The Art of Voice-Changery, Part 1

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A writer’s imagination runs through many worlds, histories, and lives. The danger of one writer and an infinite creativity? That only one voice ever speaks.

Changing voices has got to be one of the toughest challenges for a writer. I’ve read some failures, and believe you me: the story just tanks due to pov confusion, or loses all flavor due to deja vu. I mean, just imagine if all the Muppets sounded like Ernie. How lame would that be?

My Shield Maiden series…Shield Maiden Quartet? Oooo, A Quartet of Maidenry!

Sorry about that.

Anyway, I have four very different protagonists in this set, and that different-ness MUST be clear to readers. In Middler’s Pride Gwen went from show-off jerk to decent human being. Now I need to maneuver into the head of another recruit named Wynne, the protagonist for my next book, Beauty’s Price. Wynne has motives wholly unlike Gwen’s for joining the Shield Maidens. She is a sweet soul, a lover of nature with a desire to live life without the rules a class society dictates. How to create this gentler, more provincial voice?

Hmmm.

I stare blankly at my bookshelf: Conan Doyle doesn’t exactly come to my mind for strong heroines. Nor does Colin Dexter, or P.D. James, or Ellis Peters…blast. And Agatha Christie’s heroine Miss Marple is too old for what I need.

Surely my Diana Wynne Jones shelf won’t fail me!

Wait, hang on. No, these girls are all too fierce. They were great for helping me with Gwen, like Hildrida from Drowned Ammet.

drownedammet“Betrothed?” said Hildy. “Without asking me!…You might have asked me if I minded, even if I’m not important. I’m a person, too.”

“Most people are,” Navis said, rather desperately scanning his page. He wished he had not chosen to read the Adon. The Adon said things like “Truth is the fire that fetches thunder,” which sounded unpleasantly like a description of Hildrida. “And you are very important now,” he added. “You’re forming an alliance with Lithar for us.”

“What’s Lithar like? How old is he?” Hildrida demanded.

Navis found his place and put his finger on it. “I’ve only met him once.” It was hard to know what else to say. “He’s only a young man–twenty or so.”

“Only–!” Words nearly failed Hildy. “I’m not going to be betrothed to an old man like that! I’m too young. And I’ve never met him!”

Navis hastily got his book in front of his face again. “Time will cure both those objections.”

“No, it won’t!” stormed Hildrida. “And if you go on reading, I’ll–I’ll hit you and then tear that book up!” (270-1)

Oh, there was Charmain from House of Many Ways, but she’s too bookish. She’s practically dragged into the plot. Wynne goes willingly.

And then, I see a small bundle of books by an author I only started reading in the last year:

Jane Austen.

I used to wear it as a badge of pride that I had NOT read her work. Way too many of my classmates oohed and aahed her stories, and I couldn’t get why. It’s not like anyone got poisoned or shoved out a window, let alone shot.

I pause with Pride and Prejudice in hand. Elizabeth Bennet is considered one of the great female heroines, isn’t she? Her voice is strong and unafraid. Her wit shines often, but her raw emotions have their moments, too. I particularly love her retorts to Mr. Darcy when she’s certain he loathes her, such as this one early in the story:

51uWyPyyBnL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_After playing some Italian songs, Miss Bingley varied the charm by a lively Scotch air; and soon afterwards Mr. Darcy, drawing near Elizabeth, said to her–

“Do not you feel a great inclination, Miss Bennet, to seize such an opportunity of dancing a reel?”

She smiled, but made no answer. He repeated the question, with some surprise at her silence.

“Oh!” said she, “I heard you before, but I could not immediately determine what to say in reply. You wanted me, I know, to say ‘Yes,’ that you might have the pleasure of despising my taste; but I always delight in overthrowing those kind of schemes, and cheating a person of their premeditated contempt. I have therefore made up my mind to tell you, that I do not want to dance a reel at all–and now despise me if you dare.” (35)

With every chapter read, Wynne’s voice starts to form. I can see her now, the one of sense in a family filled with silly pride and, well, prejudice. Wynne’s parents will be much like Mr. and Mrs. Bennet: a mother obsessed with status and appearances without the wit to show any, and a lackadaisical father who’d rather not parent if he can help it. Both Wynne and Elizabeth have four sisters of age to marry, and most of them idealize marrying a man of good fortune. But while Elizabeth is the second eldest of the Bennet sisters, I want Wynne to be the youngest. Her youth will keep her from that desperation the others feel in needing a man to marry.

Early in P&P, Mrs. Bennet tries to force a match between Elizabeth and a cousin of some means, but who is also a simp and a kiss-ass. Elizabeth has absolutely no patience with him, and cuts the proposal off cold, much to her mother’s annoyance. Wynne will be in a similar situation, as one man wants to marry all five sisters, much to the parents’ surprise and relief. Only Wynne is dead set against the match, throwing her family into chaos, and the man into…well, a rather dangerous frame of mind.

But back to voice.

Gwen’s attitude is superior, dismissive, callous. She thinks you don’t know and/or care about anything half as much as she does, and she’s not afraid to treat you as such. When I used Michael Dellert’s #13WeekNovel Prewriting Questions to explore Gwen, I got some pretty blunt answers. Take the first two, for instance:

middlers-pride-7“How would you describe yourself?”

No brood mare, I’ll say that for free. I can carry lumber like any man. I can go into the woods of Irial all alone and haul honey, berries, and kindling on my back. I can hear better than any of our watchmen—I’M the one who caught Bricius thieving ól from the brewery.

How could they possibly think I’d go off to be a broodmare when I’m far smarter than any young soldier of these parts?

Not. Bloody. Likely.

 “So what’s an example of something incredible you’ve done?”

Oh, catching Bricius thieving not enough, then? Fine. Well one time, I was keeping watch for the caravan of southern traders—we’d heard they would come by our thorp, and our slopes are sweet with honeysuckle and dry, good camping grounds—and saw some strange men loitering about the edge of the stables on the far side of the thorp. None of ours, I’ll tell you. They had saltwater mud…don’t ask, I just know these things. One must if one’s to venture into the world for vengeful reasons.

Anyway, they were hanging about, eyeing up the horses, and I knew they were plotting something devious. We keep fine horses here in Easavainn Mills, perfect for ambushing a caravan and fleeing off to the north with all the other devious gnomes and wild people.

Yes, gnomes are devious. Don’t interrupt.

Well, I told the veteran’s sergeant Cinaedh about the men. He said they were scouts for the caravan, and simply waiting for it to catch up.

Scouts? What do scouts need with our horses then?

Pish and spit. They were planning something.

But being but a young lass of 10, what was I to do?

I did the only thing I could do to disarm the enemy: I stole their washing while they bathed in the river and scattered it around the forest.

Thanks to me, the caravan arrived safely, and no one was harmed.

Already you get a sense that Gwen doesn’t listen to anyone. She’s got her own principles, and by the gods she’s sticking with them. In her mind, she was victorious against an evil everyone else was too stupid to notice. There’s no correcting her here or anywhere.

Wynne, on the other hand, has no aggressive confidence. She has been kept apart from others her age by the prejudice of her parents, and feels herself wilting beneath their expectations. The river Gasirad is all that keeps her alive until she meets a certain young fellow…

Jean Lee“How would you describe yourself?”

I would rather not, but as you are insistent, I will say I am the youngest of five sisters. My father is a merchant who deals with the caravans and artisans who live in Hafren. My mother is also of a business frame of mind, but that business is to marry my sisters and I to eligible, rich suitors.

We are all of us trained to be pleasing to the eyes and ears. Yet neither my mother nor my father saw need to train us in ways pleasing to the heart.

“So what’s an example of something incredible you’ve done?”

What I may consider incredible could differ vastly from your consideration. You may think of heroic deeds, marches into battle and overtaking beastly fire. Sometimes the incredible comes in the little things, if you quiet yourself long enough to notice.

Consider a time many summers ago, when one is but a child, with few duties or directions. Many my age in Hafren were considered beneath rank by my family, so I was forbidden to play with them in their fields or yards. Imagine whole days watching children flee their chores for adventures, and I could not take a single step among them! Such agony is what sent me north alongside the river Gasirad. She was my friend for many, many seasons, sharing her harmony with my songs and her whispers with those from my own heart. She encouraged me to walk beyond the Hafren road stones without escort or knowledge of the land. To walk with but a river as my companion northward, through a dark wood where rocks the size of men peer from shadowed glens, to a new town. To set foot in a new place without any word of introduction, without any desire to share my family name, and walk up to the first child I see, and to say, “What do you know about adventures?” And I did not blush despite my haggard appearance. How Mother would have scolded! I was a walking scandal with mud, petals, and sweat littered about my dress, boots, and hair.

The child was a boy with the body of a reed, brown and thin, and the eyes of a hungry owl.  “Loads.”

“Right,” I said, and I had no clue what else to say, and found my tongue on the verge of knotting itself. “Wh-what about adventures by the river Gasirad? Do you have them there?” My tongue loosened with the river’s name.

“Sometimes,” he said.

“Do you ever speak more than one word?” How impudent of me! Yet I found myself wanting of an answer, for gods knew when my father would gallop in, hoist me up, and put me back inside the house among small chairs and stiff manners.

The boy’s smile reminded me of the Gasirad in winter’s thaw. “Depends.”

“Well then,” I crossed my arms as Father often did when he was declaring the finality of his offer, “let’s go.”

Changing voices isn’t just about getting into the new protagonist’s head. There’s a technical aspect, too. Just look at the Gwen and Wynne answers again. Wynne doesn’t do super-short sentences like Gwen does. Wynne doesn’t direct condescending smack-talk to the reader like Gwen does. Wynne’s prose needs to be as flowers picked for a crown: “She was my friend for many, many seasons, sharing her harmony with my songs and her whispers with those from my own heart.” Unlike Gwen, who often scoops handfuls of word-mud to sling at the reader: “Not. Bloody. Likely.”

Whether you reuse the same exploration techniques or not, you’ve got to give your new hero time to open up, especially if she’s never known that kind of attention before. Intimacy comes with time, patience, and a sincere desire for feeling. You can’t rush it–you may as well demand a seed to blossom in your hand. That’s what I’m noticing about Wynne: her love for what matters gives her voice a sweet warmth–rather like apple cinnamon tea on a cool spring morning. It’s that warmth that draws us to her, to learn what kindles it.

But we’re not the only ones drawn in. And therein lies a danger I must further understand. Austen may not be able to help me with the fantasy elements, but I know what can…

Constipated

5bf3e97af6decac557b6b499cc6e30a4Our family lives in the toilet.

“That’s not Lightning McQueen. That’s Lightning McPoopie!”

“Can Mater swim in pee-pee water?”

“What happens when someone eats poop?”

“I don’t want toasted cheese, I want toasted poop!”

Ever since Bo and I went on the offense in the Potty Wars, everything’s become poop and pee-pee water. It’s the subject of every car ride: “Do you need to use the potty before we go? Did you make pee-pee water and poop, or just pee-pee water?”

It’s the subject of most text messages between me and Bo: “Did either boy poop yet today?” “How does something this big come out of a butt that small?” (Yes, he includes photos.)

It comes up every breakfast and bedtime routine: “Did you use the big toilet or the little potty?” “DON’T RUN WITH THE POTTY FULL OF PEE-PEE WATER!”

It’s a source of bragging rights for Blondie: “I don’t need the little seat any more, Mom!” “I made two sausage poops after supper!”

It’s a source of pride for Bash: “I used the potty at school today, Mommy!” “I made five big poops! Can I have a new train?” (Trains make for great bribes. Bash has his own steam and diesel fleet…squadron…collective? Murder of trains, I don’t know what their group’s called.)

And then, there’s Biff.

I don’t know whether to admire his will-power or have him checked for an extra colon. He wears underwear without (much) of a fight. Yay! He’ll pee in the potty without a problem. Yay yay! But no poop.

I let him have as many peanut butter and jelly sandwhiches as he wanted. Raisins galore. Pouches of prunes and broccoli and any other fiber-rich produce I can think of (yes, pouches. Eating fresh produce is a whooooooooole ‘nother war I’m not ready to fight yet.) Nothing after two days. Three days. Four days. Five days. And he still goes on stealing food from his brother whenever possible. Where in Hades does he keep it all in that little body?

Patoots aren’t the only places that get backed up. I’ve been feeling it in my head, too. And all the poop talk doesn’t exactly lend itself to inspiring imagination, especially when I’m struggling with one. Bloody. Line.

middlers-pride-7The ending for Middler’s Pride needs another scene so Gwen could stand before her trainer, father, and king’s brother to find out whether or not she passed boot camp. Considering how long Gwen had waited to have her father’s undivided attention, I couldn’t just gloss over this moment.

Chapter 54

The world lost its clarity in all those campfires. Only the stars above had a sharpness to them. Some of those stars told stories, too, of battles and heroes. Some told the way East, North, West. South. South and East lay the Khaibe.

Gwen felt her feet move—they were moving east, to the campfire, rank, and family—and wondered: How many steps east and south would it take to reach the Khaibe?

But first stop:

“And this will be Gwenwledyr, daughter of Lord Aillil,” Captain Vala’s voice sounded bile-free for the first time in weeks. Well, bully for her. She still had the look of someone who’d been kicked by a horse, especially when Cinaedh spoke.

“Would you look, lovey!”

“Don’t. Call me. Lovey.” Terrwyn’s glare almost, almost, brought a laugh out of Gwen. But this was serious business, despite Cinaedh.

“Oh pish, look at our girl, she’s lost it at last!”

Lord Lorcan smoothed away a drawing between he and Terrwyn, something that looked like a large hand. “Gwenwledyr, daughter of Lord Aillil, I’ve been told you of all the recruits followed all orders to the letter.”

“I did my best, Sir.”

“That you bested all with spear, sword, axe, and dagger.”

“Mostly, Sir.”

“That you carried an ox’s burden upon your shoulders.”

“I did? Oh, yeah, I did, Sir.”

“That you discovered a lethal creature of magick in the forest and took measures to destroy it.”

“Not alone, but yes, Sir.”

A pause. Saffir glowed through her own fatigue, hand firmly upon Lord Aillil’s. In that moment, he still looked upon Gwen with such…warmth, kindness, but more than that. He was looking at her as one of his own.

