Lesson Learned in Writer’s Music from the Rolling Stones: Don’t Misunderstand your Villain.

sympathy_for_the_devil_coverA rare moment when I get to listen to music of my own choosing during the daylight hours. The moment comes with sacrifice: no writing.

Normally, when I take the boys to school, I walk to a bookshop a few blocks away and settle in for a morning of school work and writing. Today, however, was Parent Visitation Day at my daughter’s school one town over. “You can come this time, right Mommy?” Her toothless smile looked tenuous. She was so used to hearing “I can’t come because I’d have to bring the boys.” “I can’t leave the boys behind.” “I can’t when I have work, honey.” I can’t, I can’t, I can’t. I’ve written before how hard it is to get time without her brothers. This time I gave her a hug and said, “I can’t come for the whole thing.”

She groaned.

“But, I can be there in the morning for a little while.”

Blondie’s smile broke loose and spread to her toes, throwing her into a hopping frenzy. “You can dance with me at brain break! And see my desk! And hear my story!”

So here I am, driving between schools, with, of all things, the Rolling Stones blasting because it’s the only CD that’s not Weird Al” Yankovic or Veggie Tales. “Sympathy for the Devil” comes on, and my mind starts to wander…

Why, of all beings in the big ol’ Cosmos, would we give sympathy to the Devil? Yet, well, as writers, that is what we want to do. I’ve read stories where the villain has less development than Snidely Whiplash of the Dudley Do-Right cartoons, all cackles and mustache twirling, and have been utterly, utterly bored.

Now 2-D characters do have their place, like, say, Michael Myers of Halloween, but slasher films are where cookie-cutter characters thrive best: The Virgin. The Jock. The Slut. The Jealous Boyfriend/Girlfriend. The Nerd. Etc.

When it comes to novels, we need more than one-note characters: we need songs, harmonies, percussion, the whole sonata. And not just from the hero.

We want to be just as intrigued with the one whom the hero is up against.

Please allow me to introduce myself
I’m a man of wealth and taste
I’ve been around for a long, long year
Stole many a man’s soul to waste

There’s something to the tribal feel of the percussion here counter-balancing the piano. A unique style of class. It makes me picture a man with tailored suit and cane, someone at ease in the bar who for all his drink loses not one iota of wit, something like Alex from Clockwork Orange. Just listen to that opening stanza: He’s polite. Rich. Cultured. Seasoned. Sounds rather like a philanthropist, doesn’t he? One who smiles sincerely as he offers you a drink and a stool in return for your ear…

…and soul.

And I was ’round when Jesus Christ
Had his moment of doubt and pain
Made damn sure that Pilate
Washed his hands and sealed his fate

He starts with one of his oldest and dearest triumphs. You’d think this would turn you away, that you’d never want to listen to someone who sealed the fate of Christ. Yet you’re still sitting there, because here’s a man who reveals Christ had doubt. He takes the Big Good Guy and shows He’s no better than the rest of us. Everything feels a bit more level now, doesn’t it? Those Hoidy-Toidies ain’t got nuthin’ better than us.

Pleased to meet you
Hope you guess my name
But what’s puzzling you
Is the nature of my game

How curious this man wants us to guess his name. But he, like most villains, wants to be known. Understood. And what drives him? All villains need something to keep them on the path they’ve chosen.

And for this particular fellow, it is one of the most basic and most frightening of motivations.

He’s bored.

All that he shares with you is part of his “game,” and as he shares, the music builds and you find yourself awestruck and horrified and fascinated all at once…

I stuck around St. Petersburg
When I saw it was a time for a change
Killed the czar and his ministers
Anastasia screamed in vain

I rode a tank
Held a general’s rank
When the blitzkrieg raged
And the bodies stank

I watched with glee
While your kings and queens
Fought for ten decades
For the gods they made

I shouted out,
Who killed the Kennedys?
When after all
It was you and me

How can we possibly sit at this man’s side and listen to him share all this like it doesn’t matter?

Hey, a game is not supposed to be serious. A game is fun, harmless.

But his actions are everything but. Why, why listen?

Because we like him. Because he’s not simply “evil”–he is a complete creature with a nature that gets bored and wants to have fun.

Just.

Like.

Us.

