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.
Happy Wednesday, one and all! I just had to get one more podcast out before Wyrd and Wonder comes to a close. Today I picked up a story recommended to me by another fantasy fiction fan: Joust by Mercedes Lackey.
If you’d like to recommend a read for the podcast, let me know in the comments below! I’ve been hunting down some intriguing fantasy fiction tied to Pride Month, and there’s a classic Juneteenth novel I’m excited to try, too. As always, I’d welcome reading any indie authors’ stories as well. x
I have written about The Hobbit’s worldbuilding before. If you’d like to read about that, click here.
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. I keep discovering more and more fantasy books I’d like to try, so perhaps we’ll stick with fantasy? Or perhaps not! I’m enjoying the promise of possibility far too much. x
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. Let’s all enjoy different genres and styles of storytelling throughout the year, shall we? xxxxxx
Happy Wednesday, one and all! I’ve officially got the first episode of my podcast done and done. To help celebrate Wyrd and Wonder–and because it’s just been recommended so gosh darn much–I chose to start with Raybearer by Jordan Ifueko. 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 together.
I hope you enjoy this sip from the story with me. Any feedback on the podcast itself will also be greatly appreciated, as I hope to make this a weekly thing. x
Welcome back, fellow creatives! I hope spring brings you days of renewal and hope. I’m in a daze with all the conference work for university, but there’s light at the end of the tunnel! With the right music and support, I can pace myself to reach that light.
We all learned when we were wee that music carries a special storytelling power. Maybe there was that one movie soundtrack you listened to over and over again to relive your favorite scenes. Maybe there was a favorite musical where the songs of characters help tell the story, or an opera where the emotions of instruments and characters alike blended into one voice. I was very much a soundtrack child, but my father’s love of New Age music had its influences on me, too, and one album in particular got a play on our stereos: David Arkenstone‘s Quest of the Dream Warrior.
Now you may be wondering why I titled this blog post Two Steps from Hell and here I’m sharing New Age from the 90s. Hold yer hightops, I’m getting there.
In a highly, highly visually-charged culture like the U.S. of A., engaging in music that told a story–no stage, no movie, no book, just music–felt very unique to me as kid. Music like this feels more…more open to the possibility of telling multiple stories. Yes, Arkenstone had one story in mind when he composed the music, but because the visuals of the story were left to the audience, I felt like I could take those sounds and make a story of my own. (I did, too. It involved a band of bandits helping a kid thwart an evil sorcerer. At one point he became a giant eagle for coolness. Wonder where that story is…Anyway.)
This is where Thomas Bergersen comes in. Another kid from a small town, though his is in Norway. Just another soul who loved music. But while I enjoyed taking my lessons and then moving to words, Bergersen taught himself composition and orchestration. In the mid-2000s He partnered with Nick Phoenix, a composer based in the States, and together they created Two Steps from Hell. Their music has appeared in loads of movie trailers like Batman v. Superman, but I’d rather focus on their albums here, for what is this month of May but a time to celebrate the fantasy storytelling we love?
Yes, my friends, Wyrd and Wonder is back! Let us see how story-music of others may inspire your own storytelling.
Perhaps your characters are on a journey through a land of light and mystery. Perhaps danger runs as freely as the river alongside their road. Can’t you feel it in the strings, in the herald of the brass singing in the air?
Oh, don’t let the synth take you out of this moment. One of my favorite elements of Two Steps from Hell is their ability to bring voice and synth together with the orchestra. There is a timelessness here, a genre-bending that allows the music to reach those in the future, the past, or an Elsewhere altogether.
Like the sea. Perhaps your characters are not upon the land at all, but upon the water, their ship leaping with the crest of every tumultuous wave as they close in upon the enemy before it can attack the innocents ashore.
Fear is cast overboard as your characters take to the cannons, take to the ropes, take to the enemy’s hull and climb, swords divine with sunlight as they battle the enemy from hull to stern.
Two Steps from Hell have several albums available, and I wish dearly I could review them all here. While all albums are epic, each also carries its own identity. Dragon brings such an air to it through the strings without synth, for instance, while Skyworld embraces that synth to add the presence of technology to the setting. Dragon‘s trilling strings show us the dragon wings beating in large, sweeping motions. It cuts the clouds as the warring windjammers upon the water. When the violins run their scales downwards, you know the dragon is diving…to aid? To conquer? It is up to you, storytellers.
For that is the joy of music such as this. It is up to us to create the story, to share what we see when the story is told. Whether the story takes us on a journey of swashbuckling under the sun or through the shadowed realm of our own grief, music guides us into the unknown on wings of hope.
