#WriterProblems: Finding that Balance Between #Worldbuilding and #Character Development

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Happy May to you, my fell creatives!

As I mentioned last month, I got something of a stick in my craw, a monkeywrench in my gears, a fly in my ointment, and other such little irritants over some story series two friends recommended to me. These irritants led me to create this rant/debate/discussion/whatever you want to call it that we’ll be getting into today, so buckle up, my friends–this one’s going to be a bit raw (in a good way (I hope)).

First, a little context.

My podcast You’ve Got Five Pages…To Tell Me It’s Good has me constantly asking the questions about what as readers, hooks us into a story and what, as writers, helps us create that hook. By looking at first chapters only, I am expecting a book to somehow get my attention in those opening pages. Usually, one of two things will do the trick: either a fascinating setup for the story, or fascinating characters I want to hear more about. Ideally, we would get both, but I know this will not always be the case. The lovely P.J. Lazos recently reminded me that there will always be stories that take their time building up interest and intrigue (Outlander was her example). She’s certainly not wrong! How often have we come across stories where “the good stuff” showed up later on? So I won’t knock a book for that approach. Yet I do think something in those opening pages encourages a reader to keep going. When that something peters out…well, that’s why we’re here today.

So, the books in question: one was all about epic battles with fire and ice and lightning–

–while the other was a trip down Pride and Prejudice Lane, only from Mr. Darcy’s point of view:

Both series sounded promising to me from the outset. One’s providing insight into the silent character whose heart is a mystery to the characters around him, while the other alludes to a mysterious Ascension, the physical lifting of six gigantic islands the size of Australia into the air in order to save humanity from drowning in the now Endless Ocean.

So, on the one hand, you have a character-centric story; on the other, a plot-driven story.

Is it necessarily bad to have one or the other? No, not…not necessarily. But it’s certainly tougher to appeal to readers. Jeff Gerke is pretty blunt about this matter in Plot versus Character: A Balance Approach to Writing Great Fiction:

The problem is that each kind of novelist is usually as awful at the one thing as she is terrific at the other thing. The plot-first novelist tends to create characters who are flat, unrealistic stereotypes: cardboard cutouts who, despite different moods, agendas, genders, and occupations, seem eerily similar to one another–and the author’s personality. The character-first novelist produces wonderfully vibrant characters–but often has no idea what to make these interesting people do.

This point came home as I read each series. Here’s the blurb for Skyborn, which is both succinct and totally encompassing of the story at the same time:

Six islands float high above the Endless Ocean, where humanity’s final remnants are locked in brutal civil war.

Their parents slain in battle, twins Kael and Brenna Skyborn are training to be Seraphim, elite soldiers of aerial combat who wield elements of ice, fire, stone and lightning.

When the invasion comes, they will take to the skies, and claim their vengeance.

Aaaand that’s what they do. So there’s no false advertising, at least.

Now again, I want to be clear: this series, to me, had a really cool premise. After all, SOMEthing like an apocalypse must have happened to lead to this Ascension that allows SIX continent-sized land masses to remain perched atop giant beams of water high above an endless ocean. How could such an event affect these different lands? What kinds of people would live on each land, what kinds of wildlife? Would they have different habitats, like deserts and rainforests and such? Plus, these islands had strange prisms that could help power metal wings one could strap on–where did those come from? How do they shoot fire and stuff? Does that mean they have advanced technology, too? Where and how does all that history affect this world’s present?

I had so many questions about this epic place filled with epic war. And oh yes, there’s lots of fighting with ice and fire and lightning and such. This author knows how to write a battle, and there are a LOT of battles across the trilogy. Plus, he included some very interesting themes at work involving God and free will, the needs of the many over the few, and so on. Such themes fit very well in a world where people flew like angels.

And yet, I was bored. Why?

Because I didn’t care about the characters. There wasn’t enough about them to make them feel like actual people.

Readers meet these twins just as they are watching their parents battle in the sky and die. And the next thing you know these twins are now going to school to be Seraphim. We don’t really explore how such a traumatic event affects these two. They were growing up to be Seraphim, and they’re still going to be Seraphim. The first book almost immediately takes us away from whatever sort of everyday setting there could have been for the twins to process their grief so we could instead see “underdog kids in school” situations while they train to be Seraphim. Grief? What grief?

On school grounds, the twins are surrounded by cutouts like “snob boy,” “quiet girl,” “smart librarian,” “deceitful politician,” “kindly teacher.” And what really got me is that the very protagonists themselves never really grew out of such descriptions either: the girl Bree was eternally “out to prove herself,” and the boy Kael was eternally “thoughtful and supportive.” Even when the twins’ father who was thought dead in the first two books shows up in Book 3, there’s hardly any interaction between him and his children–and as a result, there’s hardly any emotional resonance. (spoiler alert) And since he also dies in Book 3, the aftershock of his loss amounts to…nothing.

