?

Protagonist Gwen’s one of four Shield Maiden recruits. I suppose that number sounds absurdly small for military training, but I didn’t feel comfortable wielding a massive cast of extras about in every scene. Four recruits allowed me to develop their pasts in order to understand their motivations in the present and therefore discover potential stories in their futures. I could give each girl a turn at center stage with four stories: Gwen the middler first, followed by passionate Wynne, then circus runaway Elle, and ending with orphan Tegan.

But my protagonists aren’t the problem. It’s the second-stringers getting my goat and letting him have a go at the laundry. Who do I need in the next story, and who could wait? Do I pull a Return of the Jedi and throw a big party with the whole cast as an Ewok band jams in the background? Ewok music’s great and all, but it just didn’t make sense for everyone Gwen’s ever known to show up outside this other little village after Gwen and Company kill the monster. Between the characters I created and the others given to me by Michael Dellert, creator of the Matter of Manred universe, that would be, like, at least two dozen characters being shoved onto the story’s stage at the same time before the curtain falls. I mean, does it make sense having old Cranog the jeweler showing up, or the suitor’s fly-swallowing mom? No.

And besides, none of them are Ewok-sized.

Pish and spit. Let the characters justify their final appearances.

Terrwyn, Gwen’s mentor, had to come back, because I’m sure she would have beaten the crap out of me if I said otherwise.

“Leave it to you to create the messiest cures.” Terrwyn’s pipe-embers glowed as she sucked in air. The linden leaf smoke almost put Gwen to sleep on Terrwyn’s shoulder, but she knew better than to give into sleep. “Sleep on the horse, wake on the ground.”  Terrwyn would ensure that saying to be truth.

Terrwyn hates to miss a fight…but she has to miss this one since it’s the recruits’ fight, not hers…hmmm. The village chief, Murchadh, would have seen all the fires Elle sets to trap the monster. Woedin, the medic from Gwen’s home, was already at that village, but she likely left ahead of other help, like Terrwyn and…Terrwyn’s husband Cinaedh? He barely says boo in the early chapters. But he’s another healthy soldier, and he might be useful later. So, assuming these two come as quickly as they can, it’d make sense they ride with Chief Murchadh and Woedin to the fires. They just don’t get there in time to help, which fits my story fine.

While I planned on Gwen’s father, the one she’s been seeking approval from all along, to come to the village so they could have a moment, it hit me that Gwen’s stepmother Saffir deserved some say, too. Gwen had always seen the woman as silent, cold, and favoring her birth-daughter, while in reality Saffir had been too intimidated by Gwen to initiate a connection. They had a great scene before Gwen left for training where Saffir shares this with her. If Saffir doesn’t show up, she’d be a total hypocrite.

Tegan followed Woedin straight back into the largest tent—the medicinal tent, apparently. Two fires on either side boiled water and herbs. A number sat near those fires, coughing, but talking, too. A ghost fluttered out, eyes wide and fixed upon the horses. “Where’s Gwen?” Her voice sounded desperate, tired…and familiar?

Gwen walked round to give Terrwyn room to dismount, and stared. “Saffir?”

“Oh, thank the gods.” She ran right through horse manure, splattering an already soiled red dress, to take Gwen by both hands, which, say, weren’t shaking yet. Maybe because there were no signs of needles anywhere… “That cart rolled in, and once Aberfa told the Millers and the Millers told us your message, your father bolted to the King’s Seat for aid. Woedin nearly emptied her stores, we scoured the larders.

I paused. So if Saffir’s here, and Gwen’s father the Lord Aillil is coming, then the bratty siblings Nutty and Muirgurgle have to show up. But then, what about Gwen’s friend Aberfa? Those two always supported one another, and she wouldn’t have wanted to leave Gwen hanging…

Dammit!

Part of Middler’s Pride dealt with Gwen’s ability to connect and trust in others. She’s just made new friends with the other recruits. Aberfa shouldn’t be forgotten, but she wouldn’t serve the story’s themes showing up here; plus, as a deaf-mute, too few people would be able to communicate with her to justify her presence at the village. So Aberfa must stay behind, just not forgotten. Saffir was in the opportune place to explain that.