These are the days where we celebrate Impossiblity’s rightful place in our imaginations. All is never truly lost if we take heart. Even the courage of one soul can be enough to vanquish the darkness and rise a legend.
I’m really excited to share my pilot podcast episode next week! We’ll study the story-starts of some fantasy books throughout May–for of course we must–and hopefully by the end of May we’ll know if this hair-brained scheme of mine is, um, you know, going to work, and what have you.
I’ve got a publisher interview coming up as well as some ponderings about names and the importance of oral storytelling in the home. Blondie is also finishing up the illustrations for her story to share here about The Four Realms, which makes my heart smile.
A good morrow to you, my fellow creatives! The cold clouds of April blanket my Wisconsin skies these days. The world is a palette of tans and browns, the wee specks of new green, new life, just barely peeking.
There is, however, always new life to be found in our words. I’m excited to share an indie author who has planted a number of stories across multiple publications. My friends, please welcome Rob D. Scott!
Let’s work through the niceties first. Tell us a bit about yourself, please!
I live in Edinburgh and work in a community college. I only started creative writing three years ago, which is crazy. I should have started years ago. That’s life.
It was winter and a period of really awful weather. I started writing a novel for something to do and out of curiosity. I enjoyed it, so kept going. I read books about writing, did a short on-line course, and started submitting short stories to on-line magazines and competitions while I worked on my first novel (which is now hiding in a cupboard). I’ve started a second one, which will hopefully turn out much better.
I find a lot of writing inspiration in the rural landscape of my state, Wisconsin. How would you say the urban setting of Edinburgh—or the countryside of Scotland—inspire your storytelling?
Edinburgh is a beautiful, amazing city and so many writers have used it. I haven’t that much yet. The countryside is more likely to find their way into my stories.
I usually start a new piece of writing using a memory (recent or distant) of a place or moment; that might be in the city or countryside. I write it almost as a factual description and the story develops from there. Stephen King in his book ‘On Writing’ talks about fossils that writers dig up and that’s what I feel I do. Once I find the right fossil, it soon turns into fiction; (to mix my metaphors) it’s like a paper ship floating down a stream. I just go with it and see where it goes. I might have an idea where it’ll end up, but not always.
What literary pilgrimages have you gone on?
When I was twenty-one, I went for a job interview in a town at the other end of the country just so I could visit the Thomas Hardy museum there. That’s not very ethical – especially as they paid for my travel and a hotel! I was first in the museum in my horrible new interview suit and I lingered there too long and was late for the interview. I didn’t get the job, but the museum was great and the countryside from the train ride was amazing. I had forgotten all about that. I should write that up as a story!
Someday, I’ll visit the USA and go to lots of writers’ houses and museums. Carson McCullers is a big favourite, so I would maybe head down there first.
As you should! 🙂 Nothing saps my creativity like a telephone call from my children’s school principal. What is your writing Kryptonite, and how do you overcome it?
I really have no excuses not to produce thousands of words every day. I work but I have free time; especially in lockdown. I am amazed how people with busy lives and family responsibilities (like yourself) manage to write.
Although I don’t think I could live without it now, writing is not the top of my priorities. Work, other people, a day in the countryside, a trip to the cinema, etc make me put down my pen. Life comes first, writing second.
Have you read anything that made you think differently about fiction?
I just absolutely love this Ray Bradbury quote:
“Love. Fall in love and stay in love. Write only what you love, and love what you write. The key word is love. You have to get up in the morning and write something you love, something to live for.”
As an amateur/beginner writer, this makes a lot of sense, and is great advice – I guess for successful authors as well. We’re all different – so just do your thing. Give it your best shot. Try to find something that’s meaningful to you in some way to keep yourself going through the trickier times.
Your encouragement here reminds me of the theme of hope I see in your flash fiction “Goodbye, Frenetikov.” The beautiful level of detail in the beginning uniquely balances with the uncertainty felt in the end. Do you find yourself drawn to themes uplifting to readers, or do you take readers into the darker feeling as well?
Thank you for your comments. I wrote a few very sad stories during lockdown. I think I’m out of that, now. In fact, I’ve just started writing a longer piece, and before I started, I decided that it should be something with a very positive theme. If I am going to spend the next few months on it, given what’s happening in the world right now, I feel that’s where I would like to spend my writing time.
In writing short fiction, you have to hook readers to care about characters, ground them in your story’s setting, and leave them pondering about your story’s end all within a few hundred to a thousand words. (“You Die If You Worry” comes to mind.) Can you walk us through the process of crafting your fiction’s pacing and language to accomplish so much so quickly?
