The Hidden Wickedness: A Study of Rural Villainous Deeds in Holmesian Tales

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Happy September, my fellow creatives! Fall is not too far away. School is starting for my three Bs while I tackle finals for the summer term. I was blessed to take my kids to see a beloved fellow blogger and friend, Peggy from Where to Next?, as she was traveling through the Midwest this summer. It was so wonderful to chat in person in the midst of Bash’s million questions! Our drive to meet her took us through a lot of rolling hills of bright green farmland, corn and wheat on the cusp of harvesting beneath sapphire skies.

Prologue: Life in Rural Wisconsin

Wisconsin’s countryside has always been near and dear to me, something I feel would be worth exploring in how other creatives like Michael Perry view it…but that’ll be a post for another day. Today, I’d like to return to something I once shared on this blog long long LONG ago about why I write stories set in Wisconsin.

The adventures of Sherlock Holmes resonate deeply with me for two reasons. First, they were dearly loved by my father, who would, on a rare evening when he could delay his church work, read a story aloud to me at bedtime. I still remember the thrill as he described Dr. Roylott’s fate in “The Adventure of the Speckled Band,” or the sadness in his voice when Watson discovers Holmes’ note by Reichenbach Falls. I devoured these stories, despite my mother’s attempts to interest me in more child-friendly works such as the Little House books. Nothing doing, especially after I read “Copper Beeches,” for that brings me to my second reason: our town, our state, really, fit the description Holmes gave of England’s picturesque countryside.Wisconsin is filled with hidden towns, small growths of community where railroads and highways meet, places that no one finds unless they mean to find it. Rock Springs was a town of 600 when I was a child, a little grain-fill stop for the railroad. We didn’t even have a gas station until I turned 5, and our library, a small portion of the town’s community center, could fit in a utility closet (it probably WAS a utility closet at one point). Farms and wild wood filled the gaps between towns. Unless, of course, you went towards Wisconsin Dells, where the wilderness is trimmed and prepped and ready for its mandatory close-up before the tourist rushes to the proper civilization of water parks and casinos.

We drove through those wild patches often. I never tried to occupy myself with books or toys in the car. There was too much to see, out there in those scattered homesteads, too much to wonder about. What happened inside that dying barn? Why is that gravel drive roped off, and where does it lead? Where are all the people for those rusted cars littering the field?

This is the Wisconsin I live in now. The land dips and rises in unexpected places. The trees may crowd a rural highway so much you can lose yourself driving, only to have the tunnel burst open to sunshine and a white-crested river running beneath a bridge you’d swear had never seen a car before. In Rock Springs, one could stand on the lone highway through town and hear snowflakes land beneath the orange street lights.

As a child, I was always making up stories in my head about the farms we passed. I didn’t think true evil could be committed in them. Only as an adult did I learn better.

This knowledge of Wisconsin’s hidden evils gave me a new appreciation for the Sherlock Holmes tales I loved as a kid–not because Holmes brought truth and justice to light wherever he went, but because he didn’t just stay in London. Holmes himself knew just how dangerous the countryside could be in spite of its picturesque beauty. Let’s peruse a few cases to see just how the rural setting played a role in his cases, shall we?

Case 1: The Adventure of the Copper Beeches

A woman seeks Holmes’ counsel as to a job offer with a bizarrely high salary with equally bizarre requirements. The minor suspicion leads to a mystery of deadly deception.

So this is the story with the iconic train ride into the country and the conversation Holmes and Watson have about rural England. Here’s the majority of that exchange:

It was an ideal spring day, a light blue sky, flecked with little fleecy white clouds drifting across from west to east. The sun was shining very brightly, and yet there was an exhilarating nip in the air, which set an edge to a man’s energy. All over the countryside, away to the rolling hills around Aldershot, the little red and gray roofs of the farm-steadings peeped out from amid the light green of the new foliage.

“Are they not fresh and beautiful?” I cried with all the enthusiasm of a man fresh from the fogs of Baker Street.

But Holmes shook his head gravely.