But…

“Well, Captain Vala, if you’re in agreement—“

Those rat-heart eyes beat slowly, be it due to drink or recovery. “I am.”

“Then Gwenlwedyr—“

“My lord, can I say something?” Lord Aillil’s brow furrowed. Uh oh. But it wasn’t right, and Gwen so badly wanted it to be right. “Perhaps Captain Vala and Chief Murchadh haven’t said, but I want it known that I was, well…” Is there even a formal way to say it?

Lord Lorcan stroked his braids with his three-fingered hand. “Yes?”

Hold your hands tight behind your back. Stand straight. Believe in truth. Your truth. “I was a git when I first came here. I was pompous and nasty and rude to all no matter what their rank.” Chief Murchadh allowed a laugh to rumble through him, stirring his granddaughter to sleepily ask if a storm was coming. “It took, well, it took giant rats and those girls over there who are far, far better souls than me and divine intervention to make me see that. Gods know what I’d be like without them. Dead by poisonous snake, for a start.” Terrywn set her pipe upon her knee. Her eyes never left Gwen’s face. “I won’t have my entry into the Shield Maidens based on pretty tales, Sir.”

Another pause, and it was a big one. Well, mostly big. Cinaedh’s earrings jingled as he looked at Lord Lorcan, Captain Vala (who blushed), Terrwyn, everyone. His eyes sparkled like silver. “See? I told you she lost it!”

“Lost what?” asked Lord Lorcan.

Terrwyn tapped her pipe against her iron leg with a thin clang clang. “The chip on her shoulder. Can’t imagine where she got it from.” She slowly looked at Lord Aillil and stuck that pipe firmly between her teeth for a fresh puff.

Lord Aillil looked down. The warmth, it was fading! Wait, no, not fading. Just a bit swamped by something Gwen had never seen on him before, but it was something she was starting to know pretty well: shame.

“Ah.” Lord Lorcan leaned forward and looked upon Gwen with kind eyes. “I do take these things into consideration, recruit. I met you as you were, and I see what you have become. And you, Gwenwledyr, are as true a Shield Maiden as Captain Terrwyn. You do your kith and kin proud.”

Saffir’s grin had a magick all its own—pity it didn’t run in the family. But no matter Nutty and Muirgurgle, this was her moment. Gwenwledyr’s moment.

Saffir nudged Lord Aillil, and his gaze lifted up to Gwen. Eyes bright, sadness gone, Father said: “Yes. She does.”

In that moment’s passing comes the end of Gwen’s story. Anything after is drawing things out. I mean, she does need to get back to her fellow recruits to sit and soak up what she was told. But I can’t afford to let her–well, me–ramble on. So that final scene needs to be lickety-split quick, a sense of completion for Gwen, but not the other Shield Maidens.

Hmmm. Well, I’ve always loved the way Diana Wynne Jones gave her stories a sense of character completion but not world-completion, soooooooo:

To the Diana Wynne Jones Shelf!

I find four stories that stand alone just fine, but also have sequels and pseudo-sequels: Cart and Cwidder is the first of the Dalemark Quartet; Charmed Life begins the Chrestomanci series; Howl’s Moving Castle has two other stories set in the same universe; the multiverse magic-enforcing Magids are introduced in Deep Secret and come back in at least one other story.

-les-mondes-de-chrestomanci,-tome-1---ma-soeur-est-une-sorciere-2928412Charmed Life: Young protagonist Cat Chant has just finished helped Chrestomanci defeat Cat’s wicked elder sister Gwendolen. The boy’s a wreck: he just found out the last blood relative he had had been keen to kill him and steal his magic. He’s left with Chrestomanci, Chrestomanci’s family, and a girl named Janet, stuck in Cat’s world thanks to Gwendolen’s spell.

Janet looked at Cat and laughed. And Cat, though he was still a little lonely and tearful, managed to laugh, too.

Cat’s had it lousy from infancy on. The book begins with him clinging to his sister, whom we later learn not only killed their parents, but has killed Cat himself several times. The reason he’s even called Cat is because Gwendolen said he has nine lives, which, in this magical multiverse, means Cat’s destined to be a sorcerer like Chrestomanci. This little kid’s got to accept that all he knew was not as it was. By his final response, we know he’s having a hard time with that, but we also know he already has a stronger, better “sister” in his life, who is able to act positively with him and bring out the better things in him. Life will be okay.

71sst0-sdELHowl’s Moving Castle: With the Witch of the Waste and her nasty fire demon defeated, Sophie frees Calcifer and Howl from their curse. Calcifer takes off, and Howl proposes to Sophie. He promises lots of hair-raising adventure–only to be interrupted by Calcifer’s return, back in the fireplace where he always burned, ready to help the magic of the castle.

“You didn’t need to do that,” Howl said.

“I don’t mind, as long as I can come and go,” Calcifer said. “Besides, it’s raining out there in Market Chipping.”

I love the sense of home this instills. All Calcifer has wanted is to be free to leave the castle’s hearth, and with the curse broken, he can finally do so. Readers already know Sophie and Howl are happy and geared for a crazy life together; now we know Calcifer has found where he belongs, too.

Deep Secret: Most of this book works with two points of view: Magid Rupert and p51ZHL-Yn+0L._SX328_BO1,204,203,200_otential-Magid Maree. The last chapter, however, is from Maree’s cousin Nick. Why? Well, only Nick could really explain how Maree’s life was recovered from the Deep Secret of Babylon, and the Magid leaders of The Upper Room wanted that information. The book ends with Nick’s determination to cheat The Upper Room and remember all that had happened despite the erasure of his memory.

Blow that about deep secrets! Rupert and Maree say that the basic job of a Magid is to gradually release the special knowledge anyway. And besides, I want to remember. It strikes me as one of the best ways of forcing that Upper Room to make me a Magid too. That was what I’d been going to ask for, until I had to ask for Maree instead. Now I’ll have to get to be one another way round.

This particular last line feels far more open to a sequel than the other books, even though Jones hadn’t been planning a sequel. It took a particular request from a child during signing–“I don’t think Nick’s story is done yet!” that got her started on the pseudo-sequel The Merlin Conspiracy. 

51UbR9v-AwL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Cart and Cwidder: This one’s a bit peculiar. Moril has used the magic cwidder’s song to close a mountain pass. The nasty threat of South Dalemark has been stopped, young Moril’s siblings are safe, and now he’s ready to abandon them and go on more adventures with another singer named Hestafan.

“Please,” Moril said to him, “will you take me with you when you go?”

“Well,” Hestafan said dubiously, “I was thinking of slipping off now, when nobody’s noticing.”

“I know you were,” said Moril. “Take me, too. Please.”

Hestafan looked at him, a vague, dreamy look, which Moril was positive saw twice as much as most people’s. “You’re Clennen’s other son, aren’t you?” he said. “What’s your name?”

“Tanamoril,” said Moril. “I’m called Osfameron, too,” he added, as an inducement.

Hestafan smiled. “Very well then,” he said. “Come along.”

Aaaaand then we hear nothing of these people until the fourth book.

Of the four, this one has the feel of a story that would be picked up immediately in the next volume, but that’s not the case. Jones doesn’t do that anywhere, actually. Oh, she’ll jump back and forth in time–Crown of Dalemark, the fourth book, does exactly that–but there’s never an immediate linear continuance. She merely leaves it open.

Endings are not easy. I find them the hardest part. You don’t know whether to stop with everyone just at the end of the adventure, and not knowing what really happened to Aunt May or Uncle Joe, or to make sure that the right people are going to be happy and the wrong people not, or even whether to go on and tell what happens in the next twenty years….

My feeling is that the best stories leave the reader trying to imagine what happened after the story stopped.

– Diana Wynne Jones, “Some Hints on Writing”

So, what do do?

Well, I want more than linear continuance. Beauty’s Price works with Wynne’s perspective, which will call for a slight rewind into the last few scenes. Now the danger with that is getting repetitive and boring readers before Wynne’s story has a chance to really start. So, at the end of Middler’s Pride, I have Gwen note a few things about Wynne’s strange behavior and leave them unexplained. This will allow me to give the roots of Wynne’s behavior at the start of Beauty’s Price and establish what’s at stake in her life.

First, though, Gwen’s got to bow out.

So again, me, what do do?

  1. Complete Gwen’s transformation. Show Gwen’s no longer the pompous know-it-all.
  2. Act I mirror. I’m a sucker for coming full circle. It probably comes from teaching basic essay structure for over ten years. But what to mirror? Not her pride. The flies are dumb. Not the swimming. Not the suitor. So, what? Well, she does do the “defend our honor!” in both Acts I and II, so that could be useful. But it’s not enough…well, she reminds herself that she is Gwenwledyr, Shield Maiden. In all her daydreaming she was giving herself different names…ooooo….
  3. End it open. The problem established at the beginning of the four Jones stories are all solved, but Jones doesn’t dictate that the universes are ever closed. I dig this–it gives the readers a chance to imagine what happens next. While I do have plans for Gwen after this night, she doesn’t know that. Besides, there’s one thing on her mind that must be done before winter’s tide…

Gwen stood by Tegan and faced those farmlands around the thorp. Beyond them lay the forest, then the river. She imagined she saw tiny floating candles—no, silly, fireflies. Dancing fireflies. And birdsong? Yes, that, too. Even the river’s rush whispered of victory.

Hail, Gasirad.

May your current never weaken.

May your fish be fat and plentiful.

May your plants grow thick in every season.

May your water’s song never end.

I think I see you, Gasirad, listening to our prayers as fresh orchid petals fall as snowflakes upon your hair. I don’t think you’re alone, either—the other trickster is back with you, and I’m guessing she’s got something to tell us when the time’s right. Your torque, maybe, to bring healing to the land. Or revenge against the Cat Man. Or trap a cursed breed of bloodthirsty trout, who knows?

Well here I am, River Goddess, always ready to defend your honor, for you called me a Shield Maiden. And if a goddess calls you something, then you bet your boots your are that something.

So.

I am Gwenwledyr, Shield Maiden of Droma.

Killer of the Magickal Snake.

Slayer of the Cursed Snake of Poisoned Doom.

Eh, too long.

Gwenwledyr, Shield Maiden and Giant Snake-Slayer.

Ooooo!

And Scourge-To-Be of the Khaibe!

Man, I have got some serious legending to do this summer…

However you choose to end your story, don’t let the story’s end be the end of that world. Let the promise of more wet the air like a coming storm. The rain may fall, it may not. But rest assured, readers will feel that promise on their skin. They will look up to wonder…and hope.

 

 

Lessons Learned from Agatha Christie: Let Dialogue & Point of View (Mis)Lead Readers.

Nothing annoys like repetition. “Mom, can I have a cookie?” “No.” “Can I have a chocolate chip cookie?” “Not until supper’s done.” “Can I have a cookie now?” “I said no.” (pause for approximately twenty seconds) “Can I have a cookie now?” (exasperated scream and toss of graham crackers) “Oooh, crackers.” (munching) “Can I have a cookie?” (head bangs wall)

I feel the same way when I read repetition–not just in my students’ essays, but in novels by those who should know better. The characters in Hercule Poirot’s Christmas had some very annoying spells of repetition that revealed no inconsistencies in circumstances or any sort of human nature. They were just part of the interrogation. Other lines had equally annoying bouts of foreshadowing directed at…nothing.

“He’s like the faithful old retainers of fiction. I believe he’d lie himself blue in the face if it was necessary to protect one of the family!”

bookcoverI wanted to believe Christie was better than that with her dialogue. I wanted to see some proof. So I took a risk and picked a story I knew would be more dialogue than anything: Five Little PigsIt’s a cold-case situation: a young woman comes to Poirot asking him to discover the truth about her parents. Everyone says her mother poisoned her father; the mother was tried and executed for it. Yet her mother’s last letter claims innocence. The daughter, now fully grown, wants to know the truth.

The truth must be found in the memories of others, and to get those memories Poirot must dig through dialogue.

 

There is nothing so dangerous for anyone who has something to hide as conversation!

Hercule Poirot, The A.B.C. Murders

Poirot speaks with a few legal members involved with the court case, and then five other people present in the home at the time of the murder. This comes to nearly 240 pages of conversation.

And none of it felt dull, let alone repetitive.

Clearly, Christie’s attentions were more focused on this story. One can feel it in the tight prose and pacing. Her descriptions of the characters are brilliantly precise:

Philip Blake was recognizably like the description given him by Depleach–a prosperous, shrewd, jovial-looking man–slightly running to fat. (58)

[Poirot] would never have recognized [Elsa] from the picture Meredith Blake had shown him. That had been, above all, a picture of youth, a picture of vitality. Here there was no youth–there might never have been youth. (104)

The dialogue also reveals a lot about the characters, such as the governess.

“Men–” said Miss Williams, and stopped. As a rich property owner says, “Bolsheviks,” as an earnest Communist says, “Capitalists,” as a good housewife says, “Black beetles,” so did Miss Williams say, “Men.” (117)

Besides the court personnel, who only witnessed the characters after the murder, there are five perspectives being tapped for details from the same time frame. This should welcome lots of repetition, considering these people are coming to the same house, dining together, conversing together, and so on.

Yet the repetition doesn’t happen. I’ll use one moment in the plot for an example.

Painter Amyas has brought his model Elsa to live at the house while he paints her. His wife Caroline does not like her; it goes without saying Elsa and Amyas are having an affair, which is normal behavior for Amyas and his models. Something seems different this time, though, and Amyas’ friends, the brothers Philip and Meredith Blake, warn him as such. Amyas shrugs them off. Caroline’s teenage sister Angela also lives at the house under the care of the governess Miss Williams.

What follows are four accounts of the same moment in the book: when Elsa announces to all she’s going to marry Amyas…despite Amyas still being married to Caroline. The police officer shares bits and pieces of Philip Blake’s account, so for the sake of sticking with points of view present at the situation, I’ll keep him out.

