#NaNoWriMo2022 Update: #WritingMusic that #Inspired Some #Magical #ShortStories

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Happy Sunday, fellow creatives! I hope this November has been kind to you. For those participating in NaNoWriMo, do you feel comfortable with where you are in your writing goals? I’m jazzed to the moon and back I’ve passed the 10,000 word mark. That may not sound like much for the novelists, but for someone whose creativity has been floundering, writing three short stories in the midst of academia and parenthood is a HUGE accomplishment.

For those who know me here, music often plays a HUGE role in my writing. Take “Never Say Your Name”: the isolation of a few supposed strangers in an unassuming public space while the elements imprison them required the music of Il Maestro, Ennio Morricone. His scores for The Thing and The Hateful Eight were always on when I needed to sit alongside Green Trench Miks Tavus and help him carry out his sting against the dragon-egg smuggler.

(Check out my Writing Music area for a bunch of other composers and compilations!)

Originally, “The Bee Trainer’s Revenge” was going to utilize the bees a LOT more. Both primary characters were going to exhibit how they’d control the bees as they themselves duel for the rights to the hives. But the more I listened to the village-inspired themes of Midsomer Murders, I kept thinking more and more of how everyday people manipulate and plot against one another. It was just a matter of adding magic to the mix.

(I share a few other thoughts about this score and series, in case you’re interested.)

Yet when it came to writing “The Boy Who Conquered Goose Island,” I really didn’t utilize composed music at all. My son Bash inspired me plenty with his schemes for removing the geese from the local park. Between his ideas and the sounds of nature, I had plenty of inspiration.

And now here we are, wondering where to go next. My pantsing attitude doesn’t even let me see how many more stories should be in this collection. Three? Four? The important thing is to keep the conflicts, plots, characters–everything is rural small town. Let those big-city folk have all their fancypants urban fantasy “the universe is at stake!” attitude. We’re just trying to prevent the witch next door from hexing the pie and transforming our guests into emus.

Starkeeping. Based on my other son, Biff, and his love of all things space. Still wondering about this.

Public park problems. Some towns clearly love their parks; others, not so much. I’m wondering which camp Pips Row falls into.

Dragons. You know my daughter Blondie and her love of dragons. My dragon girl must make her appearance, but I don’t know if this should be its own tale or connected to “Never Say Your Name” somehow.

That one weird house everyone avoids. Every town has one–that one house that can’t possibly be inhabited, yet it never falls apart. I wanted to explore this idea without rehashing my “Blue House Dare” story, but how?

So I’m giving myself today to reflect and see where I want to go tomorrow. What music has been helping you with your projects lately? I’d love to hear some recommendations!

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

#NaNoWriMo2022: Day 12 Where Troublesome Neighbors Meet Their End. #Magic #ShortStories

Hooray, I got to write today! I wasn’t sure with lots of family stuff going on, but Barab NEEDED her revenge, by golly. I included just a little of the previous installment before jumping in.

Day 12, Story 3: The Bee Trainer’s Revenge

The glass of the man’s monocle flashed with the sun as he hmmm’d and moved on. “So I’ve heard. But if we are to name the breed, it should be done with your name, should it not? Or would you prefer ExBankerus Levandula?”

Well that did admittedly sound a bit silly, even to Nacle. “I suppose not, but, erm, perhaps at the Registry we could—”

“Ah ah ah!” The suited man held his hand before Nacle’s face. “First, I must inspect.” He ran his hand through his grease-backed hair and stepped primly around Nacle towards the bushes, Clover Gardener not far behind, tittering, “As you can see, it is a very unique specimen. In all my years among the flora, I’ve not known anything like it!”

Nacle Themormo struggled to sip his tea—it took a moment to realize his hand was shaking the cup. The Plum Grower boy looked at the shakes, at Nacle. Nacle set the cup down with a cough. “Dear me, it must be this morning chill.” He watched the suited man hold a flower up to his monocle, his face scrunched in study. “I must beg your pardon, Sir, for an appropriate exit,” he tried once again with his voice to win the will of men, but his concentration faltered when a bee came round and landed on his arm. At least Bee Trainer took the bee when he yelped.

Clover Gardener wacked the suited man’s arm for him to respond. “Hmm? Exit? How you can you exit now? This is quite the discovery. Stay a moment, man, I’m nearly done.”

“Here now, Neighbor, you just need a fresh cuppa with some honey to steady yourself. I remember when I first told others I could talk to bees. I nearly fainted from nerves!” Bee Trainer pulled a small jar out of her apron. Her bee landed on her shoulder and cleaned her antennae lazily. “Freshly harvested. Just for you.”

Nacle gulped. He’d thought the Queen Bee just knew all those tricks with smokes and potions to control the animals. She actually talked to them? Then she’d know… “Really, Madame, n-no n-need for me.”

“Nonsense. There are these beautiful red threads through the liquid that I’m sure will create a flavor unlike any Pips Row has ever known. Perhaps you’d like to sample them, Exotic Plant Registrar?”

“Honey from these flowers? Well that is even more interesting.” Round the man spun with monocle to the eye. It sparkled as if glitter filled its glass while he looked at the jar. “Hmm, yes, interesting indeed.” Even the suited man’s chest started to glow behind the coat, a green glow that Nacle felt sure he’d seen before…

And then, of course, Plum Grower just had to come down the stairs. “LATE BANKER, YOU REALLY SHOULD PUT YOUR SAVINGS IN A SAFER PLACE! LET ME TAKE YOUR CHESTS TO THE BANK FOR YOU SO THEY DON’T FREEZE SHUT.”

Nacle Themormo needed to run. He needed to bolt down Honey Street and never look back. But every family stood on that street, smiling at him, waving, talking about how “exciting” this new plant and honey were and they would not leave.

“I MUST BEG YOUR PARDON THIS INSTANT!” He shouted, but in vain. Save for the man in the suit, every male had little acorn plugs in their ears. If only he could dampen the pounding of his own heart like that!

“Exotic Plant Registrar, we already have a name for the honey, just so you know.” Bee Trainer held up the sketch of a honey jar label. “You’ll have to pardon the Strawberry Grower triplets—they’re a mischievous bunch. But Mormorus Lavendula could make for a lovely name for the plant, could it not?” She flashed a bright smile, and the man’s monocle flashed the same bright green as his chest.

Nacle paled.

Stammered.

And ran.

Well…

Waddle-ran.

In the midst of claps and “We’re so happy for you!” and cheers and “YOU SHOULD BE SO PROUD!” Nacle shoved his way through cars and people that just seemed to multiply as the street seemed to grow and nothing seemed to be just a bloody normal street of a hick Gaptooth town. This should have been his street, his town, just like it should have been his bank—

“MORMO!”