“Do you know, Watson,” said he, “that it is one of the curses of a mind with a turn like mine that I must look at everything with reference to my own special subject. You look at these scattered houses, and you are impressed by their beauty. I look at them, and the only thought which comes to me is a feeling of their isolation and of the impunity with which crime may be committed there.”

“Good heavens!” I cried. “Who would associate crime with these dear old homesteads?”

“They always fill me with a certain horror. It is my belief, Watson, founded upon my experience, that the lowest and vilest alleys in London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful countryside.”

Holmes strikes upon a critical point: isolation. Rural communities, then and now, are not nearly as connected as neighborhoods in the urban setting. Even with the internet and all our technological innovations, one can be very, very cut off in the countryside. I still distinctly remember visiting a friend at her farmstead many years ago, and feeling downright oppressed by the silence of the farmland’s night. Absolute, utter silence. No wind. No bugs. No cars. Nothing. The film Alien may have coined the phrase, “In space, no one can hear you scream,” but I put it to you that in the country, no one can hear it, either. That is partly why the villains of “Copper Beeches” were able to get away with shutting away their daughter and allowing her to literally waste away while they spend her money. Who could possibly hear her in the middle of nowhere?

This isolation can be a powerful tool for a writer, whether one’s creating atmosphere, parring down the “noise” and cast a busy setting requires, or even establishing influences that could drive characters to make certain choices.

Speaking of characters…

Case 2: The Adventure of the Silver Blaze

A famous racehorse goes missing, his trainer found dead out on the moor. The setting is a flat, barren land offering little to anyone without a horse. Few people, fewer hiding places. How could such a creature disappear where everyone knows anyone? The dog could tell you…

“Is there any other point to which you would wish to draw my attention?”

“To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.”

“The dog did nothing in the night-time.”

“That was the curious incident,” remarked Sherlock Holmes.

A rural community is going to be a small community. In the case of “Silver Blaze,” there are two competing horse stables in the north of Dartmoor. When the landscaped is described to us–

Holmes and I walked slowly across the moor. The sun was beginning to sink behind the stable of Mapleton, and the long, sloping plain in front of us was tinged with gold, deepening into rich, ruddy browns where the faded ferns and brambles caught the evening light….

–I was reminded of the southernmost area of Wisconsin, where the ground has leveled out to very flat plains. Ideal for farming, of course, but for hiding? Not so much. So for something as large as a horse to go missing in a bleak landscape seems like an impossible puzzle.

Now any brain would look at those two competing horse stables and presume Silver Blaze has to be SOMEwhere in those stables. Even Holmes considered as much (“The fact is that I could not believe it possible that the most remarkable horse in England could long remain concealed“). It’s doubly concerning that the horse trainer was murdered the same night the horse went missing. In such a bare, quiet place, where everyone knows everyone. How could such two awful things happen?

Just as the beautiful countryside can hide secrets, so can its people. This is partly why, I think, cozy mysteries have such an appeal. In their sparse setting and cast, there must be hidden layers, things no one has learned that must come to the surface. The clue of “the dog did nothing in the nighttime” reflects that someone familiar, someone known in that tiny, tiny community, took Silver Blaze away from his training stable. From that clue we must dig deeper into those who interact with the horse, and that is where we learn the trainer has a secret life complete with 2nd marriage lived away from Dartmoor. That second life spurred the trainer to attempt laming Silver Blaze for money, and in that process, Silver Blaze kicked him in the head and fled, killing him in the process. The competing stable found the horse–who wouldn’t in such a bleak landscape?–and did the, well, the least criminal thing they could have done in that tiny, tiny community: they painted Silver Blaze so he looked like any other horse. Then Silver Blaze wouldn’t be able to compete in the coming race and they could still gallantly “find” the horse after the race and look good to the neighbors as they return it.

So those familiar interactions, those habits so well known to others…those, writers, could be a marvelous tool in revealing the truth to the cast and readers alike.

The rural setting, though, need not always be cozy.

Case 3: The Final Problem

On the run from Professor Moriarty, Holmes and Watson cut about the continent, finally isolating themselves as hikers among the mountains of Geneva. They reach the falls of Reichenbach. Watson is summoned away on a hoax of a medical emergency. When he returns…Holmes is gone.