Just as every cop is a criminal
And all the sinners saints
As heads is tails
Just call me Lucifer
‘Cause I’m in need of some restraint

This must reside in the core of our villain’s creation: they must have some essence of us, of the everyday person. Even the most alien of villains can have a nature with passions and repulsions. When we forget to give our villain a nature, we deny our heroes a true conflict. Without conflict, we deny our readers a true story.

And you know the cost of such a sin.

So if you meet me
Have some courtesy
Have some sympathy, and some taste
Use all your well-learned politesse
Or I’ll lay your soul to waste, mm yeah

Songwriters: KEITH RICHARDS, MICK JAGGER
© Abkco Music, Inc.
For non-commercial use only.
Data from: LyricFind
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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.

 

 

Writer’s Music: Ramin Djawadi

Soundtrack_Season_1Bo and Blondie return as I finish up the dishes. Both have sticks and bits of pink frosting about their faces. Pink frosting + sticks = cake pops.

The boys catch this in .000025 seconds. “ICE CREAM ICE CREAM!” Bash shrieks. (Hush, certain terms are not worth arguing.) “One for me? Have it? One for me?” Biff hops in place as Bo pulls two slightly mashed cake pops out of one paper bag. Blondie hands me another bag–awfully hard for a cake pop…

Music? Music I get to own?

“I got you season 1 because it had Sean Bean on the cover,” Bo says as the boys scale his lap while holding their cake pops like trophies into the air.

“Daddy said it’s for your writing.” Blondie hugs me, and whispers: “I’m going to play legos now. Don’t tell the boys.” Walk walk door-slam lock-click.

Honestly, 6 going on 16…

Anyway.

I ripped off the plastic and stuck it in. The quest for Gwen’s theme has not been easy; much of my music library was already committed to other stories, a lament I must have shared so often that Bo felt the need to surprise me with this. I don’t watch television or movies, so I have no idea what’s currently “good.” I needed something old, of period. It couldn’t just be fifes and mandolins, but some orchestrations get ridiculously bombastic or phony-sounding. It had to have a light sense–Gwen’s only a New Adult, after all–yet there needed to be…something gutteral about it. A swift movement. Dominating. Not to be intimidated.

I played the first track: Game of Thrones’ main theme.

YES! The cello was the perfect representation of one not to be daunted, one whose movement was echoed by the world, not vice versa. The drums pound like horses, like rain–yes, all this, want, me, yes, now.

BUT. Hmmm.

No, this couldn’t be it, not by itself.

Gwen isn’t ALWAYS like this. She thinks herself strong and powerful, but that’s just her pride talking. She feels that the only thing she’s got claim to in life is the blood feud of her mother’s family. She’s a middler with no love for her family or home. She has to rise up in memory of her mother’s memory. She has to claim blood by her own hands.

She has to be a killer. And what kid can will themselves ready for this?

Gwen has to face her pride and all the fears meddled with it. That’s a tremulous time. No drums there, no bad-ass cello. Something softer, more thoughtful…

Dammit, but I really like the theme!

So I continued through the seasons, noting which tracks fit my corner of Droma and/or my Shield Maidens. One of the great blessings of being a hermit is that I’ve never watched a frame of Game of Thrones, and therefore had no scenes/characters from the show to butt their way into my imagination as I listened.

After hours of exploring, I found young Gwen’s theme in season 3’s “For the Realm”:

Such a gentle guitar, yet through its echo of the main theme, I could still sense the old strength there. I set this guitar before the main theme, and felt Gwen’s character grow as the music changed. Perhaps you’ll feel the transformation, too, when you listen. All I know is that I’ve finally found Gwen’s theme. Her uncertainties, boastfulness, strength, and valor all come together for me here. About time.

Click here for more on Ramin Djawadi.

Click here for more on Gwen and Middler’s Pride. 

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:

20160818_055740

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.

respect-award

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.

Lessons Learned from Agatha Christie: Set the Stage with Just the Right Amount of Character.

