#writers, what #writinginspiration can be found in your #homestate? In #Wisconsin, one #setting to spark your #storytelling is #theHouseontheRock.

We drive, kid-free, through the silent Wisconsin countryside. Clouds hang silver and heavy over the corn and soy fields. The occasional tractor turns earth, the sporadic cow chews cud, the episodic cyclist scowls.

Yeah, sorry about my use of the thesaurus here, but I couldn’t help myself, not when I saw “odd” is a synonym for “occasional.” For amongst the normal, humdrum sights in rural Wisconsin, Bo and I are going to a truly odd place. One of the oddest in all the States, in fact.

Bo finds just the right music for our mission.

“What I want to know,” Bo ponders as we park, “is why no Bond villain ever stationed himself here.”

I nod. Christopher Lee’s funhouse set-up in The Man with the Golden Gun has nothing on this house.

No, the house.

The House on the Rock.

Like Dylan Thuras (in the above video), I also grew up hearing the tale that world-famous architect–and Wisconsin’s own!–Frank Lloyd Wright had spurned Alex Jordan’s own architectural designs, motivating son Alex Jordan Jr. to build The House atop a natural tower called Deer Shelter Rock…an area less than ten miles away from Taliesin. The tale is likely a crock, and yet…you know, why else would you build so flippin’ close to each other?

I’d only visited The House on the Rock once in my teen years. It’s the sort of place that sticks with you no matter who you are or where you’re from; one visit affected Neil Gaiman so deeply he set a piece of American Gods at The House on the Rock–and yes, they even filmed an episode of the television series there.

Sadly, my phone’s camera cannot do this place justice at ALL, but I do have a few snaps I can share mixed among the far better photos on the Internet.

House on the Rock’s exterior (from milwaukeemag.com)
Japanese garden set outside the Original House
Just one of the many clusters of self-playing instruments. There used to be one that played The Benny Hill theme, but they moved it. 😦
The House on the Rock is FULL of stained glass pieces. (from pinterest)
Sure, why not pack a cathedral’s worth of bells into one side of The House? Makes total sense. (Yes, there are more bells outside the photo.)
Kitchen/dining area from Original House. (from wikimedia.org)
The Lounge in the Original House (from tripadvisor.com)

One of the major architectural highlights is the Infinity Room.

It ain’t exactly a place you want to walk in when lots of people are there–it heats quickly, and, um, wobbles a bit. Still, I managed to get a shot with Bo while the natural light was good.

I didn’t say it was a good picture.
The Infinity Room exterior/interior (from pinterest)

Once you exit the Original House and Gate House, things start to get really weird.

Entry into “Heritage of the Sea” exhibit (from reddit)

Ah, the vicious Lake Superior Squid duals with the tempestuous Duluth Whale of Doom.

(Them’s the jokes, folks. For legit humor writing, talk to Bo.)

Yes, you walk a good three flights up and around this whale. (from tripadvisor.com)

Would it surprise you to know that tiny children sobbed as their parents dragged them by the whale’s teeth? I sure couldn’t blame’em–I was freaked out when I first saw all this, and I was old enough to drive a car. Bo, bless him, humors me as I grip his arm tight enough to leave a mark as we descend…yes, we not only have to climb up and around this mouth–we have to do it aaaaall again to get out.

The Streets of Yesterday’s a touch more tame. It reminds me of the Streets of Old Milwaukee exhibit at the Public Museum–a quiet, created thoroughfare.

The Streets of Yesterday (from cultofweird.com)

With dolls. Lots of dolls.

Soooooo creepy….

Oh, I’ll get to the dolls. Just you wait.

Anyway, here we transition with a big ol’ organ into room, after room, after room, of these giant orchestral mechanics.

One of the many giant engines and organ wagons on the Streets of Yesterday (from Cloudfront.net)

Mechanical orchestrics.

Soooo many rooms are filled with these giant self-playing orchestras. This one plays an excerpt from The Mikado. (from wikimedia.org)
Sorry my pictures aren’t better. 😦

You get me.

One of the many rooms of nightmare fuel: a mannequin orchestra with self-playing instruments (from tripadvisor.com)

This place just goes on….and on…and on…you move from room to room, warehouse to warehouse. You walk on yet another street of yesterday dedicated to cars, hot air balloons, airplanes. You pass hundreds of trinkets and trunkets of store displays, guns, circuses, dollhouses, DOOOOOOLLS, pipes, ivory carvings, costume jewelry, armor. Battle scenes complete with armored elephants and dogs.

Did I mention the dolls? Like the giant carousel FILLED with dolls?

I swear, this thing had to be at least two stories high. Of course, you gotta walk aaaall the way around it. (from pinterest)
Bo faces them down. I spot one (off camera, sorry) that’s tipped off its horse. Drunk riding, I guess?

And then there’s the room with the world’s largest indoor carousel.

Over two hundred animals, none of them horses. (from pinterest)
See what I mean? (from tripadvisor.com)
Just one of several walls filled with carousel horses (from tripadvisor.com)

In case you’re wondering what’s hanging from the ceiling, those are mannequin angels. Dozens, upon dozens, of mannequin angels.

Why?

Probably to fend off Satan from eating people.

Yup, the Devi’s mouth (and moving eyes!) is right smackin’ next to the carousel. Watch out Bo!

I walked down Satan’s gullet, stumped.

“What’s wrong?” Bo asks as we step out onto Inspiration point.

The sudden exit from hours among electric candelabras and mannequins makes my head hurt a little, but the foliage and peace of the forest around us more than make up for it. We’re at Inspiration Point, or Deer Shelter Rock. You can just see the Infinity Room behind the trees.

