Happy August, everyone! To celebrate my upcoming novella’s release, I’d love to share a taste of it here with you. I’ve selected a moment inspired by the journal of one of La Crosse’s founders, Nathan Myrick. Here’s the original excerpt:
“In October of that year  quite a colony of Mormons came up from Nauvoo [Illinois] and landed at La Crosse…. They built twenty-five or thirty log houses and made themselves quite comfortable….The pay was drawn by the elders in provisions to support the families of the settlement. Just as the river opened in the spring , the men all came down from Black River, and the men stopped cutting…. News got out they were all going to leave. I went down to the settlement to see the elders and adjust matters…. That night they set fire to most of their houses and embarked in their flat-boats, and left by the light of their burning houses for Nauvoo.”
Naythan Myrick, A History of La Crosse, Wisconsin 1841-1900
This moment of Mormons fleeing in the midst of fire and smoke got my wheels turning, and I decided to put that moment to use in this moment of altered history. Enjoy!
No one’s going to
say the Bent Nail don’t live up to the title.
After all the
straight streets and prim houses, Sumac finds the uneven floorboards and slap
on the walls a welcome sight. Hazy smoke from the potbelly stove near the bar
table on one side of the room mingles with the smells of cheap brews, raw meat,
and human sweat. It’s enough to make even the biggest hunters like Sumac dizzy.
He braces himself in the doorway for a moment to let his senses adjust.
Half a dozen human
men—railyard foremen, like as not—huddle together at one end of the bar,
waggling their mustaches over the rims of their glasses, showering the bar with
whiskey. The bar dog gawks at Sumac from amongst the wood-carved mermaids and
glass bottles, his hand in some mechanized motion of wiping the bar table with
a stained apron. Cold from outside snaps like so many ghost-jaws at the lantern
flames at the far back marking the stairs to the second floor. A few strumpets
lounge on those stairs for easy selling. Who wants to sleep in a cold bed?
The wall opposite
the bar’s got a crooked stone fireplace surrounded by crooked benches like as
not built from ties the railroad deemed unworthy of its locomotives. Two
worthless barrel boarders, one young and one old, lay on those benches with
their hats over their eyes, sleeping.
Sumac sniffs the
room with superior disgust. Yes indeed, a slum like this is where all humanity
Not those golden
boys, though. They sit at a table in the middle of the saloon with their cards
and cigars like they own the place. Sheriff Jensen was right: they’re all too
pretty to be trusted, what with their clean leather coats and matching
haircuts. Any real hunter’s going to have a scar or three, a coat stained by
seasons and life, boots caked with dirt and blood. This pack’s all preened for
some sort of show.
The golden boys give
Sumac the once-over with their violet eyes. Something shimmers on one—the gold
earring of the pack leader. He bares his teeth and says, “What are you looking
Sumac shrugs and
saunters over to the bar table. “Beer.” He listens as the golden boys return to
their game, yip and snap over their cards.
The bar dog sets the
glass down. “Visiting kin?” The words croak like they don’t want to come out. It’s
a man’s face in front of Sumac, but inside’s a boy never quite grown up.
Damn violet eyes.
Sumac can’t help it if most of his sort has’em.
“Nope,” he says, and takes a long, slow drink.
Crescents of sweat
emerge beneath the bar dog’s armpits. “Must’ve been traveling, then, your pa.”
Sumac peers over the
rim of his glass.
or thereabouts?” The bar dog scratches the side of his neck. A scar’s there,
jagged and angry: a bullet’s scar. “You’re the spittin’ image of’im.”
Sumac sets his glass
down. He takes out a few Confederate buttons and the old apple peeler one of
Mick’s bastards tried wielding for a weapon. “Sure,” he says, and looks at the
A faint smell of
urine stings the air between them. It leaves the moment that fool bar dog
moseys down to the foremen at the other end of the bar. One asks if he’s okay.
“Just caught myself
rememberin’ somethin’ nasty, is all,” says the bar dog. “The Prophets’
By the sounds of the
card game the golden boys have paused a hand to hear the tale.
Sumac? He don’t look
up. He just goes right on whittling the shanks of the Confederate buttons,
biding his time while the bar dog speaks…
“The Mormons were here then, just a short while, back in ’44, but you don’t hear tell of the other ones who came along. Called themselves Stags of the Prophet, led by some holy man who promised all these crazy things, showed off this magic trick of turnin’ himself into a deer.”
An old strumpet
laughs. “My pappy didn’t get scooped in to that. He saw the stag they used all
chained up in a tent.”
nuthin’!” The old barrel boarder coughs himself upright, words slurring. Drunk
or tired or both, he spits into the fire and goes on, “I saw those crazy fools.
Devil men, they were, pullin’ gold out of trees and wine from the flowers. And
that holy man did change. I was there.”
The strumpets all cackle,
the foremen banging their glasses for more.
But the golden boys?
Silent. The young barrel boarder? Snoring.
Sumac? He’s checking
his handiwork on that shank. Good and sharp. A handful of tacks can be mighty
useful in a chase, especially when the runner’s got paws.
The bar dog’s wiping
the table again like the memory’s spilling all over, staining it. “Mormons don’t
much care for the Stags’ magic show, especially when the women folk get all
interested.” He pauses, shudders. “Thought all of Prairie La Crosse’d burn that
day. The whole land went wild in their fight, guns and fire beneath the full
moon, people screamin’ like animals, animals screamin’ like people, cougars and
wolves and bears all just, just crazed for hell’s blood…” He stops wiping the
Sumac knows the
human’s fixed on him now.
“Then out of the
burning tents I see your pa, walkin’ like there ain’t no fire or
hell-screamin’, goin’ straight for the Stags’ holy man—holy deer, whatever he
really was, but in that moment he was a buck, thirty points easy, and sure he
weren’t a stupid buck, Gabby, because he charged
right for that fella’s pa. And that man grabbed the buck like he weren’t
nuthin’, and dragged him by the antlers
into the smoke and embers at the edge of town. I heard gruntin’ and cryin’ for
a time…and then it went quiet. The Stags fled, and the Mormons, they hopped
their scows and took off down the river while we put out their damn fires.”
Well. Sumac never knew he could leave such a memorable impression on a young human like that.
Thoughts, comments? I’d love to hear’em! Night’s Tooth, a new Tale of the River Vine set in my Fallen Princebornuniverse, will be available later this month as an e-book. I hope you’ll check it out!
Happy Thursday, lovely creatives! I’m so, so excited to introduce you to Anne Clare. Not only is she one of the kindest, gentlest souls I’ve been blessed to meet, but she is a deeply supportive reader, writer, and artist. Well, I should probably let her introduce herself first. Take it, Anne!
Hi, all! I’m Anne. I live in the green, drizzly, Pacific Northwest of the U.S., but I spend a fair amount of time travelling the world via history books. I’m on the verge of celebrating the publication of my first WWII historical fiction novel. I write about writing and the real events of the tumultuous 1940s on my blog, thenaptimeauthor.wordpress.com.
I’m also a wife, mother of three, organist and choir director, part-time teacher, and coffee addict.
Like all marvelous writers, our love of storytelling is forged in the reading of our younger days. My favorite genre of choice was the cozy murder mystery: justice sought and earned while mayhem abounded in one British village after another. What kinds of stories did you enjoy during your formative years?
When I wasn’t trying to solve the mysteries of math class or painting play sets I enjoyed my fair share of Agatha Christie and other sleuth stories, too. I’ve always loved fantasy stories- Tolkein, Lewis and Terry Brooks were some of my first loves. I think it was in highschool when I first discovered Gail Carson Levine’s retold fairy tales and Harry Potter. Honestly, though, I just love a good story regardless of genre.
How true! It’s amazing how many cool stories we discover when we don’t limit ourselves to just a few authors. (Of course, it took college and those accursed required reading lists to help me learn that lesson, but I did learn it…mostly…) What’s the first book you read that sparked the fire of storytelling inside you?
