#LessonsLearned in World-Building for #fiction: Jeff VanderMeer’s #Annihilation

You know how last week I insisted that writers have to make themselves take a break? 24 hours after posting that, I ended up in the hospital. A month of not really sleeping mixed with flu culminated in an inability to breathe or see while driving my kids from school. Nothing like a trip in an ambulance to get one thinking about one’s priorities.

So, after a weekend of Bo telling me to sit still, Bash snuggles, Blondie stories, and Biff reading ad nauseum about trucks, I’m…still kinda sick, but not, you know, idiot-sick.

Seriously, people: take breaks.

This year, I wanted to dedicate a chunk of my “Lessons Learned” posts to an element of writing dear to my heart, one that can make or break a story set in a land not our own: world-building.

91SrDcfzkkLIn a way, Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy takes place on our humdrum Earth (or does it? Dunh dunh DUUUUUNH). Something has come to Earth and transformed a stretch of coastal landscape in the United States. It has created a border. It does not let what is inside return…unless it wishes to. And those that return are never the same.

Annihilationthe first book of the series, strictly focuses upon the twelfth expedition into beyond the border into the place now labeled Area X. Here is where the world-building plays to Vandermeer’s favor. He needs to make Earth unearthly. He needs to engage and invest the readers into exploring this place.

He accomplishes this with the first paragraph:

The tower, which was not supposed to be there, plunges into the earth in a place just before the black pine forest begins to give way to swamp and then the reeds and wind-gnarled trees of the marsh flats. Beyond the marsh flats and the natural canals lies the ocean and, a little farther down the coast, a derelict lighthouse. All of this part of the country had been abandoned for decades, for reasons that are not easy to relate. Our expedition was the first to enter Area X for more than two years, and much of our predecessors’ equipment had rusted, their tents and sheds little more than husks. Looking out over that untroubled landscape, I do not believe any of us could yet see the threat.

Let’s dissect this a little. Look at that first line: “The tower, which was not supposed to be there.” Already, our narrator has come upon something unexpected. “Plunges into the earth“: I love that word choice of “plunges.” A strong action, driven action, and yet not violent, as opposed to “pierces” or “penetrates.” The terms for the landscape fit our narrator, whom we learn in the next paragraph is a biologist.  The paragraph itself ends on two contradictions: “untroubled landscape” is certainly not what one would think of when it comes to an otherworldly invasion on our planet. “Could yet see the threat” counters the “untroubled” while also agreeing with the first line of a tower not meant to be there.

One paragraph in, and we already have a sense of what is both familiar–“black pine 51ZMTRrWB8L._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_forest,” “marsh flats,” etc–and what is foreign–“the tower.” VanderMeer utilizes natural details readers can easily visualize while “plunging” a singular uniqueness into the scene, an entity guaranteed to taint all the “normalcy” around it, therefore turning the entire scene into something abnormal.

I’d like to share two other paragraphs, both from the first chapter, that further build on this natural/unnatural mix of detail.

Far worse, though, was a low, powerful moaning at dusk. The wind off the sea and the odd interior stillness dulled our ability to gauge directions, so that the sound seemed to infiltrate the black water that soaked the cypress trees. This water was so dark we could see our faces in it, and it never stirred, set like glass, reflecting the beards of gray moss that smothered the cypress trees. If you looked out through these areas, toward the ocean, all you saw was the black water, the gray of the cypress trunks, and the constant, motionless rain of moss flowing down. All you heard was the low moaning. The effect of this cannot be understood without being there. The beauty of it cannot be understood, either, and when you see beauty in desolation it changes something inside you. Desolation tries to colonize you.

So many sensory details are given here. The middle of the paragraph provides the pretty visuals with the moss and the trees, but the water detail unsettles you, doesn’t it? Because “normal” water isn’t still like that. VanderMeer also pulls a smooth move on readers with the moaning line. He begins the paragraph with it, but then spends time on other details before returning to the moaning, as if to show us the “normal” touches that are once again infected by the singular foreign element. The last line of this paragraph is a killer-subtle bit of foreshadowing, as you’ll see in the next paragraph from later in the chapter.