We must have missed something, I say, staring at a lone red barn on the far hillside (that I failed to get a picture of–sorry!). Wonder what that farmer thought, watching AJ Jr. haul materials and build his crazy concocted collection year after year after year. Did that farmer pay to take a tour like so many others in the 60s? Or did he just wave it off as so many ol’ Wisconsinites do and get back to the plow?

“How?” Bo takes a swig of apple juice as we sit on a bench. It’s our first break in three hours of walking, as our bodies are quick to tell us. “There’s only one way through this whole thing. The staff haven’t let us go off-course. What could we have missed?”

I grimace at the glass wall behind us. “We didn’t see the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.”

Bo rolls his eyes. He doesn’t remember the Horsemen from his childhood visits, and has been skeptical of their existence. “Well we’re not done yet.”

But how much left can there be? I ask for my curiosity…and my legs.

“We gotta double-back for another level and…yeah, the map here shows we’ve got a whole ‘nother room yet.”

Oh goody.

But I promptly told my leg cramps to shut up once we got there.

Organ room (and brewery room? Drum room? Steam boat engine room?) from Fangirlquest.com

This is, by far, my favoritist place at The House on the Rock.

See? Drums! Oodles of them! (from weburbanist.com)
And organs! Chords of them! (from weburbanist.com)
The one shot of mine that turned out in this room.
Gah, too dark!

Pillars–no, trees of drums and lights with delicate, narrow stairwells that wound and wound like vines. It was an other-worldly realm, a land of machine and music bathed in softly lit scarlet. It was a sort of room where you knew, you knew, magic awakens when the right song is played.

But alas, we had to move on. There was but one more pathway to the exit out, a pathway that went around the top of the carousel…

…and there they were.

Ladies and Gentlement, may I introduce Death, Famine, Pestilence, and War. (from staticflickr.com)

Gaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah that walkway is so close to these guys Bo could literally reach out and touched Death–

–not that he does, thank goodness.

At last, we find ourselves back by the Japanese Garden and the exit from this one-of-a-kind place.

Outside courtyard, from tripadvisor.com

If Life’s Road ever brings you into Wisconsin, you must find a detour, any kind of detour to bring you to this place. It’s a day you’ll not soon forget, I promise you.

Want more information on this peculiar place? Check out the book The House on the Rock by Alex Jordan.

Fangirl Quest and Web Urbanist have amazing photo collections on The House on the Rock I only partly pillaged for this post. Check them out!

I think every land’s got to have a place like this–not something like The House on the Rock per say, but that unique oddity, that portal where the boundaries between reality and fantasy are frayed, and you can feel magic hum in the air you breathe. What would you say is your land’s portal to an Other-Where? Let’s chat in the comments below!

~STAY TUNED NEXT WEEK!~

The House on the Rock isn’t the only place to inspire a story. I utilized a bit of history from the Mississippi River Valley to help me write my upcoming release, the novella Night’s Tooth. You can read about it here, and pre-order it for just 99 cents here! The novella officially launches next Thursday the 29th, when I share my study of Charlaine Harris’ own fantasy western, An Easy Death. Don’t miss it!

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

#Author #Interview: #indieauthor @frank_prem discusses #writing #poetry & finding #inspiration in the #magical experiences of #childhood

Happy Thursday, everyone! Summer school is winding down for the kids, which means August will be a month of Blondie, Biff, Bash, and I driving each other crazy–I mean, being creative together. 🙂 No matter what, though, I hope to keep writing here, finishing up my latest release (more on that at the end of this post!), and connecting with more of you beautiful souls! x

It’s been such an honor to connect with so many different authors from across the world. Today I am pleased to introduce you to Australian poet Frank Prem. Take it away, Frank!

Hi Jean, thanks for the opportunity to chat today.

I’m a writer of free verse poetry, for the most part, resident in a small town in Victoria (Australia). I’ve been writing and developing my approach to poetry for over forty years, now, and have recently become the Indie published author of two collections. The first – Small Town Kid – came out in December 2018, while the next – Devil in the Wind – was released in May 2019.

When I’m not actively pursuing writing and other authorly pursuits I work as a psychiatric nurse, here in the town, in a small long-term rehabilitation unit.

The town I live in – Beechworth – is a pretty little place of around 3,000 residents. We have a gold mining history dating back to the 1860s, and the township itself is very well preserved, with a lot of stone buildings hewn from the local honey granite (a warm, pinkish colour in the rock).

We have become a tourist town, with thousands of visitors passing through each year, and most of them making a beeline for the well known Beechworth Bakery (https://www.beechworthbakery.com.au/).

It’s mostly a quiet life, but very pleasant, all in all.

You may have noticed how much I love to share the music that inspires my writing. Do you also enjoy music to write, or do you require silence? If the former, would you like to recommend any favorites?

Yes, music is such a gift to us, Jean, and it has influenced my writing immesurable. In case you’re wondering, my personal taste always leads to me to find a wonderful voice – regardless of genre. The voice I have gravitated to most is that of Emmy Lou Harris, who is mostly known as a Country singer, but actually able to sing anything.

Oh my gosh, what a coincidence! She’s helped me write as well, especially with my fantasy novel Beauty’s Price.

I generally write in silence, but the music in language is quite critical to my work. My usual approach is to create a melody of some sort in my head and to sing my work (silently) line by line to try to imbue it with a sense of song. My often repeated mantra is that ‘rhyme should be invisible, while free verse should be sung’.

Beautifully said, Sir.

Have you ever gotten reader’s block with another poet or prose writer? How did you overcome it?

Yes I have, Jean. I’m a very poor reader of the work of other poets. I worry very much that I will get other work in my head and inadvertently plagiarise or otherwise stray from my own track.

With prose, I tend to return over and over to a few favourite writers as my mainstay, with a greater willingness to branch out and experiment with reading speculative fiction. In recent times, particularly space opera fiction. Bang-bang shoot-em-ups in the stars are a wonderful freedom for me, that is far enough from any realities down here on earth to be completely enjoyable.