I am very much learning the craft and that there are many different ways to produce a successful short story. The word-length requirements (e.g. 300, 500, 750, 1000, 1500, 2000) can influence the plan. I usually write the story to its best, natural length and worry about where to submit to later.
If I pick up a collection of published short stories, what strikes me is the quality of each line, the language. So that is the number one goal for me; the quality of each sentence, the appeal and magic of the jumble of words. For the structure, I really only think in terms of a beginning, middle and ending. You get in the car, start it up, go for a drive and stop somewhere. Apart from that, there is so much variety in short fiction – anything goes. For example, you might have no dialogue or almost all dialogue in a story.
With very short fiction it can be frustrating not being able to fully flesh out character, setting etc, in the way a novel allows you to, but equally that provides much of the fun and challenge of the form – perhaps like poetry – to find evocative/resonant ways to hint at what’s missing, the spaces in between.
You are published in a wide variety of literary magazines and anthologies. Do you have any favorites you’d like to recommend?
The ones that accepted me are the best, of course!
HA! Sorry, go on. 🙂
There really is something for every taste out there. Much of my experience of the writing for the literary world has been for on-line magazines. The creativity and quality right across the board is very impressive.
I have to say Popshotmagazine is just a beautiful object, as well as the great writing. It’s a lovely paper magazine with poetry, fiction and illustrations. I was lucky to get in there once. They commissioned an illustrator to produce something to accompany my short story, which was just amazing – that someone would do that.
Thank you for the recommendation! I’ll have to check them out. What would you consider to be common traps for aspiring writers? I imagine there are a few when it comes to short fic submissions.
I had to learn a lot about the technical side of things – voice, point of view, plot and so on. I think it’s good to remember there is a lot to learn (I notice in your other interviews, writers say this, too).
In terms of submitting to litmags, not understanding at first why you get so many rejections can prove very disheartening. And it would be a great shame if beginner writers gave up because of that.
You learn that you have to know your audience and the market to give yourself a chance, so submitting to the right sort of magazines is important. That means reading the stories in the magazines to guess if yours might work for them, which is both enjoyable and a great way to learn from other writers’ work.
I must mention editors here because they really are the superheroes, along with their ‘readers’. They often do the job for love not money and are the people who choose your story. So be nice to them! And when you submit, follow all of their guidelines very carefully about format, word length and so on.
If you’re lucky they will help and even give a little advice. For some reason, I’ve found sci-fi editors to be especially supportive – or perhaps they’re just super-skilled at letting people down gently! I’ve been trying to ‘find a home’ for a couple of sci-fi stories since I started writing, with no luck. When I started, I kept a folder of ‘nice rejections’ to cheer myself up when the piles of rejections got too much.
I think one useful tip is that if there is a ‘themed call’ for an issue, you might have a better chance with that if you have a story to fit the theme.
As an indie author who is also having a go at lit mag submissions, I’d love to ask about your process in searching magazines and sending multiple pieces. Do you find yourself writing your stories first and then finding magazines that fit the story, or do you scope out the magazine themes first and then craft stories to fit them? I noticed you recently published in a “lockdown” themed anthology, for example.
Good luck with your submissions.
I usually write my story then look for a place to submit. The word length is a big decider on where to submit to, along with the house-style of the magazine.
Calls for submissions for a themed issue – with prompts such as ‘Road trip’, ‘First love’ or ‘Winter’ – can be a great way to get going on a story that you can end up submitting to more than one place or developing into something longer. The theme of the ‘Lockdown’ anthology I was published in fitted with something I was writing at the time and I spotted their call.
The submission pages are crucial. They describe the type of story they are looking for and often say ‘read some of our stories to get a feel of what we’re looking for’. That’s a must, but it’s also great to read the stories. You mentioned, Jean, that you’re inspired by the countryside – there are litmags that have a specific focus on that.
After three years of submitting, I have a much better idea of who might consider or accept a particular type of story.
Having said all of that, it is an amazing, random-feeling process, of being in the right place, at the right time, with a story that appeals to a particular editor, in terms of what they are looking for right then. Getting published anywhere – no matter how big or small – is an enormous thrill, but of course you set targets and have favourites you aim to get into.
Receiving acceptances are tremendously encouraging and validating. There really is nothing else like it. There’s more than a little ego and pride involved there, of course. But, it’s also reward for hard work and effort. And for not giving up.
