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

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

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

Jack.

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

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

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

Jack Frost.

Jack Ketch.

Jack Dandy.

Jack Nimble.

Jack Tar.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Art of Voice-Changery, Part 1

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A writer’s imagination runs through many worlds, histories, and lives. The danger of one writer and an infinite creativity? That only one voice ever speaks.

Changing voices has got to be one of the toughest challenges for a writer. I’ve read some failures, and believe you me: the story just tanks due to pov confusion, or loses all flavor due to deja vu. I mean, just imagine if all the Muppets sounded like Ernie. How lame would that be?

My Shield Maiden series…Shield Maiden Quartet? Oooo, A Quartet of Maidenry!

Sorry about that.

Anyway, I have four very different protagonists in this set, and that different-ness MUST be clear to readers. In Middler’s Pride Gwen went from show-off jerk to decent human being. Now I need to maneuver into the head of another recruit named Wynne, the protagonist for my next book, Beauty’s Price. Wynne has motives wholly unlike Gwen’s for joining the Shield Maidens. She is a sweet soul, a lover of nature with a desire to live life without the rules a class society dictates. How to create this gentler, more provincial voice?

Hmmm.

I stare blankly at my bookshelf: Conan Doyle doesn’t exactly come to my mind for strong heroines. Nor does Colin Dexter, or P.D. James, or Ellis Peters…blast. And Agatha Christie’s heroine Miss Marple is too old for what I need.

Surely my Diana Wynne Jones shelf won’t fail me!

Wait, hang on. No, these girls are all too fierce. They were great for helping me with Gwen, like Hildrida from Drowned Ammet.

drownedammet“Betrothed?” said Hildy. “Without asking me!…You might have asked me if I minded, even if I’m not important. I’m a person, too.”

“Most people are,” Navis said, rather desperately scanning his page. He wished he had not chosen to read the Adon. The Adon said things like “Truth is the fire that fetches thunder,” which sounded unpleasantly like a description of Hildrida. “And you are very important now,” he added. “You’re forming an alliance with Lithar for us.”

“What’s Lithar like? How old is he?” Hildrida demanded.

Navis found his place and put his finger on it. “I’ve only met him once.” It was hard to know what else to say. “He’s only a young man–twenty or so.”

“Only–!” Words nearly failed Hildy. “I’m not going to be betrothed to an old man like that! I’m too young. And I’ve never met him!”

Navis hastily got his book in front of his face again. “Time will cure both those objections.”

“No, it won’t!” stormed Hildrida. “And if you go on reading, I’ll–I’ll hit you and then tear that book up!” (270-1)

Oh, there was Charmain from House of Many Ways, but she’s too bookish. She’s practically dragged into the plot. Wynne goes willingly.

And then, I see a small bundle of books by an author I only started reading in the last year:

Jane Austen.

I used to wear it as a badge of pride that I had NOT read her work. Way too many of my classmates oohed and aahed her stories, and I couldn’t get why. It’s not like anyone got poisoned or shoved out a window, let alone shot.

I pause with Pride and Prejudice in hand. Elizabeth Bennet is considered one of the great female heroines, isn’t she? Her voice is strong and unafraid. Her wit shines often, but her raw emotions have their moments, too. I particularly love her retorts to Mr. Darcy when she’s certain he loathes her, such as this one early in the story:

51uWyPyyBnL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_After playing some Italian songs, Miss Bingley varied the charm by a lively Scotch air; and soon afterwards Mr. Darcy, drawing near Elizabeth, said to her–

“Do not you feel a great inclination, Miss Bennet, to seize such an opportunity of dancing a reel?”

She smiled, but made no answer. He repeated the question, with some surprise at her silence.

“Oh!” said she, “I heard you before, but I could not immediately determine what to say in reply. You wanted me, I know, to say ‘Yes,’ that you might have the pleasure of despising my taste; but I always delight in overthrowing those kind of schemes, and cheating a person of their premeditated contempt. I have therefore made up my mind to tell you, that I do not want to dance a reel at all–and now despise me if you dare.” (35)

With every chapter read, Wynne’s voice starts to form. I can see her now, the one of sense in a family filled with silly pride and, well, prejudice. Wynne’s parents will be much like Mr. and Mrs. Bennet: a mother obsessed with status and appearances without the wit to show any, and a lackadaisical father who’d rather not parent if he can help it. Both Wynne and Elizabeth have four sisters of age to marry, and most of them idealize marrying a man of good fortune. But while Elizabeth is the second eldest of the Bennet sisters, I want Wynne to be the youngest. Her youth will keep her from that desperation the others feel in needing a man to marry.

Early in P&P, Mrs. Bennet tries to force a match between Elizabeth and a cousin of some means, but who is also a simp and a kiss-ass. Elizabeth has absolutely no patience with him, and cuts the proposal off cold, much to her mother’s annoyance. Wynne will be in a similar situation, as one man wants to marry all five sisters, much to the parents’ surprise and relief. Only Wynne is dead set against the match, throwing her family into chaos, and the man into…well, a rather dangerous frame of mind.

But back to voice.

Gwen’s attitude is superior, dismissive, callous. She thinks you don’t know and/or care about anything half as much as she does, and she’s not afraid to treat you as such. When I used Michael Dellert’s #13WeekNovel Prewriting Questions to explore Gwen, I got some pretty blunt answers. Take the first two, for instance:

middlers-pride-7“How would you describe yourself?”

No brood mare, I’ll say that for free. I can carry lumber like any man. I can go into the woods of Irial all alone and haul honey, berries, and kindling on my back. I can hear better than any of our watchmen—I’M the one who caught Bricius thieving ól from the brewery.

How could they possibly think I’d go off to be a broodmare when I’m far smarter than any young soldier of these parts?

Not. Bloody. Likely.

 “So what’s an example of something incredible you’ve done?”

Oh, catching Bricius thieving not enough, then? Fine. Well one time, I was keeping watch for the caravan of southern traders—we’d heard they would come by our thorp, and our slopes are sweet with honeysuckle and dry, good camping grounds—and saw some strange men loitering about the edge of the stables on the far side of the thorp. None of ours, I’ll tell you. They had saltwater mud…don’t ask, I just know these things. One must if one’s to venture into the world for vengeful reasons.

Anyway, they were hanging about, eyeing up the horses, and I knew they were plotting something devious. We keep fine horses here in Easavainn Mills, perfect for ambushing a caravan and fleeing off to the north with all the other devious gnomes and wild people.

Yes, gnomes are devious. Don’t interrupt.

Well, I told the veteran’s sergeant Cinaedh about the men. He said they were scouts for the caravan, and simply waiting for it to catch up.

Scouts? What do scouts need with our horses then?

Pish and spit. They were planning something.

But being but a young lass of 10, what was I to do?

I did the only thing I could do to disarm the enemy: I stole their washing while they bathed in the river and scattered it around the forest.

Thanks to me, the caravan arrived safely, and no one was harmed.

Already you get a sense that Gwen doesn’t listen to anyone. She’s got her own principles, and by the gods she’s sticking with them. In her mind, she was victorious against an evil everyone else was too stupid to notice. There’s no correcting her here or anywhere.

Wynne, on the other hand, has no aggressive confidence. She has been kept apart from others her age by the prejudice of her parents, and feels herself wilting beneath their expectations. The river Gasirad is all that keeps her alive until she meets a certain young fellow…

Jean Lee“How would you describe yourself?”

I would rather not, but as you are insistent, I will say I am the youngest of five sisters. My father is a merchant who deals with the caravans and artisans who live in Hafren. My mother is also of a business frame of mind, but that business is to marry my sisters and I to eligible, rich suitors.

We are all of us trained to be pleasing to the eyes and ears. Yet neither my mother nor my father saw need to train us in ways pleasing to the heart.

“So what’s an example of something incredible you’ve done?”