In all of their epic battles, the characters never really transform. Even when the boy twin literally grows wings at one point, it never seems to matter because the girl twin’s got to prove herself again, so off she goes with his support to keep fighting and on and on.

Now for the record, we’ve all enjoyed plenty of stories where the characters don’t really change–heavens, I don’t read any given Poirot or Marple mystery by Agatha Christie for the character transformations. I read for the murder, mystery, and mayhem. The characters are just a part of that plot-puzzle. So, I tried to treat the Skyborn books that way as well–the characters were just pieces to lead me to the puzzle that was this world.

But I also feel like this was part of the problem: I wanted to care about these characters and this world. But since, outside of battles, this world interacted so little with the characters and vice versa, we never really got to see much beyond destruction. And considering the obvious care put into creating this world, this felt like a missed opportunity.

~*~

Now let’s flip to the character-centric.

Who is Fitzwilliam Darcy?

In An Assembly Such as This, Pamela Aidan finally answers that long-standing question. In this first book of her Fitzwilliam Darcy, Gentleman trilogy, she reintroduces us to Darcy during his visit to Hertfordshire with his friend Charles Bingley and reveals Darcy’s hidden perspective on the events of Pride and Prejudice. As Darcy spends more time at Netherfield supervising Bingley and fending off Miss Bingley’s persistent advances, his unwilling attraction to Elizabeth grows—as does his concern about her relationship with his nemesis, George Wickham.

Setting the story vividly against the colorful historical and political background of the Regency, Aidan writes in a style comfortably at home with Austen but with a wit and humor very much her own. Aidan adds her own cast of fascinating characters to those in Austen’s original, weaving a rich tapestry from Darcy’s past and present. Austen fans and newcomers alike will love this new chapter of the most famous romance of all time.

I found it fascinating to see Pride and Prejudice from a different set of eyes and it was particularly fun because, for those who may not remember, Darcy spends the first half of the book more or less skulking about and staring at Elizabeth. What on earth Darcy was thinking in all of that time? Through this retelling, we know it’s not just his observations of Elizabeth Bennet, but also his concerns as a big brother for his little sister Georgiana. Reading from Austen’s original narrator, we as readers do not learn until Darcy’s letter (halfway through the story) of the cad Mr. Wickham’s attempt to whisk Georgiana Darcy away with elopement. So in this retelling, it makes perfect sense that Darcy’s very worried about his sister from Chapter 1 onward, and the very sight of Wickham drives him to fear and anger. In the original Pride and Prejudice, we as readers just don’t understand that concern’s effect on Darcy’s actions in Meryton until later. In An Assembly Such as This, we see the motivations plain as day, and it helps us better understand why Darcy is as he is.

But then, there’s the second book.

The first book ends with the Netherfield ball, and the third book takes readers to Rosings Park and Darcy’s first–and disastrous–proposal to Elizabeth Bennet. So what the heck was going on in the second book?

Darcy goes to a rundown castle for what amounts to a bizarre gothic mystery. Darcy’s determined to find a woman of his own class to marry so he can forget about Elizabeth, so he visits a castle to hang out with a bunch of rich people. Only they are all being snobs, and then there’s some sort of haunting, and some sort of ritual sacrifice and kidnapping of children and just all sorts of mysterious whatnots that should be interesting.

Yet it wasn’t. Why?

The plot of this overall story arc has already been set. We know that this retelling can’t divert from the eventual coming together of Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet. Since it takes Elizabeth’s refusal for Darcy to finally reflect and grow as a character, his character does not really change during this second book, either. So we as readers are simply plowing through this gothic mystery to, essentially, “get back on track.”

And considering how this whole second book could have explored more of Regency England’s concepts of marriage and how such pressures can impact characters and transform them, this installment felt like a missed opportunity.

~*~

Perhaps THAT is my problem in all this. I’m a writer grumbling about the “missed opportunities” I see in other writers’ work when all along those stories aren’t mine to dictate. Perhaps all that author wanted to do was make lots of epic battles featuring angel-like people, or perhaps that other author just wanted to get a gothic mystery on paper and this was her moment. We all have a right to tell the stories we want to tell, so please, PLEASE, feel free to love those stories and approach your own tales your way.

For let’s face it–some readers just want those epic battles, or those dramatic interactions. And others still want to see what happens when vastly different genre elements get tossed together. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, anyone?

Gosh, this post is LONG.

Know what? We’ll break it off here and finish this off June 1st (I’ve an author interview planned for later this month–stay tuned for that!). In exploring books for my podcast, I did find a book that balances character and worldbuilding without sacrificing either, so we’ll cover that next time.