Let’s wrap up with a little inspiration. Writing and reading can, to me, be a transformative experience. Do you view writing as a kind of spiritual practice?
Yes, in a way. It is certainly a deeply personal process, and also both reflective and instinctive. I often find it quite meditative, even therapeutic. It can be fulfilling and quite emotional at times – as you go through your imagined characters’ experiences. Although it’s a solitary activity you are very engaged with memories and thoughts of other people and the world.
Maybe it sounds corny, but I think words and the way they can be strung together really are magical. It expresses who we are.
Making the connection with a reader is very special too – even if you never meet them beyond a ‘like’ on Twitter or Facebook, or a purchased magazine. The thought that people read your work and find something interesting, rewarding, enjoyable makes the whole process more of a communal, shared activity. It must be great to have people buy your book because they know your work and love your characters. That’s something to aim for in future, for me.
A beautiful encouragement we all should aspire to, Rob. Thank you so much for sharing your time and thoughts here!
I’m super stoked to share an interview from a new SFF publisher as well some amazing music to inspire the epic adventurer within you. There’s also a side project of mine in the works that is so close to “publication”…
Every semester I encourage my newest group of students to read for fun to improve their writing skills, but then here I am, not getting much reading in. Oh, I’d just tell myself the excuse that if I commit to a book, I want to get something out of it as a reader and a writer, and how am I to know what book will give me that? I’ll just watch what my favorite book bloggers recommend and just go from there.
But that doesn’t force me to commit to reading, and that’s just not cool. Sure, time has always been that elusive treasure in this life as a mother, teacher, and writer. That’s not an excuse, though. Besides, there are plenty of other writers with jobs who don’t have much time to read and–
And so, I decided to start a podcast.
Please watch for updates in May while I get this wee podcast off the ground. x
I’d like to continue on this path today, as this pandemic has kept many in their homes. Some homes are in the midst of a bustling city, others out in the middle of nowhere. I’m not in one, but not quite the other, either. My town has neighborhoods (including one on the other side of the tracks), two gas stations, two bars, a library, and a post office. (We shan’t discuss the curious carnival or rock shop today…or the RV campground someone thought would be great to build between a cornfield and old industrial area. Yup, that’s scenic, all right.)
My town, you could say, is small. Built around a river mill and railroad, like so many other rural towns in this country. Just one of thousands, right? The kind teens are so determined to escape to “find themselves” elsewhere.
Well in all my travels through all the small towns as a kid, two towns always struck me as a little weird. Oh, they looked fine from the car: post offices, gas stations, bars, maybe a little general store, or a mechanic operating out of a shoddy barn. Bait and/or feed supplies. Houses of old siding and older brick with uneven sidewalks and prim gardens. The park playgrounds have lost their happy colors, the benches more often used for sharing crude notes than motherly conversations. I didn’t understand those notes as a kid, thinking them a sort of secret code. I bet such notes could be a secret code in a future story, couldn’t they? We’re so quick to dismiss such scrawlings as adults. We complain that the benches should be replaced, or at least painted. Then we remember that small towns often can’t afford such frivolities, and we let it all pass out of mind, just as we let the small towns we drive by pass from our minds.
Except, for me, the Ashippuns.
Let me explain.
First, there would be Old Ashippun.
Then, barely a few miles later, there would be…Ashippun.
Why on earth are there two Ashippuns, and why are they so close to one another? Was there some vicious family feud? Did someone lose land in a legendary poker game? I bet if you look at your state, province, county, parish, etc., you may just find your own version of the Ashippuns, too. Perhaps their origin stories tell the tales of escaped convicts, smuggled ales, or buried treasure. Or, perhaps their origins are blandly pleasant, full of nothing but nice people nicely settling down to build a nice town just a little ways up from the other nice town.
Are the Wisconsin Ashippuns rooted in seedy beginnings? Sadly, Wikipedia says we can blame the railroad for not coming close enough to the original settlement, founded a few years before Wisconsin achieved statehood. Still…the whole town didn’t move, just a portion. And the portion left behind was left to the past, to decay into posterity among the grassy hills and broken county roads. It reminds me of the small farming town where I grew up, a tiny gathering of homes around a railroad station hardly used, held at the mercy of a river that can irrigate plenty of cattle and corn farms one season or simply flood over all of them the next. No one stops at such a place, not when all the highways bypass it. Who would care about strange goings-on in a nothing sort of town with nothing sort of people?
I wondered about that as a kid. I wondered about that a lot as an adult. I wondered so hard I had to make up my own versions of the Ashippuns and put them in a story.