I think with my general reading I am looking for inspiration in my own work. Recently I read the entire translated work of a French Philosopher named Gaston Bachelard, who died back in the 1960s.

He explored the phenomenology of poetry and poetics and used imagery in such a way that my imagination was fired and I could hardly read more than a couple of lines without having to put the book down and write a poem that his thoughts had triggered in mine. I ended up with around 800 new poems out of that experience.

That’s a hard act to follow, but I think I’m constantly looking for a similar experience when I read.

800 poems just from the course of studying one philosopher. That…wow. That, Sir, is an impressive exploration of language. What was an early experience where you learned that language had power?

I think I’ve always known it, Jean. As long as I can remember I have played with words, in my head and in my speech. Twisting and contorting words and finding their various meanings.

Playing with nuance and inflection and emphasis has always held pleasure for me.

An example comes from my secondary schooling when I didn’t want to complete a pretty boring essay that required a certain number of pages of work to be presented. Instead of completing the task in the usual way I, for some reason, submitted a poem. Correct number of pages, but very few words. I received a high mark (because poetry hadn’t been seen in my school since the previous century, I suspect), and have been writing poetry ever since.

Since you say you live with a fellow creative who’s a puppeteer, I just have to ask: do you write anything for the puppets to perform? This is a totally selfish question, I know, but when I was younger I used to write puppet plays and then perform them for the kindergartners at my elementary school. Loved every second of it. 

That’s a lovely story of your own, Jean. Thanks for sharing it.

Leanne my wife has been performing puppet shows in pre-schools and kindergarten centres for many years, on and off. We have spoken often of a show that would be aimed at older students or adults, using my voice to read the poetry of the show, while Leanne performed with the puppets.

That may be creeping closer as an option with my transition into the authoring field.

We have collaborated in other ways in the past however.

Leanne designed my first attempted foray into book production some years ago, and from time to time has put poems I’ve written into music.

If you (or readers) care to listen and read, this link will take you to the poem ‘Time Comes’, on my poetry blog. I recently resurrected the piece to commemorate my 3 year anniversary as a blogger.

This is a link to Leanne’s interpretation of the piece as a song, posted on Soundcloud. Well worth the listen, I think.

You are very, very concise with your word choices in your poetry, so much so that when you have a line longer than four words I sit up and take notice. (an observation made with “#Somme (8): two pennies up (for the ambulance)”). When would you say you discovered this concise style within yourself, and how do you nurture it today?

An excellent question that touches on an aspect of writing that I think about a lot.

My discovery has been gradual. When I look at early work, I have used long lines, almost paragraph, in style. I think I started to seriously challenge myself with this when I started reading poetry at the various open mic venues in Melbourne that were available to me for a few years when I was starting out. I found that long lines and blocks of text were difficult to read under the lights and in front of a microphone.

I began experimenting then with writing to mimic speech – nuance and inflection, pause and enjambment. SO much so that it is now my writing style and unique to me, as far as I know.

More, though. I believe this approach of using line breaks to emphasize small pauses and inflections, and stanza breaks for breathing are a way to assist young folk to read more fluently. I won’t take up space here to expound my thesis but I have written on the subject over at my author page. I’ll be interested in your thoughts.

Oooo, thank you kindly! I look forward to reading it.

Now, You’ve re-issued one collection of poems—Small Town Kid. It’s a journey through your childhood, reminiscent of Seamus Heaney’s District and Circle. Do you find this period of life to be a common ground between poets and readers, and if so, why do you think we never tire of walking such grounds?

The first attempt to publish Small Town Kid was a wonderful adventure in book design and creativity between Leanne and myself. Unfortunately, it was back in the dark ages of printing, and to achieve cost efficiency it was necessary to purchase hundreds of copies of the book. I wasn’t ready to market myself or my books in that way, so the attempt was put to sleep until Print On Demand presented itself as an option.

I have been quite amazed by the strength of positive reaction to Small Town Kid. It certainly seems to resonate with readers.

I wonder if the reason for this connection is not akin to my reasons for writing the collection in the first place.

When I had small children of my own, I would routinely talk about what I and my friends had done when we were young – the freedom to roam, unsupervised is the chief characteristic of those times, in my mind. My kids, however, didn’t believe my stories. They seemed to be simply too far-fetched to be true.

I realised that a whole era of childhood (the 1960s and 70s) had disappeared by the mid-1990s. We had begun to supervise our children. To deliver them to friends and to school, and to collect them afterwards. Television and hand-held devices had begun to dominate child-life.

Writing the stories down seemed to make them more legitimate, in some way.

What I find with readers is that if I read, for example, the long poem ‘Crackers’ about bonfire night preparation and execution, I will have a line of people, mainly men, who have a bonfire lit in their eyes as they want to share with me their own experience and memories.

I think it is the imagery combined with the voice-song of telling or reading that allows the reader to enter their own best memories of childhood, and I believe it is the recollection of childhood freedom that makes these stories so attractive.

If you could tell your younger writing self anything, what would it be?

Not to be in a hurry for fame and success. I’ve always been a person who wanted things to happen immediately. If I was pursuing my career, I should get the next promotion. If was writing a poem, surely it was a most worthy creation and should be published immediately.

Learning to let go of that kind of pressure, placed on myself by myself, has been a great lesson for me.

I’ve found that the gift of time has allowed me to mature and become a better person, a better worker, a better poet.

I completely understand. Not only do I see it whenever I look at an old draft–heck, the first draft of my novel was written in 2010–but I can feel the change in my own perspective thanks to the growing creative expressions of my children. They tire me out, my little B’s, but I wouldn’t want them any other way. Writing helps my soul breathe and my passion to stay alight; does writing energize or exhaust you, and why?