What I may consider incredible could differ vastly from your consideration. You may think of heroic deeds, marches into battle and overtaking beastly fire. Sometimes the incredible comes in the little things, if you quiet yourself long enough to notice.

Consider a time many summers ago, when one is but a child, with few duties or directions. Many my age in Hafren were considered beneath rank by my family, so I was forbidden to play with them in their fields or yards. Imagine whole days watching children flee their chores for adventures, and I could not take a single step among them! Such agony is what sent me north alongside the river Gasirad. She was my friend for many, many seasons, sharing her harmony with my songs and her whispers with those from my own heart. She encouraged me to walk beyond the Hafren road stones without escort or knowledge of the land. To walk with but a river as my companion northward, through a dark wood where rocks the size of men peer from shadowed glens, to a new town. To set foot in a new place without any word of introduction, without any desire to share my family name, and walk up to the first child I see, and to say, “What do you know about adventures?” And I did not blush despite my haggard appearance. How Mother would have scolded! I was a walking scandal with mud, petals, and sweat littered about my dress, boots, and hair.

The child was a boy with the body of a reed, brown and thin, and the eyes of a hungry owl.  “Loads.”

“Right,” I said, and I had no clue what else to say, and found my tongue on the verge of knotting itself. “Wh-what about adventures by the river Gasirad? Do you have them there?” My tongue loosened with the river’s name.

“Sometimes,” he said.

“Do you ever speak more than one word?” How impudent of me! Yet I found myself wanting of an answer, for gods knew when my father would gallop in, hoist me up, and put me back inside the house among small chairs and stiff manners.

The boy’s smile reminded me of the Gasirad in winter’s thaw. “Depends.”

“Well then,” I crossed my arms as Father often did when he was declaring the finality of his offer, “let’s go.”

Changing voices isn’t just about getting into the new protagonist’s head. There’s a technical aspect, too. Just look at the Gwen and Wynne answers again. Wynne doesn’t do super-short sentences like Gwen does. Wynne doesn’t direct condescending smack-talk to the reader like Gwen does. Wynne’s prose needs to be as flowers picked for a crown: “She was my friend for many, many seasons, sharing her harmony with my songs and her whispers with those from my own heart.” Unlike Gwen, who often scoops handfuls of word-mud to sling at the reader: “Not. Bloody. Likely.”

Whether you reuse the same exploration techniques or not, you’ve got to give your new hero time to open up, especially if she’s never known that kind of attention before. Intimacy comes with time, patience, and a sincere desire for feeling. You can’t rush it–you may as well demand a seed to blossom in your hand. That’s what I’m noticing about Wynne: her love for what matters gives her voice a sweet warmth–rather like apple cinnamon tea on a cool spring morning. It’s that warmth that draws us to her, to learn what kindles it.

But we’re not the only ones drawn in. And therein lies a danger I must further understand. Austen may not be able to help me with the fantasy elements, but I know what can…

When Fiction Lives Down the Street

My town…

Hang on.

I can’t really call it that yet.

The thing about being a preacher’s kid is that we often moved where Dad felt God needed him most. This meant my family never really planted roots in any one town for very long. The concept of a “hometown” is still a bit lost on me, but I think Bo and I have found a place where our kids can grow, safe and happy.

There’s just one major street through our town, a farmer’s highway that connects several farming communities like ours to the capital.  We’re a very rare Wisconsin town: for having over 3,000 people, we can’t seem to keep our two bars open. Disgraceful!

Now, I called you here to this bland, wet street for a reason.

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Take a look at that big building with the peeling white paint.

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No name but “Mercantile.”

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We moved to this town two weeks before the boys were born (lesson learned: NEVER move while pregnant with twins), and in all that time I’ve never seen this store keep actual hours. It’ll go months without opening, and then suddenly early one Saturday morning its door will be open with stuff on the stairs. Weeks closed up. Monday night: open. Days closed up. Wednesday midday open, but Wednesday afternoon, closed. No pattern, no time. It’s gotten to the point where Bo and I will text each other every time it’s open, which of course only happens when we’re on the way to or from something with kids in tow.

One time I came home after grocery shopping with the kids to give Bo an hour’s quiet. “It’s open!” I say first thing. There’s no question what “It” is. “If you wanna go, I’ll stay with these guys.”

“No way,” he says while marking yet another historical inaccuracy in his umpteenth book about the Three Stooges. “I’m not losing my soul to Max Von Sydow. You go in.”

Max Von Sydow?”

“The movie Needful ThingsRemember?”

“Ooooh.” We’d watched the film based on the Stephen King book some time ago. The story was meh, but Von Sydow was wicked fun as LeLand Gaunt, demonic proprietor of a store selling only one’s most desperate desires. Somehow this conversation led to a wager about Stephen King books and films: We’d both read a King book with a film version and compare stories. I chose Needful Things while Bo chose The Shining (which I’d read and will NEVER read again.)

The films won, but that’s not the point here. As I read Needful Things, I started getting the heebie jeebies anytime I drove past the “Mercantile” of our town. Fiction’s supposed to be set in an Elsewhere, a source of escape. It’s not supposed to creep into my reality and stake a claim. Is it?

The display window of Needful Things had been cleansed of soap, and a dozen or so items had been set out there–clocks, a silver setting, a painting, a lovely triptch just waiting for someone to fill it with well-loved photographs. (43)

Suddenly Hugh looked like a tired little boy up long past his bedtime, a little boy who has just seen what he wants for Christmas–what he must have for Christmas, because all at once nothing else on God’s green earth would do. (77)

Here [Keeton’s] thoughts ceased. He was standing in front of the new store, Needful Things, and what he saw in the window drove everything else slap out of his mind for a moment or two. (212)

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There was a lot more merchandise in Needful Things on Friday; that was the important thing.

There was a music box, old and ornately carve–Mr. Gaunt said he was sure it played something unusual when it was opened, but he couldn’t remember just what…Mr. Gaunt did a fine business that day. Most of the items he sold were nice but in no way unique. He did, however, make a number of “special” deals, and all of these sales took place during those lulls when there was only a single customer in the store. (166-7)

Were we to enter that store, what would be waiting for Bo? For me? I remember posing that question to Bo once, and receiving a shrug in return. I think I know why, though. Despite Bo’s Amazon wish list being 14 pages long (at least shopping for him’s pretty easy) (and for the record, mine’s TWO pages, so, yeah), we’re both rather clear about what we miss most of all: our folks. That seems to be protagonist Alan’s immunity to Gaunt: still in mourning after the loss of his wife and son, Alan has no desire for any thing.

Alan stood looking into the display window for a long time. He found himself wondering what, exactly, all the shouting was about…Rosalie had made Needful Things sound like northern New England’s answer to Tiffany’s, but the china in the window…was rummage-sale quality at best…He cupped his hands to the glass in order to see beyond the display, but there was nothing to look at–the lights were off and the place was deserted. (223)

Still, I don’t think I’ll be taking any chances with my soul for a box of Diana Wynne Jones’ old story notes any time soon.

As if having such a store like “Mercantile” wasn’t eerie enough, we have our own carnival stationed year round. During the summer, it’s a nice place to take the kids for the afternoon. The rides are mostly geared for their size, being a collection of old drive-in theater cast-offs.

Once summer’s done, though, the place is stripped down to bones for winter. The pavement grips its quiet abandon. An old home with older memories, and neighbored by, of all dramatic places, a cemetery.

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A carnival should be all growls, roars like timberlands stacked, bundled, rolled and crashed, great explosions of lion dust, men ablaze with working anger, pop bottles jangling, horse buckles shivering, engines and elephants in full stampede through rains of sweat while zebras neighed and trembled like cage trapped in cage.