As I was gathering stories for this study, it occurred to me that Reichenbach is one of the few settings where Doyle/Watson spend an extensive time describing the scene. So often in the stories we get a sentence or two of sensory details, and then we move on. Not so with Reichenbach Falls.

It is, indeed, a fearful place. The torrent, swollen by the melting snow, plunges into a tremendous abyss, from which the spray rolls up like the smoke from a burning house. The shaft into which the river hurls itself is an immense chasm, lined by glistening coal-black rock, and narrowing into a creaming, boiling pit of incalculable depth, which brims over and shoots the stream onward over its jagged lip. The long sweep of green water roaring forever down, and the thick flickering curtain of spray hissing forever upward, turn a man giddy with their constant whirl and clamour. We stood near the edge peering down at the gleam of the breaking water far below us against the black rocks, and listening to the half-human shout which came booming up with the spray out of the abyss.

Doyle chooses not to have Holmes face Moriarity in some iconic spot of London. Doyle avoids any sort of city altogether. Two men of refinement are to face off where Nature is its most powerful, the force and height of the falls capable of slaying any man no matter how clever he may be. No law exists out here but for the laws of Nature, and Nature cares nothing for Man’s logic and cunning. Is it any wonder that when Watson returns, he sees his friend’s note and the footprints by the cliff and presumes Holmes and his nemesis are both dead?

It had darkened since I left, and now I could only see here and there the glistening of moisture upon the black walls, and far away down at the end of the shaft the gleam of the broken water. I shoulted; but only the same half-human cry of the fall was borne back to my ears.

It’s moments like this where I can see the appeal people have in reading/viewing stories where the sole conflict is Man Vs. Nature. You cannot reason with it or bargain with it. You cannot stop it. You can only survive it…if you are lucky.

And sometimes, we are.

Case 4: The Hound of the Baskervilles

Holmes and Watson accompany young Henry Baskerville to Baskerville Hall to claim his inheritance. Mysterious goings-on have already begun in London—would they continue on the Grimpen Mire?

We had left the fertile country behind and beneath us. We looked back on it now, the slanting rays of a low sun turning the streams to threads of gold and glowing on the red earth new turned by the plough and the broad tangle of the woodlands. The road in front of us grew bleaker and wilder over huge russet and olive slopes, sprinkled with giant boulders. Now and then we passed a moorland cottage, walled and roofed with stone, with no creeper to break its harsh outline.

Bo and I have watched many, many adaptations of this particular entry in the Holmes canon. It’s no wonder folks love telling this story over and over again–you’ve got a tight cast, a bleak, peculiar place. Strange signals in the night and suspicious residents. Forbidden romance and, of course, murder.

A particularly crafty move on Doyle’s part was to pull Holmes out of the story for a spell–oh, he’s watching from the Moors, yes, but as far as Watson knows, Holmes leaves him to watch over Baskerville while Holmes returns to London to investigate other avenues or some such excuse. Watson writes daily reports to Holmes and, being the romantic that he is, allows himself space to write about the landscape, too:

The longer one stays here the more does the spirit of the moor sink into one’s soul, its vastness, and also its grim charm…We found a short valley between rugged tors which led to an open, grassy space flecked over with the white cotton grass. In the middle of it rose two great stones, worn and sharpened at the upper end until they looked like the huge corroding fangs of some monstrous beast.

Such rocks remind me of the formations one can see in the western half of the state, where the hills grow tall and the wilderness is not so keen to have farmers for company:

A person could die trying to climb these rocks, but the difference between these Wisconsin rocks and England’s Grimpen Mire is that the Mire doesn’t look threatening. It’s merely a wide expanse with grass and mud like any other field…until one steps in it. Only then does one realize they are in a kind of quicksand they cannot escape. We are told early on of a pony that had wandered onto the Mire and was slowly sucked under, crying out and crying out, and then nothing. This hidden wickedness is not always thought of, however, for the Legend of the Hound is on everyone’s mind, including the killer Stapleton’s. By taking a large dog and starving it on the Mire, he’s created his own living murder weapon. It worked once on the elder Baskerville, but Henry Baskerville is protected by Holmes and Watson. The starved dog is shot, and Stapleton escapes to the Mire.