Green ribbons of magic unspooled at his feet, but he leapt over them—amazing what adrenaline will do—and continued to the intersection, so close, so close to freedom from this accursed street—

Buzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

“Argh!” A bee was in his ear, practically in his brain! Nacle slapped his head as he spun about, the buzzing incessant, he had to kill it KILL IT! He could feel legs and wings on his ear and he raised his hand to smash it—

“NACLE THEMORMO!”

The ribbons knotted about his wrists and ankles. “RELEASE ME!” Nacle cried as a final ribbon wrapped around his throat. Just like that, his voice was gone, the bee free to hover before his eyes with a curt buzzy buzz before returning to that insidious Queen Bee.

The cheers and applause continued right on as if Nacle wasn’t floating backwards to where he started. The ribbons placed him into his folding chair and locked him in tight.

All the while, the suited man held his Green Trench badge to his chest. “I always waited to play a bit of a snob,” he joked to Clover Gardener, who held out her hands for the runts earplugs. Now Nacle wished for his own pair as they whooped and screamed down the street, “IT’S OVER! YOU CAN TAKE THEM OFF!”

“You were marvelous,” she said. “But you see now why I warned you about your ears.”

“Oh yes.” The Green Trench tapped the monocle three times and it vanished in an explosion of green threads. “Turns out Nacle Themormo is quite the embezzler in multiple cities thanks to the ‘gift’ in his voice. I studied those cases in the academy. Only one image was ever recorded years back. Got to say, Nacle, you were a tad thinner then.”  Nacle growled. “Good thing you folks had a piece of his name and a bee to slow him down.”

Bee Trainer nuzzled the little thing and murmured. “She was so brave. But her family, Officer.”

The Green Trench nodded somberly. “The Flora and Fauna Recovery Squads are on their way. I’m hopeful for the bees, but we’ll have to destroy all the hives and inspect every crop on this street for contamination.

“Every crop?” Plum Grower’s face fell. The excited titters on the street dimmed.

“Better one season, Plum Grower, then all seasons,” Clover Gardener said. “I see your boy’s talking to a Trench now. May as well show them where to start.”

Plum Grower sighed and waved at Nacle. “Enjoy prison, Late Banker.”

Nacle growled and almost managed a “Nnnnot Llllate!” but by then another Green Trench appeared and took hold of the suited man’s ribbons.

The Bee Trainer watched the handoff and said, “Are you familiar with the small hive beetle, Officer?”

The Green Trench took off the suit coat and shook it out. With a puff of smoke it returned to its original state of the long Green Trench coat uniform. “Can’t say I do, Madame, but I’m not long in Pips Row myself.”

“When a hive is weak or ill, the small hive beetle can sneak its way into the honeycomb and lay larvae that will taint the honey. They can even cause some hives to collapse altogether.”

The families of Honey Street parted as more Green Trenches appeared in a circular formation. “Oh boy,” the Triplets cried, “They’re going to do an Arrest Working! Can I hold a badge? Can I? No, me, you always get to hold things!”

The new officer commanded Nacle Themormo’s chair to lift and carry him into the circle. All could see him fight and scream, but none could hear a sound.

The Green Trench nodded thoughtfully at the sight. “If a hive is weak, you say?”

The Bee Trainer cradled her little lovely and smiled. “If a hive is weak.”

Huzzah, they made it! Now I’ve got to work out which story to tell next. Oh dear, where to next?

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

#NaNoWriMo2022: Day 7 with a Troublesome Fence and Even More Troublesome Neighbors. #Magic #ShortStories

Day 7 of National Novel Writing Month! Today it’s all about the dialogue, so there is very little detail here. Still, hopefully there’s enough for you to understand how these neighbors feel about each other. 🙂

Day 7, Story 3: The Bee Trainer’s Revenge

A bulbous fellow, rather like a potato, Nacle Themormo would plant himself in a folding chair at the edge of his porch and watch everyone and everything on Honey Street. Within the first few weeks, the folks of Honey Street learned why: Nacle Themormo’s magic lay in the power of his words in the ears of other men. On his chair he’ll sit until he sees others in their yards. If they are in earshot, he’ll start his Workings like…well, here’s an interaction with the Plum Grower family.

Nacle: Good day, Plum Grower! (His voice reminds one of a yawning dog.)

Plum Grower: Good morning, Late Banker.

Plum Grower’s Daughter: Why is Banker Late, Papa?

Nacle: Oh no, child, I am retired. May I speak to your father? I must speak with you, Plum Grower.

Plum Grower’s Daughter: Papa is helping me check for bad bugs.

Plum Grower: Hush, Child. Retired Banker must speak with me. (Now his voice mimics the cadence of a yawning dog, too.)

Plum Grower’s Daughter: But Papa, we promised Mama to be done before lunch!

Nacle: Dear me, your child is quite the upstart, Plum Grower. You should send her inside so we can talk.

Plum Grower’s Daughter: I am NOT an upstart! We have work to do!

Plum Grower: Child, you are upstarting me. I should send you inside so I can talk to Late Banker.

Nacle: I am NOT late, I’m…oh bother, come over this instant, Plum Grower, with a basket of your finest plums.

And so it would go. Men of Honey Street sat dazed and confused over how they could have been sweet-talked into selling their best produce for a pittance to the Outsider Nacle Themormo. Boys of Honey Street were soon cleaning Nacle’s yard, painting his home—even serving him their own suppers!

What of the women and girls of Honey Street? Oh, you can bet they told off Nacle in no uncertain terms. One such interaction is a particular favorite of mine, caught when Clover Gardener followed her son, supper still steaming on his plate, to Nacle’s abode.

Nacle: Why good evening, Clover Gardeners! What a lovely supper you have there. It is always nice to share one’s blessings, Boy.

Clover Gardener’s Son: Yes, it is always nice to share one’s blessings. I have blessings to share. (He’s got his plate ready for Nacle’s fat fingers, but his mother deems otherwise.)

Clover Gardener: And I have some words to share, Ex-Banker. My son is not to share any of his time, talents, or food with the likes of you.

Nacle: (not to be fussed by some buzzard of a woman) Dear me, we do have some sort of misunderstanding. Hear I thought your son was showing some neighborly kindness to a poor, old, lonely man like myself. (and his potato-ey frame does indeed look rather pathetic in that folding chair while he reaches for the boy’s plate anyway)

Clover Gardener: (not to be trifled with by a human potato, ogre, giant, or even a Goose King) There is nothing poor about the likes of you, Ex-City-Person. I saw my son bring an armful of our clover here without pay only for you to sell it to some other suspicious-looking City Person in a motor. No. You will not have my clover, my food, and especially my son. And if I must summon the Green Trenches to file a Restraining Work on you—

Nacle: MADAME! (the dog whines, not yawns). No, no no no no no. No, madame, police are never needed in friendly neighborly trifles. I see that your son’s time is, erm, as precious as your own. I will miss his company…

Clover Gardener: (glares)

Nacle: …erm, but, yes, he clearly must attend his duties at home and school first. Boy, you simply must go home with your mother.

Clover Gardener’s Son: I must go home with my mother.

