Lessons Learned from Agatha Christie: The Omission Says It All.

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Studying Agatha Christie’s Poirot mysteries has been a real treat this year. But like any favorite food, its taste has grown a touch stale on my writing pallette. Before I take a good, long break from one of the greatest authors of all time, I wanted to share one of the lessons learned from what many consider to be her masterpiece: And Then There Were None

And-Then-There-Were-None-HBI had written this book because it was so difficult to do that the idea had fascinated me. That people had to die without it becoming ridiculous or the murderer being obvious. I wrote the book after a tremendous amount of planning, and I was pleased with what I had made of it. It was clear, straightforward, baffling, and yet had an epilogue in order to explain it. It was well received and reviewed, but the person who was really pleased with it was myself, for I knew better than any critic how difficult it had been. –Agatha Christie, “Author’s Note”

One extraordinary achievement in this book is the slick point-of-view-leapfrog Christie plays to bamboozle readers from the very start. Yes, changing p.o.v. is something that has irritated me in the past, but has also been used well in her Poirot series. In And Then There Were None, Christie deftly takes readers in and out of a killer’s mind without readers ever having a clue it happened.

How?

Well to start, they’re all killers.

Yup.

We glean this from the little things, the thoughts in the characters’ minds that run to the front of the bus like a child unbuckled…

A picture rose clearly before [Vera’s] mind. Cyril’s head, bobbing up and down, swimming to the rock… Up and down–up and down…. And herself, swimming in easy practised strokes after him–cleaving her way through the water but knowing, only too surely, that she wouldn’t be in time… (3)

Well, [General Macarthur would] enjoy a chat about old times. He’d had a fancy lately that fellow soldiers were rather fighting shy of him. All owing to that damned rumour! By God, it was pretty hard–nearly thirty years ago now! Armstrong had talked, he supposed. Damned young pup! What did he know about it? (7)

Lucky that [Dr. Armstrong had] managed to pull himself together in time after that business ten–no, fifteen years ago. It had been a near thing, that! He’d been going to pieces. The shock had pulled him together. He’d cut out drink altogether. By Jove, it had been a near thing though… (9)

Many of the characters wander in and out of such thoughts–all but one. The novel itself begins with Justice Wargrave (is that not just one of the most awesome names for a judge?) en route via train to the coast, where he will take a boat to Nigger/Indian/Soldier Island.* We learn nothing of his past, whereas all the other character introductions dip into the past for at least a paragraph or two. Why don’t we see his past? We’re too distracted to ask, for he’s thinking about the mysterious island, and the letter inviting him there from one Lady Constance Culmington. He thinks about her exotic, impulsive behavior:

Constance Culmington, he reflected to himself was exactly the sort of woman who would buy an island and surround herself with mystery! Nodding his head in gentle approval of his logic, Mr. Justice Wargrave allowed his head to nod… (2)

Note the words “his logic.” Why does he need to reason out something that, on its bare page, seems very straightforward? After all, the letter inviting him to the island is signed with her name. When he’s reasoning out why she’d send it, he’s not thinking about friendship or past pleasures together. Nope, he’s just thinking about why someone like her would buy an island. Why? We’re not told why.

Another curious moment arises in Chapter 2, when the judge addresses Dr. Armstrong about Constance Culmington and her “unreadable handwriting.” Who brings up that trait of all traits to someone they’ve only just met? We’re not told why.

Chapter 3 kicks the plot into high gear as a vinyl record states all the characters’ names and their murder charges. Justice Wargrave gathers up everyone’s connections to the island’s owners, Mr. and Mrs. U.N. Owen, and shows the other guests there are no such owners, that the name simply stands for “unknown.”

Vera cried: “But this is fantastic–mad!”

The judge nodded gently. He said. “Oh, yes. I’ve no doubt in my own mind that we have been invited here by a madman–probably a dangerous homicidal lunatic.” (41)

Why the hell would a judge, a man of law and order, go spoutin’ off a description that’s bound to incur panic and other extreme reactions from the guests? We’re not told why.

But by story’s end we surely know: because he knows, in his own mind, what he is.

Such little details given without context, like single puzzle pieces without a box, are as close to clues as we’re going to get. In Chapter 4, Wargrave’s the only one “picking his words with care” (43). In Chapter 6, he tells the others in “a slightly ironic voice”:

“My dear lady, in my experience of ill-doing, Providence leaves the work of conviction and chastisement to us mortals–and the process is often fraught with difficulties. There are no short cuts.” (66)

For all my ripping over the use of outlines and plans for a story, there’s no denying that one needs to plan a mystery such as this in extreme detail in order to find what one can omit and what one can say with “a slightly ironic voice.” How else could Christie describe a man as “passionless and inhuman” (108) in a setting and plot driven by fear and humanity’s fight to survive against an unseen threat? Plus, Christie distracts readers in Chapter 10 by using characters Philip Lombard and Vera to move suspicion from Wargrave (“He gets to see himself as all powerful, as holding the power of life and death” (114)) to Dr. Armstrong (“He’s the only person here with medical knowledge” (115)). These maneuvers successfully keep readers from missing the omissions.

the-eleventh-hourThis level of subtle hint-craft reminds me of Graeme Base’s The Eleventh Hour: A Curious Mystery. We owned the picture book when I was a kid, and yes, I broke open the super-secret solution envelope at the end to find out who stole the birthday feast. Base painted wee mice into every single picture of the book as clues to the culinary culprit, but these mice were a part of the furniture, the yard, the tennis court–only when you knew what clues to look for were you able to actually see them.

So it is with And Then There Were None: when one’s just reading, one moves with the ebb and flow through the different points of view. Only when the reader reaches the end and learns the judge is the culprit can he/she see the absence of the past, the details that don’t quite fit with such a character, and so on.

Perhaps, like me, you enjoy flying by the seat of your pants through that first draft. If you wish to create a mystery with no clear answers, though, plan to work hard on the, well, plan. Some clues need to be heard, seen, touched, but other clues can be created with an absence, removal, a tearing-outing. Only by knowing your villain’s moves from story’s end and back, back to before the story’s start, will you be able to create clues as stealthy as a mouse.

*I have to say that I find the soldier iteration of the poem better than the ethnically offensive versions. Any one of any race can be murdered, but one expects a soldier, let alone a group of soldiers, capable of overtaking a murderer.

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Lessons Learned from Agatha Christie: Even a B Novel Should Have an A Title.

Some weeks ago I shared my conundrum over Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Links and how the title fixated on the least important element of the mystery. While I don’t want to drag you over that ground yet again, I did want to point out that even so-so stories can have cunning titles.

514b777c3e455ce895e946b3f0573ba7--dead-man-productsI’ve read Christe’s F game (see Poirot’s Christmas). I’ve read Christie’s A game (see ABC Murders). My latest acquisition, Dead Man’s Follywould be, I’d say, her B game. There are a few obvious clues, as well as one dumb bit of New Information At The End that of course explains the motive. Yet there are also some surprises that, looking back, you realize were there all along, beginning before the killer gets a’killin’.