Old Sanctuary had never bothered with paved roads, let alone road signs. Who needed them in this dirt hole of a so-called town?
It would take a certain kind of soul to visit such the old, forgotten town, let alone live there. That certain kind of soul wouldn’t visit on a whim, either. There’d have to be a purpose, a special purpose, to come to a “so-called town” like this one. I was reminded of the Autumn Carnival in Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, its Autumn People eager to harvest desperate souls from small towns along its travels. Stephen King had a similar approach with the nefarious demon LeLand Gaunt selling people the one thing they desired most in Needful Things. Then another book came to mind: Kate Milford’s The Boneshaker.
And I knew what I needed to write.
See, The Boneshaker is a fascinating story. You’ve a young girl named Natalie coming into her own but still fiercely protective of her sick mother as they make ends meet in a small town. Many have their own little problems in a small town, problems that surely can be solved by the miracle cures advertised by the stranger Jake Limberleg and his traveling medicine show. But those cures come at a price. They always do.
We still see people paying that price in the real world, don’t we? Just replace “tonic” with “essential oil.” “Mixture” for “shake.” “Sure thing” for “time freedom.”
You’ve probably seen the ads on your social media, or gotten the messages from a person you went to school with ages ago. Social media has blessed those in every small town with the ability to reach out and connect with anyone anywhere, so they gather up the school year books and find the names online, and ding! The messages pour in. They say they want to catch up…and then invite you to a “business opportunity.”
All too often, people drink the dream. All too often, people drink nothing but poison.
Herbalife. Younique. Avon. LuLaRoe. Amway. Beachbody. Mary Kay. Scentsy. Shaklee. It Works. La Vel. Monat. DoTerra. Young Living. Optavia. Norwex. Color Street. There are dozens more, rising and collapsing every few years. They promise you the world by “social selling.” You can “change the world” by working in “pockets of your time” on your phone selling cosmetics. Insurance. Vitamins. Kids’ books. Weight Loss. Shampoo. Cleaning products. They have oils that can cure Autism and cancer. They have silver cloths that can be used to clean a toilet and your face in one go. They have wax melts to calm animals and plastic wraps to eliminate your fat.
They have everything the evil doctors and big corporations don’t want you to have. Capitalist society is such a crime. You can escape it and come to the real people who care about you and want you to succeed in the true way. You can be a part of the multi-level marketing family…for a start-up fee. For a monthly renewal fee. And be sure to get your inventory updated. Be sure to try the products for yourself. Be sure to sell the life to your family, your friends, your neighbors. And if your loved ones don’t support you? They’re toxic. Cut them out of your life. You don’t need them, you have your new family…
Nicole points to her Suzy Ray! bag with her drink straw and smiles extra-wide. “Suzy Ray! Living is, well, it’s not just body care. It’s really a way of life.” Nicole leans back and closes her eyes as usual, emphasizing her one-ness with the sunlight. “Suzy Ray! can heal your hair or skin, your gut, your muscles, your spine. Their specialized formulas that no other doctor’s been able to match bring vital nutrients to your marrow. They even,” Nicole opens her eyes slowly and looks upon the water pump and those sitting by it, “can bring function back to muscles that haven’t worked before.”
There are many YouTube creators warning people of these multi-level marketing (MLM) scams, and plenty of news outlets continue to show just how many people who cannot afford to lose money are giving hundreds and even thousands to these companies in the hopes of “financial freedom.” The creator Munecat’s deep dive into the company Arbonne is an excellent one, I think, as it shows how this company not only scams people, but grips them tight with cult tactics. Click here if you’d like to see it. I’m still working out how I can talk to my own family members and friends involved with the companies like Norwex and Optavia. They’re spending hundreds to have the right nutrition powders and latest cleaning cloths on the off-chance someone on their Facebook pages will buy them. There are women in my church who swear by Shaklee vitamins to the point they won’t take their own kids to the doctor because “those are just pills. These vitamins are made from plants, from God’s earth.” Heck, I have a friend who keeps changing MLMs, always changing her “business” to whatever sounds good at the time and insisting that “this time” it will work. Right now? Board games. Yes, there’s an MLM for frickin’ board games.
I suppose “The Hungry Mother” is born out of that frustrated confusion, that desire to show my loved ones they are not in any sort of family with those companies. To an MLM, they are nothing but dollar signs.
Nicole looks past the water pump. Beyond the road and wall of tall shrubs is a trailer park full of people, poor and desperate people praying for easy answers. And Nicole’s bag is just full of easy answers, priced to catch and never release. All it takes is one yes to snag the rest, and that yes is due any minute.