Clover Gardener: (glaring even more, and closer to Nacle’s face, too) And his ears will never hear you address him again. Right? (holds pruning scissors in front of Nacle’s mouth for good measure)

Nacle: Ahem, yes, well, of course. And boy, you are never to listen to my voice again.

Clover Gardener’s Son: And I am never to listen to your voice again. (blinks) Can we go home, Mama?

Clover Gardener: Indeed we can, Son. (with sigh of contempt) Good. Day. EX. Banker.

Nacle: Erm, yes, Good day, Madame. I suppose, the plate, perhaps? A bit of supper for charity’s sake? Hellooo?

Needless to say, Nacle Themormo did not have supper that night, unlike Clover Gardener’s son (finally!). And wouldn’t you know that the tiny witnesses of this whole exchange went buzzing to the backyard and told Barab Oowi all about it as she cleaned the hives of excess wax, wax that quickly gave her an idea…

Eeee, I am really stoked to keep this story going! It may be a strange balance of exposition and dialogue, but at least the framework will be there for revision after NaNoWriMo.

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

You’ve Got Five Pages, #HatchetIsland by Paul Doiron, to Tell Me You’re Good. #FirstChapter #BookReview #Podcast

Hello, amazing fellow creatives! Here’s to more fun perusing the library’s new releases to see what strikes our fancy. As I mentioned in an earlier post, I’ve retitled Story Cuppings to better fit the premise of the podcast.

As writers, we hear all the time that we’ve got to hook readers in just the first few pages or else. We’ve got to hook agents in the first few pages or else.

Whether you’re looking to get published or just hoping to hook your reader, first impressions are vital. Compelling opening scenes are the key to catching an agent or editor’s attention, and are crucial for keeping your reader engaged.JEFF GERKE, THE FIRST FIFTY PAGES

Well then, let’s study those first few pages in other people’s stories, shall we?

Today I snagged from the New Release shelf:

Hatchet Island by Paul Doiron

The opening pages of Hatchet Island is, sadly, a return to prologues. We meet a nameless character suffering insomnia, one who has simply given up on life in college and in general. After months of isolation, he finally ventures out into the world…only to throw himself from a bridge.

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

Now I’m sure some readers will be intrigued by what happened to this nameless character. Why did this character make that choice? Was it the birds and the birdkeeper he worked for that drove him to kill himself? How could living with birds do such a thing?

For me, though, this prologue put a sour taste in my mouth. I’m all for a good murder mystery, but when life is lost in a story, it should mean something. Like Colleen Hoover’s Verity, I felt like killing off a nameless person for the sake of shock value in the first few pages dulls the impact of any future loss of life later in the story. Plus there are so many other ways to show that time on an island has transformed a person for the worse: their habits, their language, their little actions. All these can steadily impact those around them and lead to other, bigger transformations down the road. I know not every writer feels this way, but I will always appreciate a chance to peel back layers to find the rot, rather than simply smashing the fruit underfoot to send that rot flying in bits all over the ground.

As always, I love hearing what’s on the shelves of your own libraries. Libraries Rock!

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

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

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!

You’ve Got Five Pages, #ASecretAboutASecret by Peter Spiegelman, to Tell Me You’re Good. #FirstChapter #BookReview #Podcast

Hello, amazing fellow creatives! Here’s to more fun perusing the library’s new releases to see what strikes our fancy. As I mentioned in an earlier post, I’ve retitled Story Cuppings to better fit the premise of the podcast.

As writers, we hear all the time that we’ve got to hook readers in just the first few pages or else. We’ve got to hook agents in the first few pages or else.

Whether you’re looking to get published or just hoping to hook your reader, first impressions are vital. Compelling opening scenes are the key to catching an agent or editor’s attention, and are crucial for keeping your reader engaged.

JEFF GERKE, THE FIRST FIFTY PAGES

Well then, let’s study those first few pages in other people’s stories, shall we?

Today I snagged from the New Release shelf:

A Secret About a Secret by Peter Spiegelman

We return to cozy mysteries this week! The first chapter is only three pages long, and don’t you worry: Spiegelman uses those three pages to his advantage.

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

By using the first-person narrative, we meander through the protagonist’s mind as his car travels through an isolated, bleak landscape. While some of these internal musings felt a bit long-winded, I did appreciate the little tastes of what we as readers are getting into: that this protagonist is some sort of investigator who is also occasionally sent to “punish,” that he has “Masters” he must answer to, and that he is not so curious about his duties that he cares to learn more about where he’s going for his latest assignment and why.

The setting is beautifully described and is currently timeless in its way, but the back cover blurbs promise some futuristic details to come our way. By the end of three pages, we learn our protagonist’s name–Myles–and that he’s going to visit an isolated manor house where someone has died. Why or how? We don’t know, but we as readers are eager to find out.

As always, I love hearing what’s on the shelves of your own libraries. Libraries Rock!

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

Author #Interview: Let’s Chat with #IndieAuthor @KentWayne108!


Welcome back, my fellow creatives! I’m thrilled to continue sharing some lovely indie authors I’ve met in our community. This month, please welcome the adventurer cosmic, Kent Wayne!

Let’s begin with your adventures as a reader. What was an early experience where you learned that language had power?

Some early experiences with powerful language come from (now) outdated comic books, specifically Preacher by Garth Ennis, and the early run of Ultimate Spider Man by Brian Michael Bendis. Ennis was able to reinvent a bunch of 1960s and 1970s toxic Americana machismo into something heroic, inspiring, and infused with tolerance (for the 90s). He does allude to underlying problems and hypocrisy, but the parts where Jesse Custer learns what it means to be a hero no matter what the odds, then accompanies the act with a passionate monologue or iconic one-liner, made me aware of how a written story could charge my entire being with hope and purpose. Conversely, Ultimate Spider-Man (the early run) made me aware of how important silence, implication, and organic-sounding speech (even if it’s riddled with ums, dot-dot-dots, and yeahs) could make me want to stand up and cheer for a kid who—despite being saddled with terrible responsibility—is still able to seek out and experience joy. He’s one of the few characters I really felt for, to the point where I wanted him to stay naive and optimistic, and the scene where he almost kisses Mary Jane (Ultimate Spider Man #13) is burned into my brain as the best romantic scene I’ve read or seen.

What authors did you dislike at first but grew into?

When I first read it, I didn’t like the seminal work Dark Knight Returns (by paradigm-shifting comic book author/artist Frank Miller). It was only later, after I realized the significance of his depiction of media, was I able to appreciate the barrage of dialogue between his news pundits.

Have you ever gotten reader’s block? That is, did you ever encounter a story that you just could not finish?

I tried to read Cloud Atlas, thinking it would be similar to the movie, but it was so much slower than I thought it would be. I think I stopped a third of the way through. Other than that, I think I’ve finished every book I’ve read.