Poirot’s foil in the post-Captain Hastings years is a mystery writer named Ariadne Oliver. This time she’s invited Poirot to a manor where she’s created a “Murder Hunt”–a hunt for clues to solve a fake murder for prizes.

Now it sounds like this is where the title comes from, doesn’t it? A fake murder + a game= Dead Man’s Folly. Simple enough approach, but functional.

Oliver senses something sinister is brewing around her, but can’t figure out what it could be and wants Poirot to help. They meet on the grounds and she describes the manor’s residents, which leads us to our first mention of the architect and his job on the estate:

“Then there’s Michael Weyman–he’s an architect, quite young, and good-looking in a craggy kind of artistic way. He’s designing a tennis pavilion for Sir George and repairing the Folly.”

“Folly? What is that–a masquerade?”

“No, it’s architectural. One of those little sort of temple things, white, with columns.” (23)

Like Poirot, I had to pause here. I’d never heard of a Folly before, but then I live in Wisconsin, where any used gazebo’s got thick-as-you-can-get bug screens, or else.

Further on it sounds like this Folly’s called a Folly for another reason:

“It’s bedded down in concrete,” said Weyman. “And there’s loose soil underneath–so it’s subsided. Cracked all up here–it will be dangerous soon–Better pull the whole thing down and re-erect it on the top of the bank near the house. That’s my advice, but the obstinate old fool won’t hear of it…If the foundations are rotten–everything’s rotten.” (27-8)

So we have a rich man, apparently a fool, who’s insisted on erecting this lovely bit of architecture in the worst possible place for no apparent reason. The stereotype works beautifully in Christie’s favor, as the lord of the manor seems frivolous in wife, jewelry for aforementioned wife, and more. This Folly is just one more way he spends without thinking.

Or is it?

Foolish talk from a child about a body found and hidden in the woods. Snide remarks from an old man about the manor’s bloodline. A mysterious yachtman from a foreign country arrives to see the lady of the manor. Suddenly the lady is missing, the child strangled to death in the very spot where a fake corpse was to be found for the Murder Hunt. Days later the old man has drowned in an “accident.” All of it swirls and overlaps until Poirot connects the talk to the actions, to the behaviors, to the past…which, sadly, is where the New Information at the End kicks in. Despite this, Poirot’s last reveal to a suspect connects all with such deftness that even I’m willing to forgive that Late Clue Drop:

“Listen, Madame. What do you hear?”

“I am a little deaf…What should I hear?”

“The blows of a pickaxe….They are breaking up the concrete foundation of the Folly…What a good place to bury a body–where a tree has been uprooted and the earth already disturbed. A little later, to make all safe, concrete over the ground where the body lies, and, on the concrete, erect a Folly…” (223)

What was originally presented as a bit of foolishness by the New Rich Guy turns out to be the clever cover by the Old Family Bloodline. The old man’s snide remark is true about the family, the tale the child told is true about the body, and the strange foreigner who insists on seeing the lady of the manor would have exposed an evil the lord and lady were hiding. All was rotten from the start, even pointed out to us as such in that opening chapter, but only now upon the last page do we understand just how rotten the manor–and its family–had become.

Was Dead Man’s Folly a thrilling read? No. In fact, I’d put it on par with Murder on the Links (har har). But whereas I kept reading Links expecting a deeper connection to golf, I was pleasantly surprised by the many-fold meaning of the Folly. In the end, the title helped the book become a more satisfying read because it foretold and still surprised, just as a strong title should for a story of any grade.

Lessons Learned from Agatha Christie, My Children, & Batman: A Single Quirk Can Go a Looong Way.

When we create characters, we want them to be a person we can reach out, touch, talk with. And they must be more than mere dolls with that scratchy speaker embedded somewhere inside its stuffing that rasps out a limited number of lines. We want to create people who have thoughts and beliefs all their own. We want characters to be.

But how to grow such characters? Sometimes, one quirk is all it takes.

20170829_120446Take my kids, for instance. Bash often lays on his back with his legs crossed in the air. It’s a startling image: my father used to do the same thing all the time. Bash often crosses his legs while sitting, just as my father, grandfather, and uncles all did. It’s a strange habit that, once noticed, reveals a familial connection.

Blondie, my amazing girl: gifted with my memory for words and her father’s humor. A girl of giving heart…and also some of the worst traits of her parents. Like Bo, she does not like to work very hard on something for very long. A task will get a flurry of attention, and then is left to rot into the oblivion. Like me, she is quick in temper and prefers screaming at her brothers rather than talking through the problem. I still struggle with staying calm and not blowing up at them for throwing toys or fighting.

And then, of course, there are the quirks that are unique to each child. Biff, who is no longer constipated, thank the Lord, insists on being Master of Toilet Flushing. The second anyone uses the facilities there comes a frantic, “Can I flush it can I flush it FLUSH IT?!?!?!” He doesn’t throw anything else into the bowl–hell, he doesn’t even stick around to watch the swirling. He just needs to be the one who pulls the handle. My aunt, my husband, and I have all made the grievous mistake of flushing on our own. The tantrum that results is both epic and pathetic, nor will it not stop until someone else uses the toilet so he can FLUSH IT!

Like the food coloring mixed in the water for carnations, singular quirks can influence other traits. Yup, Biff has moments of extreme OCD. He may leave a pile of crashed cars in his wake, but don’t you dare leave any book face down. Blondie will freeze when school work gets hard and gets extremely frustrated when the solutions don’t come via guesswork. Bash loves using found things to tell a story, just as the grandfather he barely knew would do for his sermons. (Though I don’t recall my dad insisting on eating with several forks so every kind of food had its own utensil. That’s just weird, Bash.)

Fictional characters can grow a good deal from a single trait, too. Say what you will about toy-driven movies like The Lego Batman Movie: it took a single character element–in this case, Batman’s ego–to extremes both hilarious and fitting for the story. I wish I could share the entire opening sequence, but this song should give you a fairly rough idea on how Batman views himself:

No one can tell Batman what to do or how to handle the bad guys. He’s the best at everything, and “no one [else] has ever had a good idea. Ever.” It takes getting captured by the Joker and being sent to the Phantom Zone for Batman to see just what kind of jerk he’s been. It’s a change of heart that might seem obvious to adults, but that means kids see the transformation clearly as well.

51688eac587843905538e43286823004--famous-books-crime-booksI recently saw this single-trait strategy work well for Agatha Christie, too.  In Thirteen at Dinner (also known as Lord Edgware Dies, a far more fitting title) we meet Jane Wilkinson, a selfish film actress who wants her husband dead. But since she doesn’t “seem to run to gunmen over here [in England],” she asks Poirot to persuade the Lord Edgware to divorce her so she can marry a duke.