Plus, I will hold myself under this critical lens. Since I’m revamping Middler’s Pride for a novel release instead of its previous serial release, I need to make sure I’m also balancing the worldbuilding and character development to propel the story forward. Stay tuned!

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

#NewRelease Finds at the #Library on this #Podcast: #BeastsofaLittleLand by #JuheaKim

Welcome back, my fellow creatives! Winter is the perfect time to curl up in a blanket with a pile of books, and I can think of no better place to find those books than at the local library.

It’s all too easy to just meander over to my favorite sections, though, and 2022 is the year to try new things! So, for this series on Story Cuppings, I am only going to pick books from my library’s New Release shelf by the entrance. Those books could be of any genre, fiction or nonfiction. If it’s on that shelf, it’s game for a podcast!

Today I plucked from the New Release shelf:

Beasts of a Little Land by Juhea Kim

What does a reader experience in those opening pages, and what lessons can a writer take away in studying but a few paragraphs? Let’s find out!

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

I have to say that this book is a joy to read out loud. There is brevity here, yet so much said in so little space!

And say, what’s on the New Release shelf at your own local library? I’d love to know!

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

Can #TrickorTreat be Saved on this #Podcast? The #Halloween Tree by #RayBradbury

Welcome back, my fellow creatives! October is here for just a bit longer, so we’ve only a few nights more to enjoy reading tales deliciously eerie on chilly autumn evenings.

Today I return to an author I’ve discussed on occasion in years past, but this time I’m tasting something of his work I’ve never tasted before. With All Hallows Eve but a few days away, we simply must take a sip from The Halloween Tree by Ray Bradbury.

What does a reader experience in those opening pages, and what lessons can a writer take away in studying but a few paragraphs? Let’s find out!

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

You can click here to visit my past posts on Ray Bradbury. Studying the opening pages of Something Wicked This Way Comes was particularly edifying. 

November is a time of transformation and gratitude, so I cannot think of a better reason to return to sharing the indie authors who have been so kind in supporting my transformation as a writer. Come December…ah, December. Blondie and I have something fun in store for you lovely creative souls. xxxxxx

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

Now the #Witches Chase Us in This #Podcast: Begone the Raggedy Witches by @Celine_Kiernan

Welcome back, my fellow creatives! October has come, and with it the joy of reading tales deliciously eerie on chilly autumn evenings.

So let us break for a wee spell from the lovely indie fiction to venture down paths dark and mysterious. I’ve got some fun frights recommended to me by other neato book reviewers as well as some spooky stories by authors I’ve not had a chance to taste before. Today, the witches chase us on in Begone the Raggedy Witches by Celine Kiernan.

What does a reader experience in those opening pages, and what lessons can a writer take away in studying but a few paragraphs? Let’s find out!

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

I was honored to interview Celine back in 2018 about her art and writing. I hope you can take a gander at our chat–and at more of her books, too!

Stay tuned–one more sweet scare is on the way. x

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

#WritingMusic: #Music of the #Monsters

Welcome back, my fellow creatives! October’s been a time for monster movies in our house.

Oh, we’ve got our kid-friendly flicks like Wallace and Gromit’s Curse of the Were-Rabbit, but Bo’s also shown some more classic films to the kids, like Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein and the original King Kong. On a whim, Bo and I then watched the 1976 version of King Kong, and…well it’s got…it’s got some good things in it. But I will tell you right now that John Barry seemed stuck on James Bond mode when he scored this movie. And what on earth was the romance theme for the humans Dwan and Jack doing with Dwan and King Kong? AND when King Kong’s climbing places? AND when King Kong gets trapped? AND when he’s hurt? That flippin’ romance theme gets thrown around everywhere, and I’ll tell you right now–it does not make me think of a giant monster ape, let alone a giant monster ape to be scared of.

As Bo and I discussed music and monsters, it got me thinking about past scores I’ve shared here and how they helped create the terror in the stories they told–Ennio Morricone’s soundtrack for The Thing, for instance, or Thom Yorke’s soundtrack for Suspiria. As we creep ever closer to All Hallows Eve, it is time to visit more music that inspires the monster-maker in us, the scare-seeker in us. Let us walk down those misty, leaf-littered roads now, and see what we can find…

Photo © Sveta Sh / Stocksy United

Music is one of the most powerful elements in creating an aura of tension and fear. Oh sure, it may start as a simple technique exercise, but even a simple pattern of notes can develop into being one of the most iconic horror themes of the 20th century.

I know, I know. I’m not sharing the original soundtrack here, but the 2018 film’s score. That’s because that wily old fox John Carpenter developed the score, bringing the core of his simple themes into the 21st century with just enough new percussion and synth work to compliment the theme rather than drown it out.