Philip Blake (considering the length, I felt photos the easiest way to share):

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Elsa: And in the end I broke down. Caroline had been talking of some plan she and Amyas were going to carry out next autumn. She talked about it quite confidently. And I suddenly felt it was too abominable what we were doing–letting her go on like this–and perhaps, too, I was angry, because she was really being very pleasant to me in a clever sort of way that one couldn’t take hold of.  And so I came out with the truth. In a way, I still think I was right. Though, of course, I wouldn’t have done it if I’d had the faintest idea what was to come of it. The clash came right away. Amyas was furious with me for telling Caroline, but he had to admit that what I had said was true. (183-4)

Miss Williams: On this day, September 17th, as we were sitting in the drawing room after lunch, [Elsa] came out with an amazing remark as to how she was going to redecorate the room when she was living at Alderbury. Naturally, [Caroline] couldn’t let that pass. She challenged her and [Elsa] had the impudence to say, before us all, that she was going to marry [Amyas]. She actually talked about marrying a married man–and she said it to his wife! .. [Amyas] came in just then and she immediately demanded confirmation from him. He was not, unnaturally, annoyed with [elsa] for her unconsidered forcing of the situation. Apart from anything else, it made him appear at a disadvantage, and men do not like appearing at a disadvantage. It upsets their vanity. He stood there, a great giant of a man, looking as sheepish and foolish as a naughty schoolboy. It was his wife who carried off the honors of the situation. He had to mutter foolishly that it was true, but that he hadn’t meant her to learn it like this. (194-5)

Angela: The very first intimation I had of the whole thing was what I overheard from the terrace where I had escaped after lunch one day. Elsa said she was going to marry Amyas! It struck me as just ridiculous. I remember tackling Amyas about it. In the garden at Handcross it was. I said to him: “Why does Elsa say she’s going to marry you? She couldn’t. People can’t have two wives–it’s bigamy and they go to prison.” Amyas got very angry and said, “How the devil did you hear that?” I said I’d heard it through the library window. He was angrier than ever then and said it was high time I went to school and got out of the habit of eavesdropping….I stammered out angrily that I hadn’t been listening–and, anyhow, I said, why did Elsa say a silly thing like that? Amyas said it was just a joke. (199-200)

Notice the extensive detail Philip provides as opposed to, say, Miss Williams. Philip’s bias against Caroline and for Amyas highlights special touches of tension in his telling: “Elsa had got under her guard all right.” “Poor old Amyas…he went crimson and started blustering.” Then you have Miss Williams noting how Caroline “did not lose her dignity,” and later “walked like an empress” from the scene (193). Elsa’s telling revolves primarily around her feelings more than anything else, and Angela’s gets into something new: that Amyas  said it was all a joke.

Sure didn’t sound like a joke in that room.

One moment, told again and again, yet with new language and observations every time. This layering through multiple viewpoints gives readers the pleasure of digging for the unknown information and hidden emotions not known from the police account. Christie takes great care pacing out these plot reveals, too–Angela’s account, for example, isn’t given until the second to last chapter of the book.

The key here is that the information differs with each account: there’s always something new to learn. Even the lack of telling can be telling. Notice how Elsa breezes over this moment? You’d think she’d want to rub in how Caroline reacted to being told her husband was leaving her. Yeah, there’s a reason Elsa doesn’t share too much.

(Dunh dunh DUUUUUUUNH)

Now I get that this style of multiple points of view will not fit many kinds of story, nor can every story be told in a series of conversations. But if I’ve learned anything from my own point of view experiment, it’s that one’s got to try different styles of storytelling. Even if what you create isn’t fit for human eyes, you still stretched your brain. All those story-starts I did with Dorjan are going to remain stopped. They’re not going anywhere. But in writing them I did get to thinking about that character’s life, and other pieces that may be worth telling. And then, I got to thinking about other characters from the story and their lives…it goes on.

We don’t always find the right voice for a story in the first go. It might require a process of elimination to discover the true narrator. Or, maybe you’d rather have the different perspectives tell the story together. After all, Christie took a bunch of conversations and wove them into a taut mystery readers couldn’t leave alone. Just imagine what that kind of layering could do for your own fiction.

PS: In the spirit of Sarah J. Higbee’s weekly book cover studies, I wanted to share some of these designs for Five Little Pigs. Frankly, I feel gripped by none of them: not the childish ones, certainly not the giant pig. The one with the flowers is way too busy, and the beer glass of all things emphasizes THE biggest clue in the mystery. I see why later covers tended to focus more on the painting, as it is the catalyst for the murder.

 

Point of View Blows Up in My Face (or, the end of the “Normal’s Menace” experiment)

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(Photo credit:YURI CORTEZ/AFP/Getty Images)

Point of View makes–and breaks–good stories. Sometimes omniscience helps move the story along at a good clip, but other times it burdens readers with tangential thoughts and details irrelevant to the story at hand (I’m looking at you, Hercule Poirot’s Christmas…gosh, I hated that book…).  If we choose to write from inside a character, or even alongside one particular character, then we’re limited to that character’s knowledge–or lack thereof. We’re stuck with the vocabulary and worldviews, and we better stick with them, or else. Readers have a knack for calling bullshit on adult terminology coming from a five-year-old, or a character knowing the particulars of past events never actually discussed.

When I first brainstormed “Normal’s Menace,” I imagined it a story for Dorjan, a secondary character from an old WIP. I also wanted to make good on an oath I had sworn to some other indie artists about naming a story “Quiet Mound,” which…um…okay, so that part didn’t happen. I ended up commandeering something else from their work, for which I’m sorry, but it was just too damn perfect to use. Incognito Cinema Warriors, I humbly beg your forgiveness for stealing the most perfect name in the world:

Captain Whiskers.

That’s when the story in my head shifted away from Dorjan and re-centered itself around Millie, a lonely kid who befriends a strange cat that’s able to bring her daydreams to life. Not long after the cat arrives, Dorjan comes to take the cat away.

In my previous post, I shared what happened from Millie’s perspective. The next phase of this experiment intended to re-tell the story from Dorjan’s perspective and mark out each telling’s strengths and weaknesses.

Note the word “intended.”

Oh, I tried. I tried three damn times to get a handle on this story from Dorjan’s point of view. Yet each take, just…it was like trying to hold a snowflake. I had it, it was so sparkly and awesome, and then–plop. Just another drop of water on the cement.

Here’s Take #1:

Nothing sets my hackles off like a stray pissing on the rules. They want all of home’s comforts without the obligations to obey. And who’s to tell them otherwise? The mother, father? One likely can’t talk outside of instinct, while the other is gone completely, or dead.

Well, as an exile, let me just say: no.

You don’t get to play that way.

Our kind treats central America as a sort of wasteland, a place to mow down the strange growths of life and culture they consider unimportant in the big scheme of things. They did it with Rome, with Germany, then got bored and decided to find a new sandbox to trample. The dullest corners they transformed into prisons. My family’s in one. Why not me? Because I was a bloody coward and hiding at the time, that’s why. Shut up, I’m not talking about it.

But a mixed blessing, as Uncle says. No one’s teaching the rules anymore. No one’s tracking the new breeds.

So I do what I can in this land: the Midwest, I heard it called. When I catch wind of a new litter, I teach what I can. When strays wander in, I take them to a crossing to live with others.

I stopped. I didn’t want to get long-winded about Dorjan’s family, as they’re the center of my WIP. This short story needed to focus on taking Thorn down, not Dorjan’s family tree.

Okay, start again. Take #2:

The problem with strays is that they don’t want to understand the rules. They like the taste of a child’s dreams and think nothing of devouring a young soul whole. They don’t care about exposure of our kind, or the impact upon the social mores rippling throughout the class system of various societies and blah, blah IT’S DAMN WRONG.

Thorn learned the hard way. Twice. Not often one survives the first lesson.

 The first time came with his arrival to boundary lands between the prison and the rest of life as you know it. A farm with guest lodgings sits there. If you are fully grown and hold your life in any worth whatsoever, then I strongly recommend guesting yourself elsewhere.

The farm was run by normal human beings, whom I usually left alone in order to avoid being shot. Several more had shown up that day for a party of sorts—lots of children, fire-cooked meats, freshly baked pies, and snowballs everywhere. The air positively reeked with celebration. If I hadn’t stayed to enjoy the smells from behind the barn, then I would have missed Thorn altogether.

He wandered in from the highway, looking like a blown-about broken twig. I caught a whiff of his foreignness, and watched.

The adults ignored him. Just another cat on a farm.

But the children… one little boy waddled over in his pillowy pants. “Kitty!” He said, all precious. The others stopped their snow-battle and ooed and aaahed and starting petting him…

…and they stopped talking. They all huddled about him, barely breathing. All are like that when their dreams are unleashed and souls exposed.

He was going to devour them all without a second thought.

None of the adults had guns.

I had to do it.

I ran.

The children didn’t even scream when my muzzle pushed them aside. Parents did plenty of that, though.

Someone screamed about a shot gun while I chased Thorn down the drive and off the borderland. I would have sunk my teeth in him then and there, but the Lady’s henchman got him first, and flew him off into the prison.

I stopped. Again, this path would take me into the inner workings of the WIP. A short story doesn’t have time for extensive backgrounds or world-building. If I continued this way I’d have to explain who the henchman and Lady are, why they’re in the prison, why Dorjan can come and go from the prison but his family can’t….AAAAARGH!

Ahem.

Start again, this time at Millie’s farm. That should avoid the need for history, yes? Take #3:

I shake the water out and sniff to gauge my surroundings: still winter. Another farm. The little pisser hasn’t left the region, then.

The ground has a lot to offer a nose, too. Cat. Human: female. Rubber. Peanut butter. Something grape-ish. Tobacco. Gunpowder. The last two were faint. The first two were strong, dangerously so. Hope that peanut butter keeps the human stuck to the ground, because humans haven’t the heart’s fire to survive the water road. Curious it comes to a pond rather than a proper exit. Must have been a place of magic for the Old Ways…

I study the land for his path.

DAMMIT DAMMIT DAMMIT.

No. All wrong. I’m diving into terminology I won’t have time to explain. I could treat the situation with the air of magical realism and make readers deal with it, but why should they? They’re not attached to the character or the situation. They’ve no reason to work at keeping up.

By sticking with Millie, we don’t have to explain why things happen as they do. Millie doesn’t try to figure out how Captain Whiskers does what he does; she accepts it and moves on. She lets the mystery remain a mystery for herself, but also lets readers pick up on odds and ends from the details she shares. For instance, readers know the cat is capable of physically changing things, like Millie’s pocket knife. We learn he’s feeding off her somehow, what with all his getting fat by licking her person and eventually her blood. We also know that Millie doesn’t connect the dots because she’s too fixated on escaping reality. Through Millie’s perspective readers receive an intimate look at the power the cat has over her.

This story is about a girl’s life ensnared by a cat.

Were I to tell the story from Dorjan’s perspective, everything alters: the stakes, the motivations, all of it.

Therein lies the reason I stopped time and again: Dorjan has no real stake in this situation. Millie’s the one with, as Shehanne Moore and Sarah Higbee aptly put it, the most to lose. If I wanted Dorjan to be the narrator, then the story needed to center around him.

There would have to be a first meeting and a sin against Dorjan to set him hunting. This would require establishing another setting, the rules Captain Whiskers/Thorn goes about breaking in such a way to motivate Dorjan to wreak deadly justice–basically, a lot of world-building that can’t fit into a short story. Now I admit, it’s tempting to go into that bit of his life. His fierce desire to protect mortal children is a subplot in my WIP, and I wouldn’t mind exploring where that comes from.

But that, as Maz Kanata says in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, is “another story for another time.”

Only that IS the case here rather than a cheap cop-out to avoid a plot hole. Millie is the one who interacts with the cat, who suffers at the paws of the cat, and is left to die by the cat. If I tell this story from Dorjan’s perspective, he’d have to witness that whole arc, not just the end. How the hell would that happen? Or something would have to happen to make Millie tell all of this. That sounds as much fun as a sit-down with a librarian over appropriate behavior for children around a microfilm machine.

Experiment conclusions: stick with Millie’s point of view. Oh, and change that title. “Normal’s Menace” sounds…not kid-like, that’s for sure. And while I wanted to use “Quiet Mound” and fulfill my oath, the story isn’t about the mound. It’s about the cat.

“The Stray.”
Ah…now there’s a title…
That snowflake, I caught on my tongue instead of my hand.
Totally worth all the plops.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Point of View Experiment with “Normal’s Menace,” Phase 1

The wrong point of view can ruin the most fantastic of stories. Maybe you jump from character to character too much. Maybe the character you designated as narrator has taken over the story, or that particular character can’t possibly be present for the necessary plot points.

This is the quandary I’m in now with a bit of short fiction. I’m not even sure I want to use the title “Normal’s Menace.” But then, I’m not even sure I want to tell it with the narrator I currently have.

Well, like any scientific experiment, the process of elimination will show me which voice best serves the story. Since you’ve been patient enough with my brainstorming through music and photography, let’s continue on through this, my first draft.

Normal’s Menace

I loved Captain Whiskers. He was the best thing to come from Quiet Mound. You don’t know where that is, because it’s on my farm and you shouldn’t be going all over it unless you got a snowmobile, I guess, but Daddy hates those things, and he shot at one when he thought it was a bear, so it’s just not a good idea to come here.

You can sort of see it past the first field. I see it, anyway. I always look at it when I wait for the bus in winter. Hard to do anything else when you’re in a snow suit. Mom’s gotta yank my arms through the straps of my backpack, but it’s up to me not to drop my She-Ra lunchbox. She’s the Princess of Power, you know. You drop She-Ra, the Evil Horde wins.

So I hold on super-tight to my lunchbox, and imagine that Quiet Mound is a portal to Etheria, where She-Ra fights for the Great Rebellion. Nothing grows on Quiet Mound, even though it’s got this pond big enough for two ice shanties at the top of it, like…oh! Like when you make your mash potatoes into a crater and put all the gravy in it. Like that. It’s all protected and cut-off because of the trees. Winter makes them look like someone strung them out and wrapped them together again, like the webs barn spiders make.

That’s where I found Captain Whiskers.