Fairy tales played a big part of course- the earliest stories I “wrote” (i.e. dictated to my older cousin who knew HOW to write, and was kind enough to humor me)–
That’s the bestest kind of cousin, in my book. (ba dum CH!)
I know, right? So those stories were on thrilling topics like fairies, a city populated by talking dogs, and princesses. My first “novel,” started when I was twelve in spiral bound notebooks, was a portal fantasy with BIG nods to Lord of the Rings!
Aw, that’s just like Polly in Diana Wynne Jones’ Fire and Hemlock! I don’t recall liking Tolkien much as a kid, but I blame my sixth grade teacher’s reading of The Hobbit for that–ugh, what a horror. Are there any authors you disliked reading at first but have since grown into?
We read My Antonia in eighth grade- I didn’t like it at all. It was tedious and (spoiler!) the boy didn’t even get the girl in the end! Rereading it as an adult, I love it, in an emotionally teary sort of way. (Since having kids I’m such a sap…😊)
Ha! Heavens, don’t I know it. I bawled reading the end of DWJ’s Dogsbody. Any time something precious is lost, I’m in tears. Music has that power over my emotions too, when the mood is right. Plus, music can be a wonderful guide in the storytelling process. Do you have any favorite artists/composers you’d like to recommend? How do these folks inspire your writing?
I didn’t realize how heavily I depended on music for writing until our kitten, Mr. Meowgi, ate my headphones. I always have something playing in the background as I write.
As I write in the 1940s, I would have thought period music would be my go-to. While I enjoy Glenn Miller and others from the era, while writing I gravitate more toward modern music that fits my mood. The first novel required songs like Lana Del Rey’s Born to Die and the Decemberists “Crane Wife” album- I don’t know why, they just worked! For some reason, the second book seems to go better with Brandie Carlisle and Johnny Cash.
SECOND NOVEL?! Wooooah woah, slow down, Me. Anne’s here to talk about her FIRST novel. One book at a time, right?
Eeeeee, I’m so excited!
Whom Shall I Fear? is set in World War II on two fronts: the battlefront as well as the home front. What first inspired you to create characters in this time?
I’ve always been fascinated by history, but hadn’t pursued much study of it- between teaching and momming, I was just too busy! Then, I had a dream set during World War II, which became the climax of my novel. I blame the fact that I was reading a lot of Agatha Christie, while reading The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe to my kids, and watching James Bond with my husband. All three had some WWII references which must have leaked into my subconscious.
So, lots of World War II floating in your subconscious while you’re also reading and storing info in your consciousness. Oh, research…. I’m very much a “Google as I go” kind of gal, but you’ve been researching this period for quite some time. Can you share your process for researching as well as how you selected what information should be incorporated into the story and what information should stay on the notecards?
When I began this project, I was naiive enough to think that “Google as I go” would be all I needed. After all, I’d studied WWII, I knew the main events!
It didn’t take long to realize I knew nothing- or at least nothing close to the detail I’d need to do to pull off a convincing story.
I started by searching my library. One of the first books that popped up was Winston Churchill’s Memoirs of the Second World War. I snagged it, figuring that he ought to know what he was talking about. It was the abridged version, so only 1700 pages and change. I hadn’t read a serious history book since college, and it was an undertaking, but I’ll say this for Mr. Churchill- his grand, sweeping style of prose made the history very readable.
Of course, the challenge with researching history is that there’s always a filter between you and the events. The individual perspective of the recorder, no matter how unbiased they try to be, is going to effect their narrative. Reading Churchill’s book first gave me a great start, because I had an outline of the major events, how and when they happened, and one perspective on them.
From there, I looked for as many sources from the era as I could. The BBC website has this wonderful archive called “The People’s War” where they invited people to send in their recollections of their life during the war.
Reading first-hand accounts was fascinating, and helpful in shaping my setting. As one of my main characters was in the British infantry, I found books by infantrymen. When I needed broader books for troop movements so that my fellas got where they were supposed to when they were supposed to, I sought books that used original sources like divisional histories etc, and tried to compare more than one source.
Culling information- well, that was another challenge. It was hard to know where to cut, but sometimes it was unavoidable. For instance, I initially wanted to send my infantryman, James, to North Africa. It sounded like a fascinating place to include- the struggles over Tobruk, fighting against Rommel’s tanks, the battle of El Alamein… I researched military groups in the area and decided he could be part of the 8th Army, and then after Africa I could send him to Sicily and Italy and learn about even more unfamiliar places!
I kept on reading and discovered that none of this would fit with the rest of the timeline for the story. Also, the 8th Army that fought across North Africa was almost completely different from the 8th Army that went to Italy. Sigh.
It was hard to eliminate fascinating pieces of history, but in the end, the research had to serve the story. If the history doesn’t forward the characters or plot, it isn’t going to do what good historical fiction should- make history come alive to the reader.
Now writing inside a well-known–hang on. By your very account here, there is still so much we never get a chance to learn about World War II, so I shouldn’t be calling it a “well-known period.” Let me back-track a wee bit and approach my question this way: in fantasy writing, storytellers create characters as well as the worlds they live in. In historical fiction, you’re creating characters that may or may not live alongside people who actually lived in your chosen period. What would you consider to be the ethics of writing about historical figures?
Ah, that’s tricky! I tried to avoid the issue as much as I could, particularly if the reflection on the historical person’s character might be…uncomplimentary. After all, it hardly seems fair to take a dig at someone who isn’t around to defend themselves, and, as I said before, there’s always the bias present of the person who’s recording their history.
For the few historical figures who did make it into the final novel, I tried to deal with them as my characters would have in real life.
The only real person who makes it “onstage” is Lord Woolton, for a brief cameo, since one of my characters works for the Ministry of Food (responsible for rationing etc) of which Lord Woolton was the Minister until sometime in 1943. The history books described his oversized suit and his friendly voice over the wireless- these made it into the book. Otherwise I tried to keep him neutral- he was just present to help reveal something about one of MY characters.
On the negative end, I did feel the need to mention Lady Astor. The first female MP, she gained notoriety with the troops in Italy by calling them the “D-Day Dodgers.” (i.e. they were somehow shirking by fighting in Italy, rather than in France.) Naturally, the men were furious, and composed a catchy and uncomplimentary song about the incident. In the years since, there’s been some question of whether she acutally made the comment or whether it was a misunderstanding, but my protagonist in Italy wouldn’t have known that, so he reacts accordingly.
I also hesitated to mention larger groups specifically. For instance, I mentioned the whole confusion over the make up of the 8th army above. To make sure that my group of infantrymen I follow in the story COULD have ended up where I sent them, I had to find a smaller group to “shadow” through the histories. I decided on the 2nd Battalion, Lancashire Fusiliers- they were at the battle of Monte Cassino, and other notable places. However, I don’t specifically mention them in the book- it felt presumptuous to tack my fictional men onto a group that really served in such dangerous places.
In the end, one of my major goals in writing about this era is in homage to those who sacrificed and served. Anything that would detract from that or turn into me editorializing on a time I didn’t live through, I took out.
An excellent plan to go by, I think.
Now, you used three different points of view to tell your story: your two protagonists as well as your antagonist. What were some challenges from writing with the villain and heroes’ points of view? What were some benefits?
As I mentioned, I was reading a lot of Agatha Christie when I started this book. She uses multiple points of view in her mysteries- sometimes to reveal, sometimes to misdirect. While my novel isn’t really a mystery, there are some of the same elements- mysterious strangers, tangled motivations, crimes of the past. I liked the flavor of the multiple points of view- how I could reveal clues to the questions from different perspectives and how I could have one character reveal information to the reader while keeping other characters in the dark.
The challenge is to create enough distinction between the perspectives so that the reader can “feel” the difference when they’re in a different character’s head. Also, I found myself tempted to head hop- to reveal information that the POV I was writing from couldn’t have known. I had to resist the temptation, and place my “reveals” carefully.
A temptation that we all struggle with!