But this was like old movies, the silent theater haunted with black-and-white ghosts, silvery mouths opening to let moonlight smoke out, gestures made in silence so hushed you could hear the wind fizz the hair on your cheeks. (51-2)

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How does this NOT make one think of Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes? I knew the movie as a child, and read the book in college. The book wins for better imagery, character, plot, and everything else in spades (though Jonathan Pryce was brilliant for Mr. Dark, and as I listen now to the score by James Horner, I will concede that Disney managed to get a couple things right).

In-season, though, it’s easy to forget these things. Even in the book, Will and Jim see an ordinary carnival come daylight:

And the deeper they went, the more obvious it became they would find no night men cat-treading balloon shadow while strange tents plumed like thunder clouds. Instead, close up, the carnival was mildewed rope, moth-eaten canvas, rain-worn, sun-bleached tinsel. The side show paintings, hung, like sad albatrosses on their poles, flapped and let fall flakes of ancient paint, shivering and at the same time revealing the unwondrous wonders of a thin man, fat man, needle-head, tattooed man, hula dancer… The train? Pulled off on a spur in the warming grass… (61)

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They peered in at the merry-go-round which lay under a dry rattle and roar of wind-tumbled oak trees. Its horses, goats, antelopes, zebras, speared through their spines with brass javelins, hung contorted as in a death rictus, asking mercy with their fright-colored eyes, seeking revenge with their panic-colored teeth. (72)

But with the coming of the cold months, I wonder if this place truly sleeps. I wonder if there is a night, when this small town turns off the porch lights, when the autumn fire pits burn the last bad beer on the embers, when the moon’s face hides because it knows what’s coming, when the stars aren’t quite aligned for rightness…I wonder.

With a pop, a bang, a jangle of reins, a lift and downfall, a rise and descent of brass, the carousel moved….It was running backward.

The small calliope inside the carousel machinery rattle-snapped its nervous-stallion shivering drums, clashed its harvest-moon cymbals, toothed its castanets, and throatily choked and sobbed its reeds, whistles, and baroque flutes. The music, Will thought, it’s backwards, too!…Then the calliope gave a particularly violent cry of foul murder which made dogs howl in far countries…(77)

I wonder.

 

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.

 

Lessons Learned from Agatha Christie: Clunk and move on.

My husband Bo presented me with quite the Hercule Poirot Christmas this year–half a dozen books and a set of television adaptations. (And a wallet. Wahoo.) “I scoured your shelf, so I know you don’t have any of these.” I nodded as I admired the old-school paperback covers vs. the latest hardcover editions. Where did the fun go?

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But today isn’t about cover design. Today I meant to study the effect a claustrophobic setting has on characters. Agatha Christie applies such a setting all the time in her mystery: the lonely manor house, the steam ship, the train, the island, even an airplane. I had picked up Hercule Poirot’s Christmas earlier this month knowing the story from its television adaptation, so I was eager to study her writing for this element.

Maybe it’s the ebb and flow of frustration and grief. Maybe it’s the stress thunked down on my shoulders every Christmas, the “you’re a preacher’s kid, get over here and make pretty songs” sort of thing. Or maybe Christie simply had to meet a deadline and, for once, allowed herself to not give a shit.

The story’s idea has oodles of promise: a nasty old invalid of a patriarch who loves setting his adult children at each other’s throats, mysterious new relatives, and sketchy house help all in a manor house for a proper English Christmas. But on Christmas Eve there’s a nasty crash and unearthly scream inside the patriarch’s locked room. They break in the door to discover signs of a terrific struggle and blood everywhere.

Cue Poirot on page eighty-four. EIGHTY-FOUR.

Granted, I knew I’d been spoiled a little by seeing the television adaptation first. Of course they revised the story to get Poirot there a lot sooner. But Christie spends forty-six pages solely on introducing the different family members. These little vignettes of their lives that could have easily been learned through a “catching-up” scene with them all in the manor house Christmas Eve. Thus the tension, plot, and setting would have been established much sooner–and therefore engaged readers much sooner.

The clues are also much more heavy-handed this time as well, which, after reading The A.B.C. Murders, felt very off. Take these lines of the patriarch’s dialogue all said before the murder:

“There’s only one of you that’s taken after me–only one out of all the litter.” (42)

“It’s going to be a grand Christmas! All my children round me. All my children!” (43)

“Not a son among them, legitimate or illegitimate.” (56)

“I’ll swear to Heaven I’ve got a better son somewhere in the world than any of you even if you are born on the right side of the blanket!” (74)

Get it? The killer is, of course, one of the family, but not “one of the family,” nudge nudge. And these are just the references pre-murder; more are made afterward. The characteristics don’t help, either: the patriarch has a couple quirks that of course all his sons do, including the characters present who are not yet known to be his sons, killer included. For instance:

Harry threw his head back and laughed. (53)

Stephen laughed, throwing his head back. (64)

Superintendent Sugden threw his head back and laughed. (198)

Then, there’s the murder itself. It’s an amazing murder, what with the unearthly cry, the blood, and the destruction. All done in a room locked on the inside. They work out the key was turned with pliers–okay, sensible. After only three and a half pages are spent in the room where the murder takes place, they spend the next forty-five pages talking to each family member. Just…talking. Rather felt like I was back with Eco and Name of the Rose with all the talking…

The ending comes with very little action around Poirot. Poirot has everyone gathered, as usual, but once he gets into how the murder is committed, he speaks of things that were never mentioned earlier, things like sodium citrate and animal’s blood being added to the victim’s blood. Plus he treats the bastard clue like it was some amazing discovery when it’s been one of the only topics discussed the entire book.

After the killer’s reveal, the final few pages share these one-paragraph scenes of the family members returning to life. It felt as frayed and unsatisfying as the beginning. Consistency, I suppose.

So, what went wrong here? I don’t know. Maybe it was the absence of Hastings–a stable narrator would have toned down all the p.o.v. shifts Christie used here. This could have been a very tight short story without all the meandering among family members; she published short fiction at the same time as novels, so it’s not like that was out of the question. Hercule Poirot’s Christmas was published after phenomenal mysteries like The A.B.C. Murders and Death on the Nile, before  And Then There Were None (considered by many to be her masterpiece), and at the same time as Appointment with Deathyet another fine mystery.

ALL writers, great and going-to-be-great, have their A-game and their B-game. Even my all-time favorite, Diana Wynne Jones, had her clunkers (I’m looking at you, The Pinhoe Egg.) This is clearly Christie’s B-game, and no wonder–Appointment with Death is a complex murder set in the raw beauty of the Middle East. Since this was also published in 1938, I can’t help but wonder if she worked on Appointment and Christmas at the same time, and therefore, dedicated her A-Game to Appointment. She made sure Christmas was an enjoyable read, sure, but it wasn’t the real priority. She wrote and moved on.

I’ve often been told that “perfect is the enemy of done.” While I don’t agree with that statement, there is something to a steady progression forward rather than putzing and putzing and putzing and PUTZING. Life, especially a family and a job, don’t allow for countless revisions of a single story–I learned the hard way such stagnant sameness only worsened my depression and buried my creativity.

Nudge your creativity away from the familiar. Venturing into the unknown is the stuff good stories are made of.

Lessons Learned from Agatha Christie: Pack it on Every Page.

04db458e057ef85b0eb1f4e30ccee27fWhen we think “cozy mystery,” we think of a manor, or someplace isolated, with a limited cast and one, maybe two murders in a tight amount of time. Subtle clues that we didn’t understand come to light when the detective gives his Great Reveal in Act III. My study of The Mysterious Affair at Styles fulfilled such requirements, as do other major Agatha Christie novels, like Murder on the Orient Express, Cat Among the Pigeons, or Murder on the Nile.

So let’s not talk about any of those and look at A.B.C. Murders instead.

This particular mystery takes place in and around London. The victims are not known until they’re dead. The killer has no face–in fact, the only clue that connects the murders is an A.B.C. railroad timetable. That’s the mark of a serial killer. The cast morphs and sprawls with each death.