The first big snow, and I’ve just freed She-Ra from Hordak’s Ice-Ray, and there’s this cat. I didn’t see him at first because its speckles matched the last brown leaves stuck on a thorny bush along some of the trees. I thought he was stuck, so I pulled out my real pocket knife to cut him out. He looked starved and pretty beat up, with scrapes and cuts deep in his fur, but he was still super nice when I cut some of the branches, and his eyes were the prettiest purple, prettier even than She-Ra’s friend Glimmer. He purred while he watched me the whole time, and when I touched him! Oh, it was magical. I could see, you know? Really see She-Ra on Swift Wind, and the Horde Robots marching through the trees. And she called to me, ME, Millie the Magnificent, to fight by her side! And my pocket knife was a real sword, and the pool was lava, and I fought all those robots into the lava and melted them and She-Ra knighted me for the honor of Grey Skull and bestowed a captainship upon The Bravest Cat in the Galaxy—

–and that’s when Daddy found me with his rifle slung over his shoulder and a dead turkey in his hand. “What are you doing, Mil?” I wrenched my pocket knife out of a dead tree trunk. He spat a little tobacco at Captain Whiskers. Captain Whiskers went on licking my feet as if they were covered in milk. “We don’t have room for strays, Millie.”

“Barn’s always got mice, Dad.”

He snorted into the snow like a bull in the cartoons, and set a bunch of snowflakes all whirly. “Fine. Barn only.”

And for Mom and Dad, that was that with Captain Whiskers. They didn’t know how he came to my window every night to take me back to Etheria, to make magic with Madame Razz and spy on the Horde with Bow. They missed all that. Captain Whiskers made it all real. It was…it was just so awesome, I can’t tell you. I didn’t need television or my cassettes or even food, really—made for some awkward dinners with my parents, let me tell you. They started to watch me eat just to make sure I wasn’t the one fattening Captain Whiskers. It’s just that…food’s so boring, you know? Who needs food or sleep when you can go on adventures that take you away, inside and out? I even snuck Captain Whiskers with me to school a few times until Captain Whiskers cursed Molly Grunewald.

Yeah, that’s right. Cursed Molly Grunewald. All he had to do was stare at her, and I saw her for the Horde Robot she really was, and I held up my sword to strike, but she leaked all this oil and fell before I could cut her head off. Turns out she peed her pants real bad. But she didn’t want other people to know she peed her pants, so she said Captain Whiskers peed on her. But I was there. He got her to pee herself. No more bullies for me! But I couldn’t let Captain Whiskers do that all the time, so I kept him out of school unless I needed him.

Then that stupid guy came out of the trees and ruined everything.

 

Saturday, right? No busses to wait for, and winter meant chores weren’t too bad, so I was going to have lots of time with Captain Whiskers on Quiet Mound. I got him from the barn. He was so sweet that morning rubbing his head right against my heart and purring, even licking a little. I could see the portal’s light all sparkly and secret through the trees from the driveway—

–but something moved. Something low.

Skulking, that’s the word. It skulked around the edge of the trees, eyes right—

—on—

—me.

Captain Whiskers went NUTS. He leapt out of my coat and took off faster than I could blink. Even Cheetara never had a chance of catching him.

The thing stopped skulking and lifted its head.

Like a huskie on steroids. Big. Black. Nasty.

I shrieked high and as loud—trust me, I get pretty high. Even that far away, it had to shake my noise out of its ears. Mom rushed out asking what I broke, but then she saw it run up Quiet Mound and yanked me into the house and declared I was stuck inside until Dad trapped whatever that was.

What really stunk was that Captain Whiskers wouldn’t leave the barn that night. I spent more time out of bed than in, peeking out the window to see if The Nasty ever took a break from skulking. My hands shook for my sword. I shivered for Etheria. It got so bad I tried walking down the stairs to find Captain Whiskers in the barn, but my feet weren’t listening to my head and I clunked too hard on the groaning boards. Mom fussed me back into bed with a cold pack and a slug of something gooey and dreadful. My dreams were as hollow as a snake skin.

 

Next morning I find a note from Mom: they’re helping neighbors with traps, stay inside, be good, eat some food you look like a skeleton, blah blah blah. Are you kidding me? It’s the first sun we’ve had in weeks. The trees sparkled with all their little icicles, and I could see the…the…what’s the word…meniscus! That line the top of water makes. It sparkled, too, like the portal I always saw with Captain Whiskers. I opened my bedroom window to look at it better, Captain Whiskers came in purring, and the air just bit with magic, you know? Cold, too, but magic. I knew, through and through, that something amazing was going to happen at Quiet Mound today.

And then, that guy.

He stood by the trees, hands in a ripped up trench coat. I know the homeless people in our town because I help Mom with the free lunches our church holds a few times a month. This guy was new. Or a hitchhiker? That was more a summer thing. What the heck was he doing out there? Just, hands in his pockets, standing in dirt and snow, and…looking.

At my window.

The window blew a bunch of snowy ice off the trees. It whipped his coat around his knees, it blew his black hair around his face, but he didn’t move.

“NO TRESPASSING!”

Captain Whiskers took one look at him and totally freaked out a gazillion times worse than yesterday. He hissed and spat and ran around my room and clawed the closet door in no way that I could cover up with my folks. Stupid cat. I yelled at him to stop, turned to the window again, and—

–that guy was walking through our field. Not that stupid fast-walk old people do instead of jogging. Just this steady step, step, step. Through our field! He didn’t even have a snowmobile!

Call the Grunewalds for my parents? No way, not letting Molly know I’m scared. Call the police? I went for the phone, but Captain Whiskers knocked the receiver out of my hand and he just…he glared. And his paws held my hand down. I didn’t even know he had claws. Ever catch your hand on an old nail under the couch when you reach down there to get something? Like that. Like eight of that.

I sucked in air and bit my lip and made my tears go silently into my hair. “Stop it, Captain Whiskers. We need help.”

He shook his head.

“But he’s coming. What are we gonna do?”

Captain Whisker’s ears fell flat as his hair rose up. He…it was such a weird sound, something I never heard from a cat before. Like a groan people make when they’re really frustrated, but there was a hiss in it, too. He let go of my hand and licked my blood off his claws. Morning light and dust mites shimmered above his head, came together and made—

The Princess of Power stood in my room—still a little bit see-through, but wowzers, she was in my room!  “He heralds the coming of Hordak to your world. He is determined to enslave you all.”

I couldn’t help it—I looked out the window.

Not walking.

Fists out.

Oh no…but…”but he’s just one guy.”

She-Ra bent forward, and…wow, that scowl. Her eyes weren’t blue like in the cartoon, but all black, and when she brought her face to mine I thought I was going to fall in, get buried alive. “Do you want the Evil Horde to conquer your world?”

“N-no.” My voice didn’t even sound like me, so small and stupid and scared.

“Then evade his capture.” Now her skin lit up like diamonds on tv, and she smelled like summer. “Reach the water, and your captain will bring you safely to Etheria, and to me. Do not fail me, Sir Millie the Magnificent.”

I wanted summer. I wanted Etheria. No more stupid snow suits or barns or schools or parents. I wanted to fight by She-Ra’s side forever and ever and ever. “Never!”

Her skin got really shiny, then broke up like dust in the sunlight.

Ding dong.

I grabbed my coat. Captain Whiskers stood with me at the top of the stairs.

Ding dong.

“Hello?”

He wasn’t even American!

This time my feet listened to my head. I tiptoed down a bunch, managed to skip the groaners even, but once the stairs were in view of the door I laid back and started sliding on my butt instead. I could see a head with wavy hair behind the stained glass on the door. Captain Whiskers had been moving behind me, but once the head came into view he shot down and round for the kitchen.

The head moved with him.

Ding dong.

“I’m with Animal Control. It is urgent I speak with you about a rabid animal loose in these parts.”

“Come off it, you, you sod!” I heard people like him say that on PBS.

“I know you’re in there.”

Guess he doesn’t watch PBS.

I back-stepped towards the kitchen and back door.

“Millie?”

HE KNEW MY NAME!?

My hand froze over the backdoor’s knob. The front door’s knob clicked against the lock. Click. Click. Thunk.

It unlocked.

Oh I bolted. I flung that door open and RAN. Didn’t think about steps or claws or wind or cold. Just barn barn barn barn barn barn

BARN!

I slid through the cow poop at the door and ran up the ramp and up the bales to the hayloft. He’ll use the main door to avoid the poop and—

He sat in the hayloft’s threshing door like he’d been there all morning. He even had his hands folded like this was all normal! “Look can I just—“

“NO!” Captain Whiskers leapt onto my chest and dug his claws into my bones and I turned to run but my feet flew into the air and I fell over the loft edge, I was going to die with poop on my shoes—

A hand grabbed my leg and YANKED. I was upping and not downing, overing and not splatting, overing and downing and thud. Hay this time.

The guy hunched on hands and knees where I would have landed—hard cold floor. I should have broken my neck where he stood, but he had saved me.

But—

—but I was still in so much pain. Not from the fall. From Captain Whiskers.

Why did he hold me like that? My heart felt like it was screaming and running and shaking all at once. Like Captain Whiskers had my heart for real in its claws.

The guy shook himself out like a dog and sent hay everywhere. It was…it was really weird. I knew Captain Whiskers wanted me to keep running, but how? This guy beat us to the barn. There was no out-running him.

“Sorry about the fright,” he said. “I’m not used to manners on two legs.” He stood up, and I saw his eyes for the first time: one was green, and one was sky blue. I’d seen eyes like that on a Huskie once, but never on a person. “May I please ask you where you got that cat?”

Now I didn’t believe for one Horde Second that he was from Animal Control. He wasn’t going to tell me the truth—I’m just a dumb little girl to him. But he’d have to tell the truth when Mom and Dad find him in here with me in tears, especially when Dad has his rifle…

I realized then I wasn’t holding Captain Whiskers. His claws were in me so hard that I didn’t have to. “Found him.” I still felt like I had to hide him somehow, so I zipped up my coat.

“You must love him very much.”

“Huh?”

“He’s drawing blood.” He pointed at my jeans. Hay clumped to little red stripes rolling down to my knees.

“He’s my cat.” That was all I could figure out to say. I felt muddled and hot inside. Outside the world sparkled with Etheria magic, but off somehow, like light in a cracked prism..

The guy took one step forward. Captain Whiskers hissed hot spit on my neck. “Thorn is no one’s cat.”

“His name’s not Thorn, it’s Captain Whiskers and he’s mine.”

Ever watch someone’s eyes when they laugh? They get this sort of extra smile in them. The guy’s green eye got that smile, but the blue didn’t. The blue one looked…angry. Like, Dad-watched-a-snowmobile-run-over-a-calf angry. That freaked me out more than his magical showing-upping in the hayloft. “Captain Whiskers. Nice, erm, name.”

“She-Ra gave it to him.” And I found I could hold Captain Whiskers, so long as I didn’t press him. He even started licking my chest and made the pain back off a bit. “You get a name from the Princess of Power, you keep it!”

He sucked his lip. The cows’ gossip got really loud for that moment. When he talked again, he went really slow, without a smile anywhere on him. “Has she spoken to you as well?” He didn’t ask like other grown-ups, who always assume it’s all pretend. He asked me like she was real.

Because she was.

Which meant…

I pulled out my pocket knife, and it grew, and was a sword and for REAL. Yes, for real. I pointed it at him with both hands, and it knicked his coat. Shut up, like one more tear was going to matter.

And you know? He wasn’t even surprised. He just stuck his hands back in his pockets and glared at Captain Whiskers’ head sticking out of my own coat. “And for how long have you and Captain Whiskers been going on adventures with the Princess of Power?”

The seriousness of it. Wrong, too wrong. “Why do you care?”

“Answer the question.”

“I don’t even know who you are.”

“My name is Dorjan.”

All that magic I felt in the air earlier? It fell out. Like in the movies, when you see zero gravity, and then gravity comes back and everything just splats. That’s what happened.

Captain Whiskers clung even harder and bared his teeth right by my throat, he was so scared. I wanted him to let go, I wanted him to keep the pain away, to keep the world away cuz it was just to muddled up and weird and dumb and I didn’t know what to say to such a dumb name so I just said, “That’s a dumb name.”

Dorjan stepped back until Captain Whiskers closed his mouth. “Yes. Well. We can’t all be Captain Whiskers.” He cracked his neck. “Now. Let her go.”

“Captain Whiskers is a boy, stupid!” But then I realized he wasn’t talking to me. His eyes were on Captain Whiskers, and they were angry. Both of them.

Captain Whiskers hissed and opened his mouth by my neck again. His teeth, pointy as the claws, on my skin, why? “Captain Whiskers, stop!” I felt small and hollow. I even cried a little. “Please, I love you, stop!” She-Ra’s scowl was all I could see, and doom. Real doom. I was going to fail her and lose my magnificence.

“Don’t be an idiot, Thorn.” Dorjan’s voice went low and slow, weird compared to Captain Whiskers’ crazy heartbeat against my own even crazier heartbeat. “The girl won’t survive the Water Road. She’ll be useless to her Ladyship, and you’ll be driven out again.”

The teeth let go.

The cat-heart slowed a little.

“You can’t win. She won’t allow it.”

A small shove from Captain Whiskers sent me back into a bale. The sword clanged, bounced, and landed a pocket knife. Bubbles of pain burst across my chest, and I suddenly went all light-headed…

…but, on the ground, hazy, I could still see Captain Whiskers make bloody pawprints as he approached the Dorjan guy. His tail bobbed in the air like a snake’s head.

“Frankly, Thorn, if I were you,” he stepped aside, and the big barn door opened to glorious sunshine and the sounds of an old truck slowing down on the highway, “I’d try Milwaukee. It’s got a casino and a rather rampant drug problem. Living there’s a breeze for our sort.”

Captain Whiskers purred.

Purred!

He was leaving me!

“Cap…Captain…”

He turned around.

Ever look in a cat’s eyes? They’re really good with that calculating look.

Captain Whiskers had it, but more. The beautiful purple in his eyes was actually swirling around the iris like a whirlpool. I held up a hand for him, to pet him, because this was his home, he was my light, my life—

He laid a paw in my hand. Purred.

Then dragged his claws across my skin.

Dorjan sucked his breath in.

I whimpered as more blood came out. It glittered in the dark. Captain Whiskers lapped some up.

I didn’t get it then. I still don’t.

He…he just showed up, took me to another world, and then left me lying in my own blood.