Time to dive into your own stories! Your first book, Echo: Approaching Shatter hit virtual shelves in 2015. Please tell us what first inspired this story and motivated you to explore this world and discover the three other stories in this series.

Echo was inspired by Die Hard with a Vengeance, specifically that opening scene where John Mclane is forced to wear an offensive sign in public and it puts his life at risk. I started wondering what would happen if an entire city turned against one person, then that person had to fight their way out? I wanted it to be science fiction (because I’ve always been a fan of robo-suits), and then I had to create a backstory for a sci-fi scene where it was one guy versus an entire city. I didn’t get to the actual scene until the end of Echo 3.

Speaking of series, I’d love to hear more about your methods in discovering whether a story should be a single standalone or a series. We’re so often pushed by the gurus that series will sell over standalones. What are your thoughts on this?

I believe writing is one of the worst ways to make money (if you’re looking to make money), and that it should feed your soul before anything else. That being said, I would say write in a way that brings you the utmost joy and allows you to feel like you’ve honored the characters. Whether that’s a standalone book or a multi-volume series is up to you and your muse. If writing becomes a chore because I’m forcing a series, I’m not sure that I would want to keep doing it.

What is the most unethical practice in the publishing industry?

I’m not too knowledgeable about traditional publishing, but from what I understand, things have vastly changed since Stephen King’s earlier days, where they’d work with you if you showed potential. Nowadays, they might arrange for your book to be turned frontwards instead of sideways for a few weeks at Barnes and Nobles, and possibly arrange some readings or a book tour. That’s not unethical, but I wish publishers would be willing to invest more into budding authors instead of just letting them sink or swim.

Okay, I HAVE to ask about your comic, Kor’Thank: Barbarian Valley Girl. Its premise is so utterly bizarre I cannot help but love it (it also helps I’m a fan of Conan the Barbarian). Where did this story come from in your imagination?

After I wrote Echo, which had plenty of violence and darkness, I wanted to write something fun and silly in the vein of Barry Ween (early 2000s comic). I was playing Kingdom Rush and noticed this primitive, mean-looking goblin guy named Gul Thak, and I started toying with the idea of a Conan-esque character switching bodies with a stereotypical cheerleader. After that, it was just a matter of playing up the ironies (despite outward appearances, she’s the mean one), adding a giant dose of juvenile humor, and sprinkling in some high school sweetness, infused with the eager young outlook and unjaded energy that I wish all high-schoolers were able to enjoy, simply because that’s what I wish defined peoples’ high school experience.

Kor’Thank also gets me wondering about that old chestnut of a writer’s debate regarding originality vs. catching a trend. What are your thoughts on trying to be more original vs. delivering to readers what they want?

This might seem a bit selfish, but I think it’s mainly what brings joy to the author. I’m all for originality, but not if it’s some arthouse-type work that evokes no emotion from me, despite being supposedly brilliant in theme and execution. Conversely, if I watch something that’s full of cliches, then I don’t care so long as it’s engaging.

Kor’Thank ALSO also gets me wondering about your character names. Can you describe your process for finding/selecting character names? I’m always a sucker for selecting historical names with meaning.

I wasn’t so good with names for Echo (I just wanted to get on with writing the story, and select names that wouldn’t be too jarring). Nowadays, because my YA fantasy series hews outside the bounds of traditional fantasy, I’ve placed great emphasis on names, dialogue, and culture in order to evoke the old-school fantasy feel, despite the nontraditional setting. I look for names that are evocative of behavior and background. For example, from my second book, Eralindiany felt like an Elvish, feminine name with a lot of flow and lilt, so that’s why she’s Jon’s half-Elf girlfriend. Syfaedi Kysaire felt like something that had flair and derring-do, so I made her a pirate captain. Raefingham Bask felt Victorian and refined, so I made him a Sherlockian detective. The bottom line is I go by feel. A lot of the time, I’ll use a “placeholder name” then change it in the edit as I get a feel for the character and my mind starts coming up with better names.

I’ve been following your blog for a long time, and I see that you’ve transformed a series within your blogs (Musings) into a book collection. Can you describe your process for bringing your blog to the bookstore, and do you have any other marketing advice for fellow indie writers?

Some of my readers wanted me to compile Musings into a book, so I acquiesced and turned it into a compilation of philosophical pseudo-poems. Once again, my advice on bringing my blog to a bookstore is infuriatingly vague: search your feelings, just like Obi Wan said, and if it feels right to publish, then go ahead and do it. In creative pursuits, I’m of the opinion that going by feel and intuition is of utmost importance. Because arguably, that’s what defines them and/or separates them from technical pursuits.

Your latest book, a YA Fantasy, sounds like a delightful escape from the mundane of our world. Considering how the HUGE variations of worldbuilding within the fantasy genre, did you find it difficult to challenge the reader while also guiding them through your story-world?

Absolutely. Since my main character is from Earth, I wanted to convey the wonder of discovery and adventure through his eyes, without getting bogged down in too much backstory. Also, building out a system of magic was a definite challenge, especially when the plot hinges on different styles of spellcasting.

What would you say was the most difficult scene to write in Evermoor?

The most difficult scene to write in Evermoor was when the hero finally gets to kiss the girl. I’d never gone all in on a romantic scene until then, and I really wanted to get it right. I wanted to convey his excitement at finally getting to experience this joyous moment—possibly the most joyous moment of his teenage existence—with the crush of his life.

Lastly, we all struggle with a writing Kryptonite—that thing that just saps our creativity and prevents us from telling the stories we love. What is your writing Kryptonite, and how do you overcome it?

My writing kryptonite is frustration that no one’s made my books into a movie or tv show, LOL! The scenes are so vivid in my mind, that I desperately want to see them onscreen. I have to deliberately focus on enjoying my story and immersing myself in the joy of writing it, because I can easily go down a depressing rabbit hole if I start obsessing about recognition or movie deals.

Thank you so much for taking the time to chat, Kent, and I can’t wait to see where your creativity takes you next!

~STAY TUNED!~

Nature is on my mind! Whether it’s the music of nature or the landscape of mystery, perhaps it’s time we venture out and explore with the words and sounds of others.

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

#WriterProblems: How Many Characters Do You Really Need? #DeathOnTheNile #AgathaChristie

Welcome back, my fellow creatives!

Last year, my husband and I began watching various episodes of mystery series together. It began with Columbo–

–continued with Sherlock Holmes–

–and ended with some Poirot.

Now as I’ve noted, my dear Bo is quite the cinephile, so on top of the television adaptations of these stories, we were also watching the film adaptations. This meant we saw four different versions (at least!) of Hound of the Baskervilles and a couple versions of Death on the Nilethe 1978 version starring Peter Ustinov as Poirot, and the 2004 version starring David Suchet as Poirot. (I had yet to see the new Kenneth Branagh adaptation at the time.)

