#Author #Interview: #indieauthor @jamescudney4 discusses the ups and downs of #bookreviews, #bookblogging, #writing #mysteries, & the beautiful #writinglife

Greetings, one and all! Guess who finally agreed to read her story

I’m so proud of Blondie overcoming her nerves and sharing her creativity–complete with character voices! xxxx She’s grown so much from the last time we talked about storytelling.

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I’ve not known James Cudney IV as long as Blondie, but he is without a doubt one of the most avid book bloggers I know, and a fellow mystery lover, to boot! I just had to have him for an interview to help celebrate the upcoming release of his latest installment in the Braxton Campus Mystery series.

Let’s have some niceties first! Tell us a bit about yourself, please. 

It’s always the general questions which stump me; where does one begin? I’ll be brave and take a chance here. I’m 42 and live in NYC. I worked in technology and project management for ~15 years before leaving my job and writing my first book two-and-a-half years ago. I’d always wanted to do it but never had the time, until I found myself starting over again. I absolutely do not regret the decision, as I was a walking ball of stress before this new career. I’m still open to going back to an office job, but it will be something very different, if I ever do. That said, I am a homebody and more of an introvert. I tend to follow a routine, but every once in a while, I surprise people with my choices. I spend a lot of time thinking about things before I ever tell others what’s going on inside my head, so when I do… it often seems to others like a quick decision. I’m a much happier person now that I’m writing and being creative. I still get stressed over editing and marketing, but it’s a very different type of monster. With no ‘real’ boss (okay, every reader IS my boss), I have more freedom to take chances on things. Luckily, my other half and our puppy keep me sane!

It says on your bio that you’ve done an extensive study of your family history. That is so fascinating! I’ve a distant cousin doing that very thing, and he’s so far discovered that our great-grandparents (or great-great? I get lost in all the great’s) were put in an internment camp in Wisconsin during World War 1 because they had German names. Is there a surprising story from your own family research you’d like to share?

I couldn’t find my cousin’s resources, but I found some interesting information on the WWII camps in Wisconsin, if you’re interested.

Genealogy is my favorite hobby! I am an only child, so I often spent time with my aunts, uncles, and grandparents rather than siblings. It developed a curiosity about the past, and since I am an introvert, I research everything. When a grandfather passed away, I connected with a long-lost cousin who attended his funeral and shared family history. I began researching it on my own, and now almost 25 years later, I’ve gone back to the 1700s for several branches. Don’t worry, I still get confused on second cousin and first cousin once removed, et al. I know the rules, but I’m less of a stickler for those details as I am finding the exact locations of an ancestor’s birth and death. It’s amazing and scary what you can discover about the past. Interment camps? That’s awful, and fortunately, I don’t know of anything like that in my family. I do have a German great-grandfather who had to change his last name. From what I understand, he had been caught up with the mob and gambling debts while he was a boxer. He disappeared and divorced a wife and three children (in the 1910s) only to resurface two years later with a new wife, name, job (beers / bars), and kids (one of which was my grandmother). I wish I knew the whole story, but the little that’s been retained is fascinating.-

Oh wow…now THAT is the stuff of story, to be sure! I bet you could create a whole wold around your great-grandfather–your own sort of literary journey into your family past. What other literary pilgrimages have you gone on?

Interesting question! Do you mean as a writer or a reader? And literally or figuratively! 🙂 Wait, who’s asking the questions here… I should be a better interviewee, huh?

Ha! Behave yourself, Sir, or I’ll force you to babysit my sons. Mwa ha ha!

Ahem. Anyway, you were saying…

James has written some terrific reviews on this series–click here to check them out!

I’ve never traveled to research a setting for a book or to visit a place I’ve read about. I have traveled a lot in the past, but when I go away, I tend not to read or write. I immerse myself in culture and relaxation. That said… a pilgrimage is like taking a risk toward something you believe strongly in. For me, that would be mysteries and cozy little towns. When I find a series and author I like, I tend to read everything all at once. I did that with the ‘Cat Who’ books by Lilian Jackson Braun; they were one of my first addictions in the sub-genre. 2019 is the year of catching up for me, so I’m saying ‘no’ to most new books and series, allowing enough time to get fully caught up on my TBR before adding to it again.