And then he walked away, like I was a toy he got bored with. He even approached Dorjan with his nose in the air.

Dorjan knelt beside him. “Of course,” he said, voice a growl, “if I were you, I wouldn’t be going after children in the first place because I’d know the rules, and how certain princeborns don’t take kindly to the rules being broken.” He smiled. It stretched his face. I peed my pants.

Captain Whiskers hair rippled up from head to tail. He moved his mouth as he hissed as though he could speak real words. He ran out in…it was all so slow….all couldn’t-be-happening…

…me struggling up…

…Dorjan in the air, burning like a copper fire…

…Captain Whiskers slipping on ice…

…me grabbing the door…

…Dorjan landing on four paws, not even a huskie, some sort of wolf, teeth blinding in the sun…

…Captain Whiskers long, bizarre, not furry, hands and feet and a mouth full of curses…

…me screaming his name…

…the blood in the air, but something else, too, something tragic and beautiful as it sparkled brighter than any snow…

 

Mom and Dad say I was traumatized. That a hawk got Captain Whiskers, and attacked me when I tried to fight it off, because that’s the crazy sort of thing I’d do in my She-Ra games.

I don’t play She-Ra anymore.

It’s all cold and fake and not-real.

I miss the old Captain Whiskers.

I miss the magic I felt that morning before Dorjan made Captain Whiskers evil.

I stand at the end of the driveway every morning and stare at Quiet Mound. Maybe another Captain Whiskers will come. When he does, we’re taking off for Etheria before another Dorjan comes and screws it all up.

 

Next week I’ll post from Dorjan’s point of view. We’ll see how much of the story alters…or if it’s the same story at all.

 

Lesson Learned from Zoe Zolbrod: Second, Find My Voice.


A thud strikes the house while I sit on the floor with my sons. 
Not quite ready to walk, they roll and crawl about for their animals and trains. Bash has already made two successful trips across the room for my coffee.

I stretch myself upright, and see a smear the size of a baby boy’s leg on the window. The smear is white and red.

I peer outside, and see a large bird on the porch, a head of red feathers, grey breast, black wings. It’s blinking. Gasping.

The red head was not intended by creation.

Its chest heaves.

My sons gurgle, topple the zoo again.

Its eyes flutter, close, flutter, close.

My sons cackle at one another. I hear the ting of a train against my mug.

The porch turns red beneath its neck. Its chest rises, falls. Stays.

~*~

I’m here to write about a failure.

20160830_121809Everything seemed to be churning so well, like that wave of relief you get after finally vomiting all the bile. Back in May, I accepted the word “victim” in its connection to myself. After reading Zoe Zolbrod’s The Telling, I finally found words to fit what I had felt from those years ago: the pain. The anger. The confusion, lots of confusion, as Zolbrod put it: “I could not find a place for myself” (215). When you don’t really know you’re a victim, you don’t know what you need to tell. You believe what you’re told–this is what families do for each other–and there’s a part inside that hisses:

Your parents are doing God’s work. If you tell, they won’t be able to do God’s work. God won’t reach others. God is more important. His ministry is always more important.

So you make yourself believe what’s going on will have to end sometime, and then it will be done, boxed up with all the other past days where it can’t slip beneath your clothes. Breathe heavier, and heavier, while all you go cold in the world and pray to Not Be.

~*~

I turned away from the bird and took care to my own. Surely enough creatures lived around here who would love fresh bird. I saw a fox the other day. Cats lived nearby. Hell, I’ll take a snake, just…Nature, take care of your own.

~*~

When something is horrible and commonplace, especially when it’s caught in the web of loyalty and blood, it’s easy to look away, make the bet it won’t happen again, assume if it’s really of great consequence, someone else will force it to stop.

-Z. Zolbrod, 218

~*~

Bo came home and took care of his own. Our duties formed by expectations and obligations: Bread Winner, Stay-at-Home Mom. Admittedly, not an easy marriage then.

“Did you see the bird?”

“No.”

“There’s a dead bird on the porch.”

Pause. “Okay.”

“It’s been there all day. I was hoping something would carry it off, but nothing’s come.”

Shrug. “I’ll handle it in the morning.”

Morning came. He left.

The bird still lay there. Odd feathers blew around in the whirlwinds caught by our porch. The beak went slack: open, shut, open, shut.

~*~

While Zolbrod faced her memories and her family before she got married, I did my best to shove that box into the dark recesses. I can remember days in high school of being so bloody angry and unable to verbalize why. Because…God? Because everyone was going into the ministry but me? But now I can see it was because The Monster had started to take an interest in my friends. I wanted to protect them, but I couldn’t say why. I had scrawled “nightmares” on the box, hoping that would make it easier to contain. Childhood nightmares are just a part of anyone’s life, right?

Only in college, the first school where no other family member ever attended, was I able to create some sort of identity for myself….until The Monster announced he was enrolling there my second year. My parents thought it a marvelous idea. “Jean, you’ll help him, won’t you?”

I broke down crying with the college chaplain, and he recommended that The Monster and I address our family together. No healing could come without unity.

To be true, to be me. To open my mouth, and say, “This happened to me, and it’s affected who I am.” I could not finish what college had helped me start without this moment.

The Monster’s reaction to the chaplain’s suggestion: “Look, it was a bad thing I did back then. They don’t need to know.”

End of conversation.

And like a fucking coward, I did what I always did: I silenced myself.

~*~

Spring, beautiful spring. My firstborn sleeps on my chest. I’d barely had ten minutes’ sleep all night. I still reeked of ravioli vomit from labor that night. But I was a mom with a healthy baby. A daughter.

Family came round later that day: Bo’s father, then later on my family, including The Monster.

Oh, God.

I have a daughter.

Every family gathering thereafter put me on DEFCON 1. The Monster showed little interest in baby Blondie, yet I always kept my distance, always nursed out of sight. When I told Bo I wanted to speak up, he pointed to The Monster’s behavior and said, “You don’t know if he’s going to do anything. Just leave it be.” He saw me as paranoid, fed the part of me that thought like Zolbrod did: The Monster was working through his own growing sexuality. He wouldn’t do anything now.

The morning after Bondie’s first Thanksgiving, I walked outside to say good morning to my father. I remember the bright blue sky, and giant elm in the yard half red, half green. The dog, sniffing for squirrels. My father turned to me, and I could see nothing “good” was meeting his eyes.

“I don’t know what’s going on with you and ___, but you need to grow up.”

…wha?…

“You always look down on ___. You need to deal with that. Now.”

Here. Now. NOW, Jean, say something! All the missed chances in the past, all the pain and anger and dreams of killing The Monster, just open up and FUCKING SPIT IT OUT

I remember shaking all over. Visibly shaking. “Do you ever wonder why I act like that?”

My father bit his lip. “Yes, I do. And maybe you’ll tell me some day. But it’s still something you have to work out.”

End of conversation.

~*~

Zolbrod wonders, as I do, what would have happened if she had told. She learned after her first child’s birth that the cousin who had abused her was arrested for molesting another child. I see The Monster come and go at family functions, and hate myself because I don’t know. Were there others? Are there others?

Or maybe I was it. Maybe it really was “a bad thing he did back then.” Maybe everything is okay now. I once tried to make myself believe that, but motherhood rewired me: how I walked, how I ate, how I slept, how I even went to the bathroom. But especially in how I viewed the past.

When the Josh Duggar scandal broke, my mother blamed the media for slandering a “good Christian family.” “They took care of it themselves, like they should,” she said while my sons played at her feet. “Besides, it all happened a long time ago. It doesn’t matter anymore.”

I had to leave the room, bite my fist to keep from screaming.

The past so. fucking. matters.

My children shouldn’t share my nightmares. The same self-loathing that makes it so damn hard to accept any compliment from anyone, because who compliments garbage? Who can look at me, this thing used and discarded, and somehow see me as worth their time?

No. My children will not have that tar slathered on their souls by The Monster’s hands.

~*~

I hate being afraid of my own porch. I can’t have the kids grabbing a dead bird–let’s not have that be a generational thing.

I’m sick of being afraid. I need to be what my kids need me to be:

Unafraid to do what must be done.

I gather up some newspaper and a shoe box. With Thomas the train distracting the children, I step out. Drop the newspaper over the body. Kneel. Lower my clawed hands over the newspaper where it lifts from the ground, and slowly clutch.

It’s still so soft. Light.

Into the shoe box. A small red patch on the concrete holds a single feather in the air.

~*~

My therapist does not consider me ready to face him.

I had wanted to do it this coming weekend, when my children are to be watched, and my mother–The Monster’s biggest ally–will be occupied elsewhere.

Yet I’m being encouraged to wait. And with every day’s wait, I grow more and more afraid to speak.

The holidays are coming. Holidays mean family for long visits, attention drawn in one direction while kids go in another. I think of this, and I think of the summer shindig my mother threw: everyone outside, Blondie goes in to change out of her swimsuit, I see The Monster go in after her, and I pound through another door and shout my daughter’s name.

The Monster was staring at his phone by the kitchen table. Blondie looked at me from the hallway, confused. I…I had to make it sound okay, just….it’s okay, Kiddo, I just wanted to make sure I knew where you were…and I could see he wasn’t near her, but–

Why did he have to go inside just to check his phone?

I think of that moment, and I think of the holidays, and lose my breathe to fear. I do not see how others can tell me to wait.

Because this isn’t about me. I can’t alter the past, but I can prevent its recurrence. All it takes is the voice which crawled into the back of my throat time after time let’s play a game to come back to my lips, to look into the eyes doesn’t that feel good? and push back the hands this is what families do for each other

The voice that failed then. That fails now.

This failure has to stop.

Pride of Place

20150905_162501The concept of theme alluded me for years. I’d read various articles, listen to graduate school classmates deliberate and professors pontificate, but still not “get” it.

A story entertains readers, gives them a chance to escape the everyday. It can teach a lesson, too, I suppose–rather like parables: “earthly stories with heavenly meanings.” But isn’t theme something readers interpret for themselves? I couldn’t correlate the characters with the writer’s intent. Characters are supposed to be their own entities, moving about the stage the writer creates. Writers create people, not marionettes. If I want to see stringed creatures tugged about and opening their mouths for voices projected from behind a curtain, I’ll attend a puppet show, not read a book.

Yeah, no. I was pretty wrong about that. About theme, I mean. But I didn’t really understand how wrong until a few days ago.

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I’ve taken on a Middle Grade fantasy based in Michael Dellert’s Matter in Manred series. The characters and setting were not mine at the outset: I guess you could say I adopted them. I love them like my own, and while they certainly piss me off some days, I refuse to give up on them. They’ve even made me brave enough to share freewrites and scenes on Facebook.

The latest scene I shared on Facebook was a dinner gone horribly awry. The protagonist’s parents have invited another family to dinner in hopes of acquiring a suitor for the protagonist, Gwen. The scene ends in a debacle, of course. Awesome. Great.

Now what?

Well, I knew I had left the progatonist’s mentor in a hot-temper; she wouldn’t wait to make her feelings known. I’ll have her show up and get things moving.

Life got muddled for a bit after that.

Gwen didn’t know who overturned which chair first, or whose cup flipped across the table, or how Murtagh and Nutty got barred from leaving when Demmán came in with warm water and cloths for cleaning. But you better believe that when the door broke open to a stormy gust of stink and Fiachna’s whine of, “I’m sorry my lords she made meeee!” everyone stopped to look.

Terrwyn’s iron leg reflected the fire. Fists at hips. Braids half-kept in leather strips. Raindrops fled away from her face and down her leather coat.

Eyes over all. Even Nutty looked down and away when that glare was on.

Gwen wanted to hide under the table. Somehow this was all her fault. She didn’t get to her home when Terrwyn said, and now everything was wrong, and Terrwyn was mad, and—

“My lord, is it not time to visit your family’s shrine?” She spoke with such a polite calm that even the visitor-mother felt it acceptable to sit while Demmán cleaned her up. Her eyes, however, shone with the white-hot heat of a forge.

Lord Aillil brushed the remains of his dinner of his tunic. “Ah.” He coughed. Raised his eyebrows at his friend, who nodded in kind. “Yes, you are right. Muirgius, you will pray with me later. Please tend to our guests while I escort your sisters and mother.”

“But it’s my ancestor—“

“Since your…duties…prevented you from tending the gate, you can pay your proper honors now.”

Muirgius dropped the half-squashed apple cake, defeated. Gwen struggled not to smirk as she walked out to him stammering, “So, ah, a good walk? Oh yes, you rode. That carriage must have cost…”

The moment their other house-servant Iarél closed the door behind them Saffir hissed, “What duties?”

“Damned if I know,” Aillil halted himself time and again to keep behind Terrwyn. No one went near Terrwyn for fear of getting her bellows going again. “Iarél lost him by the mill. He wasn’t bothering Aberfa, as far as Pyrs knows.”

Nutty walked by Gwen, face pinched at everything she laid her eyes on. “I thought you weren’t the trickster with the flies.”

Gwen said nothing. She knew better…especially when Terrwyn’s leg swung so with that angry gait.

“It certainly explains where the miller children get it from. The whole lot’s dumber than a sack of seed. Dumber than Aberfa.”

Gwen grabbed Nutty, made her eyes bulge out at the sight of soot on her pretty dress. She cocked a fist ready to take out a few pretty teeth but—

“Aberfa knows better than to insult her peers over nothing.” Terrwyn stood, cane between her legs, at the altar. Gwen looked for her mountain-land: it had turned in upon itself, and continued to turn, slow, like a spinning wheel transforming cloud to the thread of lightning…

Saffir stood some feet away, at the shrine’s outer edge. Her muslin, stained with grease and wine, fluttered about her spotted face. “Mind your tongue, Neued.”

“But since when do we go to the shrine? This belongs to Muirgius’ mum, not us.”

“Since I needed to remind you that this suitor was for your sister. Not. You.” Saffir pulled a ring off Neued’s finger and put it on her own. “You cannot marry before her. I trusted you with one thing: to get Gwenwledyr ready while I tended the dinner. And what do I see? You dressed in her clothes.”

Soot, grease, dirt, hay. Somewhere under all this lay a dress of some sort. Blue, maybe? Gwen honestly couldn’t remember, it’d been a few days. She had some boots with holes by the ankle and heel. Her hair thick and coarse as a hedge.