140290I wish I could tell you what set me on Agatha Christie’s Poirot mysteries first. It might have been the PBS Mystery! episodes starring David Suchet. My folks may have recommended her, but they never read her work. Or maybe a librarian long ago recommended Christie to me, tired of me checking out the same illustrated edition of Holmes stories again. Whatever the case may be, I was hooked, and still am. While school friends passed spare time in study hall with Dean Koontz, Jeanette Oke, or J.R.R. Tolkien (the Spanish edition…because plain old Elvish ISN’T HARD ENOUGH), I was lost in The A.B.C. Murders, Hallowe’en Party, or Death on the Nile.

Dame Agatha Christie wrote The Mysterious Affair at Styles in 1916—100 years ago!

Wow, a century of Hercule Poirot…ahem. Sorry, I just thought that was really cool.

Mysteries carry some unique strengths and limitations compared to other genres that I’ve read. On the one hand, you have the ease of using the same protagonist as often as you’d like. You can develop his/her character slowly over the course of five, ten, twenty books. And those books don’t have to connect–each can be a stand-alone story. You may want to be like my son Biff, who loves to climb a single rock, jump off, then run over to another rock further down the park, or you may be like my daughter Blondie, who will start with the first rock, and carefully move from one rock to the next, determined to travel the park upon this road of stone until she reaches its end.

Other characters, though, just don’t get that same treatment. Few can. Unless one’s a recurring villain, or a foil for the detective, there simply isn’t the page space for ample character development. I used to strongly believe the contrary until I took up Styles with a more critical eye. To be clear, I don’t consider this a strike against mysteries; mysteries simply don’t need to be totally populated by complete human beings I could reach out and touch. Nor am I expecting a whole new world built just for a mystery. When I read a fantasy, I want to see a new world, or a new layer to my world. When I read a mystery by Agatha Christie, I know she’s writing stories that take place on this planet, with the same laws of physics, history, etc. There’s no need for her to extensively explain what’s going on in the world in 1916 for readers to have some sort of appropriate context.

What she does need to do is introduce the cast—that is, the potential victim and suspects—in a tight amount of space. A mystery can only be a mystery when there’s a crime either about to be committed or committed already. In a book of 13 chapters, one shouldn’t have to wait until Chapter 6 for the first crime. In Styles, we get the “The Night of the Tragedy” in Chapter 3 (thus the chapter title). That means we need the cast established before that. Two chapters. Is that enough?

(It occurred to me just now that there’s one exception to this cast establishment: the law enforcement character if the detective is outside of the law. It doesn’t exactly make sense for the law to show up until after the crime’s been committed.)

Let’s see when and how Christie introduces her suspects—I mean, characters.

Chapter 1: “I Go to Styles”

The book opens with a first-person narrator, whose name—Hastings—isn’t used until the fourth page.

  • The first paragraph tells us Poirot is his friend.
  • The third paragraph gives something of Hastings as well as introduces another character: I had been invalided home from the Front; and, after spending some months in a rather depressing Convalescent Home, was given a month’s sick leave. Having no near relations or friends, I was trying to make up my mind what to do, when I ran across John Cavendish.

Yes, yes—it’s rather like Dr. Watson, being a veteran of the war, wounded and sent home. But unlike Watson, Hastings is no medical professional. We learn he’s a bit of a loner, unsure of what to do with his life. For the sake of this story, that’s all we need for the start.

John Cavendish only gets a couple snippets of description over the first two pages:

  • Indeed, I had never known him particularly well. He was a good fifteen years my senior, for one thing, though he hardly looked his forty-five years.
  • John practiced for some time as a barrister, but had finally settled down the more congenial life of a country squire. He had married two years ago, and had taken his wife to live at Styles, though I entertained a shrewd suspicion that he would have preferred his mother to increase his allowance.

We often hear writers should use dialogue to get as much information to readers as possible, yes? Christie does that here. Other characters are introduced over the course of the conversation Hastings and John Cavendish have here at the beginning of Chapter 1.