All the while Poirot’s little grey cells ponder over long periods of time.

Now I will admit to my own little crime: I am writing this post before finishing the book. I read it once as a child, but, as suggested by Damien Walter, I wanted to give A.B.C. a serious study for craft’s sake. Arrangements to face The Monster in two days’ time have made it hard to focus, but I did manage nine chapters, and that’ll do for the topic I want to cover:

Pacing.

In my earlier study of The Mysterious Affair at Styles,  I noted just how quickly Christie gets the story moving in that first chapter with character introductions. I wondered how every line’s got to count in a mystery, be it for the character or the plot. This time, I decided to see what Christie accomplishes on every single page of A.B.C. Slow work, but already I find it most worthwhile.

Rather than give you my notes–well, here’s some of them. Now go and be thankful you don’t see my handwriting on a regular basis.

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Chapter 1’s header already engages us: “The Letter.” Consider the book’s title: Are we talking about the letter A? Correspondence was still a primary form of communication–are we talking about a posted letter? By page 4, we find out it’s both: the first note from our killer, taunting Poirot with a murder to be committed in the city of Andover. Hastings, of course, does not take it seriously, but Poirot does. On page 9, the killer’s predicted day comes and goes, and Hastings calls it a false alarm. By page 11, we learn differently. Come page 12, we get one hell of an eerie statement from Poirot:

“This is the beginning.”

Every single page contains a clue of sorts: testimony from a witness/suspect, scene of the crime, Poirot’s critique, and so on. Trust me, I looked for a page that could have been cut for its insignificance. As of nine chapters, we have two murders, two different groups of suspects and witnesses, two different towns, two different inspectors.

On page 24, for instance, Poirot took time to study the only three photographs in a victim’s apartment. You just know that’s going to be useful later, right? On page 25, Hastings tells us what he sees in the apartment; no overlap, and it sounds mundane, and yet in a mystery everything counts, so one of those items just has to stand out sometime.

By page 37, Poirot has met with the first victim’s family and usual suspects, then visited the scene of the crime. At this point, all leads to dead ends, and Poirot tells Hastings that there is nothing that can be “done” until the murderer strikes again. Hastings, being British, loathes this not-doing-anything, and spends page 38 lamenting Poirot’s clear loss of detecting powers. Sounds pointless? Not at all. The page puts doubts in reader’s mind as to whether or not Poirot really can solve this crime. For those who have read from Hastings’ perspective before, we know he’s not a reliable narrator, yet we can’t help but feel our faith shaken.

Then comes page 39, and another letter predicting murder with a B. Christie breezes over weeks of time by distracting us with Hastings’ doubt. From pages 40-42 we get the new victim, the conflict with a new inspector, and the increase in doubt of Poirot’s abilities.

By page 48, we start to see at least one connecting thread between victims thanks to Poirot. No, not the railway guide, that’s the obvious one left by the murder. Poirot remarks on the beauty of both victims. Why? Hastings doesn’t think on it, passing it off as something foreigners do. You’d think Hastings would know better by now…Anyway, that makes nine chapters.

It was as if every couple hundred words Christie took care to stick a useful02368ff322ea2f21263540e8c89718c6 tidbit in. Maybe she counted, maybe not. But I could certainly see why The New York Times said that this book is “The very best thing Agatha Christie has done”–at least that’s what it says on my edition, a 17th printing (SEVENTEENTH!) from 1967.
Christie lets no page go to waste. Only one page of genuine reflecting in nine chapters, and not general reflecting, either–it has an underlying agenda. Setting details are given quickly, almost waved aside:

“A dingy little place…A commonplace little shop, one of many thousand such others.” (23)

“Situated on the sea front, this was the usual type of small tea-room. It had little tables covered with orange-checked cloths and basket-work chairs of exceeding discomfort with orange cushions on them.” (45)

Did I mention the one departure from Hastings’ point of view? Chapter 2 focuses on a man named Mr. Alexander Bonaparte Cust? A man in a “shabby bedroom,” who smokes “cheap cigarettes,” and cults a “railway guide” and a “typewritten list of names”? We get this on pages 6-7.

He’s not been mentioned since.

But cheap cigarettes and railway guides sure have.

Such little things, and yet because of this single departure  from Hastings we hunt through the little details Christie places on every page, measured and sprinkled like chocolate chips for muffins. Too many and they’ll just spill off and melt on the pan. Too few, and the children will gripe and revolt and demand better muffins. (What, that doesn’t happen in your house?) Measuring out the placing of details gives readers reason to read not just the good chocolatey bits, but the whole thing. Give readers a sweet on every page, and they will not walk away until you’re story’s devoured completely.

 

 

 

Lesson Learned from Zoe Zolbrod: First, Face Myself.

Before my kid brother or true nightmares existed, I came across a blue jay on the sidewalk. Its plumage looked beautiful despite all the little bugs crawling all over it, and was it a problem its eye no longer stayed in place? I didn’t think so. I knew it wasn’t properly alive; a properly alive bird flies away when you get near it. But I really hadn’t thought too much about death apart from “Jesus died and rose again.” Death had no sense of permanence. When the time came, the bird would be properly alive again.

There is a difference, I think, in knowing something is not-right vs. knowing something is wrong. I knew the bird wasn’t alive like me, but I didn’t know it was wrong to put it in a dump truck and drive it around like any other stuffed animal. You better believe my mother made sure I knew after scrubbing my hands for several minutes. The disease, the dirt one can get from playing with the forbidden. It transfers. It festers.

telling-cover-3I still carry a dirtiness on me and in me, and I’ve never been able to scrub it off. Zoe Zolbrod used the same term: “my dirtiness, of which my victimhood was a part” in her memoir The Telling (71).

It was the first time I had seen the word tied to the Feeling. Experience. Person.

And through reading, that Person was me.

Zolbrod sent me reeling with the stench of old wounds and fears. When she recounted the first night her cousin came into her room, I remembered the hall light in my bedroom, and The Monster’s silhouette as my parents were occupied elsewhere in the house. Let’s play a game. His hands slipped under the elastic waistband of my pajamas. It felt wrong. It had to be wrong, but…but he’s family, so…so it couldn’t be THAT wrong, could it?

When Zolbrod wrote of the cousin’s coming in the day when her parents promised to be gone, all those afternoons pulled me back, those hours when The Monster knew my parents were bound to be at church for hours, got my kid brother to be quiet in the basement while he kept me in my room, knowing there was no way I could overpower him as he talked so damn calmly as he reached in. Pulled down. Slipped his tongue in. Put my hands there. This is what family does for each other. Don’t you want to be like other girls?

I didn’t. Yet The Monster spoke time and again, turning the wrongness into something normal-ish, practically traditional. It wasn’t properly wrong, just not-right.

Zolbrod takes readers through life after the abuse, including how she began to move beyond her cousin in a new “float of physical bliss” with the boyfriends of her youth  (76). She took back her sexuality, her body. I, on the other hand, retreated as far as I knew how. I wore sagging clothes that would have made my father look a wastrel, refused to do my hair or face. I was often mistaken for a man by strangers, and didn’t care. I didn’t want to be seen as other girls. I didn’t want to be seen. And no one could, not the proper me, so long as I hid it deep enough. Zolbrod calls it “personhood vacating” (121). I fled into myself where The Monster could never reach. Like Zolbrod, I discovered my own “inborn intricacies,” and thought that In Here, The Monster could never really hurt me (94). A body’s nothing, the soul everything. And he’ll never get that.

Until now.

Words make worlds, do they not? Writers create with language. And I had created a wall with the words of stories, metal so thick surely no villain could penetrate them.

But in reading Zolbrod’s memoir, words twisted into sinew and skin: the hands, calloused and hot, across my body. How does it feel?

