#WriterProblems: When the #Worldbuilding Slows the #Storytelling

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I certainly hope so, Mr. Bradbury, Sir.

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

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

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

BLUE HOUSE DARE

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

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

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

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

So of course you looked with your bright green eyes.

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

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

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

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

Idiots.

Let’s pause here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No laugh from you that time. Yeah.

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

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

Some extra Bradbury, just because. 🙂

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

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

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

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

Do we go back to the present then and there?

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

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

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

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

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

It bleaches your hair. Nice.

It fucking claws for your eyes, you douchebag.

And not whatever freak lives in the house?

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

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

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

Idiot.

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

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

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

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

I can’t watch you. I can’t.

Something is moving in Blue House.

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

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

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

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

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

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

You wave like this is all some lark.

A damned lark.

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

The Doll’s shadow stops swaying.

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

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

The attic light flickers off.

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

Cam and I stare and strain for something, anything.

Anything but silence.

The attic light flickers on.

The window is closed.

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

End of story. 997 words.

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

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

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

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

See, this is why writers need friends. 🙂

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

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

~STAY TUNED!~

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

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

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

There Be a Cantankerous Granddad of a #Dragon on this #Podcast: Picky Eaters by @sjhigbee

Welcome back, my fellow creatives! We’ll continue tasting the wares of fellow indie authors I have gotten to know in this beautiful community through the years.

I’m sure many of us can relate to dealing with bratty children at some point in our lives. (Or, we are raising those little buggers and are surrounded by them EVERY DAY. But I digress.) Let’s take a sip from flavors both relatable and fantastical in the brew Picky Eaters by S.J. Higbee.

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

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

If you’re ever in the mood for fascinating book reviews in mystery, science fiction, and fantasy, do check out S.J. Higbee’s kickin’ blog!

Be on the look out for more sweet indie goodness in the autumn podcasts to come! 

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

Save the World and Solve a Murder in This #Podcast: Oil and Water by @pjlazos

Welcome back, my fellow creatives! We’ll continue tasting the wares of fellow indie authors I have gotten to know in this beautiful community through the years.

Let’s see how oil and water will taste in our brew today. It’s time to take a sip from Oil and Water by P.J. Lazos.

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

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

If you’d like to see more about environmental issues and initiatives to make our world a better place, do check out Pam’s amazing blog!

Be on the look out for more sweet indie goodness in the autumn podcasts to come! 

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

#IndieAuthor #Interview: Jason Savin Shares the #Magic of His #Reading and #Writing Journeys. Thanks, @KingsofMunster!

Welcome back, my fellow creatives!

Autumn is slowly but surely falling to our feet.

It’s been a joy to read indie authors on my podcast Story Cuppings these past few weeks. The tasting began with Jason Savin, who reached out to me about his book Beyond the Elven Gate: A trilogy of works. Not only was it a joy to read his book, but it was a treat to interview Jason as well! My friends, it is an honor to introduce you to Jason Savin!

Thank you so much for taking time to chat here, Jason! Let’s start with your journey through literature. What is your favorite childhood book?

I only began reading Wind in the Willows and Peter Pan about 20 years ago, when I was in my early 30s, and really loved them. But from my own childhood I loved The Folk of the Faraway Tree by Enid Blyton. Those exciting tales of Moonface and his friends really transformed my dull childhood into a world where excitement could be found.

Ah, I didn’t read those classics as a child, either. Oddly enough I didn’t read as much fantasy in my child as I do now; back then it was all Nancy Drew, lol. I don’t recall any deep emotional connection to the characters–I just enjoyed a fun mystery! Did you ever feel yourself overwhelmed with emotion while reading?

It may have been To Kill a Mockingbird. The court scene was so unjust, knowing that an innocent man was going to jail for such a vicious crime that he clearly hadn’t committed. It is still a very powerful book today.

Indeed, Jason, it really is! I’m sure many other readers would agree with you, too. Is there a story you love that you feel is under-appreciated today?

Many years ago, I bought a book called Period Piece written by Gwen Raverat, who was a grand-daughter of Charles Darwin. It’s not really a novel, as it’s autobiographical, but it takes the reader to a different world of long ago. It’s filled with little artistic sketches drawn by Gwen herself and it is so beautifully written. I own almost a thousand books and this is one of my favourites.