  • “Your mother keeps well?” I asked.
    “Oh, yes. I suppose you know that she has married again?”
    I am afraid I showed my surprise rather plainly. Mrs. Cavendish, who had married John ‘s father when he was a widower with two sons, had been a handsome woman of middle-age as I remembered her.
  • Lawrence, the younger, had been a delicate youth. He had qualified as a doctor but early relinquished the profession of medicine, and lived at home while pursuing literary ambitions; though his verses never had any marked success.
  • John noticed my surprise at the news of his mother’s remarriage and smiled rather ruefully. “Rotten little bounder too!” he said savagely. “I can tell you, Hastings, it’s making life jolly difficult for us. As for Evie—you remember Evie?”
    “No.”
    “Oh, I suppose she was after your time. She’s the mater’s factotum, companion, Jack of all trades! A great sport—old Evie! Not precisely young and beautiful, but as game as they make them.”
    “You were going to say—?”
    “Oh, this fellow! He turned up from nowhere, on the pretext of being a second cousin or something of Evie’s, though she didn’t seem particularly keen to acknowledge the relationship. The fellow is an absolute outsider, anyone can see that. He’s got a great black beard, and wears patent leather boots in all weathers! But the mater cottoned to him at once, took him on as secretary—you know how she’s always running a hundred societies?”
    I nodded.

Almost three pages in, and we’ve already met or heard of six characters. Not too shabby!

By the bottom of the fourth page Hastings and John Cavendish arrive at Styles. First we hear of a new character—

  • “I wonder if we’ve time to pick up Cynthia. No, she’ll have started from the hospital by now.”
    “Cynthia! That’s not your wife?”
    “No, Cynthia is a protogee of my mother’s, the daughter of an old schoolfellow of hers, who married a rascally solicitor. He came a cropper, and the girl was left an orphan and penniless. My mother came to the rescue, and Cynthia has been with us nearly two years now. she works in the Red Cross Hospital at Tadminster, seven miles away.”

And then we start to meet the aforementioned characters.

  • Miss Howard shook hands with a hearty, almost painful, grip. I had an impression of very blue eyes in a sunburnt face. She was a pleasant-looking woman of about forty, with a deep voice, almost manly in its stentorian tones, and had a large sensible square body, with feet to math—these last encased in good thick boots. Her conversation, I soon found, was couched in the telegraphic style.
  • “My wife, Hastings,” said John. I shall never forget my first sight of Mary Cavendish. Her tall, slender form, outlined against the bright light; the vivid sense of slumbering fire that seemed to find expression only in those wonderful tawny eyes of hers, remarkable eyes, different from any other woman’s that I have ever known; the intense power of stillness she possessed, which nevertheless conveyed the impression of a wild untamed spirit in an exquisitely civilized body.
  • The French window swung open a little wider, and a handsome white-haired lady, with a somewhat masterful cast of features, stepped out of it on to the lawn. A man followed her, a suggestion of deference in his manner…. I looked with some curiosity at “Alfred darling.” He certainly struck a rather alien note. I did not wonder at John objecting to his beard. It was one of the longest and blackest I have ever seen. He wore gold-rimmed pince-nez, and had a curious impassivity of feature. It struck me that he might look natural on a stage, but was strangely out of place in real life. His voice was rather deep and unctuous…. Strange infatuation of an otherwise sensible woman!

During tea—for, being English, they simply must have tea—we get a couple more arrivals, and the first mention of Poirot among the characters.

  • Cynthia Murdock was a fresh-looking young creature, full of life and vigour. She tossed off her little V.A.D. cap, and I admired the great loose waves of her auburn hair, and the smallness and whiteness of the hand she held out to clam her tea. With dark eyes and eyelashes she would have been a beauty. (“Would have been”? Jeez, Hastings, what kind of lady-snot are you??)
  • He looked about forty, very dark with a melancholy clean-shaven face. Some violent emotion seemed to be mastering him. He looked up at my window as he passed, and I recognized him, though he had changed much in the last fifteen years that had elapsed since we last met. It was John’s younger brother, Lawrence Cavendish.

Notice who’s still missing? While Poirot isn’t met in Chapter 1, he is spoken of when Mrs. Cavendish asks Captain Hastings what he wants to do now that he can no longer be a soldier:

  • “Well, I’ve always had a secret hankering to be a detective.”
    “The real thing—Scotland Yard? Or Sherlock Holmes?”
    (I rather like how Sherlock Holmes isn’t the “real” thing because it’s not, you know, the “proper” side of legal service.)
    “Oh, Sherlock Holmes by all means. But really, seriously, I am awfully drawn to it. I came across a man in Belgium once, a very famous detective, and he quite inflamed me. He was a marvelous little fellow. He used to say that all good detective work was a mere mater of method. My system is based on his—though of course I have progressed rather further. He was a funny little man, a great dandy, but wonderfully clever.”