Somewhere in the heart of the great Grimpen Mire, down in the foul slime of the huge morass which had sucked him in, this cold and cruel-hearted man is forever buried.

In some stories, Justice will come by Nature, not Man.

Epilogue: the Lonely Land

There will always be those souls who revel in the city life: the dense gathering of peoples, places, and secrets will always provide writers with bountiful writing inspiration. But outside the city limits, in the dark, in the stillness, we wander and survive. We live in Countryside, Anywhere. We keep ourselves to ourselves. We keep Nature at bay (most of the time). We keep our wickedness hidden from the lackadaisical eye.

But if you, fellow creatives, pause…imagine…look…perhaps, yes, perhaps you will see us, and find us out.

“But look at these lonely houses, each in its own fields…think of the deeds of hellish cruelty, the hidden wickedness which may go on, year in, year out, in such places, and none the wiser.”

–Sherlock Holmes, “The Adventure of the Copper Beeches”

~STAY TUNED!~

I’ve been listening to Nature a lot lately. Come take an explore with me through its own quiet music…

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

Of Monks & Marigolds & Murder: A Nature Walk with Brother Cadfael

Welcome back, my fellow creatives! The Summer Solstice has come and gone, leaving Wisconsin with a collection of thunderheads eager to crack our air with lightning and thunder and blanket our countryside with rain (and sometimes hail). Had I knowledge of seeds and soil, such weather would be fit for a plot of sprouts (well, not the hail, but you get me). But alas, my neglected garden remains…neglected. Well, save for the one onion I threw into the mud for a lark. That’s actually sprouting! Now to make sure I don’t mow it down by accident…

In a few days’ time, a group of fellow educators and I are getting together to celebrate nature in literature. Some are eager to discuss the beauty of nature in poetry, others the power of nature’s presence in nonfiction.

And then there’s me, eager to talk about how nature can be used to kill us.

Don’t worry, I’m not digging into any eco-terror-type tales. No, I went to my beloved mystery series, for of course I had to. I gathered a batch of Sherlock Holmes stories where the rural isolation played a role in the crime, and a batch of Brother Cadfael mysteries where flowers played a role in the whodunit with the Rare Benedictine. If you’d like to explore the Holmesian Countryside with me another time, let me know! In the meantime, let’s take a stroll among the flowers that will never ever grow under my care (though considering the poisonous nature of some, that’s probably for the best).

~*~

I’ve only written about Brother Cadfael once or twice previously, so here’s a brief refresher:

The Cadfael series is a mystery series set in 12th century England featuring a Benedictine monk who had served in the Crusades before taking Orders. His time in the world not only taught him a wide variety of herbal remedies and apothecary skills, but also the depth and breadth of human nature.

Cadfael’s peace, though, is always to be found in the garden.

He doubted if there was a finer Benedictine garden in the whole kingdom, or one better supplied with herbs both good for spicing meats, and also invaluable as medicine. The main orchards and lands of the Shrewsbury abbey of Stain Peter and Saint Paul lay on the northern side of the road, outside the monastic enclave, but here, in the enclosed garden within the walls, close to the abbot’s fish-ponds and the brook that worked the abbey mill, Brother Cadfael ruled unchallenged. The herbarium in particular was his kingdom, for he had built it up gradually through fifteen years of labour, and added to it many exotic plants of his own careful raising, collected in a roving youth that had taken him as far afield as Venice, and Cyprus and the Holy Land. For Brother Cadfael had come late to the monastic life, like a battered ship settling at last for a quiet harbour…He saw no contradiction in the delight he had taken in battle and adventure, and the keen pleasure he now found in quietude. Spiced, to be truthful, with more than a little mischief when he could get it, as he liked his victuals well-flavoured, but quietude all the same…

A Morbid Taste for Bones

Don’t we all, Brother. Indeed, don’t we all.

First, a visit to The Rose Rent.

We are not quite in Brother Cadfael’s herb garden within the cloister’s walls, but we are now on abbey grounds. This home, you see, was willed by a widow named Judith. She gifts it to Shrewsbury Abbey with the request of being given a single rose from her late husband’s rose bush as a form of rent. The rose bush itself is quite impressive, as our flora-loving monk will tell you.