I don’t blame you for focusing on your TBR list. You have read a lot of books. Like, a TON of books. 500 reviews?! That’s AMAZING! So of course, I have to ask: Have you ever gotten reader’s block? If so, how did you overcome it?

When I was working full-time, I barely read a book every two weeks. Now, I’m able to read a few each week. In 2017, I began using Goodreads much more. I wrote a book review for everything I could remember from the past. I also wrote one as soon as I finished reading a new book. As of today, I’m at about 850, but I’m definitely forgetting hundreds from the past. I have gotten reader’s block a few times in the last 2+ years since I set my Goodreads Challenge in the 150+ books range. It often happens when I am writing my own book, then try to step away for a break. I find myself reading the book to find styles I like or ways to improve my editing, as opposed to just relaxing to enjoy a good book. In that way, writing books has ruined reading books for me. Sometimes, I also find myself just too tired to read, or in need of something vastly different so that I can escape. I won’t ever DNR (Did Not Read) a book. I try a few times, then put it aside and try again a month later. If it’s still not working, I’ll skim it and write a brief review, explaining why it didn’t work for me. If it’s a book an author specifically asked me to read, I won’t review it; I’ll share with them why I struggled and let them decide how to handle it. I don’t ever want to hurt another author if for some reason I’m just not in the right place to read that book.

That’s perfectly understandable, James. I like reading for escape from my genre, too; I love writing fantasy, but it’s so lovely to read mysteries for a little break. And indie authors do NOT have it easy out there in the virtual bookstore, so it’s wonderful that you focus on helping fellow writers rather than put them down.

All this reading and writing must mean you’re keeping a pretty sharp eye on the publishing industry. What do you consider to be the most unethical practice in the publishing industry, and what can we as writers do about it?

Excellent question! I do pay attention, but at the same time, I’ve always believed in doing what you feel is best and ignoring the status quo. For better or worse, the market is super flooded now. Anyone can write a book, which is good and bad. Reading is cheaper, given sites like NetGalley and electronic books; however, the quality of a book is much more questionable when it hasn’t gone through a rugged process to ensure it’s top notch. All I mean by that is that it’s a lot harder to choose books to read nowadays. Some indie books are WAY better than traditionally published books, and some traditionally published books have awful editing processes. For me, it really comes down to the book’s genre, summary, and themes. I don’t read reviews other people write anymore. Let me clarify that… I read reviews my friends write because I support them, but I don’t read reviews before deciding whether to read a book or not. Other people’s opinions have such a range… after reading over 1000 books, I trust my own judgment when choosing what to read. That said, I think the most unethical practice is probably paying for reviews when the book hasn’t actually been read. I’m totally in support of paying someone to read your book and write an honest review; however, if you pay sites to post bunches of positive reviews when the book wasn’t read, it’s not very honest and fair. I understand the desire to do it — you need positive reviews when you first get started, so that part makes sense. But there are better ways to accomplish it, in my opinion. My best suggestion to counter it is find friendly reviewers and ask for their help before paying for fake reviews.

Excellent advice! We have to keep in mind that readers can be very particular with their tastes; what could be a beautiful story to one could be a mangled mess to another. Plus, you know who can/will appreciate your own shift in writing tastes. Your first two novels, Watching Glass Shatter and Father Figure, are both pretty dark dramas when compared to the lighter tone of your Braxton Campus mysteries. What inspired this shift? Do you think you’ll ever shift away from cozies and into the darker realm once more?

I actually have the answer to these questions, phew! I have ZERO clue why I started with a dark family drama before a cozy mystery. I read cozies so much, how on earth did I not go with what I knew! The easy explanation is that Watching Glass Shatter stemmed from a dream I HAD to develop. It took me a year to finish the book and find a publisher. At the same time, I had been building my blog and decided to let my followers choose the scope of my second book. I published a post with 5 or 6 story ideas, then let votes decide. They picked Father Figure, another dark drama. I finished writing and publishing it in April 2018, then decided it was time to write a cozy. I’d published that I was planning to write a sequel to Watching Glass Shatter in late 2018 / early 2019, but I got sidetracked and wrote 4 books in the cozy mystery series because I saw the power of marketing behind a series, and the ideas kept flowing. At the same time, I fleshed out the plot for the Watching Glass sequel and began drafting the outline. I’m happy to report that I’ve begun writing it already. My plan is to publish the fifth cozy in the Braxton series in October 2019, as it will be a Halloween-themed mystery. Then, I will focus on the Watching Glass sequel with a mid 2020 target release. At the same time, I’m working on another mystery series, but it will not be considered cozy. I intend to write a book in all major genres if I can motivate myself even more this year!