While Bo was giving me commentary on what actor had gone on to do X or Q or T, I was noticing how certain plot threads would come and go depending on the adaptation. Now for technical reasons, I could see how a story is condensed so it can fit into a two-hour movie or three-part special. This will mean cutting characters or condensing characters for the film–normal stuff. As writers, we can debate the trials and tribulations of film adaptations until the cosmic cows come to roost, or however that saying goes.

But there was something about the Poirot Death on the Nile adaptations that left me pondering. Lots of good fiction depend on multiple plot threads to keep the reader engaged from the first page to the last. Mysteries in particular need those extra plot threads to create red herrings and plot twists so that the solution to the mystery is a surprise to the reader. In order to populate those other threads, one must have a sizable cast of characters.

But is a big cast really necessary for the story, or are they just filler?

THAT is the question I’d like to discuss with you today, and I’m keen to use Death on the Nile to do so. If you don’t recall the original story’s plot, the Wikipedia entry covers it fairly well. (The entry also mentions the film adaptations I’ll be mentioning here, too.) I’ve also snagged the original cast list from Litcharts so we can see what Agatha Christie saw fit to print. I’ve actually trimmed a few folks out, trying to limit us to the folks who rode the Karnak during the majority of the novel.

ALSO: Spoilers abound. Writer problems trump “spoiler-free” descriptions any day.

THE ORIGINAL CAST OF THE 1937 NOVEL (PRETTY SURE, ANYWAY)

Hercule Poirot: This is a given.

Linnet Doyle: the spoiled rich English lady who marries Simon Doyle and gets murdered.

Jacqueline De Bellefort: Linnet’s best friend who was engaged to Simon until Linnet gets involved. Also, one of the story’s murderers.

Simon Doyle: the youngest son of a well-to-do family, so he loves fancy things but has no money for them. Loves Jackie but marries Linnet. Also also, the other one of the story’s murderers.

Colonel Race: I didn’t remember him from other stories, but apparently he befriended Poirot before Death on the Nile takes place. (Edit: I had to look this up–they do meet in Cards on the Table.) He is present on the riverboat Karnak due to a potential Communist and/or Anarchist threat, but from a storyteller’s standpoint, he is the trustworthy one Poirot can speak freely about his observations so readers know what’s going on.

Andrew Pennington: An American trustee for Linnet Ridgeway due to family connections. There’s a partner, but he barely factors in, so we’ll not bother with him.

Mrs. Salome Otterbourne: a writer of sensational, sexualized fiction who drank more the less her books sold.

Rosalie Otterbourne: Daughter of Salome–and because of the alcoholism, her mother’s keeper. This leads to Rosalie being very difficult for folks like Poirot to interact with.

Mrs. Allerton: the “nice” character of the novel, and essentially Poirot’s gateway into meeting all the other passengers of the riverboat Karnak.

Tim Allerton: son of Mrs. Allerton, eventual lover of Rosalie Otterbourne, and cousin of Joanna Southwood who enjoys hanging out with Linnet before the trip to Egypt. He helps Joanna steal jewelry and make forgeries, and on this boat, it’s his job to switch their fake pearls with Linnet’s real ones. This leads to one of the minor plots of Linnet’s missing pearl necklace being a possible motive for murder.

Miss Marie Van Schuyler: wealthy old American lady who bosses her cousin Cornelia and nurse Miss Bowers around throughout the novel. She’s also a kleptomaniac, which adds to the pearl necklace subplot.

Cornelia Robson: a nice girl who becomes a tool for Linnet and Simon and an object of the affections of Mr. Ferguson and Dr. Bessner.

Mr. Ferguson (Lord Dawlish): a Communist who is hateful to pretty much everyone except Cornelia, infatuated with her genuinely kind nature. Secretly a member of a very well-to-do English family. His brazen comments about how awful rich people and capitalism are material for the political agitator subplot.

Miss Bowers: nurse to Miss Van Schuyler who isn’t actually treating the old lady for anything. She’s there to keep the kleptomania in check and return things Van Schuyler steals, which means there is a “mysterious” return of the necklace, only it’s a forgery, and…yeah, the necklace subplot is a bit much.

Signor Richetti: a middle-aged Italian archaeologist that Poirot meets on an excursion near the hotel (which Ferguson also came on). He turns out to be the political agitator that Colonel Race is after. He has absolutely nothing to do with the deaths on the Nile. He’s just there to be ominous and threatening.

Louise Bourget: maid to Linnet and Simon Doyle, Louise initially appears to be a minor character, until suddenly she takes center stage when she becomes the second murder victim.

James Fanthorp: a young English lawyer for Linnet Ridgeway, the nephew of the lawyer William Carmichael. I vaguely remember this guy.

Dr. Bessner: a middle-aged European doctor on board the Karnak who takes care of Simon after his leg injury and who eventually proposes to Cornelia Robson. Yes, Cornelia chooses this dude over the English Lord, much to her grandmother’s chagrin.

Fleetwood: an engineer on the Karnak who attempted to marry one of Linnet’s old chambermaids, despite the fact that he was already married to an Egyptian woman. Linnet prevented the marriage, which made both Fleetwood and Louise extremely angry.

So, we have our cast, and it’s not a small one. We have our primary players who drive the plot forward with their secret and not-so-secret actions, and those who make stuff happen for our primary players to react to.

Realistic Population

Death on the Nile primarily takes place in Egypt, broken up with stops at hotels and busy locations. The named characters ride on the S.S. Karnak up the Nile River together, and it is on this boat that the murder and mayhem take place. In the original novel, Ustinov adaptation, and Suchet adaptation, most of the characters have negative, tenuous connections to Linnet Doyle–her father bought out one character’s business, ruining the family, for instance. In another example, we see that in the Ustinov adaptation, Dr. Bessner’s clinic is about to lose its funding because Linnet Doyle is changing her father’s financial ties. But not all characters have these connections, and that is okay. Something we must remember as writers is that when a story is taking place in a public space, there will be strangers to the story. There are plenty of other visitors to the hotels in Egypt, and the riverboats are common transportation for tourists. Readers don’t expect every tourist on a boat to be connected to every other tourist on the boat. That’s what makes the old connection between Mrs. Van Schuyler and Linnet Doyle a surprise. On the surface, Mrs. Allerton and her son Tim have no connection whatsoever to Linnet Doyle, but when Joanna’s name is mentioned, a shady connection reveals itself.

To put it another way, it’d be as if the Hogwarts School was only populated by Harry and his friends, and Draco and his friends. The school just has four teachers at any time and that’s it. None of the other students and faculty matter, so trim them out!

Readers expect a school to be populated. They expect a city to be populated. They expect a passenger boat to be populated.

Of course, Agatha Christie had plans for the characters she put on the Karnak, but at the outset, having this large group made sense because it’s a tourist’s boat. It’s supposed to be busy and crowded. But it’s not necessary to make all those characters obviously connected. She didn’t make intricate connections between every student and every teacher in Cat Among the Pigeons, either; sometimes, you just need people there because people are supposed to be there. They are, essentially, moving scenery. And because those extras are treated like scenery, we readers are not expecting backstories on all of them. We don’t know all the backstories of all the crewmembers on the Karnak, nor are we looking for them. They are there to simply fill in the scene.