Have you ever gotten reader’s block?

I regularly get this, when I’m reading a passage and my mind begins to wander. I then have to re-read sometimes a few times before I can get through the ‘block’ to find out what is actually happening in the story.

I’ve had that same experience! It usually happens when I have to read something about teaching philosophies….or when I’m reading final exams, but that should be a given. 🙂 What was an early experience where you learned that language had power?

I really don’t remember the first time, but I am acutely aware of many incidents when people have tried to vocally put me down. It’s probably because I’m quite quiet so I can sometimes appear to be an easy victim. And I have verbally ripped those people apart. Not noisily, just in a more intellectual way than they are prepared for, and anything that they say back to me, I can turn those words on their head and use it like a weapon against them. I sometimes find it a little annoying how much enjoyment I get when this happens. But I really can’t stand bullies.

You and me both, my friend. You and me both. I think that’s why I love words so much: Words Have Power. They have the power to amuse, to intrigue, to seduce, to inform, to enrage, to inspire, to…well, to do anything. I know my own spirit is always lifted whenever I have the chance to write. Does writing energize or exhaust you?

Mostly energize. Hours can pass very quickly when I’m writing. And when I’m finished, it is usually only because of some pressing chore that needs doing, and I feel a little peeved that I can’t continue with my creativity.

I feel that way every time I have to focus on school work than writing! Such time is so very precious; in fact, I’d have to say that one of the toughest pieces of my writing life is finding time to write. What would you say is the most difficult part of your own artistic process?

That’s an easy question. The most difficult part is trying to find the time to write, too. It is hard to empty your mind to fully concentrate on writing knowing that you’ve got housework to do, or a needy dog that needs some love and attention.

Let’s ignore that housework just a bit longer and discuss your book. Beyond the Elven Gate: A Trilogy of Works includes a history of the Elven race that you researched from “historical records.” I love the variety of sources you used to create this history–from burial records to newspapers and everything in between. What first spurred you to start this project, and how do you shift yourself from the researching process to the writing process? I know my research can overwhelm my own creativity, to be sure!

Thank you for that. That particular piece called A Treatise on the Evolution of the Fairy began when I was writing another book, called Kings of Munster. (I’m still writing this other book and have been working on it for over 10 years now). But this history of the Elven race was basically a lot of information that I had found whilst researching my other book. I was fascinated by what I was reading and thought that many other people might also be interested, so I tried to write the information in date order to see what this evolution of the fairy race would look like. I was quite astounded by my findings. 

It was quite easy to shift from researching to writing, as I was keep trying to write whilst I was researching. Until finally I was doing mostly writing, and only researching the odd fact or detail. But I had to consciously stop researching really, as it is a subject that I could easily have spent years working on and would never get my Kings of Munster finished.

One tale in Beyond the Elven Gate is about a mother’s search for her adopted son at the time when the Fairy-Mounds are open.  What’s the most difficult thing about writing characters from the opposite sex?

I began writing this tale, as normal, until I realised that I was writing from a Mother’s perspective. I tried to change it, but quickly realised that this was the voice that the story needed. Obviously writing characters from the opposite sex in some ways will always be impossible, because most people only live their life as one sex, but as I trained as an actor and have inhabited many different characters over the years, who are all very different to myself, some of them even being women, I find that I can somehow morph into different people when I’m writing. Whether or not I’m any good at it I really don’t know; I’ll leave that to the reader to decide.

Let’s wrap up looking at another tale in Beyond the Elven Gate. “Good People” takes readers on a journey with an elderly gentleman as he deals with challenges put to him by the Good People. Such a variety of characters and character types in a single volume is so delightful for the reader! Do you feel yourself drawn to write a certain aged character? What process do you have to help you enter that older–or younger–mindset in order to make the language and mannerisms remain true?

When I was writing this character of Wilfred, I partly based him upon my own Grandad, who I was very close to. Due to this closeness, I was naturally drawn to writing this elderly character this way, probably in a bid to bring him back alive, in the only way that I can. To enter into the mindset of these different characters I tend to use an acting technique called ‘the Magic If’. Which is basically if I was that character how would I feel, how would I think, how would I react. This helps me to try to become that person whom I’m writing about.