“I think you overrate my persuasive powers, Madame.”

“Oh! but you can surely think of something, M. Poirot.” She leaned forward. Her blue eyes opened wide again. “You’d like me to be happy, wouldn’t you?”

Her voice was soft, low and deliciously seductive.

“I should like everybody to be happy,” said Poirot cautiously.

“Yes, but I wasn’t thinking of everybody. I was thinking of just me.”

“I should say you always do that, Madame.”

He smiled.

“You think I’m selfish?”

“Oh! I did not say so, Madame.”

“I dare say I am. But, you see, I do so hate being unhappy.” (7)

Well of course, someone murders Lord Edgware, and of course, everyone suspects Jane since she’s been talking of nothing else but wanting her husband dead. Of course, clues arise to clear her. Of course, Poirot and Hastings visit the widow:

She looked like an angel about to give vent to thoughts of exquisite holiness. “I’ve been thinking. It all seems so miraculous, if you know what I mean. Here I am–all my troubles over. No tiresome business of divorce…Just my path cleared and all plain sailing…I’ve thought and I’ve thought lately–if Edgware were to die. And there–he’s dead! It’s–it’s almost like an answer to a prayer.”

Poirot cleared his throat.

“I cannot say I look at it quite like that, Madame. Somebody killed your husband.”

She nodded.

“Why, of course.”

“Has it not occurred to you who that someone was?”

She stared at him. “Does it matter? I mean–what’s that to do with it? The Duke and I can be married in about four or five months…”

With difficulty Poirot controlled himself.

“Yes, Madame. I know that. But apart from that has it not occurred to you to ask yourself who killed your husband?”

“No.” She seemed quite surprised by the idea. (49-50)

Selfish to the extreme, I’d say. But this selfishness is both a clue and a red herring because it’s Agatha Christie, and we should all know better by now.

Jane’s obsession with her own life and goals gives readers the impression of someone so self-involved that she doesn’t get how the world works. “Things just go right for me,” she says, and believes it. Other scenes in the story show her lack of knowledge about the law, culture, politics, etc. She comes off as, well, a bit of a bimbo.

Yet by story’s end we learn she’s not dumb at all. Oh, she’s selfish, make no mistake, but she’s not dumb. She found an actress who does impressions and had that actress impersonate her at a dinner party to provide an alibi. In the end, Jane did indeed kill her husband, since the duke did not believe in divorce. Jane wanted that duke; therefore, the present husband had to go. This then means that answering Poirot’s question seems rather silly. Of course she knows who killed her husband: she did.

The book ends with a letter from Jane in prison addressed to Poirot, explaining how she had managed to murder three times and elude detection for so long. Even here, the selfishness shines as brightly as ever:

 “I thought of that all by myself. I think I’m more proud of that than anything else. Everyone always says I haven’t got brains–but I think it needed real brains to think of that…I wonder if you are ever sorry for what you did. After all, I only wanted to be happy in my own way. And if it hadn’t been for me you would never have had anything to do with the case. I never thought you’d be so horribly clever. You didn’t look clever. It’s funny, but I haven’t lost my looks a bit…” (125-6)

It’s so easy to get caught up in the idea of making “complicated” characters, with all sorts of goodness and wickedness and everything in between. And sometimes, complicated works very well, just as several different flowers together make a garden. But a single seed grows, too, in ways both beautiful and unexpected. You’ve but to plant it, care for it, and see.

A #summer of #writing & #motherhood, part 2: Experience Does Not Always Inspire Learning.

A lovely summer day, the kind of day that inspires so much hope and happiness in little ones, especially when:

“We go to the carnival today!”

Biff said it the moment I opened the boys’ door that morning. He talked about it all through breakfast, all through the agony of waiting for Grandma to come at lunchtime. He plowed through his food in a few minutes and literally hung by the door. He peed on command in the potty, found his shoes and sat without kicking.

We met my kid brother and his family, up from Arizona to visit relations, for an afternoon of kiddie rides and giggles. Yes, this the same place I wrote about previously that grips a peculiar air during the off-season, when all is metal bones and concrete in the cold.

But in summer’s light, sweet air, the heebie-jeebies are forgotten. Smiles abound.

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Biff and Grandma–yay, carousel!

Until, of course, this:

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It was one of the last rides of the afternoon. Bash had been throwing tantrums, while Biff had been an excellent listener. I felt he deserved a reward, and could pick the next ride. Of course, he picked the ferris wheel. Why not? We had ridden it last year without  trouble. He jumped about in line, beyond stoked, and sat quite still in his seat, enamored with the heights. I, of course, was petrified that he’d make a sudden move at any given moment, and gripped his arm and shoulder the entire ride.

And then, we were back to the ramp, our turn done. I let go.

I let go.

I let go, and he ran from the bench and fell off the ramp and his feet in the air and head down and I heard the screams and saw the blood and thought my boy, I killed my boy, my boy is dying right in front of me because I let go.

I cry even now writing this.

I gripped him and the towels on his head as people swarmed to me, to us. Bo got Bash and Blondie to my relatives and ran over. Ambulance, a policeman, it all…and me crying and pleading for it to be okay and I was so sorry because I knew if I had held on….

Biff calmed down far, far sooner than I, I think because a policeman was talking to him for the first time. Biff asked him his name, what he was doing there, did he want to ride the ferris wheel, too? My little Biff spoke so smoothly without stopping that the EMTs and officer thought the chances of concussion too small to be a concern. After a stupidly long wait at urgent care where even Biff tells me to “Calm down, Mom,” we came home to see the others going on a short walk.

What did Biff do? He launched himself from the car to run down the street after them.

He tried to run alongside the cars as family departed.

He jumped from furniture because he was Superman.

He head-butted Bash because, brothers.

With me, holler-pleading all the while, “Didn’t you learn ANYTHING from those stitches?!?!”

Writing’s rather like that, on two fronts.

We get very set in our ways, we writers. Something works for us once, and superstition swells about it. If people liked the prologue we wrote that one time, let’s always use it. I wrote my best dialogue in that chair; therefore, I’m annexing it to my workspace. I only get good ideas at dinner. I can only write in complete silence. These ruts form, and form quickly.

But life doesn’t “do” ruts. The other prologues kinda suck. The chair breaks. The new work schedule has you on the job right through dinner. Kids dare to age and, like, need stuff.

As writers, we’ve got two choices: despair, or crack on. I’ve done the despairing, and let me tell you, it does you about as much good as a fall off the ferris wheel ramp. What does cracking on mean? It means taking what you’ve learned from your environment’s changes and adapting. It means learning to write with noise, to write in any position, to try new story structures and styles. It means trying, learning, growing, just as our characters do when conflict rises in their worlds.

Sometimes.