In the most recent Branagh version, however, this entire cast–yes, all those people–are the wedding party for Simon and Linnet Doyle. Considering Branagh’s time in Shakespeare, I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised by this strategy. Now the entire cast’s presence on the boat is justified. Such a move, however, means all the secretive, surprising connections are thrust out into the open. The chances for surprise go way down. And the fact some of those connections are negative at the outset makes it all the stranger some of these people are invited to the wedding. For instance, Branagh transforms the Dr. Bessner role part into another doctor who was Linnet Doyle’s former fiance. The man is clearly fawning after Linnet until she dies. Why is he at this destination wedding? No idea. But we need our suspects, dammit!

More Characters = More Subplots. Yay!

As previously noted, having this size of a group means one can have some other plot threads. These smaller plot lines give the writer a chance to break up the major plot and allow little breaks from major events without bringing the story to a standstill. After all, if all the major plot points of Death on the Nile were smushed together (marriage/murder/second murder/third murder/reveal), you’d have an overwhelming episode of a television show rather than a movie, let alone a novel. So having other plot lines allows the writer to build curiosity in the reader. What did that dollar fragment in the maid’s hand mean? Wait, who is Mr. Farnthorp, really? Why is the Signor so upset about his note? Why is Rosalie Otterbourne so protective of her mother?

Now even in a novel, one can have superfluous plot threads. Yes, Dame Christie, included. Take the Signor Richetti character. His sole purpose is to be the reason Colonel Race boards the Karnak. He is a sulky man who has no connection whatsoever to the Doyles or anything going on. He gets to have one angry interaction with Linnet Doyle, and that’s it. There’s a reason that all three adaptations of this novel omit this character. One could remove the “political agitator” subplot and affect absolutely nothing else in the story, which is why the films consistently cut him out.

The pearl necklace subplot is altered from film to film. Sometimes the pearls are forged, sometimes they are just stolen. Sometimes it’s the klepto old Miss Van Schuyler, while in the Branagh version the character created to replace Col. Race took the pearls in order to have a clean start with his love, Rosalie Otterbourne, whose mother is a jazz singer hired by the Doyle’s for this destination wedding thing. Unlike the political agitator plot, the stolen pearls provide a worthwhile red herring to Linnet’s murder–someone may have murdered her out of hate, but maybe they were just greedy for the money in those pearls. Greed doesn’t require a previous relationship or connection, and such greed allows strangers to become suspects. In a mystery set on a tourist boat, such a move makes sense and therefore requires characters to flesh it out.

If I could have a smidgeon of the fun Angela Lansbury has in acting for this film, I would be a happy soul, indeed.

More Subplots = More Characters to Keep Track of. UGH.

So you saw that list I made earlier. Let’s face it–that list is huge. Macbeth has roughly the same number of named characters. There’s a reason films often condense or omit characters from a movie: it’s just too much. The Suchet adaptation, for instance, eliminates three characters. The Ustinov adaptation deletes six. Branagh cuts a few, but then also adds some different ones to fill in the gaps. Yet these adaptations were able to tell the same essential story.

This means the effects of cast changes are felt far more in the subplots than in the major plot. Branagh’s adaptation, for instance, pushes love as the major motive for everything: the pearl necklace is stolen for love. Linnet is murdered for love. The maid–and the necklace thief–are murdered to protect love. By reorganizing the characters and how they connected, Branagh altered the very subplots those characters served.

And…sure, I guess that’s okay. But when there’s only one real reason folks are doing anything, you suck a lot of mystery out of the story.

Yes, having a big cast is a pain. Keeping track of multiple motivations is a pain. The Ustinov adaptation made this painfully clear with the connections they created for motives: Mrs. Otterbourne was getting sued by Linnet for libel (and Rosalie would go far to protect her mother, wouldn’t she?); Dr. Bessner’s clinic was going to lose funding; Communist Ferguson openly despised Linnet’s wealth and wanted to see her dead; the trustee Pennington was embezzling Linnet; even the nurse Miss Bowers blamed Linnet’s family for ruining her own. You couldn’t take a step on that boat without bumping into someone with the motivation to kill Linnet.

Keeping track of all those motivations and connections is very, very hard, for on top of making them exist, you have to make them matter. This means dedicating page space (or screen time) that adequately gives every plot thread relevance and urgency to the overall storyline. The more plot threads you have, the more complicated your pacing will have to be, too, for the major plot thread can’t be out of sight for long.

Final Thoughts…

So if you the writer are not sure you can make it all weave together, DON’T DO IT.

There is nothing wrong with keeping to a few plot threads and a small cast. There’s a reason “cozy” mysteries typically use a small group of characters: readers can track them easily, their motivations are easy to track as a writer, and any change to those characters is easier to distinguish because there’s less moving scenery to distract a reader. As one who has read mysteries for a few decades, nothing infuriates a reader like goofed character/plot connections. It messes up the story, and it makes you the writer look like you don’t know your own story-world.

Now I’m sure that, assuming you made it to the end here, you have your own thoughts on stories and the size of their character cast. I’d love to hear them!

I know that the easy advice here would be to “create only the characters your story absolutely needs,” but sometimes we just don’t know how many characters that entails–not in the first draft, anyway. I still grind my teeth over the plothole the filmmakers created in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban because they condensed the story too damn much. It takes time and practice to first find our central plot thread, and then the characters needed to see that plot thread through. I’m still working on this just like you, so I’d love to hear your take on big/small character casts, plot threads that could have used a few more characters, a few less, and so on.

And what’s your favorite book cover from the assortment in this post? I admit, I love the clean, cool colors of this one.

~STAY TUNED!~

I’ve another indie interview on the way! Plus we could wander the Holmesian countryside if you’d like, dissect the plot and characters of my own fiction, find inspiration among the sounds of nature, or take up a dragon to fight Napoleon. Mystery and adventure await!

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

You’ve Got Five Pages, #BlackMouth by Ronald Malfi, to Tell Me You’re Good. #FirstChapter #BookReview #Podcast

Hello, amazing fellow creatives! Here’s to more fun perusing the library’s new releases to see what strikes our fancy. As I mentioned in an earlier post, I’ve retitled Story Cuppings to better fit the premise of the podcast.

As writers, we hear all the time that we’ve got to hook readers in just the first few pages or else. We’ve got to hook agents in the first few pages or else.

Whether you’re looking to get published or just hoping to hook your reader, first impressions are vital. Compelling opening scenes are the key to catching an agent or editor’s attention, and are crucial for keeping your reader engaged.

JEFF GERKE, THE FIRST 50 PAGES

Well then, let’s study those first few pages in other people’s stories, shall we?