A build on a pattern almost sounds too easy, doesn’t it? And yet this approach has worked for other monsters all too well.

Volume is the real killer here. Of course we can all picture that shark fin when hearing this theme, the volume increasing with the close of distance. Williams quickens the tempo slightly towards the song’s climax, but it’s the volume that truly stretches that tension to the point of snapping. The inevitable approach, the nearness, the size of the beast as his…well…his jaws–those beat upon us as those brass and drums beat ever louder.

Or maybe it’s the lack of steady approach that unnerves us.

Goldsmith’s score for Alien thrills with the trills of dissonant strings in the tense moments, but I find the true terror comes in the foreboding uncertainty of arrival. All is dark, broken, and cold. There is no harmony. There is no light. There is no sound but the breathing of man and what Goldsmith creates.

Dissonant strings are perfect for unease, but what of the minor harmonies? Do not the beautiful melodies haunt us as well? One of blog posts I wrote in my first year here (six years ago–heavens!) was about Philip Glass and his gift of haunting minor harmonies for the 1931 classic Dracula. Here is another selection of his creation for this film, and as you can hear, we once again have a minimal approach with instruments, but not with the music. The balance here is extremely intricate with the weavings of arpeggios to build tension amid the beauty and the tragedy.

Glass’ scores remind us that the music of the monsters needn’t slash at us or chase us to our deaths. Tragic beauty may call down upon us from the choir loft as the piano bids us to feel for this monster of hook and mirror. We have seen time and again that monsters are not just born, but made by man. By us.

And while the monsters we make may not always kill us, they do repulse us.

When the monster we make stands before us, we can no longer hide our darker natures. They are now walking, talking, for all to see and hear. We can no longer hide our darker natures from ourselves. It demands to be loved just as we do. And as Franz Waxman’s score blends the romantic strings, dissonant woodwinds, ominous brass, and steady pound of drums, we know all must march towards the inevitable tragic end. There is no heart-warming moment, for there there is no beating heart to love.

So keep listening, my fellow creatives, for the music of the monsters. Their songs call from faraway worlds, from forgotten castles, from frozen depths…and from the house four blocks away. They will come at soul’s midnight, and they will come hungry.

Are you ready?

You know me–I HAD to get Ray Bradbury in here again.

~STAY TUNED!~

When All Hallows Eve passes, National Novel Writing Month begins! Let’s talk humor writing and celebrating those 30 days and nights of literary abandon.

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

The #WitchingHour is Near in this #Podcast: Hex by @Olde_Heuvelt

Welcome back, my fellow creatives! October is here, and with it the joy of reading tales deliciously eerie on chilly autumn evenings.

Let us break for a wee spell from the lovely indie fiction to venture down paths dark and mysterious. I’ve got some fun frights recommended to me by other neato book reviewers as well as some spooky stories by authors I’ve not had a chance to taste before. Let us continue with Hex by Thomas Olde Heuvelt.

What does a reader experience in those opening pages, and what lessons can a writer take away in studying but a few paragraphs? Let’s find out!

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

Many thanks to Connie over at Seasons of Words for putting me on to this read! You can check out her kickin’ book review here.

Stay tuned–more sweet scares are on the way. x

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

#WriterProblems: When the #Worldbuilding Slows the #Storytelling

I certainly hope so, Mr. Bradbury, Sir.

Hello, my fellow creatives! Wisconsin’s a stubborn one where changing seasons is concerned. One wakes to chilly frost and clouds of breath, but by afternoon one’s ready for shorts and squirt gun chases round the yard. It won’t be long, though, before Autumn paints our forests, and the smells of smoke and harvest fill the air, air perfumed by the Autumn People…

But let us speak of them a smidge more next time when we dare to listen to music of the monsters. For now, let us speak of a crafting quandary that I’m sure many of you have fallen into over the years: When is the worldbuilding too much?

I found myself deep in this muck when working on a short story for my university’s literary journal. I shared the first part of it last month when I discussed local urban legends (well, more like “rural” legends) like the Hodag and the Janesville Doll, but I’ll share it again here so we can focus on the craft angle.

BLUE HOUSE DARE

You stand outside Blue House with a chocolate bar in one hand and a pocketknife in the other. I’m behind the light pole, where the attic window’s light cannot reach. I try to tell you how important it is that The Doll shouldn’t see you first, how the attic light itself is how The Doll touches the world beyond Blue House, but you don’t care. You’re new here. You have something to prove here. I do not.

Cam and his gang go quiet from their hiding place under the Sunderson Porch. Everyone knows the Sundersons have the only house older than Blue House because of the fire back in 1887, so anyone brave enough to watch a Blue House Dare always hides somewhere on or near the Sunderson Porch. That half a dozen juniors can squeeze themselves under there is beyond me. All I know is I will not fit with them and that you should have said No.