It occurred to me while pulling Biff and Bash apart yet again that experience and learning do not always go hand in hand. It seems to, because in books that’s how writers so often have it work out. It makes the plot all nice and tidy, don’t you know. Well, you don’t know, because sometimes, human nature just doesn’t jive that way. Bash, who got stitches in June from running around the house and crashing into a wall’s corner, continues to run around the house. Biff…well I told you about him. Even Blondie, who got stitches last year from jumping on the bed, continues to jump on furniture (sans beds) and trampolines any chance she gets.

That night after urgent care, with me still in tears wondering how, how can we keep these kids from killing themselves, Bo said, “With these guys, the only way they’ll stop moving is if they can’t move. It’s going to take a broken limb. Or two. Or probably three, knowing them.”

And I think we need to remember that our characters’ lives can be like that, too. Job wasn’t tested with only the loss of wealth, or only the loss of a loved one. He lost his entire family and all he possessed, even his health, before God blessed him anew. When a character totally alters over something piddly, we as readers call it out because we know human nature doesn’t switch so suddenly between “nice” and “jerk.” It evolves in time, and time rarely paces problems for our convenience. So why should we make it convenient for our heroes? Rather a boring read, I’d think.

Though I admit, I wouldn’t mind some boring days on the mother-front, such as yesterday, when all three were content with little super-hero cars built from Legos. I watched Biff fly the little Superman around and make friends with Doomsday. I remembered his feet in the air, the blood. I grabbed him, kissed his head.

And found myself chasing him down the hall because he’d grabbed the helicopter Batman from Bash’s side of the table and was now laughing maniacally from the bathroom with Bash ready to inflict fists of vengeance. Biff’s is a spirit that simply cannot be broken.

And yes, despite everything, I love it.

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Jean Lee & the Case of the Curtain Call Conundrum

Mere paragraphs from the end, and Middler’s Pride is bloody stuck.

It seems every story’s got to have franchise potential or it’s not worth the investment. Diana Wynne Jones proved that writers can set multiple stories in the same universe and reuse characters without creating some sort of epic story arc. House of Many Ways, for instance, is the third book of the so-called Howl trilogy; Howl and Sophie are only in it as 2nd and 3rd string characters, but they do serve the plot, and readers get to see what their favorite leads from Howl’s Moving Castle are up to. Jones didn’t force Castle in the Air or House of Many Ways to have direct plot ties to Howl’s plot arc, but did maintain the characters’ presence in their established universe. I suppose that’s the sort of thing I’d like to do: I don’t want the stories to be some stiff jumpsuit of a uniform, nor a bloated mumu. I want a smart-looking ensemble, something worth stepping out in together, but can also be appreciated as individual pieces.

So, how to do it?

Protagonist Gwen’s one of four Shield Maiden recruits. I suppose that number sounds absurdly small for military training, but I didn’t feel comfortable wielding a massive cast of extras about in every scene. Four recruits allowed me to develop their pasts in order to understand their motivations in the present and therefore discover potential stories in their futures. I could give each girl a turn at center stage with four stories: Gwen the middler first, followed by passionate Wynne, then circus runaway Elle, and ending with orphan Tegan.

But my protagonists aren’t the problem. It’s the second-stringers getting my goat and letting him have a go at the laundry. Who do I need in the next story, and who could wait? Do I pull a Return of the Jedi and throw a big party with the whole cast as an Ewok band jams in the background? Ewok music’s great and all, but it just didn’t make sense for everyone Gwen’s ever known to show up outside this other little village after Gwen and Company kill the monster. Between the characters I created and the others given to me by Michael Dellert, creator of the Matter of Manred universe, that would be, like, at least two dozen characters being shoved onto the story’s stage at the same time before the curtain falls. I mean, does it make sense having old Cranog the jeweler showing up, or the suitor’s fly-swallowing mom? No.

And besides, none of them are Ewok-sized.

Pish and spit. Let the characters justify their final appearances.

Terrwyn, Gwen’s mentor, had to come back, because I’m sure she would have beaten the crap out of me if I said otherwise.

“Leave it to you to create the messiest cures.” Terrwyn’s pipe-embers glowed as she sucked in air. The linden leaf smoke almost put Gwen to sleep on Terrwyn’s shoulder, but she knew better than to give into sleep. “Sleep on the horse, wake on the ground.”  Terrwyn would ensure that saying to be truth.

Terrwyn hates to miss a fight…but she has to miss this one since it’s the recruits’ fight, not hers…hmmm. The village chief, Murchadh, would have seen all the fires Elle sets to trap the monster. Woedin, the medic from Gwen’s home, was already at that village, but she likely left ahead of other help, like Terrwyn and…Terrwyn’s husband Cinaedh? He barely says boo in the early chapters. But he’s another healthy soldier, and he might be useful later. So, assuming these two come as quickly as they can, it’d make sense they ride with Chief Murchadh and Woedin to the fires. They just don’t get there in time to help, which fits my story fine.

While I planned on Gwen’s father, the one she’s been seeking approval from all along, to come to the village so they could have a moment, it hit me that Gwen’s stepmother Saffir deserved some say, too. Gwen had always seen the woman as silent, cold, and favoring her birth-daughter, while in reality Saffir had been too intimidated by Gwen to initiate a connection. They had a great scene before Gwen left for training where Saffir shares this with her. If Saffir doesn’t show up, she’d be a total hypocrite.

Tegan followed Woedin straight back into the largest tent—the medicinal tent, apparently. Two fires on either side boiled water and herbs. A number sat near those fires, coughing, but talking, too. A ghost fluttered out, eyes wide and fixed upon the horses. “Where’s Gwen?” Her voice sounded desperate, tired…and familiar?

Gwen walked round to give Terrwyn room to dismount, and stared. “Saffir?”

“Oh, thank the gods.” She ran right through horse manure, splattering an already soiled red dress, to take Gwen by both hands, which, say, weren’t shaking yet. Maybe because there were no signs of needles anywhere… “That cart rolled in, and once Aberfa told the Millers and the Millers told us your message, your father bolted to the King’s Seat for aid. Woedin nearly emptied her stores, we scoured the larders.

I paused. So if Saffir’s here, and Gwen’s father the Lord Aillil is coming, then the bratty siblings Nutty and Muirgurgle have to show up. But then, what about Gwen’s friend Aberfa? Those two always supported one another, and she wouldn’t have wanted to leave Gwen hanging…

Dammit!

Part of Middler’s Pride dealt with Gwen’s ability to connect and trust in others. She’s just made new friends with the other recruits. Aberfa shouldn’t be forgotten, but she wouldn’t serve the story’s themes showing up here; plus, as a deaf-mute, too few people would be able to communicate with her to justify her presence at the village. So Aberfa must stay behind, just not forgotten. Saffir was in the opportune place to explain that.

Your father thought I should stay behind, but I argued the Millers can help lead the planting with Aberfa to watch their children. ‘No daughter of mine’s going to be left stranded in a land of death,’ I told him, and he did his, well, you know, that look of his when his mind’s made up. But mine was, too.” Saffir’s hold tightened, and Gwen could feel her calluses, cuts, and few bandages.