A snow of white, half-open buds sprinkled it richly. The blooms were never very large, but of the purest white and very fragrant.

Many men seek the attention of the pure, beautiful Judith, but she refuses all. Even the young monk charged with caring for the rose bush falls in love with the widow, but he is soon found dead alongside the plant. The authorities assume the rose bush was simply wrecked in the attack, but Brother Cadfael thinks otherwise.

“What was done to the rose-bush,” said Cadfael firmly, “was not done with that knife. Could not be! A man would have to saw away for half an hour or more, even with a sharp knife, at such a thick bole. That was done with a heavier weapon, meant for such work…”

Why is the rose bush as brutalized as the boy? THAT is a crucial piece of the mystery, for someone wants the Rose Rent as broken as Judith’s ties to the past. But who could it be?

For that, you will have to read the mystery.

Come, let us visit Brother Cadfael’s workshop now. I hear he keeps cherry wine here as well as many balms and salves. Just take care with the Monk’s-Hood!

Monk’s Hood

While many plants served their purpose in healing mixtures, some could be powerful healers as well as killers. Monk’s-Hood is one such plant. Named for the cowl-like shape of its petals, this lovely flower plays a critical role in attending the aged in the abbey’s infirmary. The risks of using it, however, cannot be understated.

“But keep it carefully, Edmund, never let it near your lips. Wash your hands well after using it, and make sure nay other who handles it does the same. It’s good for a man’s outside, but bad indeed for his inside. … [the oil is] the ground root of monk’s-hood, chiefly, in mustard oil and oil from flax seeds. It’s powerfully poisonous if swallowed, a very small draught of this could kill…”

When a hard-headed landowner is found poisoned not only by food from the abbey but with the Monk’s-Hood salve Cadfael makes for the infirmary, the Benedictine must act quickly to clear the abbey and reveal the killer.

“If you can make medicines from this plant,” said Prior Robert, with chill dislike, “so, surely, may others, and this may have come from some very different source, and not from any store of ours.”

“That I doubt,” said Cadfael sturdily, “since I know the odour of my own specific so well, and can detect here mustard and houseleek as well as monk’s hood. I have seen its effects, once taken, I know them again.”

Cadfael uses his knowledge of the oil’s smell and stain to bring the killer to justice, for few realize just how poisonous such a potion can be. The sheriff certainly didn’t until Cadfael tested the main suspect by asking him to drink the monk’s hood to calm his nerves–and he would have if not for Cadfael’s intervention.

But why was the landowner killed? For that, you will have to read the mystery.

Plants can not only help heal, but they can also help provide place. We can visit a nearby shepherd’s hut so you can see and smell for yourself.

One Corpse too Many

The clover’s quite heady isn’t it? Clover was often used as a perfume for altar lamps in this time period, but it was also grown by farmers to feed livestock. Goose-grass, too, was quite handy for feeding farm animals, but even Brother Cadfael could put such a clingy plant to use in making salves for wounds.

It’s this particular combination of clover and goose-grass that helped Cadfael uncover a murdered man’s body among King Stephen’s executed prisoners. Only the murdered man had the smell of clover and the burrs of goose-grass (as well as different strangulation marks, but that’s nothing to do with the plants), so by finding the barn with both plants, Cadfael was able to uncover the murder weapon and other clues to the killer.

The dry grass was well laced with small herbs now rustling and dead but still fragrant, and there was a liberal admixture of hooky, clinging goose-grass in it. That reminded [Cadfael] not only of the shred of stem dragged deep into Nick Faintree’s throat by the ligature that killed him, but also of Torold [Blund]’s ugly shoulder wound.

With war among the monarchs, everyone, even those cloistered, are caught up in the bloodshed, the betrayals, and the espionage. Cadfael must show the king that this singular corpse could crack his credibility beneath the crown…hopefully without losing his own life in the process. Does he succeed?

For that, you will have to read the mystery.