You and I both have kids who haven’t taken our sanity from us (yet). You know how I’m always on the look-out for tips on finding some sense of balance between writing and parenting. Care to share your advice?
I discovered that I can’t hold myself to someone else’s expectations for the amount of time or words I write. Every day is a new day- some will be productive author days. Others will be “clean up kid vomit and read stories to them” days. There’s no guilt in either one!
And one final question…
Many thanks to you, Anne, and congratulations once more! Whom Shall I Fear will be available June 28th on Amazon.
All that Sergeant James Milburn wants is to heal. Sent to finish his convalescence in a lonely village in the north of England, the friends he’s lost haunt his dreams. If he can only be declared fit for active service again, perhaps he can rejoin his surviving mates in the fight across Sicily and either protect them or die alongside them.
All that Evie Worther wants is purpose. War has reduced her family to an elderly matriarch and Charles, her controlling cousin, both determined to keep her safely tucked away in their family home. If she can somehow balance her sense of obligation to family with her desperate need to be of use, perhaps she can discover how she fits into her tumultuous world.
All that Charles Heatherington wants is his due. Since his brother’s death, he is positioned to be the family’s heir with only one step left to make his future secure. If only he can keep the family matriarch happy, he can finally start living the easy life he is certain he deserves.
However, when James’s, Evie’s and Charles’s paths collide, a dark secret of the past is forced into the light, and everything that they have hoped and striven for is thrown into doubt.
Weaving in historical detail from World War II in Britain, Italy and Egypt, Whom Shall I Fear? follows their individual struggles with guilt and faith, love and family, and forces them to ask if the greatest threat they face is really from the enemy abroad.
Helloooooo, my lovely folks! While I vanquish the mountain of term papers and attempt to discover new territory in Camp NaNoWriMo,I want to treat you all to a month of interviews with amazing indie authors. As April is also Poetry Month, it is only fitting to begin with the one, the only, Master Mike Steeden. x
First, Mike, why not tell us a little about yourself?
As to imparting ‘a little about myself’ it is probably for the best that such information remains left untold. Were I to continue there is a very real risk of your readers becoming consumed with the urgent desire to open a vein and end it all out of sheer tedium.All I will say is that aside from being a time-traveller…and frankly that’s not all it’s made out to be…and having shared a few beers with both Joan of Arc, a lovely gal, although lacking that certain panache on the coiffure front, and the much maligned yet a decent sort when you get to know him, Vlad the Impaler, there is little of interest to divulge.
What first inspired you to create with words?
I know many ‘words’ yet cannot spell for toffee, hence the day I discovered that Word had a ‘spellcheck’ I was inspired to have a stab at writing. To my addled mind, although irrelevant in the global plan of things, that event became my metamorphosis moment. Notwithstanding the spelling issues, possibly I should also extend my thanks to the inventers of the keyboard for I am incapable of reading my own handwriting.
You create a lush mix of poetry, prose poetry, flash fiction, and novel fiction. When does that form take shape? That is, does a story always begin a story, or does the scene you begin later transform into a poem? Your piece “The Shop that Sells Kisses” feels like it could have been a bit of flash fiction, but the rhythm of language clearly demands its rightful place among your poetry. 🙂
When fate affords me a decent ‘first line’ or a ‘title’ I’m straight on the case. Hardly ever do I know in which direction or sub-genre the words might take me. I simply leave it up to them. Some words beg to rhyme others seem to not care less what happens next. I tend to work to my disorganized version of organized and without a blind clue as to the content of what I’ve written until it feels like the finished article. Only then do I read it back. At that stage some finished pieces face the firing squad, others live to see another day. ‘Words’ are anarchistic creatures…free roaming is their way of life. Were it the case they ended up confined within the cages of Manuscript Zoo they would commit hara-kiri. In life I cannot, as the old London saying goes, ‘Organize a piss up at a brewery’ and likewise when writing I’ve never been capable of successfully structuring a coherent plan. Quite the opposite as I live in constant fear of preordained rules. Free-thinking never submits to precedent’s ineptitude.
Something I’ve always wanted to ask a poet pertains to line breaks. “The Longest Night” has both fluid lines, long and winding, as well as stark lines of extreme brevity. How do you decide where lines should be broken?
As I alluded to previously, the words make decisions for me. I have no say in the matter. It is akin to being in a maze wearing just a blindfold and socks. I’ve never claimed to be a poet. ‘Almost poetry’ is the name I coined for my genre. The words decide the line breaks amongst themselves. Rarely do they argue with one another. A democracy of syllables? Possibly. Some words are shy and want to hold hands together, others prefer the hustle and bustle of the cityscape on a summers night. Given that rules bore me rigid I am grateful to the wantonly pliable words for making life easy. In terms of ‘The Longest Night’, albeit written in what feels like a lifetime lost I do remember being sat outside a café watching the day go by when a group of now aging Gurkha ex-soldiers strolled by. For whatever reason the chalk on the blackboard inside my head came out with the obscure first line, ‘Forgotten tribes and luminaries outwear handicaps’. It hit me smack in the face Tysonesque punch style. I suspect that the pattern the words took was due to the quantum leaps of shifting back and forth across two time zones. Sorrowfully, the event I wrote of was concerning the stupidity of WW1. The word collective demanded the whole picture be seen even if the subject matter was in cameo; a convoluted fiction of respect.
What, according to you, is the hardest thing about writing?
By far and away the hardest thing is when, over an evening’s glass or two of something French and red I’ve welcomed in the multi-coloured immigrant words and ensured the poor things are safe and sound in the sanctuary of my laptop only to find come the morn they have mutated into a gang of shaven headed, tattooed archetypical plain white indigenous thugs. Sadly, I have to evict the unwanted and await for new arrivals.
Do you pen down revelations and ideas as you get them, right then and there?
Yes. Words are delicate things. Give them a home at the drop of a hat in the knowledge that should they not be cared for they will die young.
You’ve clearly tapped an endless vein of inspiration from WWII and the Cold War, as poems like the “The Sunshine Girl” and “She is the Ghost of Generations” show. What is it about these particular years that hold your imaginative curiosity above all others?
Twixt the end of one evil, namely WW1 and the commencement of
another…morally far, far worse than its predecessor…a new dawn would trade
peace’s bright sun-shiny new dawn for darkest storms clouds that would
hurriedly mature into the tempest that was the unremitting thunder and
lightning of WW2. Within the traditional
European battlefield a Lilliputian era of unrefined, unadulterated passion for
passion’s sake. A ‘passion’ initially
for simply ‘living life to the full’; a thing lost in the death and destruction
of what had gone before. Then, in passion’s adolescence; new artforms; adapted
old artforms; polar opposite political doctrines; deliciously sullied ‘encounters’
of any and every shape and form; writers taking bold risks like never before.
Nothing was taboo. At its centre was Paris, ‘The City of Love’, although Weimar
Berlin ran it a close second. How could
I not be drawn into such an array of talent revealed; sometimes wasted in this
Bohemian, Parisian wonderland? Oh, to be
a fly on the wall. I have said before,
even in the knowledge that by 1939 the world would once again be in conflict, I
would give my right arm to, as the poet Max Jacob said when taking up residence
in Montparnasse district of the city, “I have come to sin disgracefully.”
One must not overlook that during those years at various times
within this small quarter was home to Hemingway, F Scott Fitzgerald, Man Ray,
Picasso, Gertrude Stein, Dali, Henry Miller, Ezra Pound, Lee Miller and a whole
host of others from abroad. In the case of the many young, talented American’s
arriving, they came because they believed their ‘native land was a cultural
sink.’ Perhaps all ‘native’ lands had earned such a dull tag when compared to
Paris back then? Whatever, Ms Lee that is the reasoning behind my constant
My risqué ‘romance come espionage’ book, ‘Notoriously Naked Flames’ is themed around the events of that short-lived libertine era. Writing that book was pure joy. I think I fell in love with the albino Goddess who was my lead character and a diamond gal, to boot.