Your father thought I should stay behind, but I argued the Millers can help lead the planting with Aberfa to watch their children. ‘No daughter of mine’s going to be left stranded in a land of death,’ I told him, and he did his, well, you know, that look of his when his mind’s made up. But mine was, too.” Saffir’s hold tightened, and Gwen could feel her calluses, cuts, and few bandages.

There! Now I had Aberfa dealt with. Saffir also seemed the best way to take care of Gwen’s siblings.

“Woedin wouldn’t let us in at first because the plague was, well, you saw, it’s on everything. So I thought, well, one can’t clean stables with horses in it. So everyone’s out for a scrubbing. It’s been hard work, but good work. Not that your siblings agree.” Gwen followed Saffir’s look off to one edge of the campground, where a grimacing Nutty stirred fabric in a lye tub. Beyond her burned a terrific fire, too great for cooking: Muirgurgle, face hidden behind his elbow, throwing what must have been clothes and wood beyond saving.

Gwen snorted. “I’d expect no less.”

Whew! So, Gwen’s family has more or less made its curtain call: Saffir’s supported, Nutty and Muirgurgle don’t get to be snobs. But it wasn’t time for the father Lord Aillil yet. He had taken off for Droma’s capitol for help…which, UGH, means I need to pull at least one person with a name from that one scene where Gwen was given her enchanted sword. Hmph. Not the king, this isn’t, like, country-threatening…well it could have been, but Lord Aillil wouldn’t have known to say that when he got help. Aha! Why not the king’s brother? Lord Lorcan leads the Company of the Shield, and I had earlier established he knew Terrwyn and Gwen’s father.

But they can’t show up yet because I’ve still got unfinished business from Act II, like Captain Vala. She was too sick to ride out, fine. But earlier in the story she told Gwen she hated Terrwyn’s guts. Why? Well it sounded good at the time, but now that Terrwyn’s in the same space, those two have to have some sort of meeting. Time to dig up a rough’n’ready song, one with guttural voices, drink, and the rhythm of pounding boots, and get to work:

“That’ll do, Gwenwledyr.” Thunk. Terrwyn elbowed Gwen, winked, and walked towards a fire where the gizzards lounged with bandages about their necks. No drunken laughter, but they did talk, and chuckle, and drink steaming cups with the sharp smell of colewort and willow-herb. Gods know when they last cleaned out their toxins, especially the one strewn across a bench, snoring as a saw in fresh lumber. Terrwyn paused to knock her pipe clean against the snorer’s boot.  The gizzard didn’t stir. Hold on…that mass of hair…Captain Vala!

“Wait, Terrwyn!” But too late.

THUD.

Everyone got a lesson in cursing that night, including Saffir, who blushed and gave Gwen a wide-eyed look. “Well. I hope Shield Maidens aren’t expected to sacrifice their manners.”

Terrwyn cackled. “Any proper soldier knows better than to lay across another’s seat in the waking hours, your ladyship. Eh, Vala?” She peered over her shoulder.

Captain Vala’s hand slapped the bench and pulled her upright. “Terrwyn, you vindictive, self-righteous piece of—“

“Catha’s mercy, is that you, Vala?” Cinaedh’s ears glinted in the firelight as he jiggled towards them.

Never has a tree moved so quickly. Up, tall, straight, fingers running through hair to make it, erm, less of a nest, Gwen supposed. “Cinaedh!” The exclamation came out soft and bewildered.

Oh no.

Terrywn caught Gwen’s gawk. She turned her pipe’s bit towards Gwen’s face and motioned it upward. Gwen’s mouth clicked shut. “Captain Vala, have you met the wife of Lord Aillil the Courageous?”

Saffir gave a small curtsy, but Gwen could see she was trying just as hard not to smile as the captain remained dumbfounded before the rolling hill that was Cinaedh. “You…you weren’t…but in service…”

The bench protested loudly when Cinaedh settled in. “Ah, life’s given me much to enjoy: good wife, good master, good friends.” His hand moved from Terrwyn, to Saffir, and to Gwen before settling on his belly. “And good food, plainly!” His laugh spread among all around that fire except Captain Vala, whose fingers gave up trying to de-nestify her hair. “The Shield’s been kind to all your limbs, I see. Terrwyn can’t say the same, you know.”