Thank you so much, Jean, for asking me such thought provoking questions. It has been a joy to answer them.

And many thanks to you, Jason, for taking time to chat with us! I’ll be watching for Kings of Munster to appear at my virtual bookshop. If you, my friends, haven’t had a chance to hear a sample of Beyond the Elven Gate, you can listen to my podcast episode on Story Cuppings.

~STAY TUNED!~

October is coming! We simply must get a bit spooky. I’m keen to share the roads diverging on that “Blue House Doll” snippet I shared with you in my last post. Perhaps we’ll uncover some music to inspire a fright, or perhaps visit a beloved tale from my childhood. Or shall we wander Wisconsin to find a haunted home both beautiful and lonely? Let us see. x

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

A Powerful Study in #Character on this #FirstChapter #Fiction #Podcast: The Unraveling of Lady Fury by @ShehanneMoore

Welcome back, my fellow creatives! We’ll continue tasting the wares of fellow indie authors I have gotten to know in this beautiful community through the years.

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I’m thrilled to share some flavors delicious with ambition and yearning today. Let’s take a sip from The Unraveling of Lady Fury by Shehanne Moore.

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

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

If you’re ever curious for exploring historical worldbuilding, writing strong heroes and heroines, and meeting other fantastic authors, do check out Lady Shey’s wonderful blog.

Be on the look out for more sweet indie goodness in the autumn podcasts to come! 

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

The #Writing #Inspiration Found in Local Lore

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or in another case, its face.

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

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

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

BLUE HOUSE DARE

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

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

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

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

So of course you looked with your bright green eyes.

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

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

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

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

Idiots.

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

Time to start digging.

~STAY TUNED!~

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

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

#RecommendedReads for #August on this #Podcast: The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison

Happy Wednesday, one and all! This August I wanted to take a moment to share books recommended to me by you, my wonderful fellow creatives.

The genre tastes here will vary widely, so bring your sparkling water to cleanse the palate between sips. Let’s continue on with…

What does a reader experience in those opening pages, and what lessons can a writer take away in studying but a few paragraphs? Should I be reading these books after long days of grading? Let’s find out!

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

This book was recommended to me by indie author S.J. Higbee. I do hope you check out her stellar blog and books!

If there are any stories you would like to recommend for sipping on this podcast, let me know in the comments below! I’d also welcome reading any indie authors’ own stories. Let’s all enjoy different genres and styles of storytelling throughout the year, shall we? xxxxxx

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

#Writing #DiverseCharacters: The Hero with No Name but a Thousand Faces

Good morning, my fellow creatives! We’ve come, at last, to the midwest summer’s sunset.

Such are the days when decisions must be made. Quests must be completed. Evil must be thwarted before twilight takes us and all is lost.

Such are the days when a hero shows his mettle. Such are the days never to be forgotten, for they live on in the tales we pass from one generation to the next.

A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of super-natural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.

Joseph Campbell’s Hero of a Thousand Faces

Seriously, why makes such heroes appeal to so many across so many cultures and time periods? Sure, Bilbo Baggins appeals because he’s nice and stuff, but what about this guy?

Clint Eastwood’s character in High Plains Drifter is not what one would call “likeable.” In fact, if there were ever an example of the anti-hero, it’d be this Man With No Name. He comes out of nowhere to an isolated seaside mining town and literally turns it red as Hell. As Eastwood himself explains:

“It’s just an allegory…a speculation on what happens when they go ahead and kill the sheriff and somebody comes back and calls the town’s conscience to bear. There’s always retribution for your deeds.”

James Neibaur, The Clint Eastwood westerns.

Well, that doesn’t sound like something Bilbo would do. That fellow was ready to halt his own adventure because he forgot a handkerchief, for goodness’ sake. But there is good reason to bring Bilbo and our Man With No Name together. See, when one studies storytelling, one sees certain archetypes transcend cultural and racial barriers. One such archetype is the outsider who brings change to the story’s world and its characters. This outsider does not follow that story-world’s code for justice, but their own, and in following their own code brings about the salvation—or damnation—of the story-world they encounter.

Now Bilbo fits this to a degree. I wanted to use this character as an introduction of sorts to this Hero talk because he does follow his own code no matter what others say or do, and he is, above all else, an Outsider to the ways of Dwarves, Burglary, Dragons, and War. While Bilbo’s skills change on this quest, he also brings about a change within Thorin, albeit late.