For me, writing is like breathing, so there is no real question of growing tired from it. I can take a day or two off from writing, but I don’t really like to. I enjoy this part of myself very much.

What is tiring is attempting to master the ancillary roles – being an Author. Mastering the myriad details of properly publishing paperback and e-book formats. Marketing (oh lord, how tiring marketing can be!)

All part of the deal, though, so no point in wailing.

What is energizing, though, and what I know has a direct and beneficial effect on the quality if my writing, is reader feedback.

A comment or conversation with a reader is stimulating. A positive review is absolutely exhilarating, and I want, immediately, to sit down and write the next thing. Bigger, better, more astounding . . .

You get the drift, I’m sure. I love my readers and reviewers and the effect they have on me as a writer.

You and me both, Sir. You and me both.

My deepest thanks to Frank for taking the time to talk to me! Here are his vitals so you can find more information on Frank Prem and his work.

Author Page: https://FrankPrem.com

Poetry Blog: https://frankprem.wordpress.com

Twitter: https://twitter.com/frank_prem

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/frankprem2

Small Town Kid is available on Amazon, Booktopia, Book Depository, and Barnes and Noble.

Devil in the Wind is available on Amazon, Booktopia, Book Depository, and Barnes and Noble.

~~STAY TUNED NEXT WEEK!~~

We’ll kick off August with the cover reveal to my new novella, “Night’s Tooth,” and a discussion of what makes the western so timeless.

More author interviews are on their way as well, plus a celebration of western soundtracks as I launch my first self-published story!

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

#lessons learned from #RayBradbury: #write #setting details that creep out #characters & #readers alike.

Autumn washes over Wisconsin with gold, crimson, orange, and steel. Rain keeps the farmland cold and wet, turning three pumpkin pickers into wet whiners.

Still, we manage to pick pumpkins without kicking them at the tractor like soccer balls (don’t ask about that year). Bo stocks our freezer with delicious apple pies. Time to settle in with some hot spiced cider and a spooky read.

Of course that book could be MY novel coming out on Halloween, but for now let’s study a classic, a book that makes my flesh crawl with every read. A book that won’t let you look at carousels the same way ever again.  A book whose language spellbinds and bewitches. A book whose film adaptation is…well, Jonathan Pryce and the music are amazing.

Oh, Ray Bradbury.

Oh, the magic you weave in Something Wicked This Way Comes.

Where does the magic begin?

The prologue, of course.

Something_wicked_this_way_comes_first

First of all, it was October, a rare month for boys. Not that all months aren’t rare. But there be bad and good, as the pirates say. Take September, a bad month: school begins. Consider August, a good month: school hasn’t begun yet. July, well, July’s really fine: there’s no chance in the world for school. June, no doubting it, June’s best of all, for the school doors spring wide and September’s a billion years away.

But you take October, now. School’s been on a month and you’re riding easier in the reins, jogging along. You got time to think of the garbage you’ll dump on old man Prickett’s porch, or the hairy-ape costume you’ll wear to the YMCA the last night of the month. And it it’s around October twentieth and everything smoky-smelling and the sky orange and ash gray at twilight, it seems Halloween will never come in a fall of broomsticks and a soft flap of bedsheets around corners.

But one strange wild dark long year, Halloween came early.

One year Halloween came on October 24, three hours after midnight.

The prologue goes on for just a little bit, but I want to focus on the setting here. The first paragraph establishes a unique focus: the autumn season through the eyes of a boy. Sure, we grown-ups might like the pretty colors. The little kids may be keen to jump into leaf piles. But we’re not talking about those age groups. We’re talking about boys, boys the age of 13, we learn. They’re not too old for pirate voices or costumes for Halloween, not too young for pranks about the town. Bradbury’s voice and choice in detail are going to reflect this “elder youth,” which come in a beautiful trio of sensory details in that second paragraph: “…everything smoky-smelling and the sky orange and ash gray at twilight, it seems Halloween will never come in a fall of broomsticks and a soft flap of bedsheets around corners.” In a single sentence, Bradbury moves us from the boyish plans of Halloween to the smell, sight, and sound of late October. We are on the streets as child-ghosts float by in the dusk, adults sitting round their fire-pits in drive ways with chili and beer…

…oh wait. That’s Wisconsin now.

Timeless details, I tell you!

But it doesn’t end there. Let’s keep going a bit. I want to show you how just a few drops of sensory detail in the first chapters fill readers—and our protagonists—with foreboding before Cooger and Dark’s Pandemonium Shadow Show even arrives.

Take the opening of Chapter 1:

The seller of lightning rods arrived just ahead of the storm. He came along the street of Green Town, Illinois, in the late cloudy October day, sneaking glances over his shoulder. Somewhere not so far back, vast lightnings stomped the earth. Somewhere, a storm like a great beast with terrible teeth could not be denied.

Firstly, one doesn’t come across a traveling lightning rod salesman every day. Already, we have a touch of not-normal coming into a typical small town, the kind of town that builds on the railroad in the middle of farming country. That the man “sneaks glances over his shoulder” gives readers that sense of foreboding and intimidation. Were this man unafraid, he’d simply look back. But no—he’s “sneaking” the looks, just like Bash sneaks looks out of his bedroom door when the scary owl flies towards the television screen at the beginning of It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown.

9780553136951-us

Bradbury also instills a visual in readers of something not yet seen: the storm, a “great beast with terrible teeth.” A storm-sized monster “stomping” the earth surely cannot be stopped by mere mortals, can it?

By opening our first chapter with this storm, we already have a sense of “something wicked” coming—only the true wickedness is something else. Bradbury continues to use the storm, too, to crackle the setting and our senses: “Thunder sounded far off in the cloud-shadowed hills…The air smelled fresh and raw, on top of Jim Nightshade’s roof” (11, 12). Once more Bradbury touches our ears, eyes, and noses. The thunder may be “far off,” but the “cloud-shadowed hills” reveal its hiding place. We all love our “fresh” smells, so very pleasant and enjoyable, but “raw”? “Raw” immediately calls up bloody meat, yucky veg, skin cracked and bleeding beneath a dry cold.

