When Fiction Lives Down the Street

My town…

Hang on.

I can’t really call it that yet.

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

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

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

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

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No name but “Mercantile.”

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

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

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

Max Von Sydow?”

“The movie Needful ThingsRemember?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I wonder.

 

Writer’s Music: Daft Punk

Tron_Legacy_SoundtrackAll the failings of Disney’s Tron: Legacy cannot tarnish two major achievements: the re-captured look of The Grid, and the score by Daft Punk.

Now when I say “the look,” I am not referring to Jeff Bridges’ animated face or any of the programs (represented by people on The Grid). I’m talkin’ light-cycles, disc wars, those enormous enemy ships, etc. I felt like The Grid had aged as it should from the 80s original: slick colors, startling clarity, eerily real.

Daft Punk must have at least known the original film, as touches of the original’s themes arise and fall in all the right places. I even tried to see if the two were noted fans of the original; I couldn’t find anything about their fan status, but I did discover that their score for Tron: Legacy won them some awards for Best Original Score.

I’m often skeptical of the electronic/orchestra mixture. One so often overwhelms the other, making the sound, and therefore the atmosphere, lopsided and ineffective. This never happens with Daft Punk, not once in the whole score. They knew when to hold off on the electronic element, such as in “Overture,” an amazing piece of brass that builds very, very slowly, both in volume and depth, until the last minute, where strings and electronic step in, giving us an epic aura of a world synthetic and real. I love this track so much that I gave it to Dorjan when I first created him for a WIP.

“Adagio for Tron” uses almost no electronic at all, either; indeed, the duo followed the classic form with strings to create a heart-breaking atmosphere for viewers who see the beloved Tron character of the original captured and transformed into a servant for the big baddie. It sounds like something written for a string quartet, with electronic compliments so subdued you almost miss them in the dramatic brass of the last movement.

Who needs a movie when you have music? Daft Punk’s Tron: Legacy tells the narrative beautifully all on its own. Honestly, I could write the praises of every track. “Outlands” proves basses and cellos kick ass when escaping the enemy; electronic elements don’t make a note in this track at all, not once, and it’s a brilliant choice on Daft Punk’s part, especially as the visuals show the protagonist driving through a storm-ridden wasteland that looks nothing like the orderly Grid.

Then you have “Derezzed,” a fight scene in a Grid night club (UGH, what a plot point), which employs not one note from the orchestra. This, too, fits perfectly with the situation at hand. (The video I found for this song is actually a music video, but it’s just too damn cool not to use.)

“Fall” uses both electronic and orchestra as equal forces sending the characters into a free-fall.

But if I had to pick one more track to show why I love this score so much, it’d have to be “Disc Wars.” It achieves perfect tension in the first second with the resounding drums, then ever-moving strings countering the long notes of the electronic. The cycle of harmonies escalate while the drums remain constant. And then, a new melody of synth that moves as the strings but with a different harmony. Another wave of synth to counter the orchestral drums. Another wave to quicken the rhythm. Another wave of harmony created by strings and electronic together. And then more strings to descant and counter the long notes of the synth. And then, and then, and then–

The violins and synth of the beginning.

It’s one of the most perfect layerings of countering melodies I’ve ever heard: masterful in its drama, intense in its craft, if you ever need help as your hero faces the villain, this is your song. All of Tron: Legacy, really, could guide you through the hero’s journey, from crossing the threshold to homecoming. Feel the other-wordliness, know the battle drums, fly from death, face your foes, and return, changed and glorious.

You have but to listen, and know.

 

 

Lessons Learned from Neil Gaiman: Some Questions Ought Not Be Answered.

As a child, I spent most of my time with cozy mystery writers like Agatha Christie, P.D. James, Colin Dexter, Ellis Peters, and, of course, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. By saturating myself with mysteries, I grew accustomed to quick character development, red herrings, plot twists, and, of course, explanations. A good mystery must show the whodunnit, howdunnit, and whydunnit. If the mystery isn’t solved, then the protagonist is clearly not worth his weight in pages.

It’s with this mindset, cemented over, oh, a couple of decades, that I entered the fantasy worlds of writers like Diana Wynne Jones and Neil Gaiman via film adaptations of their stories.

 

While both films take great liberties with the stories, I saw enough to get hooked on these writers for life.