Words betrayed me. They burned me so that every emotional poke from my children felt like an axe on firewood.

Little Loves, you’re better off tossing Mommy out with all that’s broken. I’m no good for you. You deserve someone whole. Clean. Better.

Does a phoenix feel like this when the fire finally comes and cleanses its rigid body of all the creepy-crawlies?

I have written of phoenixes before. They, too, live anew and beyond death. When I finished Zolbrod, I felt as she after reading Kathy Acker’s Don Quixote: “I sensed some truth about armor and pure resolve arising from violence and shame” (41). For years I have struggled to make sense of why God put me through that pain. God’s plan is always sure and right, He never gives us more than we can bear, God knows best, etc. So apparently it was in my best interests to be abused?

At this point, a “Fuck you” screamed at heaven sounds near-logical. Sounds, but doesn’t feel. Perhaps it’s the preacher’s kid in me, who has always thought faith a second-breath, as important as blood and unable to be transfused if lost. Or perhaps it’s because I’ve already faced such horrible parts of myself during the years of post-partum that to look back on something even older and disown God on THAT seems…Petty?

Or maybe, and I think this may be the truth, it’s because I could feel the armor and resolve grow with me, and take me beyond the Monster’s reach. I have knowledge others do not: to be tortured year, after year, after year, to suffer on my own without hope of help, yet live. I fucking lived. My husband, my children, my friends, my masters, my teaching, my—well, this, here. MY words. They’re mine. And they don’t hurt.

Now the real duel awaits:

I must face The Monster, hands and all, in the present.

Click here for more on Zoe Zolbrod and THE TELLING.

Lessons Learned from Agatha Christie: Take Advantage of the Sweet Yet Unreliable Narrator.

mysterious-affair-at-styles-fb-coverI admit that I still confuse “unlikeable” with “unreliable” every now and again. An “unlikeable” narrator is not so much a twit as an asshole. One we just can’t bring ourselves to care about. If the story swallows him up, good riddance. If he gets away with it, then we enjoy imagining how he’ll get his comeuppance in the unwritten pages thereafter.

Captain Hastings is NOT unlikeable. In fact, he’s one of the kindest, loveliest chaps you could ever hope to meet on the page. Affable, thoughtful, and never afraid when things get dicey, he’s the bloke we’d never mind having over for a long visit. Hugh Fraser was a brilliant casting choice for Hastings in the Mystery! presentations of Poirot that ran for decades, what with his bright eyes and sweet smile. In fact, he’s so sweet that we, the audience, can’t bear to smack him with a rolled-up newspaper until the latter half of the Mysterious Affair at Styles, when we all KNOW he should know better.

christieetext97masac11.jpgAgatha Christie’s creation of Hastings is, as I said in the previous post, not necessarily meant to be a Watson clone. While both were army veterans, Hastings has no medical experience, so when it comes to forensic studies of the body, he’s very much an every man. Perhaps that’s why Christie enjoyed using him in so many of the Poirot mysteries, and why television adaptations worked Hastings into stories where he hadn’t been written in: he’s the Every Man. Hastings is Us.

And we are sooooo clueless around someone like Poirot. Yet in Styles Hastings time and again wants to prove himself Poirot’s superior in the world of detection. Near the beginning of the investigation, Hastings already questions Poirot’s abilities:

I shrugged my shoulders. If he was going to take the matter that way, it was no good arguing with him. The idea crossed my mind, not for the first time, that poor old Poirot was growing old. Privately I thought it lucky that he had associated with him some one of a more receptive type of mind.

Every member of the family is certain that the odd duck Alfred Inglethorp is guilty BECAUSE he’s the odd duck: married the old lady for her money, etc. He acts suspicious, he dresses suspicious, so therefore, guilty. After Mrs. Inglethorp’s death–during which Alfred is suspiciously absent–the whole family sees nothing but clues proving their case. Although he recruits Poirot to discreetly investigate, Hastings completely agrees with the others, and cannot understand at all why Poirot would disagree with them both before and after Alfred Inglethorp’s vindication:

  1. As for me, I was literally dumb with astonishment. I could only conclude that Poirot was mad.

  2. His words gave me an unpleasant shock…Still, I had a great respect for Poirot’s sagacity—except on the occasions when he was what I described to myself as “foolishly pigheaded.”

  3. This proceeding of Poirot’s, in respect of the coco, puzzled me intensely. I could see neither rhyme nor reason in it. However, my confidence in him, which at one time had rather waned, was fully restored since his belief in Alfred Inglethorp’s innocence had been so triumphantly vindicated.

How does Christie pull this off? On the one hand, she has to make sure all the clues to the murder are set into the lines of text, but she can’t be obvious about it. How can she get these major points by the casual reader? By placing them before a casual observer. For while Hastings may see himself as a thoroughly intelligent fellow who’s built upon Poirot’s method, in reality he is one who has allowed himself to be led to conclusions by others–not just the family, or the murderer. By Poirot, too.

“Who put it in the chest, I wonder?”

“Some one with a good deal of intelligence,” remarked Poirot drily. “You realize that he chose the one place in the house to hide it where its presence would not be remarked? Yes, he is intelligent. But we must be more intelligent. We must be so intelligent that he does not suspect us of being intelligent at all.”

I acquiesced.

“There, mon ami, you will be of great assistance to me.”

I was pleased with the compliment. There had been times when I hardly thought that Poirot appreciated me at my true worth.

“Yes,” he continued, staring at me thoughtfully, “you will be invaluable.”

This part still makes me chuckle. We the readers know that Hastings is indeed being complimented on his true worth–only it’s not quite the same worth Hastings thinks he’s earned. I see this as Christie’s signal to readers that Poirot is NOT going to be giving Hasting’s clear clues from here on out. What we observe through Hastings’ senses may or may not be completely true. We’ll have to mind his perception that it doesn’t veil the truth from ours.

This slight shift in their budding partnership does lead to conflict between the two, which is another reason why I enjoy these characters so much. True people react to how they’re treated. At one point Hastings knows Poirot’s keeping stuff from him, and calls him out. Here a friendship is tested over truth:

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Some characters can listen, absorb, and grow. Others, like Hastings, are, shall we say, “stubborn.” Even after one of his friends is arrested for the murder, Hastings doesn’t understand why Poirot wasn’t more open.

“Every murderer is probably somebody’s old friend,” observed Poirot philosophically. “You cannot mix up sentiment and reason.”

“I must say I think you might have given me a hint.”

“Perhaps, mon ami, I did not do so, just because he was your old friend.”

I was rather disconcerted by this…

Last I checked, “disconcerted” is NOT the same as “understanding.” Hastings has once again been told something very true but also unpleasant about his perspective on things, and once again he can’t quite take it in. As readers, we’re not totally sure what to make of it all, either. By now we’re on Possible Murderer #3…or is it #4…dammit EVERY one is a suspect! By now Christie’s slathered suspicion all over every member of the Inglethorp family. How can we readers possibly see through all this muck?

We won’t. And yet it is the Every Man’s observation that saves the day, for it is Hastings that reminds Poirot of a simple action from early in the investigation that sets Poirot’s grey cells dancing and reveals all to Poirot. Only after Poirot gathers all the suspects into one room (love that part!) and walks through the case step by step do the other characters–Hastings included–come to realize their own blindness to the facts:

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With the killer(s) revealed and brought to justice, the mystery can end, yes? Not quite. While we may not feel too invested in the family of suspects, we have been with Hastings and Poirot for quite a while now. It’d be a strange move to have these two end the book in a tiff. There’s a reconciliation to be done, and it’s done in such a way that we chuckle yet again over Poirot’s unique way of “handling” Hastings, although we know his compliments to be also genuine:

“Poirot, you old villain,” I said, “I’ve half a mind to strangle you! What do you mean by deceiving me as you have done?” …

“I did not deceive you, mon ami. At most, I permitted you to deceive yourself.”