You think we’re stupid for being afraid. I saw it in your face when our bus stopped for the stop sign outside Blue House this morning and everyone—everyone—went quiet except for you. Sure, you thought it was something you said at first, but then you noticed us all looking away from Blue House.

Don’t look, I whispered. Never look at Blue House from a bus. It looks for eyes.

So of course you looked with your bright green eyes.

Why? You didn’t even whisper. It’s just a shitty house with garbage in the windows. Is that—fuck, what is that?

Only after the bus turned onto School Street away from Blue House did anyone else say anything, let alone breathe.

There’s, like, this eyeless doll in a noose at the top window. The hell is up with that? You asked, and laughed. One of Cam’s gang was sitting in front of us—the shock of white hair above the ear marks all of them. His glare shut you up quick enough.

Stories move quickly through a small school in a small town. Maybe if you had moved in next door during summer, I could have prepared you better. But your family didn’t arrive until yesterday, and they sent you out this morning assuming small town equals safe town.

Idiots.

Let’s pause here.

380 words so far. My intention was to treat this story as flash fiction, which meant I was already nearing the halfway mark of my word limit. So far, I’ve got characters, setting, and conflict–yay! I had started in action, and the flashback gave me opportunity for a bit of context before returning to the action…but wait.

Part of me really wanted to see a history behind Blue House. The setting felt isolated, a single puzzle piece to an Any-where. Could this be an Any-where sort of town like the Janesville Doll, or did there need to be something more here, something dark and sticky beneath the surface?

Oooo, let’s try dark and sticky, I think. Let’s explore the history a bit. Perhaps…oh, perhaps this is a land quite unlike ours, perhaps something like a modern fantasy land with cars and things, but magic, too….rather like the story-world I fixed up in The Final Tampering of Madame Midsomer, a short story I enjoyed creating a couple years back. I’ve always loved the idea of a collection of stories set in a world. A chance to meander, as it were, and see how a single world creates so many unique experiences. This could be such a tale, one sharing the world with Midsomer! That would take some worldbuilding….

You walked into the cafeteria with long strides, pissed and arrogant. Maybe you figured everyone would look up to you, The One Who Wasn’t Afraid. But they weren’t. No one would look you in the eye when you approached the tables except for me and Cam. But I made sure to grab you and sit as far away from Cam as possible. Not that anyone else dared sit by us anyway. They’d all written you off for dead by then.

What are you doing here? Dumb question. I had to make more sense. Seriously, what is your family doing here? Failed there, too, but you humored me.

It’s so stupid. Dad was up there in Dragonlord Manufacturing until he pissed off the top boss, fuck all if I know how because he just tells me to shut up and pack up, we gotta go to Finis Gate. You slice up an apple and pull a chocolate bar out of your pocket, pairing a square with a slice to pop in your mouth. Mom makes videos about fixing houses so she just grabbed the crappiest place here to live in. ‘Cept for that shit Blue—

You laughed when I stabbed the table with a knife. Must be a normal thing to do at Capitalis schools. Don’t talk about that place or what’s in it.

But what IS in it? Y’all act like I burned cats alive.

IT is…Finis Gate’s penance. I had no choice. I had to rush the details while Cam made his way over. Five generations back, a witch birthed a son during a Hunter’s Moon. You know the saying about kids born under a Hunter’s Moon: they’re born for Death’s Hunt.

No laugh from you that time. Yeah.

Kid kept talking to the dead and scaring everyone. Town threatened the witch to leave Finis Gate or else, but she wouldn’t. Neighborhood kids taunted him from the sidewalk, like, showing him how they’d hurt him if he ever left his house. People just figured the witch would take her boy and leave to get away from the crap, but—

Cam nicked a bit of chocolate away from you. You didn’t like that, either. The witch-boy hung himself in the attic instead. He stuck that chocolate into one cheek of his mouth and folded his arms as he leaned against the windowsill by our table. Witch Wrath. It’s a bitch.

Some extra Bradbury, just because. 🙂

Notice how the first part (ending with “Idiots”) began in the present and then moved into a brief flashback. The new addition after “Idiots” adds plenty of worldbuilding, sure. It has a sense of the fantasy realm to it, what with “Dragonlord Manufacturing” and a town’s acceptance of a curse from a witch long dead (they think). It shares a sense of history for why the Blue House is feared and a source of its power. The scene also deepens the conflict between the new kid (“You”) and Cam, which can further justify following through on such a dangerous dare.

However…oh, however. This addition added another 400 words. On average, flash fiction can’t exceed 1000 words. I barely have enough space to finish the story, let alone flesh out this world. And there’s another major problem with this draft, too: pacing.