Now I’ve got to admit something shameful: The first time I read Coraline–before motherhood and writing were serious endeavors–I was deeply disappointed. All these kudos on the back cover about how awesome the story is, it’s the new Alice in Wonderland, blah blah blah. Gaiman doesn’t EXPLAIN anything! What IS this button-woman? Why rats? Did no one else ever notice that giant door? Surely other people lived in the flat before that. Humbug, I say!

Five years later, I hope I can say that hearts change, and that what I felt about the book before: that was a humbug, as George C. Scott’s Ebenezer Scrooge put it.

Does this mean I discovered the answers to those questions? Nope.

It means I’m okay with there being questions unanswered.

Current culture revels in creating backstory questions the initial stories were not asking:

What made Michael Myers so evil? See the movie!

When did Anakin Skywalker turn to the Dark Side of the Force? Answers revealed!

How did Hannibal become Hannibal the Cannibal? Find out now!

Why do magic ladies go bad? Disney’s got the goods on The Wicked Witch of the West and Maleficent

Everything has to be explained. Everything has to be known.

Part of what makes fantasy fiction so enjoyable is its unknown, the extant of not-like-reality it contains. Neither the film nor book of Coraline explain what’s with the door between worlds, why there’s only one key, why sewing buttons into a child’s eyes keeps him/her in the other world, or even what the Other Mother is.

Because guess what–a kid don’t care. Coraline knows the Other Mother has her parents. She knows the Other Mother uses buttons to trap kids. She knows the Other Mother wants that key.

When I studied point of view, I realized just how vital that ignorance/acceptance trait is with a child character. While the writer knows how the world works, he can’t imbue that knowledge into the child. The child takes in the world as it enters her immediate perception, and she absorbs what impacts her personally. Coraline initially enjoys the Other Mother’s world very much, but when she’s asked to give up her eyes for buttons, she prefers her own home. Only then does the predatory nature of the Other Mother’s world become clear.

Mysteries thrive on what’s hidden: a character’s past, a buried piece of setting, and so on. But what’s hidden must also be exposed in order for a mystery to fulfill its promise to readers. Even mysteries for children will do this, as I’m currently learning from Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit for the gazillionth time, as it’s my kids’ favorite movie.

coralineCoraline, however, is not a mystery as far as the genre’s concerned. It is a perilous adventure through a dark fantasy land, something which kids are not often exposed to.* The world both excites and tests the protagonist, and because the protagonist is as young as the readers, the readers share in the experience.

As Reality often proves, there just simply isn’t an explanation for everything that occurs in our lives. We have to learn how to accept the unknown as it comes as well as how to overcome it. These require courage, strength, determination, and wit–all traits Coraline uses to survive the Other Mother’s world.

No explanation required.

*Whether or not you enjoyed the Nostalgia Critic’s review of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, this argument supporting dark movies geared for kids is spot-on. He takes care to support his argument with strong evidence from films such as Coraline and An American Tail. (Please pardon the Russian subtitles.)

 

 

 

History Don’t Do Cameras

Ever since the loss of our babysitter to the warmer climes of Arizona, Bo and I have lost all chances of a “night out.” (For the record, we did try three other babysitters, but those, um, didn’t exactly work out.) We have managed a few outings in the daylight hours, however, thanks to relatives willing to watch Blondie and the twins. That’s how we got to see Rogue One: A Star Wars Story* and tour the Pabst Mansion.

Why the Pabst Mansion? Bo and I aren’t beer connoisseurs. I can’t fathom whatever’s brewed under the current Pabst label is anything like the Pabst beer brewed in the 1800s.

250-history-bookWell, back when I was working on that old WIP (the one with Dorjan), I struggled with details for the primary setting of the story. I found my inspiration in a photography collection of the Pabst Mansion: rich, yet not obscenely so. Large, but not unwieldy. Down to earth and still elegant.

Now that Bo has become a stronger ally in my writing life, I asked if he wanted to go with me to the Pabst sometime. I wanted to see the history with my own eyes, breathe its air and touch its remnants. Bo thought for a moment, then got on the phone with Grandma Varinski to watch the kids. He had originally proposed an afternoon at the art museum (Yes, Milwaukee has one), so this seemed an acceptable alternative.

Acceptable indeed. I didn’t know Captain Pabst had been such an avid art collector. Work spanning back to the 1600s hung inside the mansion walls…

But I get ahead of myself.