Chapter 2, “The 16th and 17th of July,” allows for a surprise meeting outside the post office:

  • As I came out again, I cannoned into a little man who was just entering. I drew aside and apologized, when suddenly, with a loud exclamation, he clasped me in his arms and kissed me warmly.
    Mon ami Hastings!” he cried. “It is indeed mon ami Hastings!”
    “Poirot!” I exclaimed.

We quickly learn that Mrs. Inglethorp has provided residents for Belgian refugees, and Poirot is one of them. And so is set the stage…

~*~

As I read through these introductions, I loved Christie’s touch in using Hastings as the narrator. The ease of establishing the cast via “catching up” dialogue was not boring, and totally plausible. It is also none too surprising how much attention Hastings gives the young females, while the chum John Cavenish gets hardly a physical detail. We have to trust Christie’s tactic through Hastings that such omissions don’t matter to the story, while the excessive descriptions we do receive, such as the “alien” Alfred Inglethorp, must bear some importance. I find this one of the great challenges in writing fiction: what MUST be established vs. what can be left to the individual reader’s perception. It’s so tempting to define EVERYthing so the reader has no choice but to see the story as we do, but honestly, does it matter what the narrator wears, or what the maid looks like? No. But they are not the detective, the focal point of the mystery. And sometimes, those physical details say just as much about the character as their speech, interests, or method of deduction. Poirot takes great care in his appearance, from the style of his mustache to the polish of his shoes. He pays attention to the tiniest of details on himself, and around him…unlike, you know, everyone else, including Hastings.

I couldn’t help but smile as I read Hasting’s description of Poirot to Mrs. Cavendish. It just so happens to provide some amazing foreshadowing for the case to come—

–that is, for his telling of the case. If there’s anything else to be learned from The Mysterious Affair at Styles, it’s the joy of storytelling through an unreliable narrator.

To be concluded…

*(insert lightning crash and maniacal laughter here)*

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Writer’s Music: Steve Jablonsky II

onesheetA couple of months ago I wrote of Steve Jablonsky, how I only knew his music from a single anime film: Steamboy. Now I can appreciate that steampunk is not everyone’s cup of tea when it comes to genre writing: it’s an eclectic mix of science fiction, fantasy, and history all baked into a single pastry that you’re either going to really, really love, or really, really hate. (Rather like my aunt’s rhubarb cranberry bread, come to think.)

Steamboy is one of Jablonsky’s earlier works, and it feels it-not in a bad way, to be clear. There’s a greater dependency on his theme for protagonist Ray throughout the film; any time something heroic or incredible happens, out pops the theme. It’s a bit like the James Bond theme during the Connery films–all Bond had to do was enter the room, and ba da BA DUN, ba da da! You couldn’t go through ten minutes of the film without hearing his theme. (And now the Craig Bond films don’t touch the theme with a ten-foot pole, but ANYway.) My point is, Jablonsky knew he had a good thing, and was determined to use it whenever possible.

Good job he did, because the theme itself is brilliant. Like Ray himself, who starts a boy and finishes the hero of London, the song starts with delicate sounds: piano, harp, oboe, with strings carefully supporting. Halfway through the song, the harp lets loose, and the brass step it up. The trumpets take over the melody, and the edition of subtle percussion makes the music strong, yet light–like Steamboy, this is a creation made to fly.

Every hero deserves a song. Perhaps Ray’s song is just the machination your story needs to send your hero soaring through the pages and into readers’ hearts.

Click here for more on Steve Jablonsky.

Darth Vader Was Polish, & Other Lessons Learned

Upon Bo’s insistence, I took a break from grading school work, social media, kids, the lot. The plan: meet my friend Rachel (not the one recovering from a brain tumormost Lutheran mothers were compelled to name kids of my generation Rachel, Sarah, or some form of Kristine) at Polish Fest.

Milwaukee is a hub of summer festivals. Summerfest is the “world’s biggest music festival,” apparently, and there’s German Fest, Pride Fest, Bastille Days, Feste Italiana, India Fest, Irish Fest–just, gobs of stuff. I don’t live in Milwaukee, so attending these goings-on is a rare treat for me. I decided to take advantage of childlessness and attempt something  Inesemjphotography does brilliantly all the time:  chronicle life.