I hope you’ll check the story out, and please, PLEASE do what you can to encourage loved ones to leave these MLMs. Such “business opportunities” promise nothing but loss: loss of money, loss of friends, loss of family, and loss of one’s own integrity.
Admittedly, I get weary of the small town life at times. The kids, too. It’s just the same library, the same playground, the same streets day after day. I’m very blessed the three little Bs enjoy taking off into their own imaginations, using whatever space ship, robot, or dragon will carry them into any Elsewhere they can think up.
Thank goodness they enjoy drawing! I wish I could say the same. When Aionios Books asked me to make a map for my first book Fallen Princeborn: Stolen, I cringed the whoooole time. It makes sense in MY head, I wanted to say. Who needs a map?
But after studying Tolkien’s The Art of The Lord of the Rings at our small town library, I better understand why such maps can be so important.
HOW DID J.R.R. Tolkien create The Lord of the Rings? The simple answer is that he wrote it….The more complicated answer is that in addition to writing the story, he drew it. The many maps and sketches he made while drafting The Lord of the Rings informed his storytelling, allowing him to test narrative ideas and illustrate scenes he needed to capture in words. For Tolkien, the art of writing and the art of drawing were inextricably intertwined.
This is such a vital point, one that I need to remember as I dive into series writing with multiple lands and locations. Though these places only reveal themselves to me as I write them, I must still map their locations and details so they are not simply forgotten like the small towns of the real world. Readers need the guide, and frankly, so do writers. We can’t afford to switch locations around or forget where the mountains are. Even if the mystery of borders is a part of the story, the writer needs to know them. And if you’re a writer like me who doesn’t really know them until the story’s done, then you better map them as you go so that when the time comes to revise, you can walk the same road without losing a step.
I suppose the biggest obstacle I face with drawing is, well, my pride. I am NOT an artist. I am fine with that. But to be required to look at my own drawings, even for reference, just makes me squirm as one may squirm with having to dissect a dead frog. Blech. And Tolkien makes it look so bloody easy!
But The Art of the Lord of the Rings is an important reminder that Tolkien wasn’t aiming for perfection every time. Just look at that drawing of Helm’s Deep. He did that on a student’s examination paper! He didn’t care. It came to mind, and he drew it. How much detail and how “good” it was didn’t matter. He just had to get it down so he wouldn’t forget it when he did have the chance to write.
The world [Tolkien] built extended into his art. His art breathed life into the corners of that world he would never find the time to write about. At the same time, those drawings, maps, and doodles also helped readers immerse themselves in his never-before-seen invented realm, “a world,” Tolkien’s friend C.S. Lewis once noted, “that seems to have been going on before we stumbled into it.”
THAT is the lesson to be learned here. What one draws and how one draws it shouldn’t prevent a writer from exploring a story-world, especially when one is building anew. Besides, technology allows writers new options if they don’t wish to draw their own. My fellow indie fantasy authors Wesley Allen and Michael Dellert both have extensive maps for their stories, but they didn’t publish their own sketches. Wes loves using special map-making software, and I confess–it looks pretty sweet! Michael commissioned a designer online to craft a polished map, and it’s a perfect reference to include with any of his stories.
So, it’s time I “Suck it up, Buttercup” and get mapping. After all, Charlotte’s not the only one who must explore the unknown. Two brothers must win a race through worlds to beat the crying sky, and Meredydd and her comrades must find where the Cat Man hides before he poisons the gods of their land.
Time for these teens to leave their small towns behind and discover what they are truly capable of.
More interviews on the way, of course! I’ve also got to do a school presentation on names, and considering the importance of naming characters, I thought I’d share some points of discussion with you, too, you lucky devils. 🙂 I’ve also been reveling in some fantastic adventure music which is bound to get your own characters racing to victory, so don’t stray far! We’re too close to Hell to back down now…
Welcome to February, my friends! Sunlight is rare in Wisconsin these frigid days. The snow has frozen, and mothers–well, this mother, anyway–cruelly refuse to let children hurl ice at one another for fun. This has led to lots of running about the house, blasting imaginary baddies while flying off on dragons, Transformers, and Federation star ships. So long as their epic battles do not end with more stitches, we’ll be fine.
And then I discovered John le Carré through a whimsical selection of the library: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy starring the late great Sir Alec Guinness. Bo, ever the student of all things related to cinema, told me Le Carré wrote the George Smiley novels as a literary retort to Fleming’s Bond.