“Yes, but why?”

“Well, it is difficult to explain. You see, my friend, you have a nature so honest, and a countenance so transparent, that—enfin, to conceal your feelings is impossible! If I had told you my ideas, the very first time you saw Mr. Alfred Inglethorp that astute gentleman would have—in your own expressive idiom—‘smelt a rat’! And then, bon jour to our chances of catching him!”

“I think that I have more diplomacy than yon [sic] give me credit for.”

“My friend,” besought Poirot,” I implore you, do not enrage yourself! Your help has been of the most invaluable. It is but the extremely beautiful nature that you have, which made me pause.”

“Well,” I grumbled, a little mollified. “I still think you might have given me a hint.”

Just because a character has a beautiful nature doesn’t mean he’s completely reliable. When a writer needs to reveal all and yet hide some, an unreliable narrator allows for truth-in-truth, a slight of hand that does not insult, but perpetuates the curiosity which meets us on page 1 and moves with us still. We must trust this narrator completely with the facts, and yet not so completely so as to give away all the plot points before their time. A careful balance requires a careful hand. God-willing, I’ll have that hand someday.

Perhaps your day’s already come.

Click here for more on Agatha Christie & Hercule Poirot.

 

 

Lessons Learned from Agatha Christie: Set the Stage with Just the Right Amount of Character.

140290I wish I could tell you what set me on Agatha Christie’s Poirot mysteries first. It might have been the PBS Mystery! episodes starring David Suchet. My folks may have recommended her, but they never read her work. Or maybe a librarian long ago recommended Christie to me, tired of me checking out the same illustrated edition of Holmes stories again. Whatever the case may be, I was hooked, and still am. While school friends passed spare time in study hall with Dean Koontz, Jeanette Oke, or J.R.R. Tolkien (the Spanish edition…because plain old Elvish ISN’T HARD ENOUGH), I was lost in The A.B.C. Murders, Hallowe’en Party, or Death on the Nile.

Dame Agatha Christie wrote The Mysterious Affair at Styles in 1916—100 years ago!

Wow, a century of Hercule Poirot…ahem. Sorry, I just thought that was really cool.

Mysteries carry some unique strengths and limitations compared to other genres that I’ve read. On the one hand, you have the ease of using the same protagonist as often as you’d like. You can develop his/her character slowly over the course of five, ten, twenty books. And those books don’t have to connect–each can be a stand-alone story. You may want to be like my son Biff, who loves to climb a single rock, jump off, then run over to another rock further down the park, or you may be like my daughter Blondie, who will start with the first rock, and carefully move from one rock to the next, determined to travel the park upon this road of stone until she reaches its end.

Other characters, though, just don’t get that same treatment. Few can. Unless one’s a recurring villain, or a foil for the detective, there simply isn’t the page space for ample character development. I used to strongly believe the contrary until I took up Styles with a more critical eye. To be clear, I don’t consider this a strike against mysteries; mysteries simply don’t need to be totally populated by complete human beings I could reach out and touch. Nor am I expecting a whole new world built just for a mystery. When I read a fantasy, I want to see a new world, or a new layer to my world. When I read a mystery by Agatha Christie, I know she’s writing stories that take place on this planet, with the same laws of physics, history, etc. There’s no need for her to extensively explain what’s going on in the world in 1916 for readers to have some sort of appropriate context.

What she does need to do is introduce the cast—that is, the potential victim and suspects—in a tight amount of space. A mystery can only be a mystery when there’s a crime either about to be committed or committed already. In a book of 13 chapters, one shouldn’t have to wait until Chapter 6 for the first crime. In Styles, we get the “The Night of the Tragedy” in Chapter 3 (thus the chapter title). That means we need the cast established before that. Two chapters. Is that enough?

(It occurred to me just now that there’s one exception to this cast establishment: the law enforcement character if the detective is outside of the law. It doesn’t exactly make sense for the law to show up until after the crime’s been committed.)

Let’s see when and how Christie introduces her suspects—I mean, characters.

Chapter 1: “I Go to Styles”

The book opens with a first-person narrator, whose name—Hastings—isn’t used until the fourth page.

  • The first paragraph tells us Poirot is his friend.
  • The third paragraph gives something of Hastings as well as introduces another character: I had been invalided home from the Front; and, after spending some months in a rather depressing Convalescent Home, was given a month’s sick leave. Having no near relations or friends, I was trying to make up my mind what to do, when I ran across John Cavendish.

Yes, yes—it’s rather like Dr. Watson, being a veteran of the war, wounded and sent home. But unlike Watson, Hastings is no medical professional. We learn he’s a bit of a loner, unsure of what to do with his life. For the sake of this story, that’s all we need for the start.

John Cavendish only gets a couple snippets of description over the first two pages:

  • Indeed, I had never known him particularly well. He was a good fifteen years my senior, for one thing, though he hardly looked his forty-five years.
  • John practiced for some time as a barrister, but had finally settled down the more congenial life of a country squire. He had married two years ago, and had taken his wife to live at Styles, though I entertained a shrewd suspicion that he would have preferred his mother to increase his allowance.

We often hear writers should use dialogue to get as much information to readers as possible, yes? Christie does that here. Other characters are introduced over the course of the conversation Hastings and John Cavendish have here at the beginning of Chapter 1.

  • “Your mother keeps well?” I asked.
    “Oh, yes. I suppose you know that she has married again?”
    I am afraid I showed my surprise rather plainly. Mrs. Cavendish, who had married John ‘s father when he was a widower with two sons, had been a handsome woman of middle-age as I remembered her.
  • Lawrence, the younger, had been a delicate youth. He had qualified as a doctor but early relinquished the profession of medicine, and lived at home while pursuing literary ambitions; though his verses never had any marked success.
  • John noticed my surprise at the news of his mother’s remarriage and smiled rather ruefully. “Rotten little bounder too!” he said savagely. “I can tell you, Hastings, it’s making life jolly difficult for us. As for Evie—you remember Evie?”
    “No.”
    “Oh, I suppose she was after your time. She’s the mater’s factotum, companion, Jack of all trades! A great sport—old Evie! Not precisely young and beautiful, but as game as they make them.”
    “You were going to say—?”
    “Oh, this fellow! He turned up from nowhere, on the pretext of being a second cousin or something of Evie’s, though she didn’t seem particularly keen to acknowledge the relationship. The fellow is an absolute outsider, anyone can see that. He’s got a great black beard, and wears patent leather boots in all weathers! But the mater cottoned to him at once, took him on as secretary—you know how she’s always running a hundred societies?”
    I nodded.

Almost three pages in, and we’ve already met or heard of six characters. Not too shabby!

By the bottom of the fourth page Hastings and John Cavendish arrive at Styles. First we hear of a new character—

  • “I wonder if we’ve time to pick up Cynthia. No, she’ll have started from the hospital by now.”
    “Cynthia! That’s not your wife?”
    “No, Cynthia is a protogee of my mother’s, the daughter of an old schoolfellow of hers, who married a rascally solicitor. He came a cropper, and the girl was left an orphan and penniless. My mother came to the rescue, and Cynthia has been with us nearly two years now. she works in the Red Cross Hospital at Tadminster, seven miles away.”

And then we start to meet the aforementioned characters.