The biologist and another member have ventured into the tower, where they find words written on the wall. Those words are made of living organisms. Here VanderMeer makes use of his narrator’s skill set to build a world inside a word:

So I stepped closer, peered at Where lies the strangling fruit. I saw that the letters, connected by their cursive script, were made from what would have looked to the layperson like rich green fernlike moss but in fact was probably a type of fungi or other eukaryotic organism. The curling filaments were all packed very close together and rising out from the wall. A loamy smell came from the words along with an underlying hint of rotting honey….I leaned in closer, like a fool…someone tricked into thinking words should be read…Triggered by a disturbance in the flow of air, a nodule in the chose that moment to burst open and a tiny spray of golden spores spewed out.

I think you know where this is going: something gets into the biologist, something she does her damndest to hide from the others.

In this paragraph you get a taste for the level of natural detail our narrator takes in, one who has the experience to see and understand what is natural to Earth’s ecology, and what is not. As readers, we are gripped by the mystery of Area X–as Vandermeer planned, I’m sure. Even though I haven’t given you the whole chapter, the fact that “fernlike moss” is growing to create not only words, but cursive words in English, should be enough to send a shudder through you. Something foreign is here, and yet knows enough to communicate with our own language. It has taken what we thought unique to humanity, and transformed it into something new, just as it has with everything previous expeditions have left behind…including the expeditions themselves.

You’ll have to read the book to appreciate that last point.

VanderMeer’s balance between the relatable and the alien sensory details is spot-on throughout the trilogy. In the first chapter of the first book, where this balance is at its most precarious, Vandermeer takes the greatest care in luring readers to follow him, lulling them with the familiar, until the subtle strange beneath the black glass water floods the way back and we have no choice but to enter the tower, and descend further into his world.

Your own world need not be built from scratch. Dig your fingers deep into the earth and build the trench to set your land apart. Claw out the flora and fauna. Now, with all set before you upon this table, what shall fill your world? What will your readers know, and what will they look upon with a stranger’s eyes, wide and watchful?

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#Inspiration for #Writers Awaits in the #Autumn Sky.

Last year I lamented the fog that ruined my photos of Wisconsin’s autumn. When Bo and I connived–I mean, asked ever so nicely–for his relations to watch the kids for a day, Bo mentioned Holy Hill. “Weather’s supposed to be nice, and no youth festivals.” He eyed my camera.

Woohoo! I didn’t need those pictures of the kids on vacation anyway.

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Because I had already taken several pictures of the basilica itself, I planned to save memory space for the woods surrounding it. All was gold, rich, blinding. Despite the hundreds hiking and picnicking upon the slopes, a peaceful silence remained in the air, so much so that one could listen to the leaves rattle in the breeze and dance as they fell upon the Passion Walk.

Such a set-apart place. One wouldn’t think three minutes in the car would lead to a busy highway, to golf courses and suburbs. When we build our fictional worlds, we so often must condense a universe, grind out the spaces so that things build up up up upon each other so that there’s no chance for an absence of action, let alone finding Holy Water on tap for easy access.

 

 

Passion Walk finished, we wandered past the lower chapel, read upon the history of the shrine, and—The Scenic Tower is open!

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Bo waves at me to join the line. “I had my fill of that twenty years ago.”

I don’t blame him for bowing out. The tower stairs are ridiculously narrow; well, it’s not like they were built with tourists in mind, let alone so many. But the world reaches up and touches at every window. I can’t click fast enough to just, absorb. Breathe. Smile with the sun.

I don’t go up the last stair; tempting as it was, the congestion of people was driving even me into a claustrophobic fit. The plus side of going solo is that you feel no need to move as a group up and down stairs barely a foot wide.

But when I wasn’t thinking of the elderly man on the verge of losing his dentures onto the basilica roof, or the huddle of nuns (congregation of nuns? choir of nuns? pew of nuns?) with fanny packs determined to get group pictures on every landing, I was thinking about the land. The sky. How a world, even this small little bit of world, can seem so very vast with the right point of view.

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Writers don’t need to create entire worlds for a story. We need only a place cradled by the horizon. Look down: there, among the trees and fields, the towns and roads, are countless hiding places where possibilities giggle and whisper in wait. Let’s count to ten.