We arrived on yet another cloudy day. Winter left behind its zombie ice-crusts along the roadside: too damn tough to melt. Despite standing on a major thoroughfare, Bo needed me to guide him to the mansion. Marquette University dominates this stretch of Wisconsin Avenue, making it easy to look at an old building and think it the school’s.

We step into what looks like a chapel to await the tour.

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I look upon the walls and windows…and get depressed.

What has happened to this place? Why’s it being held together by packing tape and pint glasses?

Worst of all, I have to pee. I hate having to pee while stuck in sweater tights.

So of course I had to ask the only male staff person about a bathroom. “Yes, if you’ll follow me.” He walked towards a door…into the mansion.

Weeeeee, I was getting in early!

Were one to be shrunk and escorted inside the Fairy Queen’s pixie dust tree, then one would know what it felt like to leave the decaying chapel and enter the mansion. It’s not that everything was all glittery or jewel-encrusted or such. It was the color: the warmth in the woodwork, the landscapes painted above the doors, the touch of gold and iron in all the right places. I cupped my phone in my hand, eager to snap some early photos before the tour–

–only my escort stuck with me all the way to the mansion’s bathroom and back.

Damn.

The tour began with an older women who sounded like she’d smoked through her formative years but had quit a while ago. She explained that we were actually in the beer pavilion Captain Pabst had commissioned for the World’s Fair in 1893. It was rebuilt as a sort of sun-room for the mansion. Then, when the Archdiocese of Milwaukee took up residence in the Mansion in the early 1900s, it was converted into a chapel. Once the Catholic Church sold the Pabst property in the 1970s, much of the mansion had, like this chapel, fallen into disrepair. All restorations are funded through donations–and tours–and they try to work room by room. So far, they had the first two floors done. We would see them, and the work being done on the third floor.

I was practically hopping at Bo’s side. I couldn’t stop grinning. I had nearly emptied my phone of all precious moments of children doing childreny things to get as many shots as possible–

“No pictures, please.”

DAMMIT!

So, um…I don’t have pictures from inside the mansion proper.

But I do have some photos scrounged up from the Internet!

Oddly enough, the Pabst’s website used to have a sampling of the photos taken for their book. Why they took them down I don’t know; they provided some closeups of the amazing woodwork as well as a few rooms.

Entering the third floor was like stepping into a whole new building. The Catholics had plastered this sad, generic whitewash over the walls and altered much of the plumbing in order to “modernize” the house. Granted, many of these changes are merely cosmetic, but it was clear by seeing rooms in the midst or restoration just how long it would take before the mansion was completely restored. I found a great article on OnMilwaukee.com which shared some photos of restoration in process. You can see in that bottom right photo where they’re repainting the original patterns; the bottom left shows stencilwork that had been covered up by the “modern” paint.

The tour covered only the residential portions of the mansion, but I hope to return for one of their special nights of touring the basement and attic, too. Just look at that shot: there’s a story hidden in those depths, I’m sure of it.

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One of main reasons I started this website was to share the imagery of my state and how it inspires me as a writer. I know some of you do this, too–Shehanne Moore has some stunning captures of her beloved Scotland, for example. Why? Because where we come from as writers is also where our characters will come from. Does that mean all my characters will be from Wisconsin? Probably not. But they’re all going to come from some place inside me: from my fears and loathings, loves and joys. They may never smell the air around the Circus World Museum, but they will all be a part of me, just as Wisconsin is a part of me.

The Pabst Mansion, this often-overlooked piece of homeland, inspired the setting for the first story I took seriously as a writer. And to share it with my husband, who still doesn’t like reading my fiction but loves my passion for writing because he loves me, made it all the more beautiful.

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*Last month I conversed with a few of you about Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. I noted a review that I felt nailed the film’s failures (character development/plot) as well as achievements (that final space battle!). Now mind you, it’s a video made by nerds for nerds, so their sense of humor may not be your thing. But if you don’t mind some goofy sketches and crude language, watch away!

Photography + Music = The Normal’s Menace

Creativity’s bizarre. Unpredictable. Deafening. It can flood our inner selves so completely that we don’t even notice the wreak of twin-poop running by amidst maniacal laughter.

But that flood can’t just stay inside. We’ve got to get it out somehow, and in the right place…rather a lot like potty-training, come to think…

ANYway.

Since I still struggle with this whole “read my fiction” concept, can we start at the beginning? Not the story’s beginning, but before that. Let’s start with the brainstorm.