Another element of poetry that fascinates me is word choice. When you write poems like “The Passing of a Myth,” do you first concentrate on creating the visuals within the poem, or are you first dedicated to building the music of the line? Both are gorgeous in this poem, but I can’t fathom trying to work on both at once, so I’m assuming there’s a process. 🙂
There’s no process, I promise.
In truth I’d forgotten I ever wrote that one. Having just read it once again I recall that at the time a dark depression had consumed me. I’m particularly good at those. In their own clinging way they have a creative spark unique to their species. The addictive perk depression offers is that it spawns words of own volition. They may have come alive in my head yet I never feel ‘ownership’ of them. What and how I write is, as ever, at their discretion. If there is a benefit in chance visits from my old nemesis, Monsieur Chien Noir, then it is that, by way of compensation for outstaying his welcome, I often find he settles his account by way a currency born of milk and honey words that flow like there’s no tomorrow.
What advice would you like to pass on to young writers of today that is unconventional but true?
Well, this is my personal take on the subject. I’m sure many will justifiably
see it differently. I would firstly advise that nothing is sacred. You can get
away with murder when your only weapon is the written word. Never pull a punch.
It took me an age to realize that words beg to be out of their comfort zone. Let
them run feral. Also, never run ahead of yourself and believe you’re a poet or
a novelist. You’re not. I’m not. Most aren’t. To me only the greats who have
earned their stripes in that regard can lay claim to those tags. Mostly they
never find that out, as accolades tend to chase only the great and grateful dead.
Importantly, grab hold of self-doubt and make her your new best friend. She’ll never let you down. While a smidgen of self-believe is a harmless thing, never believe you’re capable of walking on the inky waters of Lake Egocentric for you will lose all respect from your peer group as well as potential readers.
If you’re writing about a city/country/culture you haven’t physically visited, how much research do you conduct before you start writing?
Albeit a contradiction given what I’ve said vis a vis ‘words’, yes I
do research. I find it chivvies the lazy words amongst the contingent along. In
many ways it’s the most enjoyable aspect. I learn shed loads of things I never
knew previously. Even with my ‘Jonny Catapult the Plumber the Artist’s All
Trust’ lunatic skits…as per my new book, ‘Fanny,
I Think of You Often’…I had to research pretty much all angles of
plumbing believe it or not…not that I shall actually or actively ‘plumb’ now
or at any time in the future unless there is a revolver fixed firmly at my
temple. Plainly, it is essential to share my research with the tribe curious ‘words’
thus giving them an idea as to where I live in hope they will travel.
‘Notoriously Naked Flames’ demanded a whole mass of painstaking research. I had to discover exactly how life was and how it looked during those years building up to WW2 in countries and cities across Europe, from Amsterdam, Mother Russia…including the Ukraine, Istanbul and Berlin, none of which I was that familiar with, although when it came to Paris and the coastal areas of Belgium I was very much on home territory. History, architecture, politics and the ways of life of both the good and the bad became key to creating a canvas upon which words could paint their picture.
Thank you so, so much for taking time to chat, Master Steeden! Let’s wrap-up with a rundown of your latest works available now on Amazon.
I’ve have already made mention of the new book, full title, ‘Fanny, I Think of You Often & Other Tales of Abject Lunacy’. It is the first of two books both of which are a deranged collection of skits, such as ‘Audrey Hepburn’s Bout of Gout’; ‘Marilyn Monroe’s Distressing Flatulence’; ‘The fate of the old grannie from Lowestoft who once upon a time inadvertently stepped upon Elvis’s blue suede shoes’ and much, much more. The sister to this tome, ‘The Elastic Snapped,’ is also available.
Another addition to the shelves at Amazon/Kindle is co-authored with Shirley Blamey. It’s name is ‘Whatever Happened To Eve?’ Eighteen months previous I commenced collecting ever willing words for this story. A third of the book complete, the new words arriving were a motley crew who failed abysmally to direct my tale toward a conclusion.
Then a stroke of good fortune. It was in September last year, having
suffered an irksome eye injury some months previous that had slowed my progress
when coaxing words, that Shirl and I took a short break in France and it was
there a story imagined over cold bière blonde in a clandestine darkest corner
of a once voguish bar in ‘Paris par la mer’ took on a new shape. Twixt the pair
of us, in concert we found ourselves acting and reacting to the seductive pulse
of mutual, sometimes deliciously wicked thoughts. No ‘what if’s’, ‘but’s’ or ‘maybe’s’ when a
dark fantasy drops out the night sky for it must, for rationalities’ sake, be
put to the written word before it is lost forever to the merciless ether. An
excited cluster of unshackled ‘words’ agreed. We were on a roll.
I have to say, come breakfast, I questioned Shirl on a number of potentially
controversial topics and storylines we had come up with that night in France.
“Can we really get away with that? Seriously?” I asked. “Molly Parkin got away
with it time and time again. Why not?,” her pokerfaced riposte. Soon after wily
‘words’ found they had two craniums to take up residence in. I tend to think
mine was just their holiday home.
130,000 or so words later we have a book we shall shortly make known
to others. Having said that…and you
are the first to know, the lovely Ms. Lee…
‘Whatever Happened To Eve?’ is, in truth, already available in both
paperback and Kindle at Amazon sites far and wide.
Lastly Ms Lee, my
thanks for the invitation, your time and patience.
Gentlemen Prefer a Pulse: Poetry with a Hint of Lunacy: Gentlemen Prefer a Pulse is Mike Steeden’s first published collection of poetry and features over a hundred poems that are sometimes humourous, serious, satirical, surreal, thought provoking and brilliant! Mike says his inspiration is drawn from his self proclaimed love of the fairer sex, his passion for ‘people watching’ (a trait born of his time as a private investigator), social justice and compassion.
Notoriously Naked Flames: Part espionage thriller, part romance, part fantasy, part adventure, ‘Notoriously Naked Flames’ is Mike Steeden’s first novel. Spanning the lead up to World War II, the war itself, and into the early 1950s, the unnamed heroine of the piece, a bewitching albino of Bohemian bent, masquerades in all manner of risqué guises dishing out her own version of clandestine justice to those evil souls spawned of conflict’s disregard for compassion, law, and order.
Fanny, I Think of You Often… Nothing is sacred. If permitted, the mind wanders free in the knowledge that anything and everything is possible. Season such a mind with a pinch of satire plus a hint of Pythonesque surrealism and the dish of ‘fusion lunacy’ is ready to be served. Within the pages of this deranged collection of skits you will discover how Audrey Hepburn dealt with a bout of gout; similarly what became of Marilyn Monroe’s false teeth; the fate of the old grannie from Lowestoft who once upon a time inadvertently stepped upon Elvis’s blue suede shoes and much, much more.
The Elastic Snapped: WARNING: This book may contain traces of nuts (not of the edible kind) and may also cause drowsiness amongst those unfamiliar with the English language. Bibliophobia sufferers may experience severe panic attacks. Additionally, it is strongly recommended that you do not drive whilst reading.INGREDIENTS: Lunacy, stupidity, silliness, idiocy, absurdity, aberration, eccentricity and fragments of appallingly bad taste.
Whatever Happened to Eve? No writer can help what he or she writes. Whether they be scandalous or sweet, dull or bright, words arrive as and when the fancy takes and evolve into whatever fable suits. With that in mind this collective of untamed words, of their own volition, chose not to be pitched at the easily offended or fainthearted, instead they opted for a captivating darkness.
Before kids, Laurel Wanrow studied and worked as a naturalist—someone who leads wildflower walks and answers calls about the snake that wandered into your garage. During a stint of homeschooling, she turned her writing skills to fiction to share her love of the land, magical characters and fantastical settings. Today Laurel answers some questions about digging into history to inspire her steampunk novels and the importance of attending conferences to reach readers.
The steampunk genre has always fascinated me. What first inspired you to write in this genre?