Yowza, what a goal! But clearly, mysteries have pride of place in your heart. Was it a mystery novel that first sparked the storytelling passion inside you? If so, which story and why?

It began with Poe and Christie. I love solving puzzles, and being part of the story by playing detective is an amazing way to connect with the author. I also like secrets, at least in terms of trying to discover what someone else is keeping from me. I am not a secretive person myself, probably the opposite – I say too much! It’s definitely my go-to genre, so when I wrote my first book, it was about a family full of secrets. It wasn’t a typical mystery, e.g. in terms of “let’s solve who killed someone.” It was also an analysis of the impact of an emotional explosion on a family with real people we might know around us. My favorite mystery is Christie’s “And Then There Were None.” I recall reading and watching it in school when I was about 10 years old, then guessing the killer before (s)he was revealed. I had a inkling about the way the story was being written, and my intuition paid off… that pretty much clarified for me what type of reader I am.

To me, mysteries are a genre that do not allow for pantsing, but planning, planning, and MORE planning. Can you take us through your writing process for building strong mysteries?

I am definitely a planner. Once an idea formulates, I jot notes down on my phone, since it often happens when I’m out and about (which I dislike, since I said I was a homebody) or waking up from a dream. Once it’s strong enough to organize into a summary, I’ll prepare a 150-word overview. Then, I’ll write an larger outline. I begin with a bullet list of key plot points, then descriptions of characters. Once I know the details of the victim, I create the suspect list, including red herrings and real clues. From there, I create the 10 to 15 key scenes that will help readers solve the crime. I organize the timeline for all the events, then I break the detail into chapter by chapter summaries. Each chapter has 2 or 3 scenes. Each scene lists the characters and settings, as well as what info needs to be discovered and what open questions must arise. From there, it turns into a ~30-page outline that I read several times. This process takes about a week at most. Then I write 2 chapters per day, ignoring the desire to edit. After the first draft is written, I read it and rewrite a new outline without looking at the old one. I do this to see how much has changed, as this helps me figure out areas that are weak and strong. It’s back and forth at that point. I have a weird memory: I forget tons of things from the past, but I’ll remember every arc, red herring, or clue that need to be followed up on. It’s rare I leave anything open-ended in a first draft, but sometimes there are a few unresolved issues. I merge the two outlines, decide what new scenes need to occur and finish my second draft. At that point, editing takes over, then early alpha and beta readers help me identify when I need more suspense or stronger alibis and motives.

Thank goodness for trusted readers–and for this wonderful chat! Would you like to wrap this up with some encouragement for your fellow writers?

I was an English major in college. I’ll say right from the start, I know 90% of the grammar rules but have forgotten a few. I majored in English not because I wanted to be a walking grammar expert but because I enjoy reading and connecting with authors. I LOVE when a reader writes a review on a book and only talks about a grammar issue. I’ve had two where the reviewer only wrote “This books needed to go through more editing.” I laughed because that’s such a ‘useful’ review. I’m all for negative or constructive feedback and criticism, but what a reviewer writes is often a bigger characteristic of them as a person rather than the writer. An author takes 1000+ hours to write a book, not including all the other people that help her or him. A reader takes 30 seconds to write a review and chooses to be mean. There will always be people like that. They are the same people who bullied others. They are the same people who hide behind the Internet and couldn’t actually say it to your face. They are the same people who are probably miserable at home or like to hurt others because they can’t solve their own problems. That’s something I’d like to share with the rest of the writing community — People can be mean, but you need to ignore them when they are hurtful.

If there’s nothing valuable in their review, let it go and write your next book.

On the positive side, as I want to end the interview that way, writers have the best job in the world. They can do anything they want. They can use it for good to promote awareness or provide entertainment. They can use it to help themselves process through pain or emotions. They can use it to make an income. They can use it to express creativity and ideas inside their head that yearn to be released. Aren’t we lucky? I also love how we all support one another and promote each other’s work rather than think of it is as a competition. That’s the best kind of world to live in. So thank YOU!