Last week I mentioned the desire to write a story for an old character named Dorjan. He’s from my first Work in Progress, the novel I started writing when Blondie was a baby, the same novel that helped me fight the first round of postpartum depression.  I haven’t dared share that novel here yet, though the more I think about self-publishing, the more I’m inclined to do so. But come one, I can’t plunk a 600some page colossus here. That’s bloody insane. And it’s a fluid novel; I can’t pull pieces out and expect you to have a clue or a care.

So, let’s brainstorm an episode outside the novel. Something beforehand, I think. How about the 1980s? Can’t think of anything else when John Carpenter’s playing. My previous post shared a song from Lost Themes. Its sequel has stuff just as good:

Listen to the rhythm, its steady chase, its sudden fights. Oh this’ll do.

But where to put this? I have the shapes of movement, the white eyes of fear when the baddie’s chased by Dorjan. We need a sense of place.

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Take this farm. Pretty common sight in my chunk of Wisconsin…for now, at least, until yet another damn suburb bulldozes it over.

ANYway.

Let’s get a better sense of the expansive isolation of it all.

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Not much to it, right? Imagine being a kid and this is all you can see from where you live: blankness. Flatness. Trees that tend to cluster over nothing. And it all looks so sickly this time of year, as though a famine came down. The trees stand like gravestones over their summer-selves, and their branches reach for you with witchy fingers.

So you, as a kid, look out at this, day after day, see nothing but witchy fingers reaching out to grab anything close. You’re just thankful there’s that field between you and them. You’re used to this menace in the distance, that evil-ish look out there. Gets kind of dull, really.

Until it’s not alone.

Until you see someone standing in those trees, looking your way.

How long has he been there, hands in his pockets like that?

It starts to snow. He doesn’t move an inch. Even the witchy-fingers don’t go near him, bending any way but.

And then he starts walking your way.

No one’s supposed to walk that field. No one’s supposed to be ON it like that and he’s broken all that’s normal up with his being, with his walking. The wind whips up a flurry around his legs time and again, but it can’t trip him.

He’s getting closer. You can tell he’s not looking at the house anymore, or the barn. He’s looking right–

–at–

–you.

Do you run?

Do you stay?

What is he after? You?

Or what you hold in your arms, screeching its furry little head off?

 

These questions are part of what I’m mucking about with in my current short fiction. I’m studying myself,  you could say, noting what songs and images really set plot points in motion and/or clarify the characters. I’ve also been mucking about with the voice. Whose point of view tells the story best: Dorjan, or the child?

Oh, I’m not letting Gwen and her other Shield Maidens sit on the back-burner, believe me, but part of this whole “writer’s life” thing is to prioritize what can be done sooner vs. later. Dorjan is from a novel that was on its LAST F’ING ROUND of editing when I stopped due to motherhood/teaching/beginning to blog. I want it done. I want it out. I want it read. It’s almost like facing The Monster all over again: not the pain, to be clear, but the ability to move forward with a lighter load and stronger step. I want to complete this story, let it out, and move forward with my other stories. I can’t keep carrying what’s unfinished.

Writer’s Music: John Carpenter

a2192220213_10Let’s try something different.

Let’s try music we never tried before.

Music that has no roots in a film, though its creator does.

John Carpenter has been on my mind these past few days. I’ve been brainstorming up a bit of short fiction I wanted to share here to analyze the relationship between my immediate settings and the stories I create. While I have a sense of what I want to do, the rhythm’s still missing. The piece can’t afford to build too quickly; it’ll need a slow build to grip the readers. I need the readers to see the menace, know it’s coming, shake their fists at the protagonist as they cry, He’s right behind you!”

Aha! Just like Carpenter’s HalloweenThere’s a movie without flash or whimsy: everything’s done on a shoe-string budget while everyone gives their 200%. This is the movie that made Jamie Lee Curtis the Scream Queen, after all. And Carpenter’s score is legendary, as is his method. (“I’m the cheapest, and I know I’ll get it done on time,” He said. Sort of. Look, ask Bo, he’s read all about him.) Carpenter uses his synthesizer to score nearly all his movies. Sure, his melodies are simple, but they cement themselves into the audience’s memory, and fast. The theme for Halloween is nothing short of iconic, right up there with Superman and Batman.

But like John Williams, this can mean that the music lets a writer think of nothing else but Michael Myers walking down a shadowed street.