The two authors did actively serve their country in the Intelligence realm, so considering how each approached the world of spies, I’ll leave the idea of a rivalry up to you. Personally, when a character describes protagonist Smiley with “Looks like a frog, dresses like a bookie, and has a brain I’d give my eyes for,” I can see how one could perceive Smiley to be the antithesis to the debonair 007.
In celebration of the incomparable John Le Carré, let us visit the postwar England of his protagonist, George Smiley. Let us see how one author transforms the landscape for a story dark and full of danger…oh, but this is not a tale of international espionage. Oh no. This is but a humble tale of a village murder.
Yet even a village murder can be filled with secrets and lies. Even a village murder can be a story of quality.
Chapter 1: Black Candles
The greatness of Carne School has been ascribed by common consent to Edward VI, whose educational zeal is ascribed by history to the Duke of Somerset. But Carne prefers the respectability of the monarch to the questionable politics of his adviser, drawing strength from the conviction that Great Schools, like Tudor Kings, were ordained in Heaven.
“Ordained in Heaven.” Already, Le Carré establishes Carne School’s feelings of superiority over the rest of the masses. Not only is this school connected to the throne and the aristocracy, but to God himself. Surely no common man would think himself better than such a place.
And indeed its greatness is little short of miraculous. Founded by obscure monks, endowed by a sickly boy king, and dragged from oblivion by a Victorian bully, Carne had straightened its collar, scrubbed its rustic hands and face and presented itself shining to the courts of the twentieth century. And in the twinkling of an eye, the Dorset bumpkin was London’s darling: Dick Whittington had arrived. Carne had parchments in Latin, seals in wax and Lammas Land behind the Abbey. Carne had property, cloisters and woodworm, a whipping block and a line in the Doomsday Book–then what more did it need to instruct the sons of the rich?
“Rustic hands.” “Bumpkin.” A school of the country, nestled in the dirty rural life, yearns to be a part of the “courts” and be “London’s darling.” Classism flows through the novel with a powerful current, the kind that grabs you by the foot and pulls you under if you’re not careful. We must tread on, carefully, for the students are arriving.
And they came; each Half they came (for terms are not elegant things), so that throughout a whole afternoon the trains would unload sad groups of black-coated boys on to the station platform. They came in great cars that shone with mournful purity.
They came to bury poor King Edward, trundling handcarts over the cobbled streets or carrying tuck boxes like little coffins. Some wore gowns, and when they walked they looked like crows, or black angels come for the burying. Some followed singly like undertakers’ mutes, and you could hear the clip of their boots as they went. They were always in mourning at Carne: the small boys because they must stay and the big boys because they must leave, the masters because mourning was respectable and the wives because respectability was underpaid…
Oh, this imagery! All the vibrant energies equated with youth have been cloaked with black and contained with piety.
But more on that in a moment, I just want to pause here on the importance of connecting what is “normal” in one setting is not always normal elsewhere. Sending children away to boarding school is not a common thing in the United States; I did so in high school (that is, for ages 14-18), and even for my religious boarding school, life was nothing like Carne. At first read, I couldn’t help but think of Ripping Yarns by Michael Palin and his episode all about poor Tomkinson’s transformation from a lowly first year to…well. You can watch the episode. It’s brilliant. 🙂
For those who did not send or attend a boarding school for children, this idea of youth forced to attend a starkly religious place for education completely justifies this procession of “black angels” and “little coffins.” But Le Carré also says the boys look like “crows,” and this hints at something a bit more malicious, a bit more sinister. After all, crows are the mediators between life and death, and feasters upon the rotting flesh of others.
We’re not two pages in, yet we are already keenly aware Death is afoot in this place.
…and now, as the Lent Half (as the Easter term was called) drew to its end, the cloud of gloom was as firmly settled as ever over the grey towers of Carne.
Gloom and the cold. The cold was crisp and sharp as flint. It cut the faces of the boys as they moved slowly from the deserted playing fields after the school match. It pierced their black topcoats and turned their stiff, pointed collars into icy rings round their necks.
“Gloom and the cold.” I love that this is a sentence fragment after such lines about gloom over “grey towers”–for an institution that considers itself divine, Carne certainly has no physical sense of light or hope. But gloom can be a different thing on warmer days, when sunlight is not so rare. In the wintry days of Lent (Carne can’t even refer to this time as the Easter Term, Easter being a holiday of light, resurrection, glory, HOPE!), when the Divine is at its lowest point in preparation for crucifixion, the cold has a physical power to “cut” the innocents of this school.
Carne isn’t the only gloomy place
in England on this day. London, too, struggles beneath foreboding.