These unsettling sensations follows protagonists Will and Jim to the library in Chapter 2. Now we’re in town, where something creeps along behind them, invisible yet…

Jim and Will grinned at each other. It was all so good, these blowing quiet October nights and the library waiting inside now with its green-shaded lamps and papyrus dust.

Jim listened. “What’s that?”

“What, the wind?”

“Like music…” Jim squinted at the horizon.

“Don’t hear no music.”

Jim shook his head. “Gone. Or it wasn’t even there. Come on!”(13)

Because only one ear catches it, both boys are quick to excuse this single-sense moment. But when the boys leave the library in Chapter 4, another single sense is touched again…

Mr. Crosetti, in front of his barber shop, his door key in his trembling fingers, did not see them stop.

What had stopped them?

A teardrop.

It moved shining down Mr. Crosetti’s left cheek. He breathed heavily. … “Don’t you smell it?”

Jim and Will sniffed.

“Licorice!”

“Heck, no. Cotton candy! … Now, my nose tells me, breathe! And I’m crying. Why? Because I remember how a long time ago, boys ate that stuff. Why haven’t I stopped to think and smell the last thirty years?”

…And they left him behind in a wind that very faintly smelled of licorice and cotton candy. (21-22)

Now we know that the boys aren’t the only ones catching a whiff, as it were, of something peculiar in the wind. Not only is this adult moved to concentrate on a single smell, but he’s moved to tears. This speaks to a longing inside the character, a want for what was.

For what’s coming.

With lightning and licorice, Bradbury tangles our senses with intrigue. We need to see what lightnings stomp in the hills. We need to see what brings the cotton candy so sweet the very scent of it makes a grown man cry.  As you write the first few chapters of your story, take a moment to drop setting details for a few senses, just enough to put the heroes–and readers–on edge.

Stolen-KindleCvr-MARKETING

~And now, a brief excerpt from Fallen Princeborn: Stolen, 
coming this Halloween~

Don’t go. Stay here.

Charlotte’s hand presses the pendant into her sternum as if to cover
whatever’s cracked open inside her. It’s all she can touch—Anna’s out of reach,
she and every other passenger, their bodies floating about behind dimmed
windows. Does no one else smell the old oil and neglect, like meat burned down
to nothing? The way Jamie stands by the door, hands clasped behind him,
grinning like a choir boy, all pleased with himself, Charlotte knows, freakin’
knows, someone’s pulled an Ed Gein and made the bus seats out of bodies.

“Sweetheart, you’ve got to board, okay?” Maisy calls from the coach. “You
can’t stay here with me. It’ll take days to get the bus fixed.”

And you know you’re oversmelling it, Charlie, just like earlier with the
bears and shit. It’s just an old bus, is all. But Charlotte continues to hesitate.

“Hurry up, Charlie, let’s go!” her sister calls from a window. “They’ve got
food in here. And it’s all posh, come on!”

Jamie’s grin grows.

It’s just a bus. Charlotte decides, and tucks the necklace away.

DON’T GO.

~STILL SHOUTING FOR SHOUT OUTS!~

I can still take on a couple more plugs for my monthly newsletter From the Wilds of Jean Lee’s World. It’s a separate set of updates from that of WordPress.  If you have a book coming out, a book to sell, music, art–any creative endeavor’s worth shouting about! Just email me at jeanleesworld@gmail.com to snag a slot in a future edition.

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

Lesson Learned from the Marx Brothers: Heed the Zeppo Factor.

animal_crackers_movie_posterI originally wanted this post to be about the importance of unique characters. That when characters overlap, you have to cut whomever’s the most superfluous. Considering the current love of the Marx Brothers in our house, I was going to use Zeppo Marx as an example.

For those even more of a Philistine than me, the Marx Brothers began as a vaudeville group put together by their mother. All could sing, dance, play instruments, and verbally spar like nobody’s business. When the talkies came a’callin’, Groucho, Chico, Harpo, and Zeppo left Broadway to perform in a filmed version of Cocoanuts and four other musical comedies for Paramount. When they transferred to the MGM film studio, Zeppo dropped from the act. The films they did for MGM, most notably Night at the Opera, made boatloads of money, so therefore the loss of Zeppo must have improved the films. Right?

20170117_071743Well….n-n-no.

Bo’s adored the Marx Brothers since the age of 6. Introducing them to the kids has been a huge treat for him. Bash in particular adores the music segments, and can even mimic Harpo’s faces during a piano duet in The Big Store:

I showed Bo my old post. He shook his head. “See, you can’t…no. Look.” He crossed his arms. Books, films, and documentaries played on fast-forward across his eyes. “It’s true that Zeppo doesn’t really stand out. You’re right that he plays the connection to the flimsy excuse of a plot in those movies. But when he’s gone, they still have a pretty boy for a lead. The three Marx Brothers are tighter as a unit, yeah, but they’re not the real stars of the movies anymore. They’re just a part of the story, and the stories suck. There’s a reason I never made you sit through Day at the Races.”

“So,” I hold off Biff and his giant metal eighteen-wheeler, “it’s the character-driven story vs. the plot-driven story?”

Bo considered. “Yes, I suppose so.” And then he went on about a lot of other nuances and exceptions, but I’ve had wine, so I don’t feel like typing all that.