Enter the Lost Themes.

In the last few years Carpenter has produced two new albums of instrumental music totally unconnected to his films. They still keep his minimal style of percussion, synthesizer, and occasional piano. The result? Desired aural atmosphere without the Pavlovian reaction. Every track smacks of 80s: arcade tournaments and puffy vests, rolled-up denim and disco fries. Occasionally Kurt Russell in an eye patch appears in one’s imagination, but he’s too smart to interrupt the story at hand.

So, over the next week I’m going to see how far these albums can take a character I created years ago. He’s been kicking the table for his own story, but I was never sure what to do for a novel. Well, problem solved now.

We got work to do, Dorjan.

Let’s go.

Writer’s Music: Jim Parker

Music tells such marvelous stories. Sometimes, though, music written so perfectly for one story never fits anywhere else. Many of John Williams‘ themes, for instance, are cemented in their iconic-ness: Superman, Jaws, Indiana Jones, Star Wars–even Harry Potter. The themes for those characters fit. Period. For a sample of Williams’ work, this is a decent mix:

But then there’s the occasional surprise: an iconic sound that still produces a fresh image far removed from the music’s original universe.

Take Jim Parker‘s theme for Midsomer Murders. The original novels were written by an amazing old granny named Caroline Graham. Never have I seen point of view shifts performed so smoothly and so often than in her work–a “Lessons Learned” post is coming, I promise you. For now, though, let’s listen.

The discovery was something like an apple to the noggin. I had experienced a very, very weird dream brimming with potential for a kid’s adventure story, but I wasn’t capturing the bizarreness of the world: the details felt, well, lame, like a flannel-graph presentation for teenagers. I was desperately flipping through Hans Zimmer, The Beatles, The Who, and even Joel McNeely to get me into…well more like “out of.” I needed to feel the fall out of the humdrum and into the crazy. But without the right music, I just couldn’t get over the edge.

Now this is back when Biff and Bash were still wee and nursing. I often had a show locked’n’loaded in the player for late-night feedings. Weary of our home’s offerings, I had picked up Midsomer Murders from the library earlier that day. 2am: Biff and Bash are hungry. I situate the pillows, crook the boys to the breasts. On comes the title sequence and that clarinet like water in a shopping mall’s fountain: a quiet fluttering one only notices on the corner of perception. Then come the theremin and the strings. They float about like the bedsheet ghosts one hangs from trees on Halloween: eerie, a touch off, but not nightmare fuel. The sort of music for spooking kids, filling a night with as many giggles as shrieks…

YES! I could picture it all now: the kid stuck in the middle of nowhere who meets another bored kid who isn’t a proper kid at all, the trip down below to the goblin king and his mastery of giants–Brilliant, must write! But the boys are still nursing. Suckle faster, dammit!

It’s amazing what sights and sounds can spark up our imaginations, especially when we’re worn out by all that life requires of the grown-up. Let Jim Parker give you a break from adulthood and run loose as a kid, full of mischief for the humdrum village outside.

Lessons Learned from Agatha Christie: Clunk and move on.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Harry threw his head back and laughed. (53)

Stephen laughed, throwing his head back. (64)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Can a Protagonist be a Jerk in a Story Worth Reading?

“No, I could never read this book again.”

The eighteen of us sat in a classroom no janitor’s touched in weeks, evidenced by the dust bunnies on my backpack, not-looking at whomever dared to speak. The first term of grad school, my first class analyzing story and craft. Overwhelmed, I poured through critiques others wrote only to be thumped for not sharing my own “untainted” thoughts. Martin Amis’ The Rachel Papers was the first I tried to study free of the evil critic taint.

“Why?” 18828

“Because I don’t like Charlie. He’s an asshole.”

“So you don’t think a story can sell if you don’t like the main character.” Half the room nodded with the teacher, whose demeanor reminded me of a spectacled old grizzly bear.

I half-raised my hand. The teacher, a loud atheist who found my faith “quaint,” peered at the table-space before me to make sure I had no pile of articles painted by highlighter. “Jean?”

“Well,” I coughed, hated talking in that space, squirmed in the plastic chairs all universities think are somehow comfortable for hours of lecture, “A story can still be good just because you don’t like someone.”

My classmate turned to me, confident in her age and skill. “But I don’t care about him.”

“That doesn’t make the story less good.”