Ready or not, here we come.

 

 

Where Some See Ignored #History, #Writers See The Beginnings of New #Fiction.

An Indian Summer gripped Wisconsin for far too long this September. Mosquitos rejoiced, trees clutched their green leaves. It was even hot enough to go to the beach for my mother’s birthday. But no heat wave would thwart me this year. I would have my fall foliage pictures no matter what Mother Nature said, dammit!

So when Bo suggested getting one more weekend at the family cabin up north, I gave an emphatic “YES!” Trees galore, beautiful lake, a well-timed cold-snap. Awesome, right?

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Just look at that gorgeous blue water. Surrounded by green leaves. Grumble grumble.

But there was no denying the joy of a lakeshore littered by wee rocks. Bo and Blondie worked on skipping stones. Biff and Bash enjoyed their “fireworks”–aka, throwing clumps of sand into the air over the water.

Bo knew I was disappointed. “Did you want take pictures of the fish hatchery for your blog?”

(Insert irritated glare here.) “No.”

The weekend over, we stopped at a nearby town for gas, coffee, and a playground before heading home. We passed something we pass so often when visiting this town, and an idea hit me:

“Can you handle the kids at the park for a little while?”

“I guess. What’s up?”

“I want to take some pictures.”

“Of what?”

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Many immigrants of German descent came to Wisconsin, which is why this state had such a large number of breweries for a while. Unlike the others, however, the Tiger Brewery has never been torn down, even though it’s been out of use since the 1930s.

 

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It’s not for public entry. It’s not a museum. It’s just…a monument? That requires power lines, and blinds in the windows?

I take care with my camera when I near the occupied house next to the brewery. Perhaps they’re the caretakers, or neighbors who loathe snoopers.

But I can’t help but wonder about this place. It’s not falling apart, it’s not technically in use. In this town, it doesn’t seem to be anything. Why leave it alone? Why not enter it, and invite others to do the same? What’s in there people can’t look at? What’s hiding in there? What is this town protecting? Even the apples hang forgotten, rotten, from its trees.

One window board upon the tower flaps open. Bet there’s a stairwell in there to the top, and even to the underground. Deep, deep into the earth, beneath the river running behind this ignored place, deeper still where another forgotten world awaits, where eyes blink in darkness and long nails dig through stone, hunting…

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Perhaps your own town has a similar street, where life hums at sunrise and sunset, but is otherwise left to a breezy quiet. What hides among the normal? What is the price this world pays to ignore its presence? What…where…when…who…why, why, why….These questions fly by us as leaves caught up in the wind.

Give chase, and don’t look back.

#Writing #Music: Vangelis

 

Blade_Runner_posterAccording to Bo, one of the queer bits of my sci-fi/fantasy upbringing was its lack of Blade Runner. “You watched Dr. Who, Star Trek, Star Wars, Highlander, Dune, but NOT Blade Runner?

I admit, it seems strange Dad wouldn’t have watched it at some point. Maybe the cut available at the time really stunk–last I checked, there’ve been five different versions released. But this isn’t about all the various tellings of one story. A brief Internet search reveals that topic’s been talked to death and beyond. My focus turns to that which begins and ends the story, that which has not been altered: the music.

Vangelis (Evangelos Odysseas Papathanassiou) is a figurehead in the world of electronic music. Sure, everyone loves his song from Chariots of Firebut truly, it’s his work on Blade Runner that proves to the world just how beautiful, captivating, and overwhelmingly powerful synthetic music can be.

So often synthesizers are used as a cheap alternative to an orchestra, but when it comes to Vangelis’ score, I think the massive variety of sounds and sound-textures would dilute the power of his music. There is unity in the synthetic, how all stems from the same source, yet branches out into so many different pitches, rhythms, and tones, that one still experiences an orchestra without the orchestra. And really, what other approach could better fit a movie about replicants hiding as real, living creatures?

You don’t know any of this in the beginning of the film, of course. In the beginning you have but a world: a city-scape that spills over the horizon, rusted and littered with fire-flares and lights more numerous than the stars. The opening zither-like run pulls us over the threshold. Rhythm isn’t as important here; we’re not rushed through the world, but rather allowed to float in awe. Harmonies move slowly as another synthesizer dances about like windchimes. The music does not intimidate, but it does not necessarily welcome, either. Reverence is the unspoken price to pay.