The point is, even a character who doesn’t seem to stand out can have an impact on a story; it’s just that impact may not be felt until its absence. The Marx Brothers are all about fine-crafted comedy: perfectly-timed stunts, word-play that’ll make a priest blush, and music performances any obnoxious toddler will watch in blessed peace. Each Marx Brother contributed particular gifts: Groucho’s wordplay, Chico’s music, and Harpo’s innocent deviltry. While all the brothers had talents in all the corners, each picked one to dominate. Sure, Harpo played piano with Chico sometimes, and Chico sometimes sparred words with Groucho, and Groucho sometimes joined Harpo in the physical schtick, but these cross-overs never outlast the bit at hand.

And then, there’s Zeppo. He was just as talented as the other three: sing, dance, play, banter. All of it. He was a hit with them on Broadway, even though he never cared for the attention. But the triumvirate of comedy–physical, verbal, musical–were filled in by his brothers. What unique trait did he bring that they couldn’t?

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The eye-candy, of course!

Yup, they made him the pretty boy character. He was the one who kept whatever passed for a story going. When he was given a chance to actually be funny, like in Animal Crackers, he’s great, but otherwise he’s just…there. Several scenes pass between Zeppo appearances in the films, and he’s never really missed. Groucho’s foil is usually Margaret Dumont, so even the straight-man role is filled. After Duck Soup and the announcement of MGM “acquiring” the comedic group, Zeppo took advantage and left the group.  A tighter group should lead to tighter comedy, only it doesn’t. Why?

Because as Bo said, the MGM films don’t highlight the comedy.

Therein lies the dilemma.

MGM was all about appealing to the broadest audience possible. This meant expanding the films to be more than just Marx Brothers’ antics; the movies had to contain a stronger story and popular music numbers, too. MGM proved their point with the massive box office successes of their three Marx Brothers films, but any fan of the Paramount films can see that the Marx Brothers simply aren’t allowed to be as funny in the MGM films. Story was given priority at the sacrifice of the characters. When one looks at the Paramount films, one’ll find plots little Bash could out-write in a single afternoon. The comedy, though, is king. The four Marx Brothers have free reign with their banter, music acts, and physical antics, which makes for hilarious viewing every time. One does not watch Duck Soup for its political drama; one watches it for Chico and Groucho verbally sparring over a nut stand. One does not watch Monkey Business for the drama of gang rivalry; one watches it for Harpo driving steamship’s crew crazy.

As writers, we must always be conscious of how many characters we have in play. We must be wary of repetitive characters, of too many or too few characters. We must also remember that the changes we make with our characters can have a subtle ripple effect throughout the rest of the story. Sure, the three Marx Brothers were a tighter comedy unit, but their films did not in any way improve. The four Marx Brothers make one easily forget about the need for plot, but one’s always left wondering, “What’s with Zeppo?”

When you choose to revise your cast, think carefully what impact the absence(s) will have. Don’t just study the plot for new rips; study what binds the characters, too. The needed mending might not be noticeable at first, but once you spot it, the story won’t be the same until you make it right.

FanFic Fears & Other Bits of Potluck Clean-up

CM_JUL15_FEATURES_AnnaLouise6-e1435680443162Another lovely element of the writer’s psyche: we know how to clean up.

Oh, we may hate it. Put it off. Try to pawn the duties off on someone else to clean our messes for us. But we who are serious about craft and creation know the story will always need a good cleaning-up. How else will others see the language and imagery when there’s used napkins and half-eaten coconut oatmeal raisin cookies all over? And who brought those, anyway? Those raisins are disgustingly deceptive…

Anyway.

I imagine that, in moments like this, we’re all rather like my grandmother.

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Yes, the one with the cheesy grin is me.

She took her place as Church Basement Lady very seriously. If there was to be a funeral or some sort of fellowship hour, count on her to bring a pan of date bars and some hot ham for sandwiches. Where are the cups? She knows. Out of sugar? She’ll get some. Zounds, but the tables are a mess. Don’t worry: my grandma and her crew will handle the clean-up.

And handle they did…in their own way.

Church Basement Ladies loved that time: the congregation gone, pastors elsewhere, they could smoke and cackle over gossip while hobbling among the tables gathering half-empty plates and forgotten snack cups. They’d use washcloths they had crocheted themselves to wipe down the tables and chairs. They’d drink that God-awful coffee, each leaving their own distinct shade of magenta lipstick on the styrofoam cups.

So let’s sit around the last table, you and I, and fill this air with old perfume and nicotine. Drink the dregs and share our thoughts about all things past, present, and future in this meager life of hope and faith.

~*~

Last week I mentioned writing some thoughts on children’s literature for writer and illustrator A.J. Cosmo. Yesterday he posted some of these thoughts. Please click on over to read, “How Dark is Too Dark in Kid’s Lit?”

Poet Mike Steeden also sent me his review of my e-book collection of Lessons Learned. Not gonna lie–I teared up. I’ve only been in the blogosphere for a little over a year, but the friendships and partnerships formed are stronger than many I have in the physical world around me. Mike and I only started speaking–what, a month ago? And to receive such reactions from him spurred me to interrupt Bo on the toilet just to show him.

LESSONS LEARNED

‘Lessons Learned’, is a title that at first glance implies big picture aspirations gathered from history that make for a better future. In essence, albeit by way of cameo this book, should one be either a writer or an avid reader (or both) is just that…a backward glimpse at excellence; a message understood affording a more accomplished appreciation and/or production of what possibilities lie ahead.

An ever so silky smooth muse upon the works and thinking process of the prolific fantasy novelist Diana Wynne Jones, this book intelligently and painlessly dissects her extensive portfolio in a manner that new, indeed seasoned writers of the ‘now’, should they take heed of Jean Lee’s words, will be ‘better than before’.

For those, like this reader, unfamiliar with the works of Ms Jones, ‘Lessons Learned’ commences with a most agreeable account and crucial ‘hook’ as to how Ms Lee discovered the author, as well as providing a pertinent point glimpse as to, in colloquial terms, ‘what she was all about’.