I have always read fantasy and loved living history. As a teenager, I volunteered for the Appalachian craft center my dad ran at Catoctin Mountain National Park in Maryland. Over the years, I apprenticed to the craftsmen, then after college I worked in historic interpretation for several parks. It wasn’t a far reach to write in a historic time period. I began The Luminated Threadsas a strictly fantasy world patterned off of the Victorian period because I’d read several steampunks and really liked the aesthetic. My critique partner said it seemed so like Victorian England that it was annoying that it wasn’t. So I switched it to the Peak District of Derbyshire.
I confess that I’m one of those who will only research when absolutely necessary. It just feels like such a time drain when one’s writing with kids running around. Yet for stories like yours, I imagine research is an extremely important phase of your world-building. Can you share your research process with us, and any tips you have for writers who aren’t accustomed to researching historical periods?
When I say ‘I switched it,’ the process really wasn’t that easy. Having worked as a historic interpreter, I wanted my world to be fairly accurate—fairly because I did take fantasy liberties. Those times were hard, especially for women, but in a fantasy world I could change things like equality and dress. And add magic to equalize the power among genders.
But the research: I questioned and checked everything, including changing the date of The Luminated Threads story—1868—to after steam-powered tractors were invented. Selecting Derby as a location wasn’t random either. It’s the site of the first water-powered silk mill in Britain and many cotton mills followed throughout Derbyshire, making it a center of Industrial Revolution. The borough was also the headquarters of the Midland Railway—and what steampunk doesn’t have steam trains?
I literally looked up everything. To reference it again, I create folders for background research, and save my referenced docs, with the URLs and often the important passages copied and highlighted. Here’s a screenshot of part of my research files, which reminds me how much I have invested in this series, and that I should really work on the second story arc!
I talked to people who write historic in other time periods, who are reenactors and others who are costume designers. I posted on loops and forums. I read blogs. I read books and took notes. My favorite is What Jane Austen Ateand Charles Dickens Knew by Daniel Pool. It gives general life details, but not every specific a writer needs. But the things I still had to learn are endless: I looked up vegetables planted in England in Victorian times, but referred to a rug as pumpkin-colored for a few drafts until I realized pumpkins didn’t grow in England. Cookies aren’t referred to as cookies in Britain, but I wanted readers to know my heroine wasn’t eating a biscuit-biscuit, so I gave them the name “sweet biscuit” and described them as discs. I gave 1800s “Mason” jar images as a reference to my cover designer, then had a fortuitous moment of doubt and learned Mason jars are American, the British used “Kilmer” jars. But I couldn’t find an 1800s image to verify if the logo was embossed on them. Instead, my cover designer embossed my jars with a “Wellspring Collective 1868” logo on The Twisting, making it my favorite of the three.
You asked about historical research, so I focused on it here, but all of the natural history for the series is researched and as correct as I can make it, too: agricultural crops and local plants I based my shapeshifters on native wildlife, a local mineral called Blue John is a fantasy element. Though my hidden valley doesn’t exist in the Peaks District, other valleys like it have been formed through similar natural phenomena.
One problem I have in writing dialogue for historical characters is their vernacular: what word’s okay for what period, how do they swear, etc. How did you tackle writing accurate dialogue for your time period?
Again, I looked up most of the words I use. For example, a character says, “No kidding?” Not in 1868. The colloquial interjection no kidding! “that’s the truth” is from 1914. But to “kid” someone, as to tease playfully, is from 1839.
I know my dialogue isn’t completely accurate, but I tried. You can read historic novels, but other authors make mistakes, too, so honestly, you must double check. Read novels written during the actual time period. I watched You-Tube videos and PBS shows. I asked a British-born friend to beta read and, among many others, he suggested the endearment “Duck” that Mrs. Betsy uses.
Swear words are particularly tricky for historic and YA novels. Some of my information came secondhand from a forum thread on Absolute Write. Many words were reviewed, but most revealing, to me, was that the expletive ‘bloody’ was a highly offensive curse for Victorians. The writer recommended: Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing by Melissa Mohr, published by Oxford University Press.
I see you attend conventions and signings. Those in-person events terrify me! Any advice to help a new author like myself get properly prepared for such events?
Attend a few as an attendee and, if you can, with other writer friends. Then you can review what you’ve experienced and learned together. Talk to the authors with tables or on panels to learn about their experience at that con and what other cons or fairs they have attended. Don’t be afraid to ask how it’s going or what they wish they had done differently. Take photos of their table set-ups, ask the sources of materials like display items, banners, table drapes, printed materials. Be sure to look up the event websites. The ‘guest writer/author’ fees, volunteer hour commitments and what equipment (canopy, table, chairs) vary widely. And the application dates are often a year to 6 months ahead of the event! With this information, you can prepare your table or presentations in advance.
When you are ready to attend, it’s fun to go with an author friend or two, having your own tables or sharing one. Coordinate to cover each other for panel talks or breaks, or bring a family member or friend as a helper. Keep in mind the distance to some events adds to your time and cost (hotel stays!); try a few local fairs first to test the waters. I have found that ‘book’ festivals have more book buyers than fantasy cons where costumes and gaming compete with books.
If you have a character in your novel that inspires you to dress in costume, do it. I attract a lot of attention when I wear my steampunk costume.
Also, watch for sales with printing suppliers to stock up on business cards, postcards, banners, etc. That 40-50% off really helps. Black Friday is coming and that’s a big sale time. Go on the sites early to sift through what you want and even set up your designs.
Any other closing words of encouragement to help your fellow writers through the rough days?
Join a writing chapter so you can develop friendships with those going through the same work, frustrations and joys. Writing is a lonely endeavor and it helps to be able to reach out. I’ve found that having an accountability partner helps—one in similar circumstances to yourself (i.e. writes full time, works fulltime/writes on weekends, writing around toddler schedule) is best.
Thank you so much for your time!
About the Author
Laurel is the author of The Luminated Threads series, a Victorian historical fantasy mixing witches, shapeshifters and a sweet romance in a secret corner of England, and The Windborne, a lighthearted YA fantasy series that begins with The Witch of the Meadows.
When not living in her fantasy worlds, Laurel camps, hunts fossils, and argues with her husband and two new adult kids over whose turn it is to clean house. Though they live on the East Coast, a cherished family cabin in the Colorado Rockies holds Laurel’s heart.
Christopher Lee is the indie author of Nemeton,Bard Song, Westward, and Pantheon. He is an avid history buff, mythologist, bardic poet, and keeper of the old ways. Here he takes a moment to share a few favorite photos of his Colorado landscape as well as his thoughts on the challenges of point of view and world-building.
Let’s begin with a little about you. What was the first story you encountered that made you want to be a writer?
Ok, that is an easy one. Star Wars was the reason I became enchanted with the prospect of storytelling. When I first watched the fantasy and adventure of Han, Luke, and Leia, I was entranced. The vastness of their world, the complexity of the universe was gripping. As I grew into my teen years I became intoxicated by the idea that I would create worlds like that one day. After years of creating a fan-fic world within the Star Wars Universe, my lifelong friend and I decided to divorce our concept from the Star Wars Universe and make it wholly our own. Since that time, I have crafted many worlds from the realm of my own dreams, and don’t believe I will be stopping anytime soon.
You clearly enjoy creating worlds complete with vast, populated lands. What kind of creative process did you follow to develop the world of your first novel, Nemeton?
Nemeton is part of a grand epic that encompasses the whole of human history. When I first got into it I had a fraction of an idea, and zero clue about how to build a world as complex as was necessary. When it comes to worldbuilding there are literally thousands of angles to consider. I was overwhelmed at first, but I kept beating my head against the wall, and slowly it came into sharper focus. Overtime I developed an outline structure that I use in all of my worlds that dials in the world. This is my favorite process in creating because it allows me to see a completely new complex world. Nemeton relied heavily on readily available human myth. It was an attempt to blend the many voices of this world’s culture into a cohesive structure that was both believable and enjoyable. There were many hours in libraries, on Wikipedia, and scouring the internet for ancient documents that gave me a clear picture of what it might have been like to live around 3,000 BCE.