In High Plains Drifter, The Man With No Name does not change, not one bit. His very presence brings out the worst in the town: greed, lust, gluttony, jealousy. But above all else, the town is afraid, very afraid. Those they hired to kill the sheriff–and then immediately set up for arrest and imprisonment–have escaped their prison and are on their way for revenge. The townspeople hate Eastwood’s Outsider, the one who can kill with such ease, but they fear their past more. They realize too late The Man With No Name’s skills in manipulation are just as great as his skills with weapons, and by movie’s end the town burns bloody red in punishment for past sins.

Such is the way of the Punisher….or, the way of the Male Messiah.

As the Punisher, he’ll curse the man who has “fallen” to teach him a lesson. He wants to break the man’s ego. He’ll kill the man’s spirit to transform him into his image. He may try to justify himself to others, but they’ll never fully understand his power or the burden he carries.…the Male Messiah may not know of his connection to the Divine, but he may just be driven to accomplish something important. In this respect, he isn’t working on a spiritual goal. It seems his whole life is for one sole purpose and that purpose affects the lives of thousands of people… His character may not change, but others will change because of him.

Victoria Lynn Schmidt, 45 Master Characters

I’ve shared this book–and this quote!–when I was releasing my second novel, Fallen Princeborn: Chosen. Understanding the roots of such an archetype helps we writers better understand how a character who is not of our story’s setting, one who is driven by a cause–not a selfish cause per say, but a cause that in the character’s eyes will lead to salvation for those who matter. “Those who matter” will vary on the character: the Male Messiah feels all matter, while the Punisher will decide who matters.

In modern cinema, John Wick is a good example of a Punisher audiences root for. He left the assassin’s life to marry his love. He no longer has any part in the criminal underworld, and has found contentment in nature with his wife. His love eventually dies of illness, but left him a puppy to care for. A Russian mobster’s spoiled son steals Wick’s car and kills the puppy.

Unleash the vengeance.

Italy’s Django series is another fine example of this Outsider-Turned-Hero. Here’s a drifter with guns moving along the wild lands of the United States-Mexican border. His rules are his own–he means to kill the man who killed his lover. That a town is currently under the thumb of this man and would thrive if saved from this man is just a coincidence, really.

Django’s got his own rules, and even if his own hands are crushed, he WILL find a way to lay his enemies to waste. Cause above all.

Revenge for love stolen before its time is something we as readers and audiences can understand, even root for. John Wick doesn’t go off killing the doctors who couldn’t cure his wife, but he does destroy those who kill the innocent puppy his wife had gifted him in her will. In Thailand’s Tom yum goong (known in the United States as The Protector), Kham doesn’t go after an Australian gang just because the gang and its drugs are evil. His family has been protectors of the royal war elephant line for centuries, and Kham is content to continue this special life. When a Vietnamese gang leader kidnaps two of those elephants and takes them to Sydney, Kham hunts them down and lays waste to them, one gang member at a time, until the elephants are back in his care. Cause above all.

Australia’s Mad Max series–Mad Max 2/The Road Warrior, in particular–has Max seeking fuel, as all are seeking fuel in that desolate, dystopian place. When he hears there’s a refinery nearby with tons of the stuff, Max is ready to go grab some for himself no matter who else lives there. That the refinery is under siege by the Marauders makes no difference at first–the Marauders aren’t after Max, so Max doesn’t care. Max is just the Outsider in the situation, looking for his moment to benefit. That moment just so happens to line up with helping those in the refinery escape the Marauders’ siege.

Because this is another thing about that Outsider-Turned-Hero: the Outsider often has no stakes in whatever conflict is already in play in the story’s setting. He simply exists, and in this moment, his existence seems to be merely passing through. South Africa’s District 9, Japan’s Yojimbo, and Italy’s A Fistful of Dollars (which is just Yojimbo again, really, so one should look to For a Few Dollars More here). In District 9, Wikus is just a government worker doing his job: informing the alien race stuck on earth that their provided homes and lands are going to shrink even more. He is an Outsider to the alien culture but is dragged into the alien/human government conflict when he accidentally exposes himself to some of the fuel an alien father and son have been collecting. His body starts to change. He does not want to change. He only helps the aliens if it will mean he gets to be human again and return to his child. In the end, Wikus still changes into an alien, but he chooses to help the alien and his son escape because in Wikus’ eyes, the family code is more important than whatever humans deem right or wrong.