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What did I learn? Capturing people is hard! Take these monks, for instance. (Seriously, take them–ba dum CH!) I was too nervous to stop in front of them and flash the camera like they were some sort of oddity,even though they were an oddity in Milwaukee, and I couldn’t for the life of me figure out what they were doing there.  Had they come down from Holy Hill?

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Later Rachel and I discovered a few more inside the Polish Fest grounds by a beer stand. Apparently the monks had made the beer….not that I got a picture of that…

We enjoyed some Still Stormin’ polka by the festival’s entry. A few even took to dancing, like this fellow in the red shirt. (By dancing, I mean a slight bending of the knees mostly in rhythm with the bobbing of his head. That’s how I dance, anyway.)

Determined to spot interesting characters, we meandered about.

This particular gentleman was something of a clay mound of curmudgeonness. His eyes moved only when people came anywhere near his art.

Lake Michigan. It can look beautiful by Milwaukee if you time it right. Never look upon its shores after a storm; city sewers dump disgusting horrors, and you can’t help but wonder if the film Wall-E is a reality not far off, after all.

Some displays, and a sun I decided had to be artfully captured over the dragon’s head, and therefore rather lost the Wawel Dragon.

“I hope this isn’t a secret effigy,” Rachel said of the doll. And I have to admit, the way these dolls were tied onto the posts, I was rather worried if those Milwaukee blacksmiths had other activities planned for their forge’s fire.

My attempt at people pictures was feebler. More feeble? I’m amazed no grammar check popped up with feebler. Who says feebler?

The sun wreaked havoc on my shots. The sky itself had barely a cloud, but once the sun reached a certain point in the sky, all my shots looked like I had a thin coating of Vaseline on the lens.

At least I found more monks. Rachel kindly obliged for a shot, too. 🙂

Over the course of the evening, I also learned just how hard it is to capture characters. Professional photographers have an eye for the elements of setting and person that create a “scene” or a “character.” When one is NOT a professional, and is determined to FORCE such shots to happen, one doesn’t get much. Rather like writing, isn’t it?

Thankfully, Polish Fest gave me a few lucky breaks, sunlight aside. These ladies were cultural assistants, driving around the festival and answering questions.

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Some sort of run/walk relay was about to start. I’m not sure why that would require elf-heads, but then, this was my first Polish Fest.

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Saw this and felt a pang for my kids. Blondie and Bash would love to be nude all the time, if not for, you know, public decency and all that. (Biff is the shy one for some reason.)

I also couldn’t help but be impressed that the mom had successfully tied that balloon to her daughter’s hair, and it stayed throughout the clothing change.

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But here, here stood my ultimate failure on this photographical excursion:

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I know, they’re just a couple. But she in a loud, newer Star Wars shirt with Darth Vader and his lightsaber on full blast, he with a mustache that HE KEPT HIDING FROM MY CAMERA BLAST HIM

Ahem.

He with a mustache that would have made Hercule Poirot proud.

Sentence fragments aside, I felt like I had finally found my characters. I would have loved to eavesdrop on their conversation and discover what brought them here. Heritage? Boredom? A secret meeting of sci-fi mystery enthusiasts?

But alas, they moved purposefully away from my loud phony speech as I “CHECKED MY PHONE” for…whatever, I forget. Pretty sure I’m not made for undercover work…but then, Poirot wasn’t much for undercover, either, and he was still one of the world’s greatest detectives.

Poirot

And to top it off, they ran out of paczkis.

Slumping abounded.

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It seemed best to pack it up, camera-wise. My timing was off, the sun was horrible. Only so much quality could be had from a smart phone’s camera, anyway. And there wasn’t anything to really notice. Maybe I’m being hard on Milwaukee, or maybe I’m being hard on Polish Fest. Maybe I just don’t get out enough, but I thought for sure such a niche festival would have drawn a more unique flavor of life out of the community. Right now, all I could taste was the very American cheddar cheese in my pierogi.

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“Let’s at least try some culture,” Rachel said with a nod toward a long tent off the main walkway. I follow, still slumped. No paczkis. No nationally renowned polka bands with dancing contest. No delectable paczkis. No fascinating people who stand still in a dramatic fashion at the right moment to be preserved for all posterity. No powdery paczkis with oozy raspberry goodness in the center. No cooking demos instructing one on how to make her own paczkis lest such a tragedy were to befall one again.