I’ve always felt writing characters of the opposite gender to be a tough gig. Any tips on how to swing this as you do for Sam of Nemeton?
Oh dear, this is something that I struggled with mightily. I wanted Samsara to be infinitely more complex than myself and slowly came to the realization that it was going to take more than I had in my toolkit. Writing the opposite gender is full of pitfalls which can either make or break your story. As a male, it was a struggle to craft a flawed, yet empowered eighteen-year-old girl that didn’t reek of male influence. I worked with a model I have seen in my own life as Sam is loosely based on my wife. I find that this process is helpful, especially when writing characters of the opposite gender, though it is also helpful in crafting characters of your own gender. Trust your heart, it knows how people interact, but you have to make sure to be honest in your assessments and resist the urges that don’t fit with the characters personality. Another thing to do is do personality tests as if you were the character. I find that to be thoroughly enlightening.
Your other fantasy series in the works are both episodic in nature. You explain this move to episodic writing and publication on your own website, but can you share your favorite reason to write serialized fiction?
Serial fiction is fun because the pressure comes off drafting a manuscript as a whole. It is then applied to crafting self-contained episodes that carry their own arch, on a much shorter timeline. The primary reason I like this method, currently, is that it allows me to track how the audience is enjoying the story in advance. With a full novel you often have no clue how an audience would respond, save with the help of a few beta readers. When you release content in quick bursts, you can hone the book for an audience long before you publish the entire Omnibus, and therein you find a proof of a concept, which is a huge hurdle for all writers. Imagine if your audience was your agent. They are the gatekeeper of the indie author. If one of my serials fails to draw interest, I can shift gears quickly and not lose the investment of my time. I can take what characters the audience likes and continue on their journeys, or scrap the idea all together, thus not wasting inordinate time and energy on an idea that doesn’t draw interest. But probably the best reason lies is audience engagement. Episodic releases allow me time to engage the audience and talk about what they dig. This is one way you can build a truly loyal audience, by simply responding to their feedback and giving them what they want more of.
Pantheon, your current project on Patreon, brings multiple mythologies together in a battle for supremacy. This reminds me of the Street Fighter arcade games of childhood. ☺ What inspired you to drop these characters into your arena?
Well a few years ago, when I was still drafting Nemeton, I fell in love with this concept of the pantheons doing battle. Who would win? It’s kind of like Avengers: Infinity War. What if we brought everyone into the same space (No pun intended, as it is a space fantasy). I sat on the idea and toyed with it until it finally fully formed in my mind. I’ve always been obsessed with mythology, reading it is what prompted me to write Nemeton. Thing is Nemeton is primarily Celtic in nature and didn’t deal with the gods and goddesses of the other western pantheons, so I wanted to draft something that gave a stage to the forgotten heroes of humanity’s past. Pantheon is that homage to the legacy of mankind, a revamped, relived story where the prominent and some not so prominent myths of mankind are reborn for future generations.
I can only imagine how hard it can be to decide which characters to use from these mythologies, and which to cut. Can you describe this process a little?
A lot of reading, researching and world-building. I basically compiled lists of the all the characters and figured out which major story-lines would work in concert with the others. The characters that play large roles in those story lines became my main POV characters. At first I wasn’t sure how I was going to tie them all together, but remarkably they all seemed to fall into place, as though the story itself was commanding itself to be written. Each Pantheon has their own story arch that will occur in Season One, mimicking major events in that cultures myth. I simply had to pick the characters that jived with that story-line and just follow the blueprint that the ancients left us, and whallla–Pantheon! I only pray that I have given it its proper due.
Unlike Pantheon and Nemeton, your other serialized fiction series Westward takes place in 1860s America. Does it feel restrictive, working with a geography and history already established in readers’ minds? Why or why not?
Well not really, in fact it liberating. I don’t have to come up with the major conflicts or story ques. I can follow what happened in history and work off that, with subplots that are character driven. Imagine taking a historical event and adding a character that didn’t exist, then weaving that character and its fictional story into the one we know. It’s challenging in its own right, but it is also very freeing because it allows you to present a fantastical element to almost any element of human history. I liken it to reading conspiracy theories because Westward/The Occultare Series relies on an underground/unseen organization that combats magical/supernatural occurrences in the human world. All you have to do is imagine that there is one operating today. Because there is…or is there?
Unlike Nemeton, you also write Westward with a first person point of view. What do you love about this intimate perspective, and what do you find challenging about it?
This was a HUGE jump. After half a million words spent writing Nemeton in the Third Person Omniscient viewpoint, first person was like trying on someone else’s skin. I thought it would be more difficult than it was, but once I sat down and just started to click the keys it flowed out of me. I’ve enjoyed it thus far because I can go deeper with the character than I can in 3rd, but it does limit a great deal of what I can do. I bend the rules a bit because my characters all have a little of me in them, aka a hyperactive mind, which may not be to the liking of all readers, but hey man–this is fantasy. Suspend your beliefs when you walk through that door.
Any last words of encouragement for your fellow story-tellers?
JUST KEEP AT IT! Everyday you should be writing, or editing, or at the very very least reading. Reading is the key to learning storytelling. There is no magic bullet, no blueprint. True storytelling comes from years of absorbing great stories. Read nonfiction books about writing, about life, religion, politics, history, enrich your mind with a wellspring of knowledge you can draw inspiration from. I know I couldn’t have crafted the religious systems of Nemeton without my previous interest in druidic religion. The key is to constantly look for areas to improve, steep yourself in the craft and you will grow. Probably the most important rule is this: You don’t have to please everyone, because frankly you can’t. There are going to be people who say you suck, there are going to be readers and fellow writers who tell you you aren’t good enough. POPPYCOCK! Straight up, not all readers will like your work. Your job is to find the ones that do and continue to better your craft to eventually envelope the readers who don’t. Rule number two, take what other writers say with a grain of salt. The Indie Author’s world is saturated with advice about how to MAKE IT. It’s bloomin’ bologna. You will find limited success this way, but you risk ending up a carbon copy of all the other authors out there right now. This flies in the face of art in general. Chasing fads, writing only in one POV to please the audience, or sticking a hard line on generalized writing rules are the plagues of the writing world today. Do not stymie the thing that makes your voice different. Learn the rules, perfect your craft, and then allow your voice to shine by breaking the rules as only you can. Only you can tell your story, not your readers, not your fellow writers, YOU. You have to believe in you because no one else is going to, save a few extraordinary folks. So get to it!
An Indian Summer gripped Wisconsin for far too long this September. Mosquitos rejoiced, trees clutched their green leaves. It was even hot enough to go to the beach for my mother’s birthday. But no heat wave would thwart me this year. I would have my fall foliage pictures no matter what Mother Nature said, dammit!
So when Bo suggested getting one more weekend at the family cabin up north, I gave an emphatic “YES!” Trees galore, beautiful lake, a well-timed cold-snap. Awesome, right?
Just look at that gorgeous blue water. Surrounded by green leaves. Grumble grumble.
But there was no denying the joy of a lakeshore littered by wee rocks. Bo and Blondie worked on skipping stones. Biff and Bash enjoyed their “fireworks”–aka, throwing clumps of sand into the air over the water.
Bo knew I was disappointed. “Did you want take pictures of the fish hatchery for your blog?”
(Insert irritated glare here.) “No.”
The weekend over, we stopped at a nearby town for gas, coffee, and a playground before heading home. We passed something we pass so often when visiting this town, and an idea hit me:
“Can you handle the kids at the park for a little while?”
“I guess. What’s up?”
“I want to take some pictures.”
Many immigrants of German descent came to Wisconsin, which is why this state had such a large number of breweries for a while. Unlike the others, however, the Tiger Brewery has never been torn down, even though it’s been out of use since the 1930s.
It’s not for public entry. It’s not a museum. It’s just…a monument? That requires power lines, and blinds in the windows?