But for all the wonder in the beginning, the ending is where I set the repeat button. There’s no sense of wonder, no eye-opening as we experience with the opening track. No, here we are running, forever running with the rhythms slowly building, a new sound added every time. A timpani-like sound pounds, and the snare drum, a rare bit of “real” instrument in all the synthetic, has a peculiar tap at the end of each arc, almost like it’s clicking in reset to start anew. It’s not a melody of hope, nor of despair. There’s no certainty here. This is survival’s song.

Don’t let your characters gawk at their setting for long, for all is not well beneath the glittering surface. Press them onward, through the grime and fire, to that which all creations desire more than anything: the chance to live.

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Extra versions, in case my chosen links don’t work outside the U.S.:

 

#Writers, Find the #Adventure in No-#Writing Time.

“Didn’t you know school’s cancelled for today?”

My sons’ backpacks sit alone by the door. My car is the only one in the parking lot. Biff and Bash ask yet again where the other kids are, why can’t they say hi to Mrs. L., why can’t they stay…and I’m wondering all these same things inside, but outside I say, “No, I thought, you know, since they had three days off last week, they had school this week.”

“Oh, never for parent-teacher conferences,” Mrs. A., says with a wave of her hand and a doughy grin. She’s the shape of a cupcake, and just as sweet–Bash adores her, which has helped make the shift to a new school all the smoother. But out of two months, the boys have only had three full weeks of school. There’s always been something to cancel pre-school: screenings, conferences, in-service. For all the teachers’ talk about routine and structure, how on earth is a kid supposed to know that structure if his school can’t function for more than a week at a time?

I could go on. I was ready to go on then, but another parent had come for conferences. I had to figure out what the hell to do with two little guys who didn’t want to leave. The playground was still wet from rain earlier that morning, the air chilly. But by the look of them running up and down the halls, locking them indoors was out of the question. So:

Nature walk!

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I take them down the path I visited alone just a few weeks ago. It was a peaceful refuge then.

Now, not so much.

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“Mommy, I can give the forest raspberries!”

Yes, I suppose so, Biff.

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Bash takes a break from his hunt for caterpillars and wooly bears. I try to tell him it was too cold, but he would not be daunted.

Keeping up with these two is nigh impossible, and there isn’t much for color…

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But I remembered my foolish disappointment from cloudy days before. Even in these days, where autumn wraps itself in a mourning shroud, I find life.

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Even in the days we have no control, the days where writing time is all but forgotten, there is life. There is life with the little ones who imagine worlds all their own…

“Mommy, this is where we go up!”

Up where, Bash?

“Up into the trees! We’ll walk into the sky!”

Biff is skeptical.

Yet there it is: a story. We could sit and tell a tale of a boy who walked the trees into the sky, who found his wooly bears and caterpillars, who helped them become the rainbow butterflies of dreams.

We could sit. And talk.

Or we could explore and see what else awaits us round the bend.

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It is such a day as this, filled with raspberries, chilled fingers, and leaf-covered suckers, that remind us the no-writing time is just as important as the writing time.

Never squander it.

Writer’s Music: Bruno Coulais

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Folly? What is that–a masquerade?”

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

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

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

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

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

Or is it?

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

“Listen, Madame. What do you hear?”

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

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

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

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

A Refuge from Words

For the last two years, Biff and Bash attended a pre-school (3K) two towns away. This meant a hefty commute, bunkering down in a book store to write–basically, lots of getting out of the house.

Now that Biff and Bash attend school in town, I can write in the comfort of my own home every day. Hooray!

Except some days I just want to get out of the damn house.

Yesterday was such a day. I had just finished another chapter of Beauty’s Price, saw the clock, and thought, Screw it. I am going to investigate those trees even if only for ten minutes.

You see, one of the beauties of Wisconsin comes with its trees.