And thank YOU, James, for all that you do! You’re a wonderful fellow writer and supporter in these crazy publishing waters. I’m sure your latest mystery, Mistaken Identity Crisis, is going to be awesome!

BLURB: A clever thief with a sinister calling card has invaded Braxton campus. A string of jewelry thefts continues to puzzle the sheriff given they’re remarkably similar to an unsolved eight-year-old case from shortly before Gabriel vanished one stormy night. When a missing ruby is discovered near an electrified dead body during the campus cable car redesign project, Kellan must investigate the real killer in order to protect his brother. Amidst sorority hazing practices and the victim’s connections to several prominent Wharton County citizens, a malicious motive becomes more obvious and trickier to prove. As if the latest murder isn’t enough to keep him busy, Kellan partners with April to end the Castigliano and Vargas crime family feud. What really happened to Francesca while all those postcards showed up in Braxton? The mafia world is more calculating than Kellan realized, and if he wants to move forward, he’ll have to make a few ruthless sacrifices. Election Day is over, and the new mayor takes office. Nana D celebrates her 75th birthday with an adventure. A double wedding occurs at Crilly Lake on Independence Day. And Kellan receives a few more surprises as the summer heat begins to settle in Wharton County.

You can find James on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Goodreads, and more via his websites This is My Truth Now and James J. Cudney. Click here for his Amazon Author page.

Stay tuned next week for another interview, this time traveling back to the 1940s and its war-fronts abroad and at home.

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

#Writing #Music: #AlexandreDesplat II and my #Author #Interview with @bidwellhollow

My previous music post connected with quite a few genres of storytelling: mystery, horror, and adventure. I’d like to spend a touch more time on mystery, as I’m currently writing the third novel of the Fallen Princeborn omnibus, whose plot is riddled with mysteries both solved and begun.

Finding the right atmosphere for mysteries is not always simple. Is this a murder mystery with a steady body count, death threats and chases galore? Or is this mystery more slow-burn style, a hunt for the conspiracy with little blood seen but destined to be found if the mystery isn’t solved?

I love both kinds, so of course my book’s a mix of both. While scores like Mad Max: Fury Road, Batman Begins, Bourne Supremacyand others of heavy percussion help with action-heavy moments, it’s important to find the music to counter-balance that. Mychael Danna’s Breach has some lovely tension-filled moments, but I’d like to highlight another score of beautiful, unsettling ambiance: Alexandre Desplat’s The Imitation Game.

Once again, Desplat’s use of the piano is superb. Those first few seconds of solo piano and a low running bass note immediately establish a sense of problem, of not-rightness. The repetitive run of four notes throughout the entire track also gives that feeling of mechanization, of clockwork not in our control. The strings that swell in around the 40-second mark bring a bittersweet air to them, harmonizing with the piano, but more often in a minor key than a traditional major one. Woodwinds are held off until the last minute of the track, and here, the oboe gets a chance to shine. I’m usually not a fan of the oboe (I blame one of my elementary school classmates in band who had one and NEVER learned to play it correctly. Honestly, nothing sounds worse than an awful oboe except maybe an awful violin played by me, ahem.), but when done right the oboe provides a strong yet light tragic air to a melody before it subtly fades into the quiet.

Even Desplat’s percussion is kept relatively light.

With another arpeggio, this time in a lower key, and a few percussion instruments like rhythm sticks, Desplat creates a menacing air fitting for the wartime conflict. This story is, after all, not one of the front lines and bomb raids, but the one fought out of sight, where coded words are as deadly as any missile strike. Even xylophones and chimes are put to use, but unlike Danna’s score for Breach, though here patterned melodies provide that feel of mechanization…but not the circuitry of some computer. Here it is time to follow the journeys of logic to decode nature and language.

Whether you are a reader or writer of mysteries, I heartily recommend Desplat’s The Imitation Game to create that air of hidden conflicts and pursuits for truth. Give characters the unspoken need to embrace the mystery.

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Many, many thanks to the lovely folks of Bidwell Hollow for interviewing me on their site! You can read the interview here.  I’m so excited by their coming podcast series on writers and poets. Please check them out when you have a chance!

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

#Writing #Music for the #FirstChapter in your #NewAdventure: @HansZimmer, #DavidHirschfelder, @Junkie_XL, & #StephenFlaherty

Gosh, did I score on music this winter.