This wasn’t the kind of body to go in a dress like that. She wasn’t the person. The thought made Gwen feel sick all over again. Even Nutty’s swelling tears did nothing to make her feel better.

“She’s not my real sister, and he’s not my real father.”

Gwen never thought she’d seen Saffir get color in her cheeks before.

“Neued. That is enough.”

A rumble from above, and from Lord Aillil.

Terrwyn remained still as a lone fly buzzed into their circle.

Lord Aillil caught it, crushed it. “Go back with your mother. And remember her words. Well.”

Neued stomped off past her mom. Saffir’s gaze shifted as Lord Aillil wipe the fly on the grass. “Gwenwledyr…” She bit her lips, blinked away a rain drop. “Oh, if only you were a proper daughter!”

My face scrunched as I forced myself on, despite Biff screaming to “FIND the shiny truck! Find it, FIIIIIND IIIT!” and Bash grabbing at my coffee any chance he could, even after I made him his own cup. (Oh hush, he ain’t your kid.) Writing when the kids are around is always hard, but lately the boys have almost no patience when I’ve got the computer out. My stomach throws some acid into my throat every time I say, “No, you can’t sit in my lap. No, I can’t read a story. No, no no no…” But the logical part of me swallows it back down: One hour. You are allowed one FUCKING hour for YOU. 

Time up, scene done.

I didn’t like it.

Kinda hated it.

I sent it to Michael with an “ugh. I don’t know. Gwen may as well not even be there.” Michael agreed: “Gwen’s lost in it.”

At first I blamed the scene itself: too many people, too much going on. I’m not a good enough writer to handle so many characters interacting at once. Even in a play, action and dialogue are limited among two to three at a time while others shift into the background. (Unless you’re into musicals and dance numbers, which I am not. At. All.)  I didn’t like the guests being present for Terrwyn’s entry. I didn’t like Gwen being the only one NOT doing anything. I didn’t like how whiny step-sister Neued was. And the plot-drop about the suitor felt dumb.

Michael suggested a smashcut to the shrine, and to focus “on Gwen’s conflict.”

I shirked at the thought of a cut, but Michael was right: I wasn’t putting Gwen first. The protagonist of any story needs to be front and center. If she’s not physically in the front and center, then the other characters MAKE her the front and center. That’s why the dinner debacle felt right: she wasn’t participating, but she was the topic of conversation.

What was this story called? The Middler’s Pride.

What was missing? Gwen’s pride.

The dinner had cut her down; now she needed to cut back. But the story had to move forward, and that wasn’t going to happen until I established the relationships with her parents. From Gwen’s point of view, she’s treated like crap. She makes that clear within the first few pages, and the dinner debacle seems to prove it.

But pride does funny things to one’s perceptions, such as seeing how one’s treated by others. Back when I brainstormed this story out, I saw the arc being Gwen’s transformation: how her pride feels like an asset when all it’s been is a deceiver, and only when her pride is totally crushed does she find proper strength in herself and through others.

Huh. Well, what do you know: a theme.

But I didn’t want to pull the characters’ mouths with strings to make them say what I wanted them to say. I wanted to give them the chance to be themselves, so Gwen could naturally rise, fall, and rise again with this transformation.

This meant whatever happened after that dinner party needed to give her pride a chance to show as well as move the plot. Since her father’s the one that gets Gwen to Act II, why not him?

Nope.

Not going back.

Not ever ever EVER.

Never mind the cold water, or the cloud mountains’ destruction above her as rain started again. Gwen wanted nothing to do with the manor or any other piece of Easavainn Mills. She’d rather stay in the river until the goddess Gasirad herself said otherwise.

Gwen swam against the current, its fingers clutching her dress, boots and hair. It pulled her down. Roared in her ears. But she always pulled harder, up to the surface, and down again. She swam this way around the thorp to the mill itself, where the water kept the wheels ever-turning. Then she’d stop, float downstream, and start again when the shrine came in sight.

On her third trip down stream, she caught scraps of Terrwyn’s tongue-thrashing:

“—only child DOING anything—“

“—talk to horses more—“

“—handing off like grain—“

“—BE a father for two bloody minutes—“

She wanted to look, she really, REALLY wanted to look, but no: Gwen kept her eyes to the water, to the feel of fish fighting past her, and pressed back. Every stroke felt like a question:

Why? Me? Why? Me? Why? Me?

New fingers, tighter and stronger and—formed! Fingers pulled her down she could SEE hands, and Gwen knew eyes of rainbow stared at her in waves of pitch-black hair, lips moving, but she didn’t understand—

Gwen kicked up, hard, harder, and threw herself out towards the small dock she and the baker’s dozen used for fishing. Fingers just grazed the splintered edge—

Caught.

Pulled up. Out.

Lord Aillil held Gwen off the ground with hands as big as bear paws. His dark eyes gripped hers, his nostrils flaring.

Gwen dangled, caught sight of Terrwyn seated by the shrine, striking flint against her iron leg to light her pipe.

One heaving breath.

Two.

What to do?

“Thanks.”

Lord Aillil blinked, set her down. Gwen couldn’t remember the last time he’d held her, or even stood this close. “You always swim fully dressed?”

Gwen shrugged. Even shrugging hurt, but it beat talking.

He studied the river’s current while tucking fallen locks behind his ears. “Takes a warrior’s strength to swim like that.”

A flicker of linden leaf shone against Terrwyn’s face. Gwen thought of the hunting trips with her father and step-brother. Of her traps that worked, her successful spears. And how she was denied to continue once Muirgurgle became an adult because HE was the son. He was the one who was supposed to be the strong one. The warrior.

But talking was hard. It was always hard. So she said: “Yes, it does.”

Rain weighted Lord Aillil’s hair, pulling it back down in long, earthy strips. “What do you want, Gwenwledyr?”

Oh, the things that popped into her head…

The lost hunting trips.

The refusal of the family weapon, a spear imbued with magick from long ago.

The denied chances to sit on his knee.

The denied chances to leave the thorp with travelers who spoke to her more in one hour than her own father spoke to her in days.

“I want what’s mine.”

Lord Aillil started to shake his head.

“It’s all I have, and I want it. I want to answer the blood-feud.”

“No.”

“Those people drove my mother out of her home, they killed her family. My mother’s spirit deserves justice.”

No.”

“It’s all I want! I don’t want a husband or land or title. I’m not asking you to give up your family. I’m not asking you to give anything.”

Gwen puffed herself up. She no longer shivered. Even her hands remained still. She survived the trickster in the deep. She survived pestilence and fire. She survived houseguests.

She was Gwenwledyr, and she would. Be. Heard.

Lord Aillil’s right hand twitched at his side. He lifted it, almost reached through the space between them…but scratched his beard instead. His eyes drifted from the nearby manor and stables towards the water, the forest. When he looked on her again, a strange glitter filled them—raindrops, perhaps. “Yes, you are.”

Of course. He thinks I’ll take a horse. Gwen readied herself to say otherwise, but the wind picked up, blowing old kindling for the shrine down the hill. Some leaves and twigs fell upon them, others into the water, where colors sparkled underneath. Eye-shaped colors.

“Come inside. It is late, and the fire is warm.”

Gwen spat a leaf out of her mouth. “No.”

Lord Aillil bit his lip, smelled the air, and shook his head. He couldn’t even look at her, cleaning his eyes as he turned away. The moment his foot touched Easavainn earth, his gait and posture returned. A coin sang and sparkled as he flicked it through the air to Terrwyn, who caught it with ease. The moment he reached the hilltop Terrwyn called to Gwen: “Come along. I’m cold and tired. So are you.”

Gwen was. By gods, she was. Everything felt heavy, in and out. The coin still smarted. “So he’s paying you to keep me now, is he?”

Terrwyn puffed as she hobbled. “No.” The thorp center opened beneath them: a circle of lamplights and hearth-fires. The smell of warmed cider and bread set Gwen’s stomach roaring for its supper. “I merely wagered you’d refuse.”

Lord Aillil’s the biological parent, so it makes sense for him to be the first to interact with her after the dinner debacle. Plus, he’s the one Gwen’s mentor Terrwyn would ream out (being a former soldier herself), which allows her anger from before the dinner to come back into play.

I also wanted readers to have a chance to see Gwen alone with her father. All they’ve heard and seen is his formal self, his pride-filled self. Sound familiar? That’s when I knew Gwen needed to look a lot like her father rather than the dead mother. They mirror each other more than they know, and in this scene, I think Lord Aillil finally realizes it. This spurs him to petition the king to enlist Gwen in the Shield Maidens, and help her become the warrior she thinks she already is.

The idea of Gwen swimming just to swim, just to prove she could, felt like the right show of pride: it’s a solitary task, one no one can really interrupt…except a goddess. Yeah, that bit excited me when I thought of it: the river goddess comes to Gwen for help to begin Act III. Why not have her first appearance here and now?

Yes, letting the scene be just Gwen and her father made me remove the stepmom and stepsister. Not a fan of that at first, but when this one-on-one with the father worked, it seemed only right Gwen be the center of a scene with her stepmom, too. I didn’t want Saffir to fit the “evil stepmom” stereotype. I wanted her to apologize and reach out to Gwen in her own way. Nutty/Neued already had her establishing scene with Gwen; we don’t need another one. A one-on-one with Saffir could finish establishing the “normal” life in their society before Gwen is exposed to something totally new. It would also give Gwen a chance to buck, shut down, and cover herself in pride yet again.

Theme itself really does have pride of place in the elements of story. All the choices we make about the setting, the characters, all that happens or does not, hinges upon theme.  It is THE definitive in a world our imaginations have not yet defined.

 

 

Lessons Learned from Agatha Christie: Take Advantage of the Sweet Yet Unreliable Narrator.

mysterious-affair-at-styles-fb-coverI admit that I still confuse “unlikeable” with “unreliable” every now and again. An “unlikeable” narrator is not so much a twit as an asshole. One we just can’t bring ourselves to care about. If the story swallows him up, good riddance. If he gets away with it, then we enjoy imagining how he’ll get his comeuppance in the unwritten pages thereafter.

Captain Hastings is NOT unlikeable. In fact, he’s one of the kindest, loveliest chaps you could ever hope to meet on the page. Affable, thoughtful, and never afraid when things get dicey, he’s the bloke we’d never mind having over for a long visit. Hugh Fraser was a brilliant casting choice for Hastings in the Mystery! presentations of Poirot that ran for decades, what with his bright eyes and sweet smile. In fact, he’s so sweet that we, the audience, can’t bear to smack him with a rolled-up newspaper until the latter half of the Mysterious Affair at Styles, when we all KNOW he should know better.

christieetext97masac11.jpgAgatha Christie’s creation of Hastings is, as I said in the previous post, not necessarily meant to be a Watson clone. While both were army veterans, Hastings has no medical experience, so when it comes to forensic studies of the body, he’s very much an every man. Perhaps that’s why Christie enjoyed using him in so many of the Poirot mysteries, and why television adaptations worked Hastings into stories where he hadn’t been written in: he’s the Every Man. Hastings is Us.

And we are sooooo clueless around someone like Poirot. Yet in Styles Hastings time and again wants to prove himself Poirot’s superior in the world of detection. Near the beginning of the investigation, Hastings already questions Poirot’s abilities:

I shrugged my shoulders. If he was going to take the matter that way, it was no good arguing with him. The idea crossed my mind, not for the first time, that poor old Poirot was growing old. Privately I thought it lucky that he had associated with him some one of a more receptive type of mind.

Every member of the family is certain that the odd duck Alfred Inglethorp is guilty BECAUSE he’s the odd duck: married the old lady for her money, etc. He acts suspicious, he dresses suspicious, so therefore, guilty. After Mrs. Inglethorp’s death–during which Alfred is suspiciously absent–the whole family sees nothing but clues proving their case. Although he recruits Poirot to discreetly investigate, Hastings completely agrees with the others, and cannot understand at all why Poirot would disagree with them both before and after Alfred Inglethorp’s vindication:

  1. As for me, I was literally dumb with astonishment. I could only conclude that Poirot was mad.

  2. His words gave me an unpleasant shock…Still, I had a great respect for Poirot’s sagacity—except on the occasions when he was what I described to myself as “foolishly pigheaded.”

  3. This proceeding of Poirot’s, in respect of the coco, puzzled me intensely. I could see neither rhyme nor reason in it. However, my confidence in him, which at one time had rather waned, was fully restored since his belief in Alfred Inglethorp’s innocence had been so triumphantly vindicated.

How does Christie pull this off? On the one hand, she has to make sure all the clues to the murder are set into the lines of text, but she can’t be obvious about it. How can she get these major points by the casual reader? By placing them before a casual observer. For while Hastings may see himself as a thoroughly intelligent fellow who’s built upon Poirot’s method, in reality he is one who has allowed himself to be led to conclusions by others–not just the family, or the murderer. By Poirot, too.

“Who put it in the chest, I wonder?”

“Some one with a good deal of intelligence,” remarked Poirot drily. “You realize that he chose the one place in the house to hide it where its presence would not be remarked? Yes, he is intelligent. But we must be more intelligent. We must be so intelligent that he does not suspect us of being intelligent at all.”

I acquiesced.

“There, mon ami, you will be of great assistance to me.”

I was pleased with the compliment. There had been times when I hardly thought that Poirot appreciated me at my true worth.

“Yes,” he continued, staring at me thoughtfully, “you will be invaluable.”

This part still makes me chuckle. We the readers know that Hastings is indeed being complimented on his true worth–only it’s not quite the same worth Hastings thinks he’s earned. I see this as Christie’s signal to readers that Poirot is NOT going to be giving Hasting’s clear clues from here on out. What we observe through Hastings’ senses may or may not be completely true. We’ll have to mind his perception that it doesn’t veil the truth from ours.

This slight shift in their budding partnership does lead to conflict between the two, which is another reason why I enjoy these characters so much. True people react to how they’re treated. At one point Hastings knows Poirot’s keeping stuff from him, and calls him out. Here a friendship is tested over truth:

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Some characters can listen, absorb, and grow. Others, like Hastings, are, shall we say, “stubborn.” Even after one of his friends is arrested for the murder, Hastings doesn’t understand why Poirot wasn’t more open.