There! Now I had Aberfa dealt with. Saffir also seemed the best way to take care of Gwen’s siblings.

“Woedin wouldn’t let us in at first because the plague was, well, you saw, it’s on everything. So I thought, well, one can’t clean stables with horses in it. So everyone’s out for a scrubbing. It’s been hard work, but good work. Not that your siblings agree.” Gwen followed Saffir’s look off to one edge of the campground, where a grimacing Nutty stirred fabric in a lye tub. Beyond her burned a terrific fire, too great for cooking: Muirgurgle, face hidden behind his elbow, throwing what must have been clothes and wood beyond saving.

Gwen snorted. “I’d expect no less.”

Whew! So, Gwen’s family has more or less made its curtain call: Saffir’s supported, Nutty and Muirgurgle don’t get to be snobs. But it wasn’t time for the father Lord Aillil yet. He had taken off for Droma’s capitol for help…which, UGH, means I need to pull at least one person with a name from that one scene where Gwen was given her enchanted sword. Hmph. Not the king, this isn’t, like, country-threatening…well it could have been, but Lord Aillil wouldn’t have known to say that when he got help. Aha! Why not the king’s brother? Lord Lorcan leads the Company of the Shield, and I had earlier established he knew Terrwyn and Gwen’s father.

But they can’t show up yet because I’ve still got unfinished business from Act II, like Captain Vala. She was too sick to ride out, fine. But earlier in the story she told Gwen she hated Terrwyn’s guts. Why? Well it sounded good at the time, but now that Terrwyn’s in the same space, those two have to have some sort of meeting. Time to dig up a rough’n’ready song, one with guttural voices, drink, and the rhythm of pounding boots, and get to work:

“That’ll do, Gwenwledyr.” Thunk. Terrwyn elbowed Gwen, winked, and walked towards a fire where the gizzards lounged with bandages about their necks. No drunken laughter, but they did talk, and chuckle, and drink steaming cups with the sharp smell of colewort and willow-herb. Gods know when they last cleaned out their toxins, especially the one strewn across a bench, snoring as a saw in fresh lumber. Terrwyn paused to knock her pipe clean against the snorer’s boot.  The gizzard didn’t stir. Hold on…that mass of hair…Captain Vala!

“Wait, Terrwyn!” But too late.

THUD.

Everyone got a lesson in cursing that night, including Saffir, who blushed and gave Gwen a wide-eyed look. “Well. I hope Shield Maidens aren’t expected to sacrifice their manners.”

Terrwyn cackled. “Any proper soldier knows better than to lay across another’s seat in the waking hours, your ladyship. Eh, Vala?” She peered over her shoulder.

Captain Vala’s hand slapped the bench and pulled her upright. “Terrwyn, you vindictive, self-righteous piece of—“

“Catha’s mercy, is that you, Vala?” Cinaedh’s ears glinted in the firelight as he jiggled towards them.

Never has a tree moved so quickly. Up, tall, straight, fingers running through hair to make it, erm, less of a nest, Gwen supposed. “Cinaedh!” The exclamation came out soft and bewildered.

Oh no.

Terrywn caught Gwen’s gawk. She turned her pipe’s bit towards Gwen’s face and motioned it upward. Gwen’s mouth clicked shut. “Captain Vala, have you met the wife of Lord Aillil the Courageous?”

Saffir gave a small curtsy, but Gwen could see she was trying just as hard not to smile as the captain remained dumbfounded before the rolling hill that was Cinaedh. “You…you weren’t…but in service…”

The bench protested loudly when Cinaedh settled in. “Ah, life’s given me much to enjoy: good wife, good master, good friends.” His hand moved from Terrwyn, to Saffir, and to Gwen before settling on his belly. “And good food, plainly!” His laugh spread among all around that fire except Captain Vala, whose fingers gave up trying to de-nestify her hair. “The Shield’s been kind to all your limbs, I see. Terrwyn can’t say the same, you know.”

Captain Vala staggered off. The gizzards let loose a load of questions, but Gwen didn’t feel like listening. She could only see that old tree fall by another fire, trying to make sense of old memories and new sights. Bloody hard, breaking the past’s hold on the present.

The exchange goes a bit longer than I intended, but my gut tells me this is the way to go. Captain Vala needs a decent curtain call, considering she was their trainer and may not be coming back in the other books. Plus I like how Gwen actually connects, if only for a moment, with someone she used to hold in contempt.

The other recruits also must have their moments, of course, and they’ll have the last scene to themselves, too–if I can ever get it worked out. Wynne’s the trouble. She’s the prime lead in the next book, so I’m trying to drop little bits of her life without making a huge fuss about it. It’s especially challenging because she’s the most ordinary one of the group: Tegan’s got some magickal abilities, Elle’s got fire-breathing skills from the circus, and Gwen got a commission from the river goddess, her gifted magickal sword, yadda yadda yadda. Wynne’s just…there. And there is a reason for her being there, despite not really being able to kick any sort of ass, and it’s that reason that starts the second story. Therefore, I can’t give the reason yet. GAH!

Well, I’ll get there. In the meantime, we’ve got one last major curtain-call moment to do: Lord Aillil, Gwen’s father. The only blood-family that she knows of, a man who denied her affection and attention over the years, who was ready to marry her off to the first halfway decent suitor he could get a hold of.

Who, in the few moments they had together in the story’s first act, does act in love for his daughter. He just doesn’t have a clue how to show it, and she was too full of hurt and pride to really see when he tried.

When it’s time for Lord Aillil to arrive with the king’s brother and reinforcements, I know The Bootleggers are not the right music for the moment. The moment Lord Aillil and Gwen come together: that’s a homecoming.

Wynne broke the silence. “Anyone else hear horses?”

Soon everyone did, and saw the torches, too: half a dozen, led by a silver blaze who could barely stop before the Chief Murchadh’s granddaughter ran into the road AGAIN. Maybe that manor’s fence wasn’t just about the Cat Man’s plague…

“Lord Lorcan!” Chief Murchadh whipped up the child with one hand as he held the other to the King’s brother during dismount. “Hail and welcome. We’re meager, but healing. And Lord Aillil—“ he held out his hand.

It was not taken.

Lord Aillil had that blasted look again of having his mind made up, and he wasn’t going to let anyone else get in his way. He butted shoulders with the king’s brother, ignored the chief, lifted a child out of his way so he could step round the snakeskin, ignoring that of course, tuning out soldiers and peasants saying hail and other nice things while his son and daughter whined about work and past Terrwyn and past Saffir and stopped inches before Gwen’s feet.

His face was lined with age and dirt. Eyes red from travel. Hair falling from braids. He looked at Gwen, searched her face. Ye gods, what did I do now? He opened his mouth. Closed it.

And hugged Gwen so tight he lifted her from the ground.

End scene. Not book, but scene.