The story has spent far more time in flashback than in the present. The pacing of the story was set in those first couple of paragraphs in the here and now, but afterwards we spent hundreds of words not in the now, but in the past that’s already done and gone. And with only 100 words left to return to the present, the story itself will feel incredibly lopsided. Ergo, the pacing of the story is completely off-balance.

Time to try again. Let’s rewind ourselves back, back to the narrator calling the new kid’s parents Idiots.

Do we go back to the present then and there?

I’d like to, but we’ve not seen the new kid actually take the dare. We’ve not seen the wager, and the present action is due to that “Blue House Dare.”

So, we must venture into another flashback, but it must be brief.

The story of your laughter got Cam’s attention. Of course it did. Cam’s used to getting off on scaring littles with the legend of a witch’s blind son who was so ridiculed by the town that he hung himself in the attic. He’s used to getting kids so scared of that Blue House that at least one will piss himself on the next bus ride passed Blue House. He’s not used to an audience his age, let alone getting mocked in return.

Because you just had to laugh. You dipshits are scared of a doll and some lights?

Cam pointed to his own shock of white hair. We thought it was shit, too. Until we faced The Doll.

It bleaches your hair. Nice.

It fucking claws for your eyes, you douchebag.

And not whatever freak lives in the house?

No one lives in Blue House but the witch. Take the Dare and find out.

I pried you two apart, not that it did any good. Fuck off, Cam, not everyone’s gotta throw themselves at the witch to prove something.

But apparently I do, you said, so bloody sure of yourself.

Idiot.

191 words. I managed to get the witch in, though the Why and When have been removed. That bums me out, but when it comes to worldbuilding in a flash fiction structure, one just cannot say All The Things. One has to leave some things a mystery. And while this is a flashback, it is a quick-moving dialogue between Cam and the new kid. It sets the dare in motion. It shows the new kid’s cock-sure attitude, which also helps us know why the kid’s standing in front of Blue House. And the pacing no longer lags in history, but instead quickens in the snap-exchange between two teenagers.

And best of all, we now have a little over 400 words left to us to return to the present and get back into the action. That is a far, far better balance of past/present than before!

Let’s return to the now, shall we? And best be clear about the now-ness, too. A connecting detail will help.

You toss your candy wrapper to the ground and open the pocketknife. The click silences the crickets and whispers across the street. You look at the half-dead maple Cam told you about and the worn knot where his gang each took their first step on the climb upwards. He didn’t mention that the maple’s been half-dead since the 1887 fire, too, like so much of this forsaken town. The only living branches are those that touch Blue House, so those are the ones you climb.

I can’t watch you. I can’t.

Something is moving in Blue House.

Not in the attic. Not, at least, from what the dim, angular light shares on the sidewalk. The Doll’s shadow barely, just, sways, from the noose, like it always does.

No, Blue House itself, something moves in its walls away from the shuttered windows. Behind the dead vines and chipped paint there is—I hear it—an inhale.

Or it’s from me because your foot slipped, I don’t know.

But those shutters, it feels like they’re the eyes, not the eyelids, watching me, Cam and everyone. Like they’re glaring at the Sunderson Porch for having survived the punishing flames that destroyed everything else. I’m too damn close, but I cannot, will not, move, let alone shout at you to get the fuck down and live, dammit.

You slide yourself along the branch running parallel to the attic window. The pocketknife blade glints the cursed light.

I stare at you, beg you with my eyes to please come down don’t DON’T.

You wave like this is all some lark.

A damned lark.

The sound of your body scraping along the branch grates my ears. The attic light’s got your legs. You tap the windowsill with the tip of the pocketknife and grin at me.

The Doll’s shadow stops swaying.

I shake my head, shake it hard, shaking it like it’s going to come off my shoulders you have to GET OUT but if I talk, will the witch hear me? I don’t know I’ve never seen anyone TAP the windowsill let alone TOUCH THE GLASS. I even hear Cam crawl out of his space and hiss, Stop! STOP!

You laugh. Why? It’s open. You slip in.

The attic light flickers off.

Never have we seen the attic window dark. We cannot see The Doll. We cannot see you.

Cam and I stare and strain for something, anything.

Anything but silence.

The attic light flickers on.

The window is closed.

And The Doll looks upon us all with bright green eyes.

End of story. 997 words.

On the one hand, I feel good about it. If you have any input on making this tale more awesome, please let me know! I kept it under 1000 words. The story has a clear ending, complete with return to the new kid’s “bright green eyes.” (Pretty proud of that, to be honest.)

And yet I feel a smidge disappointed. Not a lot, but still. I had wanted this sleight of hand with the witch and the new kid. When I wrote that addition about Finis Gate, the Dragonlord Manufacturing and the witch’s son, I imagined the “Hunter’s Moon” saying to create some sort of connection between the doll and the new kid, one that could be turned upon Finis Gate in an epic final reckoning.