“Every murderer is probably somebody’s old friend,” observed Poirot philosophically. “You cannot mix up sentiment and reason.”

“I must say I think you might have given me a hint.”

“Perhaps, mon ami, I did not do so, just because he was your old friend.”

I was rather disconcerted by this…

Last I checked, “disconcerted” is NOT the same as “understanding.” Hastings has once again been told something very true but also unpleasant about his perspective on things, and once again he can’t quite take it in. As readers, we’re not totally sure what to make of it all, either. By now we’re on Possible Murderer #3…or is it #4…dammit EVERY one is a suspect! By now Christie’s slathered suspicion all over every member of the Inglethorp family. How can we readers possibly see through all this muck?

We won’t. And yet it is the Every Man’s observation that saves the day, for it is Hastings that reminds Poirot of a simple action from early in the investigation that sets Poirot’s grey cells dancing and reveals all to Poirot. Only after Poirot gathers all the suspects into one room (love that part!) and walks through the case step by step do the other characters–Hastings included–come to realize their own blindness to the facts:

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With the killer(s) revealed and brought to justice, the mystery can end, yes? Not quite. While we may not feel too invested in the family of suspects, we have been with Hastings and Poirot for quite a while now. It’d be a strange move to have these two end the book in a tiff. There’s a reconciliation to be done, and it’s done in such a way that we chuckle yet again over Poirot’s unique way of “handling” Hastings, although we know his compliments to be also genuine:

“Poirot, you old villain,” I said, “I’ve half a mind to strangle you! What do you mean by deceiving me as you have done?” …

“I did not deceive you, mon ami. At most, I permitted you to deceive yourself.”

“Yes, but why?”

“Well, it is difficult to explain. You see, my friend, you have a nature so honest, and a countenance so transparent, that—enfin, to conceal your feelings is impossible! If I had told you my ideas, the very first time you saw Mr. Alfred Inglethorp that astute gentleman would have—in your own expressive idiom—‘smelt a rat’! And then, bon jour to our chances of catching him!”

“I think that I have more diplomacy than yon [sic] give me credit for.”

“My friend,” besought Poirot,” I implore you, do not enrage yourself! Your help has been of the most invaluable. It is but the extremely beautiful nature that you have, which made me pause.”

“Well,” I grumbled, a little mollified. “I still think you might have given me a hint.”

Just because a character has a beautiful nature doesn’t mean he’s completely reliable. When a writer needs to reveal all and yet hide some, an unreliable narrator allows for truth-in-truth, a slight of hand that does not insult, but perpetuates the curiosity which meets us on page 1 and moves with us still. We must trust this narrator completely with the facts, and yet not so completely so as to give away all the plot points before their time. A careful balance requires a careful hand. God-willing, I’ll have that hand someday.

Perhaps your day’s already come.

Click here for more on Agatha Christie & Hercule Poirot.

 

 

Tone Deaf

Long, long ago, the ever-lovely lady Shehanne Moore and her hamster brood nominated me for The Respect Award.

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Such a reward requires questions answered, which I hope I can take out of order, since the questions led me to think some thinks that aren’t entirely respect-related, and this is a run-on sentence, so I best likely stop, shouldn’t I?

Who do you respect the most?

Now this I can confidently answer: my friend Rachel(Not the one from Polish Fest-the other one. (Have I mentioned I know a lot of Rachels?)) I have written a few past posts about her, and the roads traveled for her recovery. She dedicated herself to God’s Calling back when we were teenagers, and had been teaching in a two-room school in a small Nebraska town for ten years when a brain tumor wrapped its tentacles around her brain stem. Again. And again.

Yes, she’s been under the knife three times. She struggles to speak and walk. She may never be able to hold up her head again, since her neck muscles have atrophied. She had to step down from the ministry, never to return.

Now this would be the point where, at least I think, you give God the finger and tell Him to piss off. I gave my life to YOU, and You give me THIS. Fuck. You.

Nope. Not Rachel. She’s still determined to live on her own once the therapists give the okay, and tutor children. She looks to God, and hopes.

To lose your body and mind for months and struggle to find footing outside that which you’ve known all your life…to go through all that, and not lose faith…

Damn.

What is respect and what does it mean to you?

Right, so this question is weird for me to answer, and I’m not even sure why. My initial thought is: 4th Commandment. Honor the elders, and so on. Believe you me, that was instilled in we pastor’s children at a tiny age. I’m 34, and I STILL can’t refer to my friends’ parents by their first names despite their requests. Hell, I called my father-in-law “Sir” until Blondie was born. First names are informal, see. Respect starts with the address.

Listening, too. Listening is respectful. Visiting the old lady down the street because she goes to our church, she’s lonely, misses children, go ON Jean she just wants some company–

–sitting in a room shaded by thin white gauzey curtains, a room the shade of canned peas with that carpet and furniture that seemed to sap color and spoil it on the spot, the air heavy with cats who died years ago–

–and listen.

Not that I remember what she said. Respect is a lot of show at times. I learned that quickly: situate the body, say the right words, and inwardly back away. Away from the eyes and senses, and fly, over and through the firmament. Land in a world I build one rock at a time. Get back to work.

Nowadays, I DO listen. Hard. It’s the faith in the words of others where respect transforms into a weapon, the most valuable weapon I have. So many of you have only known me through my words. You met me here, befriended me here. For the few who’ve known me before I started this online venture, you know I love you, but you KNOW me. Your friendship and kindness put this syrupy taint on the comments you give on my writing. I’m compelled to purse my lips and think, you’re too sweet, you’re just saying that because you’re my friend…

For those who’ve met me here, your words come completely of your own volition. You would feel no need to say something unless you wanted to say what you really thought.  For so, so long, I always took a compliment as “I’m just doing God’s duty,” “you’re just being nice,” “you don’t really know me.”

But you do know me. You know me better than most people in my proper life. And you have given such outpourings of thoughts and ideas on your writing, and I’m compelled to give them back, and this sharing of sparks sets all the dark woods ablaze, burns away the black fog, sending it hissing in retreat. The stars reflect our sparks, we are the true lights of the heavens–

Respect is what I use to hack at the self-doubt. Because I respect you, I should believe you in what you say. And if you say, in no uncertain terms, that I am meant to do what I do, well then. Time I respect, and therefore defeat, that which holds me down.

What do I respect about myself?

This is the work-in-progress part. One of the reasons I held off on answering Shey’s questions is because I didn’t know how to answer this one. Lucky for me I hit a milestone not too long ago.

In the past few blogs I’ve mentioned my decision to finally try fiction again: a Middle-Grade fantasy story based on Michael Dellert’s Matter of Manred series. I’ve been posting my freewrites on my facebook page to help deal with my fear of sharing fiction. If I can be okay sharing the extremely rough stuff with others, then putting polished scenes out shouldn’t be so terrifying.

Once I finished Michael’s #13WeekNovel protagonist prompts, I started to work on the setting. The first freewrite didn’t go too terribly, even with the history gaps…

When I wake up, I smell old dung and hay. Scratched from the wool. Redo the braid that at least holds some hair back.

I have to share a room with Nutty, who snores, by the way. I’ve asked for a spot in the barn loft. Nope, not proper.

Damnation.

At least I only need this space to piss and sleep.

Speaking of…

Oh…it is so, so tempting to empty it upon her. My hand actually steadies at the thought. But then the whole room would smell.

Ah, well. Not worth it.

Best to dump just after Fiachna passes….There. That’s dumped.

And with Fiachna’s morning curse at my window, it’s time for the kitchen.

Down the stairs—watch it, the third from the bottom creaks, so best to leap down. White walls, we have one large tapestry made by Muirgurgle’s mother before she died. Saffir is Nutty’s mom, the one still around. She’s got her own in the works. Funny how each focuses on the kids: baby Muirgurgle’s discovery of an ermine nest on this one. How nice of the family to donate their lives and live in posterity as Father’s coat.

Not sure what Saffir’s making, though Nutty’s in the corner. Probably her talking to birds. Or ghosts. They’re both a touch off, if you get me.

I smell elderberries and hyssop from the fields. Hops, dandelions, and yarrow.

Our furniture is simple, for Father’s tastes are pretty functional which, really, is all this thorp can afford. Not that I mind. One thing, though: the mantle over the fireplace tells a story. It’s a battle of ____. My grandparents fought alongside Terrwyn against ______. They all three survived, but I’m told my grandmother was besot by nightmares ever after. Terrwyn had a hand in helping with Father’s upbringing, and in one of my grandmother’s final lucid moments, promised to keep an eye on him ever after. I can’t believe she would have stayed here otherwise as some lowly tinker.

Not that she sees herself as lowly. And no one would be foolish enough to call her that. And if someone did, Cinaedh would slice his manhood off.

Strange how Father came from such strong people, and can surround himself with good people.

And still be such an ass.

But I’m a middler, and the child of no one special in his eyes. My opinion is of little worth here.

So let’s go into the kitchen, where herbs hang from the beams and there’s always water hot for tea. Grab yourself some elderberries. Watch the spout, it’s got a chip there.

Here. This doorway? This, this is the best view of the thorp. The front door just takes you to a wide circle of thatch roofs and buildings that are old, but solid. Aberfa’s pottery workshop’s the newest thing, and even that’s several years old now.

That’s why I always come out from here. Demman doesn’t mind, so long as he didn’t want the bench for himself.

Watch the grass and flowers bend with the breeze downward. Follow with the slope to the River Aurnia. There’s the mill at the outermost point of the thorp, aaaaand, yes, that’s Aberfa with Bryn, the lady miller. You can bet master miller Pyrs is already in there, loading grains. Kids aren’t quite awake yet—you’d hear them arguing.

I don’t really dwell on the mill when I’m out here. I don’t dwell on the thorp at all, really.

I dwell on that, past the River Aurnia. See that? The Woods of Irial. No, it’s not mystical, or full of beasts, or the gateway to Annwn. It’s just far-reaching. Some smaller thorps are even inside it, and its southernmost, according to the drymyn, is this little place called Bailecrwth.

That’s where I’m going to go to find my mother’s family, if there are any left to find.

And south of them is the Khaibe tribe. They are the reason my mother fled and found herself here. They are the reason Father found my mother, took her, and put my creation into the works.

Dour talk for sunlight transforming the field into gold shimmers and diamonds from the dew. You’d think the sweet sharpness would ease my tongue.

Well it doesn’t.

Every day, I look past this thorp to the place I need to go, for I have a blood-feud that must be resolved. I refuse to carry this with me to the grave. They wronged my mother. Their sins drove me into existence.

They have to pay.

61MFCKK6V4LLife called: teaching, mothering. It took a few days before I could return to the Easavainn Mills. Initially blank, so I opened my copy of Brother Cadfael’s Herb Garden and let the flowers inspire me.

It starts with eglantine.

Beautiful, aren’t they? Sweet as apples, and pleasing to the eye.

Banon, Muirgurgle’s mother, planted them here along the fence. Not sure why the fence; it doesn’t exactly keep anyone out, being vines and posts, but it’s a fine thing. Gentle, like she was. I’ll see Father out here sometimes, look upon this living boundary, and tear up.

She must have been quite a woman, to make a man like him cry.

So, down the slope. Let’s open the gate. Don’t worry, the vines are flexible.

The river’s quite full of fish—trout, mainly. A few leeches. Turtles—watch for them. Don’t step on the Alkanet—you’ll put Nutty and Saffir out. They insist on it for their faces.

The thorp keeps a few fruit trees on the edge of Irial. I’m honestly not sure who planted them—the trunks have this look of gnarled veins like the jeweler, but I don’t think pear and cherry trees came along on their own. Once I heard Father telling Muirgurgle that his namesake planted them to honor the river goddess. Not sure what this fruit has to do with her. Do gods eat?

Further in, when we’re brave, we can get the Damson fruit. I used to enjoy going in there…and then the…

Damn you hands, STOP SHAKING

The Cat-Eyed Man. I’ve told you about him.

I refuse to let the miller’s children go in there anymore without an escort, being me. They know what I did, so they always want me along when they go past the eglantine. Even Muirgurgle won’t bother with the woods, and HE is the one who’s supposed to hunt. So Fiachna’s left to scrounge up game whenever Father decides to teach the hapless twit how to hunt.

Me? I go in.

I go in alone. My hands may shake, throw my body into a quake, but I. will. Enter. Part of revenge is fearlessness. One can’t be afraid of meeting one’s own death. One can’t be afraid of looking evil in the eye, and pulling that eye out with one’s own fingers.

Follow me here.

Hmph.

I didn’t like it.

Something felt wrong.

The…voice. DAMMIT, the voice was missing.

I sent it to Michael, and he agreed that the tone had changed. “Maybe you’re exploring a new aspect of her character.”

I read it through again, tried to apply Michael’s suggestion to the feeling around the words, but no. No, it was wrong.

This wasn’t Gwen. Not Gwen at all. Where did she go?

And all the old panic came back, the failed WIPs of the past because the voice never. fucking. stuck. Years of looking, trying, finally getting, and then….gone.

And here I’m barely a month in, and already going tone-deaf with Gwen. She’s not pretty with words. She’s 14, and she’s an overlooked, unwanted middle-child in her home. She’s cocky. Stubborn. Angry. Kind to some, yes, but even they can’t always handle her. Such a girl would never, EVER talk like this.

No.

No, I’m not going deaf. Not this time.

Michael suggested going back to the early freewrites, where Gwen’s voice was clearest.

I listened to him, listened to myself, and…

Well?

Are you coming?

The damson trees grow a ways in. You carry the basket. I’ve got my dagger, and I keep a staff in the woods, just in case. Easy enough to hide, wood in a wood.

Why should anyone else find it? No one will go in here but drunken men and the miller’s children, and none will go in on a dare, or without me.

That’s right. Me. Ever since the Cat-Eyed Man, everyone else in the thorp sees the woods of Irial and thinks, “Get Gwen.” Gods, I think this is the only way I matter around here…Demman likes to call me the Honey Girl with the Barbed Tongue because I give him plenty of grief whenever he asks me to fetch some.

Yes, that’s why I have this bucket. Hush, I can reach my dagger easily enough.