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Sure, there’s some sweet Christmas music in there (Yay, more Alan Silvestri!) but also plenty of fantasy and adventure, too. It’s the sort of gathering that makes me eager to close my invites me to hide from my kids for a few minutes with headphones, a chance to close my eyes and explore the possibilities…

…but which way do I go?

It’s a crossroads moment, to be sure. Maybe I need to be like Anastasia, and wait for a sign, like a magically house-trained dog covered in Don Bluth cuteness.

Whenever I feel tired of writing, this song makes me excited to get back into it again. There’s adventure in the mind, hidden deep in trees born of words and dreams. One just needs to take that first step in to see.

Perhaps that first step transports you into the night. Something stalks you in the dark…or perhaps you are the stalker, hunting the threat before It escapes among the Innocents.

Rain begins to fall, and you fall into line, the world unsuspecting of the mystery that runs amok in night’s grit and fervor.

Or…

Perhaps that first step transports you to impossible heights. Clouds kiss your feet.

Your comrades call to you, waiting for you to join them in the descent down, down to where adventure rides sunbeams and waterfalls, tunnels through ancient tombs of fallen kings.

Or…

Perhaps that first step transports you into the heart of The Storm. Lightning flashes, and you see the grey, grassy field you’re in goes on, and on, and on in all directions but one.

Lightning flashes, and you see you are not alone.

Lightning flashes, and you see nothing.

You hear a breathing not your own.

Lightning flashes, and–

Who knows?

So many stories, so little time!

But I’ll make the time. I have to, since now I’m creating new fiction to be shared with newsletter subscribers. You can see the hub for it on the home page of my website now: “Free Exclusive Fiction from the Wilds.” When you click there, you’ll see whatever the new fiction is for the month: a Fallen Princeborn story, maybe, or something for my Shield Maidens of Idana. A character dialogue, perhaps, or maybe just a standalone story I felt like writing. Every month will bring something awesome, so awesome it’s gotta be locked up with passwords, mwa ha ha ha! The newsletter will have the password to unlock the fiction.

(And now I suddenly feel like I’m in a Zelda game, going to such’n’such place for the yadda yadda key to unlock the neato treasure. Ah well, you get me.)

In the meantime, I’m still working on the novels for my Fallen Princeborn Omnibus. Still teaching and family-ing. But Bo’s got me mixed up in a challenge that, by default, I’m going to inflict on you.

The Whole30 Diet.

In the briefest of terms, Whole30 says eat meat and produce, nothing else: no dairy, no grains. Coffee and tea are okay so long as you’re not adding stuff to them. You do this for 30 days to “reset your gut,” as it were, training it to burn fat instead of sugar for energy.

Bo really wants to tackle his weight this year, and I want to support him by doing it, too. I think we all learned last year that I’m not the best at adhering to diets, so I’m hoping that by holding myself accountable here, I can stay on task and therefore help Bo stay on task.

This means I’m going to try blogging for 30 days straight.

Not, you know, extensive pontificating for 30 days. Just honest reflection on how it’s going. Maybe something cool I’ve read, or some awesome quotes to get you thinking as you write or read. Some interviews of amazing Indie writers, some more music to inspire, and hopefully a “lessons learned” post about series writing that touches on a legit gripe many readers have about storytelling today.

And since I’m try to trim m’self down with Bo, then let’s just top this off with a sale on my novel, Fallen Princeborn: Stolen. For the entire month of February, Stolen will be 99 cents.

So, bring on the February! Bring on the cold, the coffee, and the dreams of stories not yet finished, not yet begun!

Something tells me it’s going to be a crazy-beautiful adventure. 🙂

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

#Writing #Music: (Occasionally) Patrick Doyle

I love my husband.

I really do.

He knows me so well: his Christmas gifts to me consist of books, music, and a good mystery series. Even the candle is scented “Oxford Library.”

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But I hold up the CD, and scowl.

“Hey, it was on your wish list.”

“That was before I saw the movie.”

“And now you have something to remember the movie by.”

“The book doesn’t count?”

“No.” And off he goes to read his new compilation of Dick Tracy comic strips.