 

20170920_150716They cluster, they watch, they stand steadfast behind the encroaching subdivisions. They erupt amidst the farmland, and farmers never seem to touch them. They hold together like a Roman phalanx, and like Hell will you take them down. Ever since I was a girl I’d look upon them and wonder: What lives in them? Hides in them? They’re a sanctuary, a prison, protecting a secret, protecting us from a secret…

One such cluster is near my daughter’s school. I parked, and entered.

Such a difference a tree-lined path can make for the soul! Sunlight in leaves will forever be Nature’s stained glass to me. A forest is divine, a place where the soul breathes deep that which has always been, and always will be. Churches rise and fall. Their air grows cold and stale as the outdated hymnals in their pews. But the birdsong heard since Creation, the leaves’ processional in the wind–that is always.

I had time for only one path; no concerns, I knew I’d be back for autumn’s transformation. One tree caught my attention:

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A vine of some sort? Its roots jutted out like centipede legs.

My fantasy mind turned immediately to roots of dark magic. Possibilities blossomed.

Why else does a writer need sanctuary away from words? Not all stories come to us in the spoken word, but in the whisper of a leaf, the chatter of the twigs, the dance of light upon the stones in the bottom of a stream. Some stories hide among the brush, eyes invisible to the ignorant, waiting for the right imagination on which to pounce.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah.”

“So what’s the problem?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Art of Voice Changery, Part 2

In my previous post on voice changery, I spoke of finding the right book with a character to inspire the voice of your hero. This isn’t to say you’re trying to build a carbon copy of a character you really liked in another book—hardly that. Rather, it’s all about discovering the unique rhythms, quirks, and language of your hero’s speech. I’ve got four different female heroes to write about in my series, and sure as Hades don’t want them all to sound the same. Wynne, key protagonist in my current WIP Beauty’s Price, is inspired by Elizabeth Bennet in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Austen tells Elizabeth’s story with a sweet–and some well-timed sassy–lyrical prose. The rhythm and melody rise and fall and rise again, just as the heart of Elizabeth as it slowly wakens itself to love another. This sort of sweet, lyrical connection between style and emotion is just what I want for Wynne.

But reading the words of another isn’t enough for me. I’ve often talked about the importance of music in helping me write. I needed to find a theme for Wynne, one that would help me see her part of life in Droma and get into her head.

First, her life at home. I remembered dedicating several pages to Gwen’s thorp and the woods surrounding it. Wynne would need something similar…sort of. Her father is a trader, so they won’t have their own manor to run. They’ll live in a trading town…one along the river Gasirad…not that I knew the trading towns of Droma, so I had to bother Michael Dellert for more about his universe. Together we worked out the perfect town for Wynne, one that was along the river and not too far from Aneasruthán for her participation in Middler’s Pride.

The Dells of the Wisconsin River

The Dells of the Wisconsin River – unique sandstone formations that occur only in a couple places in the world.

Now Wisconsin is rich in waterways, many of them hidden by bluffs and valleys. I see…something. I see Wynne on a hillside, looking down upon the Gasirad, wide and strong by her town, wide enough for two lanes of barges, following and fighting the current. I see a collection of wooden buildings, enough to warrant some streets. I see the watermill to the north to help those who farmed, and a tannery at the south, wreaking havoc on the land around it with all its filth and toxins.

And I see Wynne really, really hating that.

I have a few photos of Wisconsin like this, but a bit too industrial for my liking:

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La Crosse

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Port of Green Bay

I need a visual of something on a smaller scale. But you saw my town; even those built around the river have long since stopped treating the river as anything other than a pretty touch to the town’s atmosphere. Oh, look, a charming river with a charming bridge. And there’s some charming families catching fish for fun, how all so very charming.

4a24c1593c13ced51058f9512617b540So I need to think of a town dependent upon its river, like Hafren, and I have to keep history in mind, or Michael will kick my creative butt. Considering the early Medieval style of everything, I have only one frame of context from which I can easily draw: Ellis Peters’ Cadfael mysteries. (Like it’d be anything but murder mysteries.)

I popped in St. Peter’s Fair for a visual. I found an excerpt from the episode online, if you care to view it:

Not my usual dose of photography, but I knew it would help to see people interact within a medieval town. Too often we’ve romanticized life of that period (something the amazing Terry Jones discusses in Medieval Lives, a series both hilarious and instructive), and I wanted something not afraid of dirt. The splintering planks upon the homes. Various piles of horse dung in the road. Chickens with curious escaping skills. Few windows. Few rooms. Few extras in life. Fences, though, those would be useful.