I’m on the last few pages of Gwen’s story now, with these four Shield Maiden recruits set apart from everyone, waiting to come before Captain Vala and the king’s brother to hear whether or not they’ve passed boot camp. It’s a tricky bit because I want to touch a little on their backstories without bogging down what’s quintessentially a wrap-up scene. Plus, I need to bring back things that were mentioned in Middler’s Pride, like the warring Khaibe tribe that’s killed loved ones of Tegan and Gwen, and the Torq of Gasirad, something Wynne desperately wants. Plus plus, because obviously there’s not enough going on, I do want my Return of the Jedi moment with the, well, Jedi returning: of Gwen looking off and seeing the goddess Gasirad in the distance…with company. It’ll promise a new adventure while also quietly completing Gwen’s transformation, making way for another girl’s story. This closing can’t dwell too long on any one detail; after getting her pride crushed, meeting a goddess, killing a giant snake, and facing a magickal foe from her childhood, Gwen’s too tired to dwell on anything for very long. Time to let the spotlight drift as Gwen settles into her new self and locate our next hero: a beautiful daughter of a merchant who, by all accounts, should not have bothered with this dirty business of becoming a Shield Maiden.

Time to find out what Wynne fights for…and if she’s already lost.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Hercule Poirot, The A.B.C. Murders

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

And none of it felt dull, let alone repetitive.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Dunh dunh DUUUUUUUNH)

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

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

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

 

Photography + Music = The Normal’s Menace

Creativity’s bizarre. Unpredictable. Deafening. It can flood our inner selves so completely that we don’t even notice the wreak of twin-poop running by amidst maniacal laughter.

But that flood can’t just stay inside. We’ve got to get it out somehow, and in the right place…rather a lot like potty-training, come to think…

ANYway.

Since I still struggle with this whole “read my fiction” concept, can we start at the beginning? Not the story’s beginning, but before that. Let’s start with the brainstorm.

Last week I mentioned the desire to write a story for an old character named Dorjan. He’s from my first Work in Progress, the novel I started writing when Blondie was a baby, the same novel that helped me fight the first round of postpartum depression.  I haven’t dared share that novel here yet, though the more I think about self-publishing, the more I’m inclined to do so. But come one, I can’t plunk a 600some page colossus here. That’s bloody insane. And it’s a fluid novel; I can’t pull pieces out and expect you to have a clue or a care.

So, let’s brainstorm an episode outside the novel. Something beforehand, I think. How about the 1980s? Can’t think of anything else when John Carpenter’s playing. My previous post shared a song from Lost Themes. Its sequel has stuff just as good:

Listen to the rhythm, its steady chase, its sudden fights. Oh this’ll do.

But where to put this? I have the shapes of movement, the white eyes of fear when the baddie’s chased by Dorjan. We need a sense of place.

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Take this farm. Pretty common sight in my chunk of Wisconsin…for now, at least, until yet another damn suburb bulldozes it over.

ANYway.

Let’s get a better sense of the expansive isolation of it all.

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Not much to it, right? Imagine being a kid and this is all you can see from where you live: blankness. Flatness. Trees that tend to cluster over nothing. And it all looks so sickly this time of year, as though a famine came down. The trees stand like gravestones over their summer-selves, and their branches reach for you with witchy fingers.

So you, as a kid, look out at this, day after day, see nothing but witchy fingers reaching out to grab anything close. You’re just thankful there’s that field between you and them. You’re used to this menace in the distance, that evil-ish look out there. Gets kind of dull, really.

Until it’s not alone.

Until you see someone standing in those trees, looking your way.

How long has he been there, hands in his pockets like that?

It starts to snow. He doesn’t move an inch. Even the witchy-fingers don’t go near him, bending any way but.

And then he starts walking your way.

No one’s supposed to walk that field. No one’s supposed to be ON it like that and he’s broken all that’s normal up with his being, with his walking. The wind whips up a flurry around his legs time and again, but it can’t trip him.

He’s getting closer. You can tell he’s not looking at the house anymore, or the barn. He’s looking right–

–at–

–you.

Do you run?

Do you stay?

What is he after? You?

Or what you hold in your arms, screeching its furry little head off?

 

These questions are part of what I’m mucking about with in my current short fiction. I’m studying myself,  you could say, noting what songs and images really set plot points in motion and/or clarify the characters. I’ve also been mucking about with the voice. Whose point of view tells the story best: Dorjan, or the child?

Oh, I’m not letting Gwen and her other Shield Maidens sit on the back-burner, believe me, but part of this whole “writer’s life” thing is to prioritize what can be done sooner vs. later. Dorjan is from a novel that was on its LAST F’ING ROUND of editing when I stopped due to motherhood/teaching/beginning to blog. I want it done. I want it out. I want it read. It’s almost like facing The Monster all over again: not the pain, to be clear, but the ability to move forward with a lighter load and stronger step. I want to complete this story, let it out, and move forward with my other stories. I can’t keep carrying what’s unfinished.

Writer’s Music: Jim Parker

Music tells such marvelous stories. Sometimes, though, music written so perfectly for one story never fits anywhere else. Many of John Williams‘ themes, for instance, are cemented in their iconic-ness: Superman, Jaws, Indiana Jones, Star Wars–even Harry Potter. The themes for those characters fit. Period. For a sample of Williams’ work, this is a decent mix:

But then there’s the occasional surprise: an iconic sound that still produces a fresh image far removed from the music’s original universe.

Take Jim Parker‘s theme for Midsomer Murders. The original novels were written by an amazing old granny named Caroline Graham. Never have I seen point of view shifts performed so smoothly and so often than in her work–a “Lessons Learned” post is coming, I promise you. For now, though, let’s listen.

The discovery was something like an apple to the noggin. I had experienced a very, very weird dream brimming with potential for a kid’s adventure story, but I wasn’t capturing the bizarreness of the world: the details felt, well, lame, like a flannel-graph presentation for teenagers. I was desperately flipping through Hans Zimmer, The Beatles, The Who, and even Joel McNeely to get me into…well more like “out of.” I needed to feel the fall out of the humdrum and into the crazy. But without the right music, I just couldn’t get over the edge.

Now this is back when Biff and Bash were still wee and nursing. I often had a show locked’n’loaded in the player for late-night feedings. Weary of our home’s offerings, I had picked up Midsomer Murders from the library earlier that day. 2am: Biff and Bash are hungry. I situate the pillows, crook the boys to the breasts. On comes the title sequence and that clarinet like water in a shopping mall’s fountain: a quiet fluttering one only notices on the corner of perception. Then come the theremin and the strings. They float about like the bedsheet ghosts one hangs from trees on Halloween: eerie, a touch off, but not nightmare fuel. The sort of music for spooking kids, filling a night with as many giggles as shrieks…

YES! I could picture it all now: the kid stuck in the middle of nowhere who meets another bored kid who isn’t a proper kid at all, the trip down below to the goblin king and his mastery of giants–Brilliant, must write! But the boys are still nursing. Suckle faster, dammit!