Honestly, I didn’t expect to write about music that is uninspired, but after seeing the latest film adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express with dear writer-friend Ben Daniel ParmanI just can’t understand what Scottish composer Patrick Doyle was going for here. If one didn’t know the film, one would think I’d been given the score to a Hallmark made-for-television movie about railroad workers struggling with love or grief or blizzards or grief-loving in blizzards or blizzards in love or…you get it. It’s music that does not speak to its icon of a detective, Hercule Poirot. It is music that does not speak to its historic period of the 1930s. It is music that does not speak to the claustrophobic tension a snow-bound train car creates. It’s just…there. White noise to the mystery. And while some mysteries revel with distraction, a mystery–or any story, for that matter–cannot afford to annoy its audience. Which this music does. Exceedingly.

In his defense, Patrick Doyle isn’t all bad. Take his score for Brave: it has some lovely moments of both epic scope and intimate character reveal.

From what I see on Doyle’s IMDB page, the man’s collaborated with Kenneth Branagh for, goodness gracious, over twenty years. And I’m sure many of those scores are lovely. But as any author will have her clunkers, so will a composer occasionally make bland music.

One of my biggest struggles as a writer is creating the right ambience around me so I can, well, create. When the boys are trying to shove each other into the wall, when Blondie’s whining she doesn’t know what to do with herself, when the laundry and dishes and course work and cooking and….you know. It all heaps upon you, not just visually, but audibly, too. Take this very moment: I’m trying to finish this blog in the kitchen while the boys fight over a toy and the girl’s yelling at them to be quiet while The Lego Ninjago Movie plays at an obnoxious volume. I’ve got my headphones on. I put on Orient Express, and feel absolute bupkiss. I put on Brave, and feel the hint of Elsewhere swirl about my mind’s eye. I put on The Hobbitand feel the adventure promised in misty mountains cold…

Seek on, writers. Find the music that transports you from daily life’s craziness and unfetters story-telling’s power.

 

 

#lessons Learned from #AgathaChristie: The Omission Says It All.

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 Ellis Peters & Agatha Christie: Hide Your Clues in History.

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!

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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 Express is 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:

Orient-ExpressThe 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.

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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?

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lessons Learned from Agatha Christie: How Much Stock Should One Put Into a Title?

Memorial Day weekend in a North Woods cabin: restful, right? Lots of time to write surrounded by nature and all its spring glory, riiiight?

Well when one spends a long, rainy weekend with in-laws and three hyper-active children in a space roughly the size of a one-bedroom apartment, “restful” does not come to mind.

Thankfully, parenthood has given me the ability to read despite screams and comfy animal battles about my legs and thrown cars and training potties full of urine positioned in dangerous places upon the floor, so I decided to allow myself some time with a couple mysteries Bo gave me at Christmas:

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At the outset, the titles didn’t strike me as anything unusual. Christie’s titles always connected to the story, so I was sure that when I opened up The Big FourI would indeed be reading about a group called The Big Four. Sure enough: the antagonist of the story was a crime syndicate run by a group of bosses known as The Big Four. Poirot saves the planet, everything is awesome, I got to read an entire book in one day, which I hadn’t done in ages. Could I get through another book before the weekend was out?

I began Murder on the Links with high eagerness. I wasn’t planning on doing a close study of these books for this blog–I wanted to read for fun. (Crazy concept, I know.)

But the more I read, a question began to niggle my inner writer. Something felt off about this story. Oh, the plot read plausibly with a strong balance of clues and red herrings. The dialogue was so-so, but not nearly so heavy-handed as Poirot’s Christmas. What the hoobajoob was wrong here?

I closed the mystery, completed, and saw it: the title.

One look at the title, and one expects golf to play a major role in the story. After all, the Nile was quite the set piece in Death on the Nile.  Murder in Mesopotamia was as exotic as it sounds. The train doesn’t just fade into the background in Murder on the Orient Express. Murder is definitely committed under the sun; ergo, the title Evil Under the Sun.

Bo noticed my scrunched face as I glared at the golf course on the cover. “What’s wrong?” I explained my niggle. “Well, did the murder happen on the golf course?”

“Yeah.”

“So what’s the problem?”

The-Murder-on-the-LinksAnd that was the thing, I guess, that really got to me: technically, the title fit. The murder itself occurred on land being turned into a golf course. Christie didn’t fib. Murder did indeed happen on the links.