But epic reckonings are rather hard to put into 1000 words. (At least for me.)

I lamented to dear school friend and fellow indie author Anne Clare. Being the wise soul that she is, Anne had the solution. “Well why can’t you have it both ways? You did the flash fiction for your university. Now do the longer version for something else.”

See, this is why writers need friends. 🙂

OF COURSE! In order for the story to be flash fiction, the conflict and worldbuilding had to be as minimal as possible. Since the conflict of the dare is the driving force and not the world, the interactions of characters had more priority than the worldbuilding of the town. As a regular short story, though, I’ve got another 500-1000 words at my disposal to provide more worldbuilding and history while also re-tooling the motivations of the characters. How curious that one story-start could travel such very different paths! Have you ever found yourself at a crossroads of storytelling? I’d love to hear about it!

And so, my fellow creatives, I am looking forward to traveling through Finis Gate and learning more about this witch of Blue House. May your own journeys down story-roads lead you to unexpected detours…or, perhaps, past less traveled places you mark on your maps for later.

~STAY TUNED!~

It’s been a while since we talked about music! And I’ve some more chatting with indie authors to share, as well as that long-awaited discussion about humor writing. I’m not avoiding it, promise.

(Well maybe a little because I feel so very inexperienced in discussing it, but consarnit, one must rise to the challenge!)

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

The #Writing #Inspiration Found in Local Lore

Huzzah, fall is here at last! My favorite season of sunlight caught in autumn leaves and chilled breezes. Granted, summer had its highlights. My family met with fellow indie author Anne Clare’s family in July for a day, and it was…oh, just a day to fill the heart. Our kids played together, Bo got to catch up with his longtime friend, Anne’s husband, and I got to sit and talk with Anne about life, storytelling, reading–the lot.

Just a couple of creative kindreds. 🙂 Love ya, Anne! xxxxx

Bo and I also took our three Bs northward to Eagle River for a few days of mini-golf, fishing, and swimming. No Paul Bunyan days, sadly, but it’s probably for the best that I didn’t bring Biff and Bash near any chainsaws.

The one morning my kids slept in: a dawn all to myself.

Actually, that trip northward is why I changed my topic for today’s post. I originally intended to discuss everyday absurdities and how they can play nicely into humor writing (don’t worry, we will get to that before 2021 is over), but visiting a Wisconsin “monster” got me thinking about the oddities created where we are and how they can inspire our storytelling.

Back in October 2018 I shared a few of Wisconsin’s peculiarities with the fantastic author Shehanne Moore. This land is the birthplace of an infamous source of inspiration for horror and suspense icons. Tucked among the rocks is a house so strange the gods didn’t even believe it could be real. The state’s stunning natural beauty hides dangers both imagined and…well, “discovered” by lumberjacks.

I wasn’t able to touch much on the history of this local monster in previous posts, so allow me to share a few highlights from The LaCrosse Tribune. The beast was first mentioned in the news back in 1893 by a lumberjack named Gene Shepard. Reports transitioned from killing hodags to capturing a live one that was then exhibited at a county fair in Rhinelander, Wisconsin. Was the beast real? Well, its hide was made of actual animal hides, so there’s that. It also moved about in its cage (thanks to the puppetry work done by Shepard’s friends), causing many to cry out in fear as they were shuffled quickly through the small, dim tent “for their safety.” Shepard did confess to his prank…well, after East Coast newspapers picked up on his story and hailed it as a scientific discovery. Shepard’s life took a downturn, and Rhinelander did not mourn his death in 1923. After about a decade, though, the town started to take a liking once more to the Hodag, using it as a mascot for schools, businesses, and the town itself. You can get a really nice detailed history from this Wausau Daily Herald article if you’re interested.

Why oh why would Shepard make up something like this Hodag, and how on earth could the story have been considered legit? First, there are Native American legends to give a bit of history to this “discovery.” The Anishinaabe spoke of an “underwater panther” called the Mishibizhiw, whose depictions in art strike a number of similarities to the Hodag. Lumberjacks could have easily seen such art and spread the tale through the woods of Canada and down into the Midwest. The Wausau Daily Herald article then notes that the lumber industry was stagnating at that point in Wisconsin, and in the North Woods, the lumber industry was EVERYTHING. Plus, it’s important to add that towns in the northern half of Wisconsin are often very small, and very widespread among the forests there. Wisconsin’s got a lot of farmland, sure, but that mainly lies in the southern half of the state. North, only small farms took hold in the wilderness. In fact, driving by such farms in my youth inspired one of the settings in my Fallen Princeborn series. They are isolated and alone in the unknown, and when one’s walled in among endless tall pines, maples, oaks, and birches, the calls of cougars, bears, wolves, and eagles can sound like just about anything.