It’s amazing what sights and sounds can spark up our imaginations, especially when we’re worn out by all that life requires of the grown-up. Let Jim Parker give you a break from adulthood and run loose as a kid, full of mischief for the humdrum village outside.

Lessons Learned from Agatha Christie: Clunk and move on.

My husband Bo presented me with quite the Hercule Poirot Christmas this year–half a dozen books and a set of television adaptations. (And a wallet. Wahoo.) “I scoured your shelf, so I know you don’t have any of these.” I nodded as I admired the old-school paperback covers vs. the latest hardcover editions. Where did the fun go?

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But today isn’t about cover design. Today I meant to study the effect a claustrophobic setting has on characters. Agatha Christie applies such a setting all the time in her mystery: the lonely manor house, the steam ship, the train, the island, even an airplane. I had picked up Hercule Poirot’s Christmas earlier this month knowing the story from its television adaptation, so I was eager to study her writing for this element.

Maybe it’s the ebb and flow of frustration and grief. Maybe it’s the stress thunked down on my shoulders every Christmas, the “you’re a preacher’s kid, get over here and make pretty songs” sort of thing. Or maybe Christie simply had to meet a deadline and, for once, allowed herself to not give a shit.

The story’s idea has oodles of promise: a nasty old invalid of a patriarch who loves setting his adult children at each other’s throats, mysterious new relatives, and sketchy house help all in a manor house for a proper English Christmas. But on Christmas Eve there’s a nasty crash and unearthly scream inside the patriarch’s locked room. They break in the door to discover signs of a terrific struggle and blood everywhere.

Cue Poirot on page eighty-four. EIGHTY-FOUR.

Granted, I knew I’d been spoiled a little by seeing the television adaptation first. Of course they revised the story to get Poirot there a lot sooner. But Christie spends forty-six pages solely on introducing the different family members. These little vignettes of their lives that could have easily been learned through a “catching-up” scene with them all in the manor house Christmas Eve. Thus the tension, plot, and setting would have been established much sooner–and therefore engaged readers much sooner.

The clues are also much more heavy-handed this time as well, which, after reading The A.B.C. Murders, felt very off. Take these lines of the patriarch’s dialogue all said before the murder:

“There’s only one of you that’s taken after me–only one out of all the litter.” (42)

“It’s going to be a grand Christmas! All my children round me. All my children!” (43)

“Not a son among them, legitimate or illegitimate.” (56)

“I’ll swear to Heaven I’ve got a better son somewhere in the world than any of you even if you are born on the right side of the blanket!” (74)

Get it? The killer is, of course, one of the family, but not “one of the family,” nudge nudge. And these are just the references pre-murder; more are made afterward. The characteristics don’t help, either: the patriarch has a couple quirks that of course all his sons do, including the characters present who are not yet known to be his sons, killer included. For instance:

Harry threw his head back and laughed. (53)

Stephen laughed, throwing his head back. (64)

Superintendent Sugden threw his head back and laughed. (198)

Then, there’s the murder itself. It’s an amazing murder, what with the unearthly cry, the blood, and the destruction. All done in a room locked on the inside. They work out the key was turned with pliers–okay, sensible. After only three and a half pages are spent in the room where the murder takes place, they spend the next forty-five pages talking to each family member. Just…talking. Rather felt like I was back with Eco and Name of the Rose with all the talking…

The ending comes with very little action around Poirot. Poirot has everyone gathered, as usual, but once he gets into how the murder is committed, he speaks of things that were never mentioned earlier, things like sodium citrate and animal’s blood being added to the victim’s blood. Plus he treats the bastard clue like it was some amazing discovery when it’s been one of the only topics discussed the entire book.

After the killer’s reveal, the final few pages share these one-paragraph scenes of the family members returning to life. It felt as frayed and unsatisfying as the beginning. Consistency, I suppose.

So, what went wrong here? I don’t know. Maybe it was the absence of Hastings–a stable narrator would have toned down all the p.o.v. shifts Christie used here. This could have been a very tight short story without all the meandering among family members; she published short fiction at the same time as novels, so it’s not like that was out of the question. Hercule Poirot’s Christmas was published after phenomenal mysteries like The A.B.C. Murders and Death on the Nile, before  And Then There Were None (considered by many to be her masterpiece), and at the same time as Appointment with Deathyet another fine mystery.

ALL writers, great and going-to-be-great, have their A-game and their B-game. Even my all-time favorite, Diana Wynne Jones, had her clunkers (I’m looking at you, The Pinhoe Egg.) This is clearly Christie’s B-game, and no wonder–Appointment with Death is a complex murder set in the raw beauty of the Middle East. Since this was also published in 1938, I can’t help but wonder if she worked on Appointment and Christmas at the same time, and therefore, dedicated her A-Game to Appointment. She made sure Christmas was an enjoyable read, sure, but it wasn’t the real priority. She wrote and moved on.

I’ve often been told that “perfect is the enemy of done.” While I don’t agree with that statement, there is something to a steady progression forward rather than putzing and putzing and putzing and PUTZING. Life, especially a family and a job, don’t allow for countless revisions of a single story–I learned the hard way such stagnant sameness only worsened my depression and buried my creativity.

Nudge your creativity away from the familiar. Venturing into the unknown is the stuff good stories are made of.

Can a Protagonist be a Jerk in a Story Worth Reading?

“No, I could never read this book again.”

The eighteen of us sat in a classroom no janitor’s touched in weeks, evidenced by the dust bunnies on my backpack, not-looking at whomever dared to speak. The first term of grad school, my first class analyzing story and craft. Overwhelmed, I poured through critiques others wrote only to be thumped for not sharing my own “untainted” thoughts. Martin Amis’ The Rachel Papers was the first I tried to study free of the evil critic taint.

“Why?” 18828

“Because I don’t like Charlie. He’s an asshole.”

“So you don’t think a story can sell if you don’t like the main character.” Half the room nodded with the teacher, whose demeanor reminded me of a spectacled old grizzly bear.

I half-raised my hand. The teacher, a loud atheist who found my faith “quaint,” peered at the table-space before me to make sure I had no pile of articles painted by highlighter. “Jean?”

“Well,” I coughed, hated talking in that space, squirmed in the plastic chairs all universities think are somehow comfortable for hours of lecture, “A story can still be good just because you don’t like someone.”

My classmate turned to me, confident in her age and skill. “But I don’t care about him.”

“That doesn’t make the story less good.”

Yeah, I wasn’t much for eloquence back then. Not that my classmate was wrong, per say. Who wants to root for a jerk’s success? But there are other characters in the story beside the protagonist, so I think it depends on this question:

Will the story transform your character, or does your character transform the story?