I take care with my camera when I near the occupied house next to the brewery. Perhaps they’re the caretakers, or neighbors who loathe snoopers.
But I can’t help but wonder about this place. It’s not falling apart, it’s not technically in use. In this town, it doesn’t seem to be anything. Why leave it alone? Why not enter it, and invite others to do the same? What’s in there people can’t look at? What’s hiding in there? What is this town protecting? Even the apples hang forgotten, rotten, from its trees.
One window board upon the tower flaps open. Bet there’s a stairwell in there to the top, and even to the underground. Deep, deep into the earth, beneath the river running behind this ignored place, deeper still where another forgotten world awaits, where eyes blink in darkness and long nails dig through stone, hunting…
Perhaps your own town has a similar street, where life hums at sunrise and sunset, but is otherwise left to a breezy quiet. What hides among the normal? What is the price this world pays to ignore its presence? What…where…when…who…why, why, why….These questions fly by us as leaves caught up in the wind.
History has always been the most important and most dangerous field of study in my eyes. As a student, I found the world of wartime propaganda utterly fascinating–how with the right words and imagery, facts and past events could be tainted, twisted, even erased from the society’s memory. As a Christian, I cannot understand why those of, say, the Amish life, live by “forgive and forget,” which has lead to a terrifyingly high rate of sexual abuse in families, since the abuser never faces any consequence for the act. He asks for forgiveness; therefore, the sin is forgiven and must be forgotten, and nothing prevents him from raping or molesting yet again. Without history, we lose our only true teacher of human nature’s scope: its heights of selflessness, its depths of wretchedness.
History is not something one often trips upon by accident. There is but the single weed budding from roots that run deep and far, or the curved stone in the dirt which, as one digs, and brushes, and digs, becomes a bone. History hides itself in the present mess, and hides well, just as any good mystery should.
Ellis Peters, aka Edith Pargeter, knew this all too well as she wrote The Cadfael Chronicles. Her stories of this Rare Benedictine are set in the 12th century during a civil war between two monarchs vying for England’s throne. The time’s rife with secret messages, castle sieges, hidden treasures, betrayals and all sorts of other delicious things that make the period rich with living…and killing, but also living.
Some years have passed since I’d read a Cadfael, and I decided to rectify that when we traveled to the North Woods (the way up north where the bald eagles hang out in ditches and bears will meander down your driveway and turtle nests are smashed by an old Polish woman with a shovel). I can read in the car; Bo cannot, so he prefers to drive. (That, and I apparently drive a bit too crazy for his liking. Wuss.) This title was not adapted for the Mystery! series starring thespian treasure Sir Derek Jacobi, which meant the mystery would be new to me. Yay!
The Hermit of Eyton Forest begins with, of course, death, but this one’s natural: a father dies of his battle injuries, orphaning his son who was already in the abbey’s care. When the abbey refuses to send him home with his scheming grandmother, who has a marriage in the works for this ten-year-old, the grandmother takes in “a reverend pilgrim” and his young assistant to live in the hermitage on her land between the abbey and the boy’s inherited manor (33). The detail quickly fades in a passage of time, and it sounds like this pilgrim Cuthred has changed the grandmother’s mind about suing the abbey for custody.
Act I winds down with a conversation between friends: Cadfael and the Sheriff of Shrewsbury. War-talk is very common in these books, especially since Shrewsbury isn’t far from the Welsh border, where many fugitives run. So when Chapter 4 meandered through a conversation about King Stephen holding Empress Maud under siege in Oxford, my eyes, erm, well, dazed over somewhat.
“There’s a tale he tells of a horse found straying not far from [Oxford], in the woods close to the road to Wallingford. Some time ago, this was, about the time all roads of Oxford were closed, and the town on fire. A horse dragging a blood-stained saddle, and saddlebags slit open and emptied. A groom who’d slipped out of the town before the ring closed recognised horse and harness as belonging to one Renaud Bourchier, a knight in the empress’s service, and close in her confidence too. My man says it’s known she sent him out of the garrison to try and break through the king’s lines and carry a message to Wallingford for her.”
Cadfael ceased to ply the hoe he was drawing leisurely between his herb beds, and turned his whole attention upon his friend. “To Brian FitzCount, you mean?” (53)
Blah blah, war things, blah blah. Get to the murder already!
But Peters is no fool. If she’s spending a little time on “war stuff,” it’s for a reason. On the one hand, this gives us a taste of how monarchs struggle to reach out for help in the midst of a siege. It’s an historically accurate strategy, and a fine moment on which to focus for a sharper taste of medieval warfare vs the typical “argh” and swords banging and catapults and the like we always see in movies. On the other hand, this past event is a clue to solve the murders: a nobleman hunting a runaway villein is found stabbed in the back, and the hermit Cuthred is also found dead. Peters buried the clue in that conversation of war, that which we readers would think is just material for the period, not for the plot.
Yet it all comes very much to the forefront in Act III. The nobleman’s son, for instance, sets the reveal into motion when he sees the pilgrim’s body:
“But I know this man! No, that’s to say too much, for he never said his name. But I’ve seen him and talked with him. A hermit–he? I never saw sign of it then! He wore his hair trimmed in Norman fashion…And he wore sword and dagger into the bargain,” said Aymer positively, “and as if he was well accustomed to the use of them, too….It was only one night’s lodging, but I diced with him for dinner, and watched my father play a game of chess with him.” (202)
It’s not like the medieval period had finger prints on database or, you know, pictures for comparison. Identity hinged on being known, and in that kind of war-torn world, you never know who’s going to know you. In this case, Aymer, son of the dead nobleman, unwittingly revealed this holy man to be a fraud, therefore ruining the grandmother’s schemes to have the holy hermit force her grandson to marry a neighbor’s daughter for more land. The nobleman had gone to the hermit, thinking his assistant might be the runaway villein he’s hunting–and here he sees the soldier he had played games with posing as a pilgrim.
So, who is this hermit that killed to keep his true identity dead in history, and who killed him? Not the nobleman, being already dead and all. And not the nobleman’s son.
Well, there is a falconer who has been loitering about the abbey, and who uses Empress Maud’s coins for alms. Cadfael, being a soldier in the Crusades before coming to the cloister, has his own opinions about divine duties in warfare, and chooses to say nothing rather than speak with the abbot, who is publicly aligned with King Stephen: “My besetting sin…is curiosity. But I am not loose-mouthed. Nor do I hold any honest man’s allegiance against him” (143). Turns out this falconer is on a hunt for none other than the man who had taken off with the treasure and war correspondence from the bloody saddlebags discussed on page 53, and this thief was none other than the fake hermit Cuthred:
“He had killed Cuthred. In fair fight. He laid his sword by, because Cuthred had none. Dagger against dagger he fought and killed him…for good reason,” said Cadfael. “You’ll not have forgotten the tale we heard of the empress’s messenger sent out of Oxford, just as King Stephen shut his iron ring round the castle. Sent forth with money and jewels and a letter for Brian FitzCount, cut off from her in the woods along the road, with blood-stained harness and empty saddlebags. The body they never found.” (219)
Had Peters simply dumped this information on us at the end–as Agatha Christie has done a few times with Poirot–I would have been pissed. But Peters didn’t; she took advantage of Act I’s slow build and shared the clue inside her war stories. Readers may not remember this tale by story’s end, but Peters doesn’t cheat them with an absurd reveal thrown in at the end, either. She shares only the history that matters; it’s the reader’s responsibility to remember it.
On the flip-side of this, when someone hacks up a mystery by throwing history at us too early, I get rather miffed. Murder on the Orient Expressis guilty of just such a crime.