Imagination is a powerful thing. All it takes is a single sight, a single sound, a single story to manifest into that which cannot be forgotten. Even if the legend transforms year to year, its root remains the same.

Or in another case, its face.

A lone doll in an attic window may not sound like much of a story, but in a small, isolated town in Minnesota, that doll has been the source of many stories ghostly and tragic. The Janesville Doll, as it is known, sat in this window for decades. It watched my parents travel to Minnesota for college. It watched me travel to Minnesota for graduate school.

Oh yes. I saw this doll, and I saw it often. It was impossible not to when driving at night through Janesville and the only light upon the street came from that attic window. The doll transformed into a dark specter at night, its features lost until dawn. Some say it walked the attic. Some say it cried out in the night. Some say it was a memorial created by parents who regretted isolating their daughter from the town only to discover her hanged in her room. Some say the doll was an old man’s revenge against the community after its children mocked his disabled grandson and drove the child to hang himself. Some say it was just a curious discovery by a local antique collector who wanted to display something in the attic window and left it there. Some say the truth is locked away in the town’s time capsule, only to be revealed in a hundred years.

No matter what some say, the legend left its porcelain handprint upon the Midwestern imagination. Years later I still think upon that doll, and I think on what could be–not likely, and yet–true.

BLUE HOUSE DARE

You stand outside Blue House with a candy bar in one hand and a pocket knife in the other. I’m behind the light pole, where the attic window’s light cannot reach. I try to tell you how important it is that The Doll shouldn’t see you first, how the attic light itself is how The Doll touches the world beyond Blue House, but you don’t care. You’re new here. You have something to prove here. I do not.

Cam and his gang go quiet from their hiding place under the Sunderson Porch. Everyone knows the Sundersons have the only house older than Blue House because of the fire back in 1903, so anyone brave enough to watch a Blue House Dare always hides somewhere on or near the Sunderson Porch. That a bunch of football players can squeeze themselves under there is beyond me. All I know is I will not fit with them and that you should have said No.

You think we’re stupid for being afraid. I saw it in your face when our bus stopped for the stop sign outside Blue House this morning and everyone—everyone—went quiet except for you. Sure, you thought it was something you said at first, but then you noticed us all looking away from Blue House.

Don’t look, I whispered. Never look at Blue House from a bus. It looks for eyes.

So of course you looked with your bright green eyes.

Why? You didn’t even whisper. It’s just a shitty house. Is that…fuck, there’s a doll in the window. Shit, that’s creepy.

Only after the bus turned onto School Street away from Blue House did anyone else say anything, let alone breathe.

The hell is wrong with you? You asked, even laughed. One of Cam’s gang was sitting in front of us—the shock of white hair above the right ear marks all of them. His glare shut your laugh up quick enough.

Stories move quickly through a small school in a small town. Maybe if you had moved in during summer, I could have prepared you better. But your family didn’t arrive until yesterday, and they sent you out this morning assuming small town equals safe town.

Idiots.

Comments or feedback on the tale so far? It’s a strange yet delightful pleasure, writing these Outer Limits style stories. 🙂 Perhaps a look into your own local lore will uncover peculiar tales that are bound to spark something new in your storytelling, something strange, something that could not be told anywhere else but where you are.

Time to start digging.

~STAY TUNED!~

I’m really excited to share the rest of this story with you next month, as well as a little conundrum I have with worldbuilding here. Another author interview is on its way, too! Plus, Blondie promises to share some of her latest story with us, and yes, I AM going to talk about humor for realsies. After watching my children interact with a Hodag, how can I not?

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

#PrideMonth continues with another #YAFantasy #Podcast for my Fellow #Readers and #Writers: #BeyondtheBlackDoor by #AMStrickland

Good morning, my fellow creatives! Before my new students swamp me with first-day questions, let’s continue our fantasy lit journey through Pride Month with Beyond the Black Door by A.M. Strickland.

What does a reader experience in those opening pages, and what does a writer learn? Let’s find out!

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

I hope you enjoy this sip from Beyond the Black Door with me! If there are any stories you would like to recommend for sipping on this podcast, let me know in the comments below! I’d also welcome reading any indie authors’ own stories.

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

Start #PrideMonth with #Magic and #Mayhem on this #Podcast: #Spellhacker by #MKEngland

Happy Wednesday, one and all! I’ve continued exploring unique fantasy reads, this time in the spirit of Pride Month. Let’s begin June with Spellhacker by M.K. England.

Let’s take a sip together to taste this urban world where magic is not…well it’s not your typical magical world.

 If the embedded link recording is not showing up, you can click here to access the podcast site.

If you’d like to recommend a read for the podcast, let me know in the comments below! I’d welcome reading any indie authors’ stories as well. x

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