The Rachel Papers fulfills the latter: Charles Highway makes his mark on Rachel and a number of other people, but remains an unchanged blighter from start to finish.

middlers-pride-7In my current work, Middler’s Pride, main character Gwen begins as a pompous ass. Oh, she’s nice enough with some characters back home, but once she meets the other Shield Maiden recruits in her training group, she declares herself superior, a legend who simply hasn’t been noticed yet. The latest scene I drafted amplifies the conflict between her and the other girls:

III.ii.

The river ran noiselessly, like a shadow. One could leap over it on horseback without trouble. If one could get a horse here. A hand barrow would do the trick, made with her wrecked tunic and some thick sticks and haul the weapons a few at a time. The ground, though… Despite the fresh sun, the land felt cold, sticky, and damp, like mud in the earliest of spring. Yet the trees were in full summer leaf, and the rabbits and family of deer who fed on the meager ferns and asters took no notice of Gwen. Good. A few snares should mean decent eating through the whole month. The mushrooms didn’t look all that bad, either. Tegan must be used to a much fatter landscape.

Near the Khaibe, maybe?

What did she know about the Khaibe, that the name would draw such hate into her face? Maybe she grew up near them, too. Had family.

Gwen pulled out the clay token Aberfa had made for her. It filled the palm of hand, its lines from the Bread Code they’d created as children. Friend. Always.

Girl chatter. The rabbit and deer scattered. UGH. They arrived as though bound together, like some sort of band, or, group, or…whatever. And what was Tegan doing with them, anyway? Some friend she was, chumming up with Elle and Wynne for no reason. Aberfa understood loyalty.

“This can’t be the River Gasirad,” Elle leapt about like a lame doe and landed atop an old tree stump next to Gwen. “It’s so puny.”

Wynne still heaved deep breaths, but managed to say, “It’s not. I live. By the proper. This connects. There.” She pointed south. “Not far. Rode. The barges a few. Times.”

A low ripple of cracks, low, swelled up, THUNK—Elle’s foot fell through the trunk, but the rest of her remained safe and sound thanks to Gwen’s lightning reflexes. Elle smiled in thanks. Great. Just let GO.

“Hold still, Elle,” Tegan brushed the dust and splinters. Paused. “Hey, Gwen, look at this.” Finally! Gwen untangled herself from Elle and knelt next to Tegan. Sure enough: “It’s like the plants from yesterday.”

Gwen took a deep breath, fixed her gaze so that she saw only Elle’s calf. “And the stag under the curse of the Cat Man.” Time the eyes, don’t move too fast. This must be a dramatic moment of the legend’s tale…

Elle thrust her fingers into it like an idiot. “Doesn’t feel much like a curse to me.” She held her fingers towards Wynne like she would know any better. “I mean, it’s a bit smelly. Sure this isn’t just old bat scat?”

Tegan took some and rubbed it between forefinger and thumb. “From what you said, Gwen, this stuff seems awfully watery. And more grey than black.”

“Remnants of old black magick, then?” She wasn’t going to be dumb enough to rub her skin in that stuff. Idiots. “Look, we have orders. We have to clean the weapons, which means carrying them here.”

“And ruin our clothes like you ruined yours?” Elle’s laugh sounded like a dog barking at the wind. “No thank you. We think it’ll be loads easier to carry water to the fort instead. Boil it up. Clean the weapons that way.”

Gwen bit the inside of her lip. “We?”

The three of them looked at each other like this “we” was perfectly normal. That of course they would work together. Gods forbid they not listen to orders. Again. Oh that’s right, they’re not.

“We were ordered—“

“And we’re going to do fulfill that order, Gwen.” Why was Tegan looking at her like some rabid animal? “We’ll clean the weapons, but carrying them here is foolish. We can’t afford to ruin what little we have to wear. You really want that black mold stuff on your armor?”

Gwen felt her feet step back. No. She couldn’t retreat. But she didn’t want her armor wrecked before it saw battle, either. “We’re here to train, build our strength. Become proper soldiers.” Well. She eyed Wynne. “Some of us, anyway. Gods know what you’re doing here.”

“Hey!” Elle stepped into Gwen’s eye-line and gave glare for glare. “We’ve all of us reason to be here, and become soldiers. Not all of us have been trained straight from the cradle, or whatever it is you did with your precious Shield Maiden Nanny.”

“Don’t you—“ Gwen formed a fist and swung.

Elle caught her fist. Held it.

Try the other fist? It won’t stop shaking…

Those damned red eyes are daring her to.

“You can help us here, or you can walk away.”

Her fist shook inside Elle’s. So. Humiliating. Her eyes burned like fire, all those legendary scars, too–

How dare she look a legend.

How dare they not…listen, and just…

“Fine,” she said with clenched teeth, and pulled back. Walked around.

“You dropped this.” Wynne’s hand shook as she held it out: Aberfa’s talisman.

Shaking hand.

They even take her weakness from her.

Gwen snatched the talisman away and marched back to the fort, black thoughts circling.

They’re not listening to orders because ol’ Captain Tree Trunk is incompetent.

Terrwyn’s too far off, blast it.

Well.

Captain Vala just needs to be informed of the situation. And once she sees how they disregard her orders, then, THEN there will be some proper teamwork under the true leader of this group.

The true legend.

Gwen’s the kind of girl I would have feared and hated in school. I would never want to hang around her, let alone be related to her.

Yet I created her. I WANT her to be this way right now. Why?

Because Gwen, like so many kids, gosh, like so many of us grownups, has to realize she isn’t the hot shit she thinks she is. Countless stories include that change: take my primary influences for Middler’s Pride, Michael Dellert and Diana Wynne Jones. drownedammet

A Merchants Tale_Final Cover.inddThe protagonist Corentin in Dellert’s The Merchant’s Tale is a young guy who treats the others in his caravan like nobodies, but by the end he’s willing to respect them and listen to (most of) what they have to say about traveling through Droma. In Jones’ Drowned Ammet, Mitt sees the aristocracy as a bunch of gluttonous leeches while Hildrida looks on commoners as nasty imbeciles. Of course they’re stuck on a boat together, and treat each other like crap for a good long while. But unlike Charles Highway, these two cannot help but be influenced by events, and therefore change their perspectives.

the_dawn_treader_coverAs a reader, my first experience with this kind of character was that turd of a cousin Eustace in C.S. Lewis’ The Voyage of the Dawn Treader: the selfish idiot who refuses to take in the world around him until his selfishness puts him under a curse that only Aslan can break. Eustace finally must face that he cannot do it all. He cannot save himself.

That moment has stuck with me through the past couple of decades—not just because of my faith, but in a story, I see that moment as being The Ultimate Moment. The protagonist cannot save herself her own way, or be the lone savior of her world. It is through the sacrifice of the most treasured elements within her that a new power comes through love, friendship, light. Everything, the presumed inevitable end, the web-ties of the characters, all alter because of that fall to her knees in surrender. Such changes snap and re-bind the page to the reader herself, for she knows the really good stuff is coming.

Now to give it.

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