We walked in, and I lost my slump. Still no paczkis, but there was a fascinating man with some sort of mini-telescope around his neck spinning wool into thread. Angry, spooky pottery. Straw creations that hailed me back to my childhood, when I had tried to follow a Swedish pattern for straw Christmas ornaments. Polish women who had made hats for the Resistance back in *mumble white noise date lost mumble* and were now making them to sell, along with flower wreaths. “Try them on!” They had that sort of loud-laugh-command voice, the kind where they sound light-hearted, but that’s only because they’ve got rolling pins at the ready under the table.

If there’s anything I’ve learned from my very Polish grandmother-in-law, it’s that you don’t mess with an old Polish woman.

Guess I didn’t need to hunt for characters so much as be a character. It helps to have a good sport for a friend, too. 🙂

So, overall, a good day. I learned photographing people is best left to professionals, and that Polish Fest should be visited at midday, when paczkis are freshly filled with gooey yumminess and polkas echo up and down the midway.

While I may not be able to share a paczki with you, I can still share this: my Lessons Learned collection is complete. All my posts about Diana Wynne Jones together at last, plus two more essays I never put on the site (I believe the term is “bonus content.”). Sign up for email notification when new stuff’s posted, and I’ll send the collection your way. If you already walk this journey with me, email me at jeanleesworld@gmail.com. It’s the least I can do for having the honor of your company.

In the meantime, I’ll wander in the twilight, sharing a breath of lake air with monks and yearning for the sugary delights of far-off lands.

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Lessons Learned from Umberto Eco: Like this character? Tough tamales, I’ll kill him. Why? Because I can. Mwa ha ha!

mediaLast Time, on Jean Lee’s World…

To be clear: I LIKED The Name of the Rose. I admire Eco’s grace with language–hell, the man could write in what, four or five languages with ease? He felt the thrum of narrative in his fingers and his heart. As a reader, I took great pleasure in the rhythm, and danced where I was led.

But just because I danced does not mean I agree with how this dance went.

~*~

Now: This is the second step, and the more irritating of the two at that.

Death is a natural for the mystery. Death is itself a mystery, after all. Being a daughter of faith, I learned that death is but a door, a turning at the crossroads. All reach this turning when God says it’s time. Since the birth of my daughter I have seen four important people of my life take that turn: my father-in-law, my grandfather, my grandmother, my father. One year after another, Death’s crossing led my family away from me. The air tastes like vinegar when I think of it.

So when it comes to death in a fictional world, I do not take it lightly. In fact, I am infuriated when an author does. Like Eco.

Yes, Eco.

“But Jean, it’s a mystery. People die in mysteries ALL the time.” Well duh. My all-time favorite tv show is Murder, She Wrote, for cryin’ out loud. Once I started reading Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, I lost myself in the intrigues of Agatha Christie, Colin Dexter, P.D. JamesEllis Peters, and Elizabeth George.

Yes. In a mystery, someone dies. A bunch, even.

But those deaths are still not taken lightly. At the very least, those deaths serve the story, and press it forward. Justice is sought, and usually served. If justice is not served, there is at least some sort of reason to answer why.

Does Eco have such deaths? Oh, yes. A number of monks die in The Name of the Rose due to their involvement with something sinister. Their deaths work with the story. Eco even seems to relish the foretelling of their murders, which…eh. A little foreshadowing is fine, now and again, such as when Ado alludes to a future tragedy in the midst of a religious debate:

Perhaps I made a mistake: if I had remained on guard, many other misfortunes would have been averted. but I know this now; I did not know it then.

Or he’ll stick his foreshadowing into the chapter heading to hook the reader:

MATINS: In which a few hours of mystic happiness are interrupted by a most bloody occurrence.

Yes, it worked on me every time, blast him.

Yes, I’m still infuriated. Not about that–about the fates of two particular characters.