Yeah, I wasn’t much for eloquence back then. Not that my classmate was wrong, per say. Who wants to root for a jerk’s success? But there are other characters in the story beside the protagonist, so I think it depends on this question:

Will the story transform your character, or does your character transform the story?

The Rachel Papers fulfills the latter: Charles Highway makes his mark on Rachel and a number of other people, but remains an unchanged blighter from start to finish.

middlers-pride-7In my current work, Middler’s Pride, main character Gwen begins as a pompous ass. Oh, she’s nice enough with some characters back home, but once she meets the other Shield Maiden recruits in her training group, she declares herself superior, a legend who simply hasn’t been noticed yet. The latest scene I drafted amplifies the conflict between her and the other girls:

III.ii.

The river ran noiselessly, like a shadow. One could leap over it on horseback without trouble. If one could get a horse here. A hand barrow would do the trick, made with her wrecked tunic and some thick sticks and haul the weapons a few at a time. The ground, though… Despite the fresh sun, the land felt cold, sticky, and damp, like mud in the earliest of spring. Yet the trees were in full summer leaf, and the rabbits and family of deer who fed on the meager ferns and asters took no notice of Gwen. Good. A few snares should mean decent eating through the whole month. The mushrooms didn’t look all that bad, either. Tegan must be used to a much fatter landscape.

Near the Khaibe, maybe?

What did she know about the Khaibe, that the name would draw such hate into her face? Maybe she grew up near them, too. Had family.

Gwen pulled out the clay token Aberfa had made for her. It filled the palm of hand, its lines from the Bread Code they’d created as children. Friend. Always.

Girl chatter. The rabbit and deer scattered. UGH. They arrived as though bound together, like some sort of band, or, group, or…whatever. And what was Tegan doing with them, anyway? Some friend she was, chumming up with Elle and Wynne for no reason. Aberfa understood loyalty.

“This can’t be the River Gasirad,” Elle leapt about like a lame doe and landed atop an old tree stump next to Gwen. “It’s so puny.”

Wynne still heaved deep breaths, but managed to say, “It’s not. I live. By the proper. This connects. There.” She pointed south. “Not far. Rode. The barges a few. Times.”

A low ripple of cracks, low, swelled up, THUNK—Elle’s foot fell through the trunk, but the rest of her remained safe and sound thanks to Gwen’s lightning reflexes. Elle smiled in thanks. Great. Just let GO.

“Hold still, Elle,” Tegan brushed the dust and splinters. Paused. “Hey, Gwen, look at this.” Finally! Gwen untangled herself from Elle and knelt next to Tegan. Sure enough: “It’s like the plants from yesterday.”

Gwen took a deep breath, fixed her gaze so that she saw only Elle’s calf. “And the stag under the curse of the Cat Man.” Time the eyes, don’t move too fast. This must be a dramatic moment of the legend’s tale…

Elle thrust her fingers into it like an idiot. “Doesn’t feel much like a curse to me.” She held her fingers towards Wynne like she would know any better. “I mean, it’s a bit smelly. Sure this isn’t just old bat scat?”

Tegan took some and rubbed it between forefinger and thumb. “From what you said, Gwen, this stuff seems awfully watery. And more grey than black.”

“Remnants of old black magick, then?” She wasn’t going to be dumb enough to rub her skin in that stuff. Idiots. “Look, we have orders. We have to clean the weapons, which means carrying them here.”

“And ruin our clothes like you ruined yours?” Elle’s laugh sounded like a dog barking at the wind. “No thank you. We think it’ll be loads easier to carry water to the fort instead. Boil it up. Clean the weapons that way.”

Gwen bit the inside of her lip. “We?”

The three of them looked at each other like this “we” was perfectly normal. That of course they would work together. Gods forbid they not listen to orders. Again. Oh that’s right, they’re not.

“We were ordered—“

“And we’re going to do fulfill that order, Gwen.” Why was Tegan looking at her like some rabid animal? “We’ll clean the weapons, but carrying them here is foolish. We can’t afford to ruin what little we have to wear. You really want that black mold stuff on your armor?”

Gwen felt her feet step back. No. She couldn’t retreat. But she didn’t want her armor wrecked before it saw battle, either. “We’re here to train, build our strength. Become proper soldiers.” Well. She eyed Wynne. “Some of us, anyway. Gods know what you’re doing here.”