No, no, not the book. There’s a reason so many look to this particular Poirot title as one of Christie’s masterworks. The first Act establishes Poirot on his way home from a case on the continent; this is why he eventually boards the Orient Express with other passengers. The body’s discovered in Chapter 5, and it’s in Chapter 7 we get the history-reveal:
The doctor watched [Poirot] with great interest. He flattened out the two humps of wire, and with great care wriggled the charred scrap of paper on to one of them. He clapped the other on top of it and then, holding both pieces together with the tongs, held the whole thing over the flame of the spirit lamp….It was a very tiny scrap. Only three words and a part of another showed.
-member little Daisy Armstrong. (161)
This clue both slows and tightens the pace: Poirot and his comrade recall this kidnapping and murder of the child Daisy a few years ago. It turns out the murder victim at their feet was that same kidnapper. From here the identities of the other passengers are worked out as well as their connections to the Armstrong child.
No, the book is not the guilty party. That verdict belongs to the 1974 film.
It begins with a newspaper/newsreel montage about the kidnapping and murder of child Daisy Armstrong. It lasts a minute, and that’s a minute too long.
It then jumps to five years later, and the gathering of characters to the train.
For one who’s unfamiliar with the book, this jump from dead child to Istanbul has got to be really confusing. For those who read the book–like me–this little montage kills the mystery. What does that footage do? Well, it shows readers that there’s a revenge in the works. We already want justice for that little girl, so whoever gets killed on the train deserves it before it even happens, which means readers won’t dare to connect with any of those other characters because they know one of them’s a wretch who needs justice bled out of him. In the book, we know nothing incriminating about any of the characters in Act I. In Act II, we’re still getting over the shock of a murder happening in an isolated, snow-bound train, where we know the murderer must still be hiding among innocent lives who sure need protection, and then, then, we find out the victim was a child murderer. It’s a double-whammy of a reveal thanks to present and past smashing together.
But when readers learn the history first, they know what to expect in the present. This is a must for so many aspects of life and story alike, but in mysteries? Part of what makes a mystery a mystery is not knowing what to expect.
PS: I dare to get excited about the upcoming Branagh version of the story despite Branagh’s mustache. Your thoughts?
Ever since the loss of our babysitter to the warmer climes of Arizona, Bo and I have lost all chances of a “night out.” (For the record, we did try three other babysitters, but those, um, didn’t exactly work out.) We have managed a few outings in the daylight hours, however, thanks to relatives willing to watch Blondie and the twins. That’s how we got to see Rogue One: A Star Wars Story and tour the Pabst Mansion.
Why the Pabst Mansion? Bo and I aren’t beer connoisseurs. I can’t fathom whatever’s brewed under the current Pabst label is anything like the Pabst beer brewed in the 1800s.
Well, back when I was tooling around with Fallen Princeborn: Stolen (the one with Dorjan), I struggled with details for the primary setting of the story. I found my inspiration in a photography collection of the Pabst Mansion: rich, yet not obscenely so. Large, but not unwieldy. Down to earth and still elegant.
Now that Bo has become a stronger ally in my writing life,I asked if he wanted to go with me to the Pabst sometime. I wanted to see the history with my own eyes, breathe its air and touch its remnants. Bo thought for a moment, then got on the phone with his grandmother to watch the kids. He had originally proposed an afternoon at the art museum (Yes, Milwaukee has one), so this seemed an acceptable alternative.
We arrived on yet another cloudy day. Winter left behind its zombie ice-crusts along the roadside: too damn tough to melt. Despite standing on a major thoroughfare, Bo needed me to guide him to the mansion. Marquette Universitydominates this stretch of Wisconsin Avenue, making it easy to look at an old building and think it the school’s.
We step into what looks like a chapel to await the tour.
I look upon the walls and windows…and get depressed.
What has happened to this place? Why’s it being held together by packing tape and pint glasses?
Worst of all, I have to pee. I hate having to pee while stuck in sweater tights.
So of course I had to ask the only male staff person about a bathroom. “Yes, if you’ll follow me.” He walked towards a door…into the mansion.
Weeeeee, I was getting in early!
Were one to be shrunk and escorted inside the Fairy Queen’s pixie dust tree, then one would know what it felt like to leave the decaying chapel and enter the mansion. It’s not that everything was all glittery or jewel-encrusted or such. It was the color: the warmth in the woodwork, the landscapes painted above the doors, the touch of gold and iron in all the right places. I cupped my phone in my hand, eager to snap some early photos before the tour–
–only my escort stuck with me all the way to the mansion’s bathroom and back.
The tour began with an older women who sounded like she’d smoked through her formative years but had quit a while ago. She explained that we were actually in the beer pavilion Captain Pabst had commissioned for the World’s Fair in 1893. It was rebuilt as a sort of sun-room for the mansion. Then, when the Archdiocese of Milwaukee took up residence in the Mansion in the early 1900s, it was converted into a chapel. Once the Catholic Church sold the Pabst property in the 1970s, much of the mansion had, like this chapel, fallen into disrepair. All restorations are funded through donations–and tours–and they try to work room by room. So far, they had the first two floors done. We would see them, and the work being done on the third floor.
I was practically hopping at Bo’s side. I couldn’t stop grinning. I had nearly emptied my phone of all precious moments of children doing childreny things to get as many shots as possible–
“No pictures, please.”
So, um…I don’t have pictures from inside the mansion proper.
But I do have some photos scrounged up from the Internet!
Stairwell between first & second floors
Oddly enough, the Pabst’s website used to have a sampling of the photos taken for their book. Why they took them down I don’t know; they provided some closeups of the amazing woodwork as well as a few rooms.
Captain Pabst’s Study
Mrs. Pabst’s Parlor
Entering the third floor was like stepping into a whole new building. The Catholics had plastered this sad, generic whitewash over the walls and altered much of the plumbing in order to “modernize” the house. Granted, many of these changes are merely cosmetic, but it was clear by seeing rooms in the midst or restoration just how long it would take before the mansion was completely restored. I found a great article on OnMilwaukee.comwhich shared some photos of restoration in process. You can see in that bottom right photo where they’re repainting the original patterns; the bottom left shows stencilwork that had been covered up by the “modern” paint.
The tour covered only the residential portions of the mansion, but I hope to return for one of their special nights of touring the basement and attic, too. Just look at that shot: there’s a story hidden in those depths, I’m sure of it.
One of main reasons I started this website was to share the imagery of my state and how it inspires me as a writer. I know some of you do this, too–Shehanne Moore has some stunning captures of her beloved Scotland,for example. Why? Because where we come from as writers is also where our characters will come from. Does that mean all my characters will be from Wisconsin? Probably not. But they’re all going to come from some place inside me: from my fears and loathings, loves and joys. They may never smell the air around the Circus World Museum, but they will all be a part of me, just as Wisconsin is a part of me.
The Pabst Mansion, this often-overlooked piece of homeland, inspired the setting for the first story I took seriously as a writer. And to share it with my husband, who still doesn’t like reading my fiction but loves my passion for writing because he loves me, made it all the more beautiful.
Some stories cannot be told with crashing-techno, happy pop, or lonely piano. Some stories call for the drums of battle.
And strings. Lots of kick-ass strings.
Such is Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World as composed by Richard Tognetti. I can’t think of any other film where the story, character, and score entwine so completely. Normally I don’t bother with movie trivia, but I have to note that Richard Tognetti not only composed the score, but he performed as the violin solist and tutored Russel Crowe when it came to playing the violin.
Why did Russel Crowe need tutoring? Because his character, the captain of the HMS Surprise, is also a violinist. His best friend is the naval surgeon and a cellist. In the quiet moments at sea, these two play duets of such sweet sways you can feel the ocean rock the boards beneath your feet. These are but classical duets, however. The moments of battle between ships lets loose the drums and brass as cannons between the bows. “The Far Side of the World,” the opening track on this score, captures the rise and fall of battle in the fog as well as the celebration of friendship. Violins and cellos both sing and echo the melody to one another; all the while the song builds with a light intensity. What friendship doesn’t go through its moments of tension to come out all the stronger for it? Just so as the captain and surgeon work together to save ship and crew.
Unleash your characters to the drums of battle, and see what they discover in the fog.
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.
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.