First, the girl. A poor villager smuggled in by monks for sexual favors and paid for with food. The only physical girl character in the novel (as opposed to female saints or witches), our narrator, the novice Adso, discovers her in the kitchen waiting for whomever has bought her that night. But his entry interrupts that, and they…well Adso’s far more poetic about sex than I could ever be. A few chapters later she is discovered by an inquisitor and branded a witch. Adso pleads with his master, William of Baskerville, to save her. He shakes his head. Nothing to be done. She is, as he puts it, “burnt flesh.”

Not that we see her death. We’re just told it will eventually happen in some other town. Adso never sees her after the arrest, and she quickly fades from importance.

I gritted my teeth over this one. So, the character was created to help propel seedy events. Growth of Adso’s character. Expose the absurdity of witchcraft accusations back then. Okay. Sure. But her death doesn’t matter? Even the screenwriters of the film version didn’t care for this, and had the girl be saved from the pyre. Saved or not, at least give the girl a chance to finish her life’s arc on the stage instead of off.

But the “death” that REALLY gets me is way, way in the beginning of the novel, with one of the first major characters we meet: Ubertino. An older man, very learned, experiences with the warring Pope and the Emperor, friend of William of Baskerville, and now in hiding for his life awaiting the secret religious debate to take place at this very abbey. At one point in their first conversation, Adso gets a little freaked out by Ubertino’s behavior:

At that moment, terrified, I thought Ubertino was in the power of a kind of holy frenzy, and I feared for his reason. Now, with the distance of time, knowing what I know–namely, that two years later he would by mysteriously killed in a German city by a murderer never discovered–I am all the more terrified, because obviously that evening Ubertino was prophesying.

Part of what makes a mystery a mystery is that there’s no telling who will be killed, when, with what, or why. Because Adso is writing this account years later, we know he survives, but that’s it. We don’t know if William of Baskerville lives through this murder. We only know that one monk has died under suspicious circumstances, but the book is massive (my edition is 538 pages long), so there HAS to be at least another death. Who will it be? Readers want to be invested in the characters. Sure, they want them to live. That makes them read on: so they live.

What we DON’T like is being told: “Sure, this guy will live. For now. He dies later, so you know. His efforts are pretty pointless here. But hey, he lives through this!”

Then what’s the point?

Why should I care about him, if I know he’s going to live through this ordeal only to die for no reason offstage? Any suspense surrounding this character is gone. That means the mystery around this character is gone.

And the last thing a mystery can afford to lose, is mystery.

 

Writer’s Music: Thomas Newman II

91ufkP71uyL._SY355_Long, long ago, one of my mother’s favorite stories was turned into a film (again): LITTLE WOMEN. She and my father decided to do a family movie outing, where he, my uncle, and my brother would attend one film, and my mother, aunt, and I would attend another.

I was seething the entire trip. Why couldn’t I see the boy movie? HIGHLANDER III sounded loads better than some girl movie. (May the snickering commence.)

Looking back…well, I never did get to see Highlander III, so I still don’t know whether or not I came out ahead. (Yes, I’ve been told I have, many times over.) No matter what I thought of the story or the film, one element stuck with me, hard: the music.

Newman’s theme to Little Women still surprises me with its versatility. The opening sequence shines brightly through the brass and strings. Splendor, light, joy–all this comes through in “Orchard House.”

The theme depicts a strength you can’t help but associate with Jo and her sisters. They’re a source of life for the brooding and sick surrounding them.

But then they grow up, part ways. It takes a death to bring them back together.

Now Newman could have written a special sorrowful theme. He could have devised something simple for the period, with, say, a violin or a flute. Lord knows I was familiar enough with the lone violin playing “Shenandoah’s Theme” every time an important person died in Ken Burns’ documentary THE CIVIL WAR. But Newman didn’t. He used his life-light theme again, but not with an orchestra. This time, the theme comes to us on piano in “Valley of the Shadow.”

A piano still has the feel of the period. It was the beloved instrument of the character who died. The theme comes to us in chords, without fluid arpeggios or connections: the notes move together, as these sisters must now move forward together.

I cannot think of another score where the main theme moves from triumph to mourning with a mere change of instrument.

Stories, at least the good ones, do not follow the easy journeys. They take the mountain trails, pass through all those shadowed valleys. Face the monsters all around.

Within.

Only then can a light of triumph shine upon that final page.

Click here for more on Thomas Newman.

Click here for more on LITTLE WOMEN.