Captain Vala staggered off. The gizzards let loose a load of questions, but Gwen didn’t feel like listening. She could only see that old tree fall by another fire, trying to make sense of old memories and new sights. Bloody hard, breaking the past’s hold on the present.

The exchange goes a bit longer than I intended, but my gut tells me this is the way to go. Captain Vala needs a decent curtain call, considering she was their trainer and may not be coming back in the other books. Plus I like how Gwen actually connects, if only for a moment, with someone she used to hold in contempt.

The other recruits also must have their moments, of course, and they’ll have the last scene to themselves, too–if I can ever get it worked out. Wynne’s the trouble. She’s the prime lead in the next book, so I’m trying to drop little bits of her life without making a huge fuss about it. It’s especially challenging because she’s the most ordinary one of the group: Tegan’s got some magickal abilities, Elle’s got fire-breathing skills from the circus, and Gwen got a commission from the river goddess, her gifted magickal sword, yadda yadda yadda. Wynne’s just…there. And there is a reason for her being there, despite not really being able to kick any sort of ass, and it’s that reason that starts the second story. Therefore, I can’t give the reason yet. GAH!

Well, I’ll get there. In the meantime, we’ve got one last major curtain-call moment to do: Lord Aillil, Gwen’s father. The only blood-family that she knows of, a man who denied her affection and attention over the years, who was ready to marry her off to the first halfway decent suitor he could get a hold of.

Who, in the few moments they had together in the story’s first act, does act in love for his daughter. He just doesn’t have a clue how to show it, and she was too full of hurt and pride to really see when he tried.

When it’s time for Lord Aillil to arrive with the king’s brother and reinforcements, I know The Bootleggers are not the right music for the moment. The moment Lord Aillil and Gwen come together: that’s a homecoming.

Wynne broke the silence. “Anyone else hear horses?”

Soon everyone did, and saw the torches, too: half a dozen, led by a silver blaze who could barely stop before the Chief Murchadh’s granddaughter ran into the road AGAIN. Maybe that manor’s fence wasn’t just about the Cat Man’s plague…

“Lord Lorcan!” Chief Murchadh whipped up the child with one hand as he held the other to the King’s brother during dismount. “Hail and welcome. We’re meager, but healing. And Lord Aillil—“ he held out his hand.

It was not taken.

Lord Aillil had that blasted look again of having his mind made up, and he wasn’t going to let anyone else get in his way. He butted shoulders with the king’s brother, ignored the chief, lifted a child out of his way so he could step round the snakeskin, ignoring that of course, tuning out soldiers and peasants saying hail and other nice things while his son and daughter whined about work and past Terrwyn and past Saffir and stopped inches before Gwen’s feet.

His face was lined with age and dirt. Eyes red from travel. Hair falling from braids. He looked at Gwen, searched her face. Ye gods, what did I do now? He opened his mouth. Closed it.

And hugged Gwen so tight he lifted her from the ground.

End scene. Not book, but scene.

I’m on the last few pages of Gwen’s story now, with these four Shield Maiden recruits set apart from everyone, waiting to come before Captain Vala and the king’s brother to hear whether or not they’ve passed boot camp. It’s a tricky bit because I want to touch a little on their backstories without bogging down what’s quintessentially a wrap-up scene. Plus, I need to bring back things that were mentioned in Middler’s Pride, like the warring Khaibe tribe that’s killed loved ones of Tegan and Gwen, and the Torq of Gasirad, something Wynne desperately wants. Plus plus, because obviously there’s not enough going on, I do want my Return of the Jedi moment with the, well, Jedi returning: of Gwen looking off and seeing the goddess Gasirad in the distance…with company. It’ll promise a new adventure while also quietly completing Gwen’s transformation, making way for another girl’s story. This closing can’t dwell too long on any one detail; after getting her pride crushed, meeting a goddess, killing a giant snake, and facing a magickal foe from her childhood, Gwen’s too tired to dwell on anything for very long. Time to let the spotlight drift as Gwen settles into her new self and locate our next hero: a beautiful daughter of a merchant who, by all accounts, should not have bothered with this dirty business of becoming a Shield Maiden.

Time to find out what Wynne fights for…and if she’s already lost.