Today I snagged from the New Release shelf:

Black Mouth by Ronald Malfi

The first chapter of Black Mouth by Ronald Malfi is a fine example of how one can have the intense opener, change scenes a little, and STILL keep momentum.

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

The protagonist gets hit by a double-whammy of a notice when he leaves rehab, but rather than move forward on that time, we backtrack to what caused the protagonist to be in rehab in the first place. While I was bothered by this at first, Malfi successfully avoids telling us how rehab went. Rather, we experience the protagonist’s spiral downward into a place of intense fear and pain. Could this just be the lack of alcohol, or is there something more sinister afoot? Plus, now that we know the protagonist is about to hear tragic information about his family, we are further intrigued to see how a man in such a state will handle such news. Considering the unique voice and personality of this character, I cannot predict what he will do…and that makes me a happy reader.

As always, I love hearing what’s on the shelves of your own libraries. Libraries Rock!

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

Author #Interview: Let’s Chat with #IndieAuthor @AValdiers!

You can catch Alex on Twitter and on WordPress!

Welcome back, my fellow creatives! I’m thrilled to continue sharing some lovely indie authors I’ve met in our community. This month, please welcome the explorer of the speculative, Alex Valdiers!

In our correspondence, you mentioned you began writing 25 years ago. I was like that as well! When I was four, I took to making picture books because I didn’t know how to write words yet. What was an early experience where you learned that language had power, or what experience led you to begin writing your own stories?

I remember vividly the day I decided to become a writer. I was 8 years old. At school, at that time when I was still interested in school, I was faster than the other kids. Whenever there was a test, I would finish it with plenty of time to spare, then I’ll get bored. To keep me occupied, teachers would send me to the school library. On a math test one day, I got sent to the library after I handed out my copy, but I didn’t want to read other people’s stories, I wanted to create my own. So I stayed in class and wrote my first short story. After the test, the other pupils asked me what I wrote, so I read it to them and the response was overwhelming. People were touched and reacted positively to something I had created. From that point on, my mind was made-up, I wanted to become a story-teller.

Photo by John-Mark Kuznietsov on Pexels.com

What literary pilgrimages have you gone on?

Until I turned 25, I wrote in notebooks. During my school days I changed establishments every year, spending two years in boarding schools. The first boarding school was very grim, very violent. I read a lot of Lovecraft back then and spent most of my free time writing similar stories in my notebooks (as we all did with Lovecraft!). At 18, I moved to Australia without a plan. I crossed the country, writing poetry, in buses, in cafes, by the beach, in the vineyards, etc. Then back in Europe, I took long walking trips across France and Belgium, notebook in hand, writing either poetry or plans for future stories. I wrote a lot in cemeteries, especially in Aachen, Germany. I used to visit the main cemetery once a month during my University days in Liege, Belgium. I wrote my best poetry amongst those green alleys full of history.

I have never been able to dabble in poetry, but it sounds like your writing crosses many mediums; you have written plays, novels, and poetry in your native French language. I’d love to hear your process on knowing what medium was the best structure for the story you wanted to tell! (That is, how did you know the story needed to be a play, or a novel, or a poem, etc.?)

At the time I wrote plays and poetry, I was very influenced by the French Surrealist and the Absurdist movements (Breton, Vian, Cocteau, Anouilh, Sartre, etc.). And I followed the Greek rule of unity for writing plays (1 action, 1 location, 1 day). When stories were about dialogue and mood, plays in four acts were my favorite medium.

For poetry, Pushkin and Charles Cros were my biggest influences, then there was L’Oulipo, a surrealist group of the mid-sixties and seventies pioneered by Queneau, Calvino, Perec, amongst many writers and mathematicians. L’Oulipo taught me one of the most important literary lessons which still influences me to this day, ‘literature as an art form is about shortcuts’. It’s about giving life to words and letting them take control of the narrative voice, it’s about links and ellipsis. Sometimes when I correct a draft and I feel my writing isn’t good enough, I go back to my Oulipo days to find an answer, a spark.

I only wrote novels when stories were character based and commended to be told in prose, in greater length.

Does writing energize or exhaust you?

I consider writers like pro athletes. When writing, you need to build stamina, amongst many things (habits, structure, etc.). When my job only allowed me to write once or twice a week, writing was mentally exhausting. I would do stints of 500 words, then would take a nap, start again, 500 words in 2 or 3 hours, then a nap, then again. At the end of the day, I would be drained.

Now, things are different, I have a low paying job with zero responsibilities, I get to write everyday, so I never unplugged and I’ve built great stamina. I can do stretches of 12 hours straight behind the desk, writing 5k on one story, correcting another, planning the next one. My energy reserves are rarely depleted. In fact, when I’m feeling down, physically and mentally, writing is the best remedy.

Five thousand words in one day?! That is AMAZING! Clearly, when you find your groove, you are in it. Now let’s flip this. What is your writing Kryptonite? For instance, when my children’s school principal calls, all desire to create leaves my soul. There’s no writing when there are school problems.

Money problems are an issue that can linger in my mind and block me for a few hours at a time. Otherwise, there’s hardly anything else. I’ve made space in my life for writing without restrictions and with time I’ve become more selfish, in a good sense.

As a teenager in France, growing up in violent environments (outside my family and hometown), fighting or schemes to avoid fighting were a big part of my life. My mind was so preoccupied by injustice, racism, violence, that I couldn’t even read at times. I got away from all this. It is part of the reason I’ve left France.

The United States definitely has its share of these problems as well. Reading, at least, helps us escape if but for a moment. What’s your favorite under-appreciated novel?

My answer to this question is about to become outdated because the TV show based on the novel is coming soon (with Kate Mulgrew!!), it’s The Man Who Fell To Earth by Walter Tevis (another atrociously translated writer in French). It is my favorite novel, I read it once a year. It’s the novel I would have liked to write. I connect on every level with Walter Tevis’ prose and his personal life. I get the true meaning of the novel, which I don’t want to spoil here. I’ll just say that what happens at the end of the novel is my greatest fear as a writer and a person.

So, this novel doesn’t really count, and if I answer Boris Vian’s L’Ecume des Jours (Froth on the Daydream), you’d think that’s an indie novel I haven’t heard about. It’s not an indie novel. It is one of the most read and celebrated novels ever written in the French language, and it will remain so for decades and centuries to come. According to a report from 2013, the novel has been selling between 80,000 and 270,000 copies every year since its second edition in 1962. Sadly, it is an impossible novel to translate (I wrote a short story about it entitled Missing Pages), because of its reliance on word meanings and figurative speech.

So, my true unsung novel would have to be Neverness by David Zindell. It’s one of those perfect novels, it has everything and more. I don’t understand why it’s not more read, and why it hasn’t been ‘rediscovered’ yet.

I admit, I had to look this one up. Seeing a title with “never” in it got me thinking immediately of Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman, but I see Neverness takes us to distant time and space for plenty of adventure. I’ll have to check it out! Are there any authors you disliked at first but then grew into?

There’s only one name that comes to mind, Stephen King!