  • Miss Howard shook hands with a hearty, almost painful, grip. I had an impression of very blue eyes in a sunburnt face. She was a pleasant-looking woman of about forty, with a deep voice, almost manly in its stentorian tones, and had a large sensible square body, with feet to math—these last encased in good thick boots. Her conversation, I soon found, was couched in the telegraphic style.
  • “My wife, Hastings,” said John. I shall never forget my first sight of Mary Cavendish. Her tall, slender form, outlined against the bright light; the vivid sense of slumbering fire that seemed to find expression only in those wonderful tawny eyes of hers, remarkable eyes, different from any other woman’s that I have ever known; the intense power of stillness she possessed, which nevertheless conveyed the impression of a wild untamed spirit in an exquisitely civilized body.
  • The French window swung open a little wider, and a handsome white-haired lady, with a somewhat masterful cast of features, stepped out of it on to the lawn. A man followed her, a suggestion of deference in his manner…. I looked with some curiosity at “Alfred darling.” He certainly struck a rather alien note. I did not wonder at John objecting to his beard. It was one of the longest and blackest I have ever seen. He wore gold-rimmed pince-nez, and had a curious impassivity of feature. It struck me that he might look natural on a stage, but was strangely out of place in real life. His voice was rather deep and unctuous…. Strange infatuation of an otherwise sensible woman!

During tea—for, being English, they simply must have tea—we get a couple more arrivals, and the first mention of Poirot among the characters.

  • Cynthia Murdock was a fresh-looking young creature, full of life and vigour. She tossed off her little V.A.D. cap, and I admired the great loose waves of her auburn hair, and the smallness and whiteness of the hand she held out to clam her tea. With dark eyes and eyelashes she would have been a beauty. (“Would have been”? Jeez, Hastings, what kind of lady-snot are you??)
  • He looked about forty, very dark with a melancholy clean-shaven face. Some violent emotion seemed to be mastering him. He looked up at my window as he passed, and I recognized him, though he had changed much in the last fifteen years that had elapsed since we last met. It was John’s younger brother, Lawrence Cavendish.

Notice who’s still missing? While Poirot isn’t met in Chapter 1, he is spoken of when Mrs. Cavendish asks Captain Hastings what he wants to do now that he can no longer be a soldier:

  • “Well, I’ve always had a secret hankering to be a detective.”
    “The real thing—Scotland Yard? Or Sherlock Holmes?”
    (I rather like how Sherlock Holmes isn’t the “real” thing because it’s not, you know, the “proper” side of legal service.)
    “Oh, Sherlock Holmes by all means. But really, seriously, I am awfully drawn to it. I came across a man in Belgium once, a very famous detective, and he quite inflamed me. He was a marvelous little fellow. He used to say that all good detective work was a mere mater of method. My system is based on his—though of course I have progressed rather further. He was a funny little man, a great dandy, but wonderfully clever.”

Chapter 2, “The 16th and 17th of July,” allows for a surprise meeting outside the post office:

  • As I came out again, I cannoned into a little man who was just entering. I drew aside and apologized, when suddenly, with a loud exclamation, he clasped me in his arms and kissed me warmly.
    Mon ami Hastings!” he cried. “It is indeed mon ami Hastings!”
    “Poirot!” I exclaimed.

We quickly learn that Mrs. Inglethorp has provided residents for Belgian refugees, and Poirot is one of them. And so is set the stage…

~*~

As I read through these introductions, I loved Christie’s touch in using Hastings as the narrator. The ease of establishing the cast via “catching up” dialogue was not boring, and totally plausible. It is also none too surprising how much attention Hastings gives the young females, while the chum John Cavenish gets hardly a physical detail. We have to trust Christie’s tactic through Hastings that such omissions don’t matter to the story, while the excessive descriptions we do receive, such as the “alien” Alfred Inglethorp, must bear some importance. I find this one of the great challenges in writing fiction: what MUST be established vs. what can be left to the individual reader’s perception. It’s so tempting to define EVERYthing so the reader has no choice but to see the story as we do, but honestly, does it matter what the narrator wears, or what the maid looks like? No. But they are not the detective, the focal point of the mystery. And sometimes, those physical details say just as much about the character as their speech, interests, or method of deduction. Poirot takes great care in his appearance, from the style of his mustache to the polish of his shoes. He pays attention to the tiniest of details on himself, and around him…unlike, you know, everyone else, including Hastings.

I couldn’t help but smile as I read Hasting’s description of Poirot to Mrs. Cavendish. It just so happens to provide some amazing foreshadowing for the case to come—

–that is, for his telling of the case. If there’s anything else to be learned from The Mysterious Affair at Styles, it’s the joy of storytelling through an unreliable narrator.

To be concluded…

*(insert lightning crash and maniacal laughter here)*

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FanFic Fears & Other Bits of Potluck Clean-up

CM_JUL15_FEATURES_AnnaLouise6-e1435680443162Another lovely element of the writer’s psyche: we know how to clean up.

Oh, we may hate it. Put it off. Try to pawn the duties off on someone else to clean our messes for us. But we who are serious about craft and creation know the story will always need a good cleaning-up. How else will others see the language and imagery when there’s used napkins and half-eaten coconut oatmeal raisin cookies all over? And who brought those, anyway? Those raisins are disgustingly deceptive…

Anyway.

I imagine that, in moments like this, we’re all rather like my grandmother.

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Yes, the one with the cheesy grin is me.

She took her place as Church Basement Lady very seriously. If there was to be a funeral or some sort of fellowship hour, count on her to bring a pan of date bars and some hot ham for sandwiches. Where are the cups? She knows. Out of sugar? She’ll get some. Zounds, but the tables are a mess. Don’t worry: Marge and her crew will handle the clean-up.

And handle they did…in their own way.

Grandma and the six other ladies loved that time: the congregation gone, pastors elsewhere, they could smoke and cackle over gossip while hobbling among the tables gathering half-empty plates and forgotten snack cups. They’d use washcloths they had crocheted themselves to wipe down the tables and chairs. They’d drink that God-awful coffee, each leaving their own distinct shade of magenta lipstick on the styrofoam cups.

So let’s sit around the last table, you and I, and fill this air with old perfume and nicotine. Drink the dregs, and share our thoughts about all things past, present, and future in this meager life of hope and faith.

~*~

Last week I mentioned writing some thoughts on children’s literature for writer and illustrator A.J. Cosmo. Yesterday he posted some of these thoughts. Please click on over to read, “How Dark is Too Dark in Kid’s Lit?”

Poet Mike Steeden also sent me his review of my e-book collection of Lessons Learned. Not gonna lie–I teared up. I’ve only been in the blogosphere for a little over a year, but the friendships and partnerships formed are stronger than many I have in the physical world around me. Mike and I only started speaking–what, a month ago? And to receive such reactions from him spurred me to interrupt Bo on the toilet just to show him.

LESSONS LEARNED

‘Lessons Learned’, is a title that at first glance implies big picture aspirations gathered from history that make for a better future. In essence, albeit by way of cameo this book, should one be either a writer or an avid reader (or both) is just that…a backward glimpse at excellence; a message understood affording a more accomplished appreciation and/or production of what possibilities lie ahead.

An ever so silky smooth muse upon the works and thinking process of the prolific fantasy novelist Diana Wynne Jones, this book intelligently and painlessly dissects her extensive portfolio in a manner that new, indeed seasoned writers of the ‘now’, should they take heed of Jean Lee’s words, will be ‘better than before’.

For those, like this reader, unfamiliar with the works of Ms Jones, ‘Lessons Learned’ commences with a most agreeable account and crucial ‘hook’ as to how Ms Lee discovered the author, as well as providing a pertinent point glimpse as to, in colloquial terms, ‘what she was all about’.

As such, the book lives up to its title as it captures those lessons learned by the author herself in compiling the same and those, like me, grateful that such lessons are being passed on here.

Ms Lee debates a host of Ms Jones attributes, from genre and fictional character evolvement concepts that fascinate beyond measure. Also, as one who has had stabs at writing verse for children yet finding – in my case at least – the fun of silliness lost on more adult forms of poetic art the chapter ‘Don’t Sacrifice the Fun for Grown-Ups’ was particularly pertinent and educational.  Later in the book the ‘what is normal’ for a child as opposed to an adult – may be obvious in hindsight, yet not always in the forefront of the mind-set of those who ‘aspire’ – was another ‘lesson learned’.  Additionally, the importance, yet oft times overlooked first line attraction drawing the reader in is reinforced through specific example from Ms Jones’s portfolio.