One last stop, I think. The hawthorn hedge is beautiful this time of year, its white petals falling as gently as snowflakes upon the ground. Did you know those of this time period believed the crown of thorns placed upon Christ’s head came from a hawthorn plant? Such a connection with the divine should be revered…and put to good use…

A Morbid Taste for Bones

One of the young monks under Brother Cadfael’s supervision frequently experiences visions and extreme spams, so Cadfael must often give the monk poppy juice to help still the boy’s body and mind. When some other ambitious monks “interpret” the boy’s visions as a plea from a Welsh saint to dig up her bones and bring them to Shrewsbury, Cadfael (being Welsh) has no choice but to accompany this band of Brothers into Wales to exhume the saint.

Not surprisingly, this venture leads to conflict between cloister and Welsh, and one morning soon after their arrival, the leader of the Welsh village is found dead. Cadfael is not wanting for suspects, but once he discovers his poppy juice supply has been drained, he quickly works out the identity of the killer.

To cease the conflict in the village and protect the saint whose bones his abbey so desperate wants, Cadfael chooses to put that reverence for hawthorn to use in a display of “divine” intervention.

Over altar and reliquary a snowdrift of white petals lay, as though a miraculous wind had carried them in its arms across two fields from the hawthorn hedge, without spilling one flower on the way, and breathed them in here through the altar window.

Why the ruse? For that, you’ll have to read the mystery.

~*~

Is it any wonder that Cadfael inspired my character Arlen? Both men of nature and healing, of principle and justice. Both called in dire days to summon past skills. Both fiercely loyal, giving, and kind.

We could use more Cadfaels in this world right now. But perhaps they are already among us–in the streets. In the battles.

Or, perhaps, in the gardens.

This season, do take a moment to explore a beloved park, forest, or other sanctuary of nature. Such places of color and quiet can be a balm to soothe the tired soul.

~STAY TUNED!~

If you’d like to meander through the Holmesian countryside, do let me know! Otherwise, I’ve finally seen Kenny B’s adaptation of Death on the Nile, and I have thoughts–not just about his take, but on how big or small a cast should be. Considering how the cast size of Death on the Nile changes over the course of a novel and three different film adaptations, it’s worth asking ourselves as writers just how many characters and subplots one needs in a tale to keep it clipping along.

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

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

Happy May to you, my fell creatives!

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

First, a little context.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And yet, I was bored. Why?

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

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

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

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

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

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

~*~

Now let’s flip to the character-centric.

Who is Fitzwilliam Darcy?

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

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

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

But then, there’s the second book.

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

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

Yet it wasn’t. Why?

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

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

~*~

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

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

Gosh, this post is LONG.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Today I plucked from the New Release shelf:

Beasts of a Little Land by Juhea Kim

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#WritingMusic: #Music of the #Monsters

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

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

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

Photo © Sveta Sh / Stocksy United

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Are you ready?

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

~STAY TUNED!~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#WriterProblems: When the #Worldbuilding Slows the #Storytelling

I certainly hope so, Mr. Bradbury, Sir.

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

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

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

BLUE HOUSE DARE

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

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

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

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

So of course you looked with your bright green eyes.

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

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

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

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

Idiots.

Let’s pause here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No laugh from you that time. Yeah.

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

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

Some extra Bradbury, just because. 🙂

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

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

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

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

Do we go back to the present then and there?

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

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

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

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

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

It bleaches your hair. Nice.

It fucking claws for your eyes, you douchebag.

And not whatever freak lives in the house?

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

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

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

Idiot.

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

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

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

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

I can’t watch you. I can’t.

Something is moving in Blue House.

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

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

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

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

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

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

You wave like this is all some lark.

A damned lark.

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

The Doll’s shadow stops swaying.

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

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

The attic light flickers off.

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

Cam and I stare and strain for something, anything.

Anything but silence.

The attic light flickers on.

The window is closed.

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

End of story. 997 words.

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

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

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

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

See, this is why writers need friends. 🙂

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

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

~STAY TUNED!~

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

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

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

The #Writing #Inspiration Found in Local Lore

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or in another case, its face.

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

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

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

BLUE HOUSE DARE

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

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

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

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

So of course you looked with your bright green eyes.

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

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

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

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

Idiots.

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

Time to start digging.

~STAY TUNED!~

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

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