Yojimbo tells the story of a wandering  rōnin–masterless samurai–who comes across a town suffering under the power struggle of two warring bosses. The rōnin plays both bosses against one another to ruin them and save the town. This definitely makes the protagonist look like the Male Messiah, but is he doing it because it is “right,” or because it’s just what he wants to do because he lives by his own code? I mean, Fistful of Dollars sees The Man With No Name play the bosses against one another as he gets paid by each. The Man makes some serious money…and happens to bring some peace to the town. The Man wasn’t there to be a Messiah. He was there with his own livelihood, his own cause, above all else, and that cause led to being both a Punisher and Messiah in this particular setting’s conflict.

And perhaps that is another reason so many of us across different times and cultures connect with that Outsider: he is not restrained by whatever individual societies dictate. He believes in his own code above all else; sometimes that code benefits others, sometimes not, but that code rarely tolerates others vying for power. The Outsider has nothing to lose in joining the fray, and sometimes nothing to gain, either, yet the Outsider joins in. Whether he is a warrior with the skills to take the evil down–

–or a quiet countryman who prefers the peace of his pipe in the garden, The Outsider steps in front of the oppressed, the innocent, us, and decides, Enough of this.

And that, my friends, is a hero we love to share from one generation to the next.

~STAY TUNED!~

I’m really excited to share my interview with Midwestern author Patricia Skalka! I recently reviewed the opening chapter of her book Death Stalks Door County on my podcast for Private Eye July. Check out this book and other awesome stories on Story Cuppings, a podcast where I take a sip from various tales to see if they fit the tastes of we picky readers and working writers. x

We also need to take a moment to ponder the place of everyday absurdity in our writing, as well as twins. Yes, twins. I was going to include this Native American legend I found about an Outsider here, but its connection with twins–and my own connection with twins–makes the subject too intriguing not to make its own post.

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

#Murder Goes to Church in this #Podcast for #PrivateEyeJuly: The Murder at the Vicarage by #AgathaChristie

Welcome back, my fellow creatives! July is nearly at an end, and alas, that means bidding farewell to Private Eye July.

Last week, I mentioned how my husband likes to poke fun at me for not reading a certain detective.

“Let me get this straight,” he’d say. “You’ve read all the Poirot.”

Yes. At least twice.

“But you’ve never read a single Miss Marple?”

Nope.

He’d furrow his brows and say, “Yet you say you enjoy Agatha Christie.”

Yes.

“You’ve read And Then There Were None and some plays and stuff, not just the Poirot.”

Yes.

“But not…not Miss Marple? Her other most popular character of all time?”

Correct.

“Why?!”

Simple: I already had my sweet-older-lady-detective fix.

Bo would then bring up the Magnum/JB Fletcher crossover, and then we’d argue about which detective was better (they changed who solves the case for syndication, those stinkers!), and then the conversation would spiral from there.

Today, however, I stop ignoring Miss Marple. Today, at long last, it’s time to consider The Murder at the Vicarage by Agatha Christie.

If the embedded link recording is not showing up, you can click here to access the podcast site.

Next month I’ll dive into some recommendations from you as well as Blondie. Blondie has a LOT for me to cover, lol. x

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

It’s #Murder in the #NorthWoods on this #PrivateEyeJuly #Podcast : Death Stalks Door County by Patricia Skalka

Good morning, my fellow creatives! Today’s selection comes in thanks to my mother, who is an avid listener of Wisconsin Public Radio and heard about a series set in one of her favorite places in all of Wisconsin: Door County.

A rural mystery series set in Wisconsin? Sign me up! So let us take a break from the fantastical (though if you want a bit of fantastical Wisconsin, check this out!) and enjoy a traditional cozy set in the American Midwest.

Let’s take a sip together to taste the campfires, the lake, and the murder in Death Stalks Door County by Patricia Skalka.

If the embedded link recording is not showing up, you can click here to access the podcast site.

Next week we’ll wrap up Private Eye July with another cozy featuring a detective I’ve never read before, much to my husband’s chagrin. x

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