‘Lessons Learned’ is an insightful analysis of a clutch of plainly super novels and furthermore, of the birth of a book and the specifics of its conception, thus making this well aimed tome a thing to serve as a vital aid for the writers far and wide.  Far, far better than an account of mere chronological subject matter vis-à-vis Diana Wynne Jones.  Moreover, the notes on ‘brevity’ caused this overly wordy reader to hang his head in shame (in a good way I stress)! The concluding chapter, ‘Yesterday Needn’t Stay in Yesterday’ conveys much about Jean Lee’s compelling way of thinking, an insight into both her own and Ms Jones mind in much the same way as a lyric might to an undisguised songwriter.  

Most important of all though is that there is a certain magic in Ms Lee’s didactic words that will remain intact, not stored away in some dark recess of my head for some time to come. 

Well done indeed Ms Lee!

How could I NOT interrupt Bo on the toilet with a review like that?

(Oh, and if you have no clue what I’m talking about with this e-book collection thingey, email me at jeanleesworld@gmail.com and I’ll send you one. Yes, free. Friends share. 🙂

Yesterday I enjoyed reading smexy historical romance writer Shehanne Moore‘s interview (well, her power-hungry hamsters’ interview) of adventure fantasy writer Michael Dellert. They discussed the influence of place, as well as time, upon a writer, and how important it is to know how the when and where will impact the characters. Click here for the interview.

At one point Dellert states the following: “I think some writers sometimes make the mistake of plopping very contemporary attitudes down in a location that can’t support them. For example, in my medieval setting, literacy isn’t common.”

I know why he said that.

Me. 🙂 Well I’m sure I’m not the ONLY reason, but this specific example comes from the freewrites I’ve been working on for a Middle Grade story to take place in his created universe. The protagonist is a fourteen-year-old named Gwenwledyr (Gwen for short, thank God) and her quest to become a true Shield Maiden of Droma. The freewrite prompts currently have me picking apart her psyche. Here’s an example:

Prompt: “I struggle with…”

What do you need to know THAT for? My struggles are my affairs, not yours.

Don’t stare.

FINE. Fine fine fine.

It’ll come out worse around others, but don’t you DARE speak of this without permission.

I don’t read really well. Actually, remove the “well.” I don’t read, really. Being the middler of the Not-Loved Woman meant I didn’t get the attention Muirgurgle and Nutty receive. They, THEY received educations. What makes them so special? One’s a boy, and one’s pretty. So what is it, their mothers? Must be. I hear of Muirgurgle’s mom spoken of, and pretty often too, by Father and some of the staff. She sounds like she was a sweet one. Maybe if she had lived a bit longer, that sweetness could have been gifted to Muirgurgle and he wouldn’t be the twit he is today.

Nutty’s mom is…around. Father’s a bit touchy about her. She goes off to meditate, see, a lot, and he’s wondering if she’s meditating with a little help, if you catch the nudge nudge there.

Sorry. I’m a *laaaady.* I shouldn’t speak of such things.

Hmm. Well actually, as a Shield Maiden, I *should* be more respectful of my elders.

When they earn it.

And right now our stableman Fiachna gets more respect from me than THAT woman.

But I have to be GOOD about it, see? That’s a struggle, too. Put on the Good Girl mask when others are around. Prim. Polite.

Even when Nutty asks me to read through a message, like the one that came from Dunsciath. THE message, from the king, that said he agreed to letting me become a Shield Maiden.

I held that message IN MY HAND, and had no idea what it said. Nutty and Muirgurgle laughed. Father politely told me what was going on.

Never have I wanted to read so badly in all my life.

Maybe another Shield Maiden could teach me….but that means talking about this to ANOTHER person besides you.

Damnation, but people are irritating.

I sent this to Michael, and that’s when he most graciously reminded me that illiteracy would be the norm of the period.

In my head I said:

DAMMIT THIS IS WHY I DON’T WRITE FAN FICTION IN OTHER PEOPLE’S UNIVERSESESES I DON’T KNOW WHAT THE HELL THE GOD DAMN RULES ARE AND WHY THE HELL SHOULD I BOTHER

In the message I typed:

No, I didn’t know that. I presumed their class would know at least a little. Ok. That alters things.

Which has led me to wonder about the very concept of fan fiction, and what really defines it. I suppose such a talk could go on for ages, but as this post has already gone on for ages, I’m going to set out two of these styrofoam cups and tip my ashes into the one with fewer dregs.

That’s the setting cup.

And this one with the lipstick will be the character cup.

It seems to me, being a noob in the online writing universe, that fanfic either fixates on a particular person (or two, like *cough* 50 Shades *cough cough*), or on a universe. I’ve got piles of Sherlock Holmes stories not written by Doyle that my dad enjoyed: Holmes in the Midwest, Holmes vs. The Phantom of the Opera, and so on. People took the character, and gave him more adventures. Hell, my very, VERY first picture book I can remember making had to do with a monster kidnapping a little boy and Superman flying in to save him.

Damn. My first story’s a fanfic.

Maybe for some writers, fanfic with characters is a bit like training wheels on a bike. Uncertain how to create originals, they move around with others until they’re confident enough to balance without help. That seems to be the case for me, anyway.

And if that’s the case, writing in another’s setting should be like training wheels again, right?

Only it’s not. As I told Michael some time ago, I felt like I was writing blindfolded. I couldn’t SEE where these characters stood because I don’t know Droma like Michael does. He’s spent years building this world, and now I’m just in there, picking up and dropping and throwing stuff around like my sons. Blondie will tell you: those two are destroyers.

And I felt no better.

Michael, bless him, kept it simple: yeah there’s a map, but that part of Droma isn’t defined.

I thought about Jason Voorhees. He’s been on my thoughts a lot since the start of motherhood. He. Is. A Character. People just looove toying around with his past, uncovering what makes him immortal, that real relationship with his mom, all that garbage. Bo, being a fan of slasher films, will even get into comic books based on the characters from time to time. One particular volume by Justin Gray and Jimmy Palmiotti stuck out, in part because of this image:

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Just…look at that. (If you have the stomach, sorry–I know slashers are NOT for everyone.)

This image of ghosts rising up from the lake’s floor is the foreshadowing of what’s to come: Jason lets one character hold his machete, and in that instance, we see the true past of Camp Crystal Lake: of settlers who butchered entire tribes of natives, of a shaman’s curse, of the countless drownings, fires…

Gray and Palmiotti don’t do anything fancy with Jason. Jason’s Jason. Instead, they define the place.

The characters are mostly my own. I don’t know them all just yet, but little by little they’re coming into focus; you can read more of my freewrites on my facebook page if you’d like. A few already have traits established by Michael, but they, too, have blanks to be filled in.

With the freedom to define the place, I feel like I’m no longer confined by another’s universe. Yes, I do need to abide by some laws of history and progress. (What do you mean, they didn’t have the number zero? GAH! Next you’ll be telling me they don’t have alloys or mustard gas.) These laws, though, are rather like the foot-high picket fence people put around flowers because it looks cute. Yeah, it sucks to trip on, but otherwise, you can step over and around it without hurting yourself.

I need to stop hurting myself.

I need to stop treating that little fence like some sort of electrified contraption.

I need to let Gwen show me around. Introduce me to people. Take me to where she saw the the Cat-Eyed Man.

I need to grip the grass in my fingers. Balance on large rocks that look like a giant’s toes. Smell the river air mix with hidden herbs. Listen to the bees work through the glens.

Time to wrap this up, my friends. I’ll get the lights if you can grab that garbage bag. May the coming week find you in strange places with stranger company.

That’s how the best stories–and gossip–are born.