It’s all about duty…watch the leaves, there. And don’t step there, it’s a bit of a small sink hole…the roots of the fruit trees have done strange things to the soil. It’s always moist, ready for planting. Not sure why, the river’s back quite a ways. Could be the trees. Cinaedh said once that if something ever happened to thorp, we could all live in the woods and never need for shelter. The leaves, you can see them, are as large as a mare’s hooves. You should see this place come autumn, when the green is burned over with reds and oranges, lots of orange. Damnation, but I miss the autumn, and the smell of the sap for tapping.

Sorry. I get very lost in feeling here.

For all the niceness back there…yes, there…with the flower fence and smoking chimneys, it’s not home. It’s never felt like home. At least in the workshops I’ve been useful—Aberfa lets me keep her company, and Terrwyn will tell stories when I help her haul wood for fires. But this…what is Easavainn but a place where I was nursed and let loose, like the runt of a litter?

DON’T STEP THERE. Can’t you pay attention? You’re going to attract the wolves, walking like that. By Catha, just…no, walk on front of your feet. Your toes. Yes, like that. Pish and shit, you’re worse than Terrwyn, and she’s the one with the iron leg.

Yes, there are wolves in this wood. I think some wild dogs, too…Luc saw a pack a month or so ago and insisted they were too small to be wolves. No one listened to him, of course, but I’m a generous soul DON’T TOUCH THAT. Don’t you know poison oak when you see it? By Catha, you’re dim. Feel like I should have you on a leash.

Where was I? Oh, yes, being generous. I am. I’m a wonderful listener, and let Luc say all he saw. Don’t underestimate those children. For all their bickering, they’re extremely quick, observant, and smart. Braith nearly made off with twenty gold trimmids from a merchant once because he was too dull to notice his money chest opening and closing. And I’m not even going to start on Drys. He’s either going to be a master thief, or a master…hmm. Assassin, if he ever gets the taste for blood. Either way, he’s never going to stay on the sunny side of the law.

Finally…you can feel we’re in the woods proper now. Everything’s got a touch of water to it. I like that feeling, that life-feeling of water in the air I breathe, the grass I touch. The sun can’t reach here, the trees are so thick. The whole world’s dark and soft. And here, in this place, my hands don’t quite shake as bad. Maybe there’s a dark magic here, and that darkness knows my intentions, and allows me to steady myself and practice.

Care to see?

Pish, we have time, set yourself down. Pick the centaury—that nettle-like plant there—take up a few chestnuts, and let me move.

Ah….I miss having good hands.

What do you mean, stalling? I am NOT stalling. We have all morning to fetch the honey from the Black Stone’s Glen—Domhnall named it—no not the Messor, the Constable, the one who actually WENT there—and the name stuck. What a gods-awful name. Oh, no, a black stone, how frightful…

They didn’t SEE the Cat-Eyed Man. They didn’t SEE how the blackness, like this, like a cave the moment after someone blows out the candle. They didn’t THAT seeping out from under him as though he had let loose his water inside his clothes like some mad old derelict.

And you didn’t see it either, so if I want to practice some moves before we go to THAT place, then I’M GOING TO BLOODY WELL PRACTICE. Shut up and eat your chestnuts.

I ended there, and felt different. Strange, a good strange.

I had listened to myself, believed myself, and it paid off.

I was starting to respect my instinct.

I could get used to this.

Three Mice Blind: A Q&A

secret-of-nimh

WAAAAY way back, Scotland’s gem of an author Shehanne Moore and her diabolical hamsters threw a ball full of questions my way. Tucked in among those questions was an award:

epic-blog-ward

I never realized Hamstah Dickens and his crew thought of me so highly, and my deepest gratitude to Shey for the honor. 🙂 Now, as for those questions…

What made you choose your current blogging platform?

Naiveté. After reading time and again of the importance of platform, and that all writers simply must have a website, I decided to see what forms were out there. After five minutes of half-assed research, it seemed WordPress was the most flexible with the imagery and text.

 Introduce yourself and tell us about your blog

(sheepish wave from the back of the room) Hi.

I’m Jean Lee. You meet me in the street, you’ll see me defined by marriage and motherhood. Appropriate involvement in church life and PTA. Part-time teacher.

But you’ve met me here, haven’t you?

Here, I struggle as many others do: to read, to write, to discuss both with an iota of intelligence. Also, in the hopes of easing the struggle of others, I share the music and landscape that inspire me so.

 Are you a once in a while blogger or a daily one?

Once a week is the best I can manage with the rest of life’s obligations.

 Do you wish to publish and if so, what type of book?

Publishing would be the shot to the moon, yes. As for type…not literary. That’s best as I can narrow down for the moment.

 What is your favorite thing to do besides write?

Read. The time to not focus on Life Out Here is one of the most precious luxuries a mother—and a writer—can have.

 ~*~*~*~*~

After these very professional questions, I came across the hamsters’ furry lines of inquiry.

What is your favourite line of poetry about a hamster? Oh okay, we mean a small furry creature, or animal.

Oh, dear. I’m not much for poetry…

Wait, dear hamsters! Don’t fly over the Atlantic and seek out my house! (stall stall stall) I will say that mice were primary characters in two of my favorite children’s books: Reepicheep in C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia, and Ralph in Beverly Cleary’s The Mouse and the Motorcyle.

Whew! Found a line from Seamus Heaney’s Squarings I marked long, long ago:

 What came first, the seabird’s cry or the soul

-xxii

What was your favourite children’s book if it was not Mrs Tiggywinkle?

I didn’t know of Mrs. Tiggywinkle as a child (runs and hides). Seriously! When I was 8, I discovered The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. Of all the stories I read in my formative years, I latched onto those the most. They influenced my taste in mystery and the love of murder described with a foreign accent. Sure, I still enjoyed the ripping good fantasy every, but the mystery became the epitome of Good Story. I even tried writing my own when I was a kid. Kind of hard when one doesn’t know the intricacies of human anatomy and forensic science…

 You’re in the forest. It’s dark, it’s cold, it’s mysterious. Suddenly, the bushes part and there snarling before you is a savage, giant hamster. What happens next?

I drop the giant vegetarian wrap I was gnawing on and flee, screaming my little girly head off. I’ll storm to the local Field of Care Wizarding office, pound the door until the bugger wakes up, and file a complaint while talk-gasping my way through the paperwork, and then refuse to let him go back to bed until he’s followed me out and found the thing and given it a good talking-to for scaring me.

 Is there any place in the world you would like to set a book or poem and why?

Honestly, I’ve always been content with where I am. I don’t understand the draw to writing about urban life. Not that it’s bad, mind, but I’m not at home in the city, so unless I need that out-of-place feeling for a character, I’d rather avoid it.

No, Wisconsin’s always felt like The Setting, with the forests and farmlands, its forgotten roads and secret rivers.

You can have dinner with your favourite book hamster character. Who is it and what will the first course be? Recipes are welcome. Of course if you can’t find a hamster, just choose another animal.

See, here’s the thing about being a frugal Midwesterner: everything’s a casserole, or something that can eventually become a casserole. If you can’t just throw it into a crockpot (aka slow cooker) for eight hours and top it with cheese, it ain’t worth eating.

So when I’m asked what I would eat with someone, I am so totally caught off here that I have no clue what to say, because I can’t just say “leftover casserole.” (Though I have a feeling that Basil of Baker Street wouldn’t give a toss about what he eats, so long as he has the energy to keep working.) Hmm. Best play it safe, and say Mrs. Brisby and her children from The Rats of NIMH, and that we would share a grilled cheese sandwich with a side of tomato soup and a cup of cold milk, with chocolate chip cookie bars for dessert. (I, um, don’t do courses. It’s all and done.)

Forget all this hero stuff. You’re being cast as the villain and it’s your choice who you pick so long as they are from a book.

Well that’s full of all sorts of delightful potential. In terms of my reading experience, Livia from I, Claudius is the THE greatest spider ever to spin the villain’s web. She manipulates dozens of people over the course of several generations. As one character puts it, “Time means nothing to her.” Because her ambition is on par with her patience, she doesn’t care how slow others move, so long as they move in the direction she wishes and carry out the actions to which she leads them. Sure, the in-your-face-bwa-ha-ha villain is fun, and so long as he/she has a clear motive for being evil, I’m all for the volcano lairs and plans for world conquest. But the spider web…damn, that’s wicked fun.

What was the last book you read?

I recently finished The Queen of the Night by Alexander Chee, which was recommended on Fiction Advocate. A vivid and entertaining read, though I never understand when a writer refuses to use quotation marks for dialogue.

 How much of you is in your characters or your poetry?

 I…I, um…

<Stop squirming and just skip, the little dudes won’t notice>

 Who or what inspires your writing?

Back when I was a child, the answer “who” was simple:

My dad, first and foremost. As a pastor, he was always writing his own sermons, liturgies, bible studies, and hymns. So often I would visit him in his office, typing on that god-awful blue DOS screen of Word Perfect. His voice was always beleaguered by allergies and acid reflux, but never his real voice: writing in sickness and in health, for the celebration of a marriage or a life passing on through Heaven’s gates. Writing fortified the soul against life’s terrors. So I, too, wrote stories, endless stories, and shared them with Dad. We’d sit in front of that blue screen for hours, talking about character and plot, just him and me.

But then I grew older.

Time to set aside the childish things, prepare for God’s Calling. God’s real gift to me was in music. Time to go to school, learn to be a music teacher. Play in church. Sing in choir.

But then I grew older, and set aside the music instead for prose.

Well. God’s children need good stories about Jesus and the power of faith.

But then I grew older, and started to write about the tarnished base of shiny Jesus school.

Why are you writing about that? That’s not a good testament of your faith, Jean. That’s not what people need to learn about Jesus.

My dad stopped reading my stories. I stopped offering. There was no point in sharing them with someone who no longer had faith in my writing.

And, I guess, that’s when my own faith died.

~~~

There’s a line in a Christian contemporary song (as opposed to a 15th century hymn) that came to mind as I considered walking away completely. Just, let the blog die. Pull the WIP out of my room, and pack it up in the basement. Pack away the childish things. Grow up. Focus on the little hands tangled in my hair and punching my thighs. I once wrote about my focus being torn into strips. It was time to sew them together. To piece myself together. Wasn’t it?

Anyway. The song’s line: “We walk by faith, not by sight.”

Those who inspire me and support me now, I have never seen face to face. Yet I know them better than blood relatives. Each has such beautiful imagery to share, be it photographs or prose. Life dictates to them, and yet they somehow maintain control, and drive themselves forward no matter what Life demands. No criticism stops them. Every trial is transformed into a newly discovered strength. This is why I nominate them for the Epically Awesome Blog Award, which calls for them to answer the non-hamster questions at the beginning of this post:

Dyane Harwood: Birth of a New Brain
https://proudlybipolar.wordpress.com/

Michael Dellert: Adventures in Indie Publishing
http://www.mdellert.com/blog/

Inesa MJ Photography: Making Memories
https://inesemjphotography.com/

Nathan Filbert: Becoming Imperceptible
https://manoftheword.com/

Peggy Bright: Where to next?
https://leggypeggy.com/about/

Shey, who’s already received the award, lifts me time and again by showing me her own journey, and that the trials encountered on the Writer’s Road are worth pressing through for the tribulations that await.

Another name comes to mind: a college friend, the only one who also writes, who told me to take on a new name and write myself into existence: Ben Parman: https://bendanielparman.com/

The friendship formed through theater and writing, then he went on to film school, I to grad school. His faith and homosexuality fought inside him for years; few saw the bloodshed’s toll. But for all the counseling, rehabilitation camps, family and friends, it was writing, really, that brought about the ceasefire. That writing transcended into a play: Starlings. I attended, and saw the facets of my friend reenact their war.

Perhaps that is what I need: a bloodletting.

Somehow, I have to uncover the faith I lost in myself. I cannot be a fighter until I do.

Tell us a bit about what you are working on now.

Which brings us here.

Normally, this question shuts me down. After all, what was I working on? The same damn WIP I started a few months after my daughter was born. She just turned 6.

Six bloody years on the same story. Adding characters, taking them out, changing pov, changing plot points, changing descriptions. Never happy. Never sure. Never ready to walk away because it just needs one more change, one more time and then I’ll start something new. Whatever that is.

I look at my story, and all I feel is embarrassment. Shame. I don’t want it out there with my name on it, any kind of name. It’s not worth anyone’s time. It’ll prove that for all the talk about writing, I am only that, talk. When it comes to finally showing what I can do, I’ll show I can’t. And for all the wishful language of writing and story, I am incapable of drawing any imaginative life from inside me onto the page.

But I can’t let the WIP go. It got me out of postpartum. It was the closest thing to light I had in the fog of those years, even though now I wonder if it was merely a trick my eyes played on my mind.

Those who can’t do, teach. And I do teach, but it’s just basics. Remedial writing. Hey, this is how to write a paragraph! Maybe we should focus on sentences, first…no a verb doesn’t work like that…

The basics. As basic as it gets.

Maybe that’s where I need to start. Everyone moves forward from a beginning. It’s time I did, too.

So I looked to a writer who’s done more to instruct me than all my undergrad and grad years put together: Diana Wynne Jones.

(Hush, like you didn’t know.)

I compiled all my posts about her from the past year (Good God, it’s been over a year since I started this) into a single collection. Her stories are a marvel in craft and imagination, not to mention just plain fun.

Hmm. Not quite done. Not quite done reading, true, but it’s the blogging that wasn’t done, either.

So I wrote two new pieces on the influence myth and her own traumatic past have had on her writing. They’re not for the blog.

They’re for you.

Whatever piqued your interest about my site, I humbly thank you. You’ve read, shared, and commented on my rambles week to week. You’ve made me feel my words are worth something after all.

You’ve helped me uncover the embers of my old faith.

But like a fire fairy, they are fast and fragile. If I grasp them too roughly, they’ll crumble in my fingers. If I chase them too quickly, they will fly out of reach, and become indistinguishable among the stars. So we will move slowly, you and I, beginning here.

Next week’s post will offer my Lessons Learned collection to those who sign up to follow me. Perhaps a word or two in them will bring a fire fairy to you.

Don’t let it get away.