Nowadays I read one Stephen King’s novel per week, but until December 2021, I had only ever finished one King’s novel, The Shining, which I disliked.

There’s a combination of factors at play which caused me to dislike King for many years. First of all, I was a dumb kid, swearing only by the classic authors, rejecting all popular and contemporary novels as garbage lit. Then, there were the translations. Reading a work in translation is hit or miss, in every language. SFF and Horror translations in France can be atrocious. I tried several times to read King as a child and teenager but I could not get past the atrocious writing. Yes, Stephen King’s pen in French is bad. It’s not the case in the original form though and it was The Gunslinger which finally got me into Stephen King, and allowed me, at last, to discover his wonderful craft.

You’re not the only one who ignored contemporary genre writing. My instructors in my graduate program were SHOCKED I mentioned Stephen King and writing fantasy. They drove us to focus solely on literary fiction; everything else was garbage. How dull the world would be without stories beyond our humdrum world! Still, I would be remiss if I did not admit that genre fiction–especially Scifi/Fantasy–can be prone to publishing in fads or phases. (The fad of Young Adult Dystopian fiction comes to mind.) Do you try more to be original or to deliver to readers what they want?

As a ‘rounder’ as I call all the writers who actively submit to pro-SFF markets, you have to read the latest SFF magazines and novels and see what the trends are. It gives you two indicators: what’s in demand and what is outdated or not wanted.

I always write the stories that I want, otherwise, I don’t get excited and the story turns out crap. So I’ll never write a story in a particular genre or fashion because it is what sells, I’ll write the kind of fiction I want to write and I’m very careful about avoiding all the unwanted tropes and themes.

When it comes to writing fantasy and your favorite genre of science fiction, we writers have to take special care to avoid those worldbuilding exposition dumps. Yet we also can’t just leave the reader to guess what on earth is going on by jumping into the middle of the action. How do you balance making demands on the reader with taking care of the reader?

I abide to Ben Bova’s rule about worldbuilding, borrowing is being lazy. Every SFF element has to come from my own pen and mind. I don’t do info dumps, I don’t explain how a tech or magic works, I show what it does. When writing dialogue, I place myself in my character’s shoes. When I speak to my siblings, we don’t reference the Indochina war that forced my mother to flee Laos in the 1950’s, we all know it. The same goes for characters in fiction, realistic dialogue doesn’t have infos dump about a war that happened fifty years ago or a tech breakthrough being explained. It’s assumed by the characters because it’s part of their lives. If you and I met today, you wouldn’t explain to me how a smartphone works, we both assume we know how they work. Infos dumps in dialogue are cringe and often lead to DNF.

Fantasy and science fiction also invite some delightfully creative approaches to naming folks, places, and so on. How do you select the names of your characters?

There are 3 types of scenarios. 1. The name comes by itself, early on, when I’m writing the outline of the story. 2. During pre-work, I get tired of writing ‘the female gunslinger with the rabbit tattoos’ and I make up a common name, like Jenny, Mary, Rose. Sometimes that name stays, sometimes I invest time to look for a more fitting name.

3. I decide the origin of the character, then look up websites with popular baby names per country. I pick one I have an affinity with, one that sounds right, but often I get inspired by a name and create a variation of that name. If the character is alien, I respect Asterix laws (from the Goscinny cartoons), names from a common alien origin must be consistent (e.g. in Asterix, all the villagers have named ending in -ix, in Rome all the name end in -us)

Ah, a blend of the ancient and the future with your name rules–I dig it! I love digging through name books for ideas, and those names sometimes help inspire certain traits in the character. What other kinds of research do you do, and how long do you spend researching before beginning a story?

The amount of pre-work can really vary, and I think the decisive factor is plotting. Stories that are heavily plotted require more work, from writing the plot outline, to writing key parts of the story beforehand, backstories for every character and locations, etc.

Stories relying on mood are much faster. I decide on the location, the theme and the characters I want to use for this particular story, then I just get on with the story without any pre-writing, research or backstory developments.

You’ve gotten quite a few stories into online magazines over the past couple of years. What are your favorite literary journals for reading and/or querying?

Escape Pod is the first mag that comes to mind, it is one of my objectives and dreams to be featured on this magazine. The quality of the stories is incredible. I read most stories on Daily SF, Hexagon, FIYAH, Interzone, Metaphorosis, Analog, F&SF, Clarkesworld, Beneath Ceaseless Skies.

We who love to write are definitely in it for the long haul, but we’d all be liars if we didn’t admit to those spells of discouragement. What motivates you to keep going when the publication process gets tougher than tough?

Writing isn’t a choice, it’s the way I live, nothing else can bring me fulfillment. With the years, I’ve eliminated everything that kept me from writing. I’ve reached a point of no return where becoming a pro writer is my only option. So now, even when I feel devastated after a story I cared deeply about gets turned down by a big market after being held up for consideration for weeks and months, I just take the hit and I get back to work, because there’s nothing else for me to do. History and experience proved that stories are rejected for a reason, even if one doesn’t see at the time. One has to keep writing, keep improving and then the issues with a particular story become clear.

Thanks so much for taking time to chat, Alex! It’s been wonderful to hear from another lifelong lover of words. Feel free to plug anything you’d like.

I want to shout out to the editors and staff of all the pro, semi-pro and non-paying SFF markets out there. We know most of those magazines are run at a loss and outside the SFF writing world, not many people know who the people behind the scenes are. The work, the efforts and sacrifices they put in to discover, develop and support new and existing writers is a gift. These ‘infrastructures’ are the reason I left France, one of the dominant literary countries in the world, yet the infrastructures are not there in France. There are no short story markets for emerging writers to graduate from, SFF is disregarded as a genre, and the only option for emerging writers to break in, is write a full novel then hope it will get picked up by a major publisher. However, there’s a lot going on behind the scene, who the author is, what her or his social and ethnic origins are sadly more decisive than the novel itself.

Writing in France is still an elitist affair. If it’s the case in France, I can only imagine what the publishing industries are like around the world, especially in countries we are less accustomed to reading writers from, such as Sudan, Kazakhstan, Vietnam, Venezuela, etc. I cannot help but think about the countless talents our civilizations have lost because the country these people were born in had no infrastructure to develop their talent and give them a chance to be read. It saddens me, and I didn’t want to be a victim of these inequalities by staying in a country where publishers berated me for my skin color or who I was. 

Therefore, it truly is a chance and a privilege to have all those SFF markets willing to read and give a chance to any writer in the world, regardless of her or his origins and social status. For that I am grateful beyond measure.

What a powerful message! Yes, thank you to all who help make these markets of the fantastic and impossible possible for the indie writer. Folks, I hope you’re able to check out Alex Valdiers’ stories in the links sprinkled throughout the interview.

~STAY TUNED!~

It’s time to take a trip down the Nile. How many folks do we take along? It should be up to you. Or is it up to the plot? Hmmm…..

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