“Hey!” Elle stepped into Gwen’s eye-line and gave glare for glare. “We’ve all of us reason to be here, and become soldiers. Not all of us have been trained straight from the cradle, or whatever it is you did with your precious Shield Maiden Nanny.”

“Don’t you—“ Gwen formed a fist and swung.

Elle caught her fist. Held it.

Try the other fist? It won’t stop shaking…

Those damned red eyes are daring her to.

“You can help us here, or you can walk away.”

Her fist shook inside Elle’s. So. Humiliating. Her eyes burned like fire, all those legendary scars, too–

How dare she look a legend.

How dare they not…listen, and just…

“Fine,” she said with clenched teeth, and pulled back. Walked around.

“You dropped this.” Wynne’s hand shook as she held it out: Aberfa’s talisman.

Shaking hand.

They even take her weakness from her.

Gwen snatched the talisman away and marched back to the fort, black thoughts circling.

They’re not listening to orders because ol’ Captain Tree Trunk is incompetent.

Terrwyn’s too far off, blast it.

Well.

Captain Vala just needs to be informed of the situation. And once she sees how they disregard her orders, then, THEN there will be some proper teamwork under the true leader of this group.

The true legend.

Gwen’s the kind of girl I would have feared and hated in school. I would never want to hang around her, let alone be related to her.

Yet I created her. I WANT her to be this way right now. Why?

Because Gwen, like so many kids, gosh, like so many of us grownups, has to realize she isn’t the hot shit she thinks she is. Countless stories include that change: take my primary influences for Middler’s Pride, Michael Dellert and Diana Wynne Jones. drownedammet

A Merchants Tale_Final Cover.inddThe protagonist Corentin in Dellert’s The Merchant’s Tale is a young guy who treats the others in his caravan like nobodies, but by the end he’s willing to respect them and listen to (most of) what they have to say about traveling through Droma. In Jones’ Drowned Ammet, Mitt sees the aristocracy as a bunch of gluttonous leeches while Hildrida looks on commoners as nasty imbeciles. Of course they’re stuck on a boat together, and treat each other like crap for a good long while. But unlike Charles Highway, these two cannot help but be influenced by events, and therefore change their perspectives.

the_dawn_treader_coverAs a reader, my first experience with this kind of character was that turd of a cousin Eustace in C.S. Lewis’ The Voyage of the Dawn Treader: the selfish idiot who refuses to take in the world around him until his selfishness puts him under a curse that only Aslan can break. Eustace finally must face that he cannot do it all. He cannot save himself.

That moment has stuck with me through the past couple of decades—not just because of my faith, but in a story, I see that moment as being The Ultimate Moment. The protagonist cannot save herself her own way, or be the lone savior of her world. It is through the sacrifice of the most treasured elements within her that a new power comes through love, friendship, light. Everything, the presumed inevitable end, the web-ties of the characters, all alter because of that fall to her knees in surrender. Such changes snap and re-bind the page to the reader herself, for she knows the really good stuff is coming.

Now to give it.

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Writer’s Music: Richard Tognetti

246828b86b597eace58e331ffce41e4aSome stories cannot be told with crashing-techno, happy pop, or lonely piano. Some stories call for the drums of battle.

And strings. Lots of kick-ass strings.

Such is Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World as composed by Richard Tognetti. I can’t think of any other film where the story, character, and score entwine so completely. Normally I don’t bother with movie trivia, but I have to note that Richard Tognetti not only composed the score, but he performed as the violin solist and tutored Russel Crowe when it came to playing the violin.

Why did Russel Crowe need tutoring? Because his character, the captain of the HMS Surprise, is also a violinist. His best friend is the naval surgeon and a cellist. In the quiet moments at sea, these two play duets of such sweet sways you can feel the ocean rock the boards beneath your feet. These are but classical duets, however. The moments of battle between ships lets loose the drums and brass as cannons between the bows. “The Far Side of the World,” the opening track on this score, captures the rise and fall of battle in the fog as well as the celebration of friendship. Violins and cellos both sing and echo the melody to one another; all the while the song builds with a light intensity. What friendship doesn’t go through its moments of tension to come out all the stronger for it? Just so as the captain and surgeon work together to save ship and crew.

Unleash your characters to the drums of battle, and see what they discover in the fog.

Click here for more on Richard Tognetti.

Click here for more on MASTER AND COMMANDER: THE FAR SIDE OF THE WORLD.