As such, the book lives up to its title as it captures those lessons learned by the author herself in compiling the same and those, like me, grateful that such lessons are being passed on here.

Ms Lee debates a host of Ms Jones attributes, from genre and fictional character evolvement concepts that fascinate beyond measure. Also, as one who has had stabs at writing verse for children yet finding – in my case at least – the fun of silliness lost on more adult forms of poetic art the chapter ‘Don’t Sacrifice the Fun for Grown-Ups’ was particularly pertinent and educational.  Later in the book the ‘what is normal’ for a child as opposed to an adult – may be obvious in hindsight, yet not always in the forefront of the mind-set of those who ‘aspire’ – was another ‘lesson learned’.  Additionally, the importance, yet oft times overlooked first line attraction drawing the reader in is reinforced through specific example from Ms Jones’s portfolio.

‘Lessons Learned’ is an insightful analysis of a clutch of plainly super novels and furthermore, of the birth of a book and the specifics of its conception, thus making this well aimed tome a thing to serve as a vital aid for the writers far and wide.  Far, far better than an account of mere chronological subject matter vis-à-vis Diana Wynne Jones.  Moreover, the notes on ‘brevity’ caused this overly wordy reader to hang his head in shame (in a good way I stress)! The concluding chapter, ‘Yesterday Needn’t Stay in Yesterday’ conveys much about Jean Lee’s compelling way of thinking, an insight into both her own and Ms Jones mind in much the same way as a lyric might to an undisguised songwriter.  

Most important of all though is that there is a certain magic in Ms Lee’s didactic words that will remain intact, not stored away in some dark recess of my head for some time to come. 

Well done indeed Ms Lee!

How could I NOT interrupt Bo on the toilet with a review like that?

(Oh, and if you have no clue what I’m talking about with this e-book collection thingey, email me at jeanleesworld@gmail.com and I’ll send you one. Yes, free. Friends share. 🙂

Yesterday I enjoyed reading smexy historical romance writer Shehanne Moore‘s interview (well, her power-hungry hamsters’ interview) of adventure fantasy writer Michael Dellert. They discussed the influence of place, as well as time, upon a writer, and how important it is to know how the when and where will impact the characters. Click here for the interview.

At one point Dellert states the following: “I think some writers sometimes make the mistake of plopping very contemporary attitudes down in a location that can’t support them. For example, in my medieval setting, literacy isn’t common.”

I know why he said that.

Me. 🙂 Well I’m sure I’m not the ONLY reason, but this specific example comes from the freewrites I’ve been working on for a Young Adult story to take place in his created universe. The protagonist is a sixteen-year-old named Meredydd (Mer for short) and her quest to become a true Shield Maiden. The freewrite prompts currently have me picking apart her psyche. Here’s an example:

Middler's PridePrompt: “I struggle with…”

What do you need to know THAT for? My struggles are my affairs, not yours.

Don’t stare.

FINE. Fine fine fine.

It’ll come out worse around others, but don’t you DARE speak of this without permission.

I don’t read really well. Actually, remove the “well.” I don’t read, really. Being the middler of the Not-Loved Woman meant I didn’t get the attention Dud and Ratty receive. They, THEY received educations. What makes them so special? One’s a boy, and one’s pretty. So what is it, their mothers? Must be. I hear of Dud’s mom spoken of, and pretty often too, by Father and some of the staff. She sounds like she was a sweet one. Maybe if she had lived a bit longer, that sweetness could have been gifted to Dud and he wouldn’t be the twit he is today.

Ratty’s mom is…around. Father’s a bit touchy about her. She goes off to meditate, see, a lot, and he’s wondering if she’s meditating with a little help, if you catch the nudge nudge there.

Sorry. I’m a *laaaady.* I shouldn’t speak of such things.

Hmm. Well actually, as a Shield Maiden, I *should* be more respectful of my elders.

When they earn it.

And right now our stableman gets more respect from me than THAT woman.

But I have to be GOOD about it, see? That’s a struggle, too. Put on the Good Girl mask when others are around. Prim. Polite.

Even when Ratty asks me to read through a message, like the one that came from the king’s seat. THE message, from the king, that said he agreed to letting me become a Shield Maiden.

I held that message IN MY HAND, and had no idea what it said. Ratty and Dud laughed. Father politely told me what was going on.

Never have I wanted to read so badly in all my life.

Maybe another Shield Maiden could teach me….but that means talking about this to ANOTHER person besides you.

Damnation, but people are irritating.

I sent this to Michael, and that’s when he most graciously reminded me that illiteracy would be the norm of the period.

In my head I said:

DAMMIT THIS IS WHY I DON’T WRITE FAN FICTION IN OTHER PEOPLE’S UNIVERSES I DON’T KNOW WHAT THE HELL THE GOD DAMN RULES ARE AND WHY THE HELL SHOULD I BOTHER

In the message I typed:

No, I didn’t know that. I presumed their class would know at least a little. Ok. That alters things.

Which has led me to wonder about the very concept of fan fiction, and what really defines it. I suppose such a talk could go on for ages, but as this post has already gone on for ages, I’m going to set out two of these styrofoam cups and tip my ashes into the one with fewer dregs.

That’s the setting cup.

And this one with the lipstick will be the character cup.

It seems to me, being a noob in the online writing universe, that fanfic either fixates on a particular person (or two, like *cough* 50 Shades *cough cough*), or on a universe. I’ve got piles of Sherlock Holmes stories not written by Doyle that my dad enjoyed: Holmes in the Midwest, Holmes vs. The Phantom of the Opera, and so on. People took the character, and gave him more adventures. Hell, my very, VERY first picture book I can remember making had to do with a monster kidnapping a little boy and Superman flying in to save him.

Damn. My first story’s a fanfic.