Abruptly [Brimley] stood up, the letter still in her hand, and walked to the uncurtained window…She looked down into the street, a slight, sensible figure leaning forward a little and framed by the incandescent fog outside; fog made yellow from the stolen light of London’s streets. She could just distinguish the street lamps far below, pale and sullen. She suddenly felt the need for fresh air, and on an impulse quite alien to her usual calm, she opened the window wide. The quick cold and the angry surge of noise burst in on her, and the insidious fog followed. The sound of traffic was constant, so that for a moment she thought it was the turning of some great machine. Then above its steady growl she heard the newsboys. Their cries were like the cries of gulls against a gathering storm. She could see them now, sentinels among the hastening shadows.
This theme of proper mourning flows downwards from the school to the nearby village. For instance, Le Carré has readers picture the village’s hotel as “sitting like a prim Victorian lady, its slate roof in the mauve of half mourning” (24). When a policeman meets with George Smiley about the murdered wife of a teacher, he wastes no time in establishing the set-apartness of Carne School:
“Funny place, Carne. There’s a big gap between the Town and Gown, as we say; neither side knows or likes the other. It’s fear that does it, fear and ignorance. It makes it hard in a case like this….They’ve got their own community, see, and no one outside it can get in. No gossip in the pubs, no contacts, nothing…just cups of tea and bits of seed cake….”
“Town and Gown.” What a phrase. Now this definitely recalls something of my own boarding school experience. We were all of us outsiders to this small Midwestern community. We weren’t of their earth, we teens of unknown backgrounds. And with all the rules dictating where we could go and when, we rarely connected with any peers of town. Where no one knows the other, ignorance will take root, and in Carne, those roots run as deep as the currents of classism. All are beneath the sanctity of the School, worthy only of “bits” of seed cake and tea. Not even seed cake–bits of seed cake. It hearkens to the Biblical image of dogs begging for scraps from the Master’s table, and that such scraps of Gospel Truth are the key to salvation.
Yet clearly Carne School does not feel the rest of the town is worth such truth, as one teacher proves in a conversation with Smiley:
“The press, you know, are a constant worry here. In the past it could never have happened. Formerly our great families and institutions were not subjected to this intrusion. No, indeed not. But today all that is changed. Many of us are compelled to subscribe to the cheaper newspapers for this very reason.”
It is quite a surprise to Carne School’s faculty, then, when the new teacher’s wife refuses to follow the rules and restrictions that keep Town and Gown apart. After this same wife is found brutally murdered in her home late one snowy night, both Town and Gown are suspect because, as another teacher’s wife put it, “‘Stella didn’t want to be a lady of quality. She was quite happy to be herself. That’s what really worried Shane. Shane likes people to compete so that she can make fools of them.’ ‘So does Carne,’ said Simon, quietly.”
Let us close this analysis with Smiley’s glimpse of the murder scene.
[Smiley] glanced towards the garden. The coppice which bordered the lane encroached almost as far as the corner of the house, and extended to the far end of the lawn, screening the house from the playing fields. The murderer had reached the house by a path which led across the lawn and through the trees to the lane at the furthest end of the garden. Looking carefully at the snow on the lawn, he was able to discern the course of the path. The white glazed door to the left of the house must lead to the conservatory…And suddenly he knew he was afraid–afraid of the house, afraid of the sprawling dark garden. The knowledge came to him like an awareness of pain. The ivy walls seemed to reach forward and hold him, like an old woman cosseting an unwilling child. The house was large, yet dingy, holding to itself unearthly shapes, black and oily in the sudden contrasts of moonlight. Fascinated despite his fear, he moved towards it. The shadows broke and reformed, darting swiftly and becoming still, hiding in the abundant ivy, or merging with the black windows.
We return to darkness, slick and liquid, seeping into all the cracks seen and unseen. We return to the imagery of a woman from a bygone era and the doomed youth. In this place ordained by heaven to protect and enlighten, the pure innocence has been stained black and red. Beware the Town. Beware the Gown. Beware the Devil flying with silver wings.
Such are the details that catch the reader’s breath in their throat. Hold it there, writers. Take a lesson from the Master of Subtlety and Method, whose Slow Burns creep so delicately the reader never notices the licking flames until it’s too late. Use the details of the setting to bind actor, atmosphere, and action together, leaving no chance for escape until the final page is read and the reader can breathe at last.
Along with more lovely indie author interviews, I’m keen to share my process in worldbuilding for my own fantasy fiction. We’ll have a go at a little mapping, a little digging, a little thrill-seeking. 😉