Forms were taking shape. Time for some color and life:

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Time for music.

So far I had been digging through scores of period movies, such as Harry Gregson-Williams’ Kingdom of Heaven. It’s on this score where I found the music that embodied the busy trading center that is Hafren:

The reeds are soft with summer, and Gasirad sings when the sun shines upon her. Listen with me. Does not the water over stones make you think of lyre strings? I like to sit here, where the tannery does not hurt the water so. The goddess has been kind so far, but I have no doubt a day will come when she finds herself too sickened by Hafren’s industry, and we will all wake to find our river gone. Never underestimate a goddess—or any girl, I think—of strong mind.

North of Hafren, the water dances like my feet. When the sun warms skin, when the bees feast among the blossoms, when the fish leap from water for dragonflies, I am able to forget the grime and odors of town, and turn to kinder, better things.

My father is due to arrive with a caravan today, and my mother has stressed all daughters must be present for his arrival. Will you walk with me, at least to town? It is but a few rolling hills away.

I am thankful for these fertile slopes. Gasirad’s happy waters grow stronger crops here. Take care with your feet lest you find yourself trampling a seedling or droppings. I do not like to task Hafren’s farmers. Visiting caravans are rarely kind to them, and never face punishment for gleaning. Step this way, please, to the oxen-path. Oh, Gasirad. You flow as falling stars before Hafren, yet we send you off soiled and used. Abused, I should say, but a merchant’s daughter is not allowed such thoughts. Trade is life, and industry is trade. At least the tannery is there, a short ways south of town, so the water is not so terrible until Hafren’s end. The mill for carrying water to the fields is at the northernmost, see it? Rather hidden by the trees, I know, but if you ignore the farmer yelling at the mule, you can just hear the clack-clack of the buckets tipping.

Hafren is neither thorp nor city. There is a street of homes, true, and it connects to the hostel street, which turns there, sharply, for the ancestral shrine, annoying river and land caravans alike. We  must have good pasture for livestock, a stretch of sand for small boats and long docks for bigger barges. Our high street is dedicated to eateries and hostels. We are a perpetual hayloft for travelers, with our own wares barely noticed. Perhaps that is best. Those attracted to our town are not the sort I care to think about.

Mind our rock fences–they are rather low, I’m afraid, just enough to scrape one’s ankle terribly if not careful. Turn here. Market street may look wide enough for a joust, but that is only because the selling carts have left for the day. They sit in the middle, and the shops remove their shelf-shutters, and this place soon overflows with traveling caravans, farmer’s wares, the tannery’s wares, and tinkers. Even artisans from villages nearby will come once a month before midday to set up near the edge of market for the sake of shadow from the sun.

Why do you look at me like that? I have lived here long enough to see a pattern, that is all.

Ah, here we are. Yes, the house with the wooden fence at waist height. Can’t afford to block the view of potential suitors. Just as an artisan proudly displays his wares, my mother makes an exhibition of her children for potential wooing. We’re quite the collection, my sisters and I.

While Wynne grew up in Hafren, readers are new to this corner of Droma. I needed that flavor of town life, which was only barely tasted in Middler’s Pride. The rhythms would be familiar to Wynne, its melodies bittersweet. After all, she was never allowed to befriend anyone in the town. She witnesses life happening, but can only interact with it as a bird in a cage.

This sense of isolation, love, and desperation reminded me of Anne Dudley’s score to Tristan and Isolde. I’ve used this score before, but I’d never felt it bond with a story so well as with this one. The story of lovers kept apart vibrates in the strings as the piano keys slowly dance round a hope, the smallest hope that refuses to leave the heart.

Wynne’s heart never loses hope, or love, no matter the confinement or pressure put upon her. I need to continue exploring music to find her spirit (and perhaps the spirit of her antagonist, too), but capturing her heart’s song has helped me discover more of her voice: the hope that fills it, the sadness that trails it.

Find the heart’s song of your hero, and watch her deepest passions resonate with the setting, other characters, and most importantly, your readers.