Maybe for some writers, fanfic with characters is a bit like training wheels on a bike. Uncertain how to create originals, they move around with others until they’re confident enough to balance without help. That seems to be the case for me, anyway.

And if that’s the case, writing in another’s setting should be like training wheels again, right?

Only it’s not. As I told Michael some time ago, I felt like I was writing blindfolded. I couldn’t SEE where these characters stood because I don’t know Michael’s fantasy universe. He’s spent years building this world, and now I’m just in there, picking up and dropping and throwing stuff around like my sons. Blondie will tell you: those two are destroyers.

And I felt no better.

Michael, bless him, kept it simple: yeah there’s a map, but that part of his land isn’t defined.

I thought about Jason Voorhees. He’s been on my thoughts a lot since the start of motherhood. He. Is. A Character. People just looove toying around with his past, uncovering what makes him immortal, that real relationship with his mom, all that garbage. Bo, being a fan of slasher films, will even get into comic books based on the characters from time to time. One particular volume by Justin Gray and Jimmy Palmiotti stuck out, in part because of this image:

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Just…look at that. (If you have the stomach, sorry–I know slashers are NOT for everyone.)

This image of ghosts rising up from the lake’s floor is the foreshadowing of what’s to come: Jason lets one character hold his machete, and in that instance, we see the true past of Camp Crystal Lake: of settlers who butchered entire tribes of natives, of a shaman’s curse, of the countless drownings, fires…

Gray and Palmiotti don’t do anything fancy with Jason. Jason’s Jason. Instead, they define the place.

The characters are now my own. I don’t know them all just yet, but little by little they’re coming into focus; you can read my sketches here before you visit the novel here. It’s so cool to see what begins as a bit of fan-fiction has grown into a world all its own, with its own characters and conflicts.

I feel like I’m no longer confined by another’s universe. Yes, I do need to abide by some laws of history and progress. (What do you mean, they didn’t have the number zero? GAH! Next you’ll be telling me they don’t have alloys or mustard gas.) These laws, though, are rather like the foot-high picket fence people put around flowers because it looks cute. Yeah, it sucks to trip on, but otherwise, you can step over and around it without hurting yourself.

I need to stop hurting myself.

I need to stop treating that little fence like some sort of electrified contraption.

I need to let Gwen show me around. Introduce me to people. Take me to where she saw the the Cat-Eyed Man.

I need to grip the grass in my fingers. Balance on large rocks that look like a giant’s toes. Smell the river air mix with hidden herbs. Listen to the bees work through the glens.

Time to wrap this up, my friends. I’ll get the lights if you can grab that garbage bag. May the coming week find you in strange places with stranger company.

That’s how the best stories–and gossip–are born.

 

 

 

 

Lessons Learned from Umberto Eco: If the Reader Cares, They’ll Read it All. Even Latin.

Eco, from my meager understanding, was an extremely brilliant individual. Speaker of many tongues, student of many histories–i.e., a brainy dude. One can expect that when an intellectual someone wishes to write  a story set in the distant past, that someone will immerse in all aspects of the culture, and come forward with a riveting tale.

For the record, I LIKE The Name of the Rose. I do. But at the same time, I’m not sure how to feel about all of this:

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Just look at all those not-English words! I mean, I figured there would be some Latin. It is a mystery inside a monastery set in fourteenth century, after all. But I have my limits. And there are GOBS of sections like this. Was I warned? Yes. “You can usually get the gist from context, but then you miss out on crucial stuff. Keep a dictionary handy.”

Outwardly I gave an absent assent, but inwardly my mind is groaning as loud as a kid told she can’t lift shirts to poke belly buttons anymore. (Am I the only one who had a daughter go through this phase?) I read from 5-6am if work and/or kids permit. The last thing I want to do at 5am is conjugate a pluperfect verb and decipher which noun is in its ablative case. No. Thank You.

Thankfully I discovered a blog that did all the translations–Rapid Diffusion. This, I always kept handy when I read Eco, and yes, having the translations does make a difference.

So is it wrong to make readers work? No. Granted, the idea of translating all that Latin intimidated, but it did not deter. I still had my Latin books from high school, so I was totally ready…to contact my classmate who could translate Latin as she read it without notes or dictionaries or anything by the flipping brilliant age of 16. (Yeah, she’s pretty awesome.) I wanted to read this book. I knew this book was going to require more of me than other literary fare. I didn’t care. I wanted to read it. If my friend couldn’t help me, then (insert gulping sound) I would give the translating a go.

In an earlier post, I discussed Diana Wynne Jones’ lament over the dumbing-down of fiction for adults, while kids don’t mind working their brains to appreciate a story. When I first cracked open The Name of the Rose and saw all the Latin, I thought of this. Maybe translating several dozen pages’ worth of Latin is a touch extreme, but shouldn’t books written for adults be at least a LITTLE challenging? I like my chocolate muffins of fantasy or mystery, sure, but veg is good for the body AND the brain, and Eco provides a cornucopia of veg with this novel. Yeah, I had help with the Latin, but the history is so complexly woven with the mystery, and the dialogue so dense without action (a topic I very much want to discuss in another post) that my brain had to chew it all, slowly, before fully appreciating what it had just devoured.

904cea2232616.56012d54f1266I highly doubt I’ll ever write a period novel, but Eco helps me appreciate just how much world-building goes into recreating the past. Writers fill their worlds with what matters to the story; to pass over a description, a conversation, or a verse in another language is, well, rather akin to ignoring someone in conversation, isn’t it? Just, turning up the nose and continuing on with the person you like because he’s the interesting one.

No.

A writer should not overwhelm their story with innocuous minutia, and a reader should not skip around and still expect to understand the story without a hitch. Both parties must work, and work hard, to truly bring a book to life.

Click here for more on Umberto Eco.

Click here for more on THE NAME OF THE ROSE.