But with the other stories I mentioned, the place was more than just a location. Whatever was mentioned in the title carried influence into the story, be it through the culture, method of crime, strategies of investigation, etc. I thought back to other stories I’ve covered in my “Lessons Learned” posts and their titles–were any lame titles in those?

Howl’s Moving Castle: Heroine Sophie is cursed and seeks help from the Wizard Howl. His castle moves because of a curse between Howl and a fire demon that Sophie promises to break. So, pretty important.

Charmed Life: Cat Chant and his elder sister Gwendolyn are taken on by the great sorcerer Chrestomanci to learn more about magic. There’s more magic in Cat than he realizes, which is finally revealed with his sister’s villainy. By book’s end Cat is destined to be the next Chrestomanci. That’s about as charmed a life as you can get.

Five Little Pigs: Poirot sets out to solve a murder committed 16 years ago. He considers the five living suspects like the five little pigs; the rhyme comes up every time he meets another suspect.

The Name of the Rose: I admit, I had to read a bit more into this one. I knew there was some sort of connection with language, since the mystery fixates upon the danger of language and ideas.  How fitting, then, that Eco found a poem reflecting that a thing destroyed is preserved in its name. I found Eco’s own explanation for the title:

 

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Eco states in the Postscript to the Name of the Rose that Bernard’s poem is also the source of the novel’s title and last line —

Stat rosa pristina nomine; nomina nuda tenemus.”
(Yesterday’s rose endures in its name; we hold empty names.)

— meaning that in this imperfect world, the only imperishable things are ideas.

“Since the publication of The Name of the Rose I have received a number of letters from readers who want to know the meaning of the final Latin hexameter, and why this hexameter inspired the book’s title. I answer that the verse is from De contemptu mundi by Bernard of Morlay, a twelfth-century Benedictine, whose poem is a variation on the “ubi sunt” theme (most familiar in Villon’s later “Mais ou sont les neiges d’antan”). But to the usual topos (the great of yesteryear, the once-famous cities, the lovely princesses: everything disappears into the void), Bernard adds that all these departed things leave (only, or at least) pure names behind them. I remember that Abelard used the example of the sentence “Nulla rosa est” to demonstrate how language can speak of both the nonexistent and the destroyed. And having said this, I leave the reader to arrive at his own conclusions.”

With Murder on the Links, however, golf had absolutely nothing to do with the crime. The setting bore no real influence upon the clues, the body, or even how characters moved about the scene of the crime. The course is where the murder just so happened to, well, happen. It could have been on the grounds of the mansion or in the ditch of the freeway–it would have made no difference.

Perhaps that, more than the title, was what bothered me. Or it was because the title gave importance to something that carried none–a red herring from the off.

I remember feeling annoyed like this once before with Louise Erdrich, an amazing American author whose award-winning novel Love Medicine was my one reading joy from those years in graduate school. It was a family drama spanning years–not normally my thing at all, but her portrayals of the Native American life and landscape gripped me from the start. I read more of her work after school, but stopped with Beet Queen. Why?

33315Because this Beet Queen chick didn’t show up until the last few pages, dammit!

Now granted, I can see now that wasn’t entirely true. The character who grows up to become the Beet Queen–the beauty queen of the town–is born halfway through the book, and the first half of the book is about the family into which she’s born–that’s typical Erdrich. At the time, I couldn’t understand why the title fixated upon that final moment, that social title bought by the girl’s family so that she could feel special at last. Now I can see that the title embodied the desperation of the family to do what it could for the love of this girl, to make her socially acceptable, to make her happy…and how this girl, a rather selfish brat, held it all in contempt. Family drama, spanning generations. The title fit.

Murder on the Links, a fine mystery, has a title that pays heed to the least important aspect of the crime. I suppose being bludgeoned by a five iron or discovering a collection of heads in a caddy’s locker would have all been a bit much, but it’s nice to see titles that connect on more than just a technical level.

What of your title? Does it embody the struggle, the hero, the villain? Does it give a wink and a nudge towards a special clue to reveal the truth? Or does it just hang there, stating its purpose and nothing more? After all, some stories have made such titles work brilliantly for them: The Lego Movie, The Peanuts Movie, The Care Bears Movie, The Lego Batman MovieBut notice how all these titles are a)geared for children using b)easily identifiable toys/characters OF their childhood for c)a visual presentation. Kids know they get to watch Legos, Snoopy, and so on. That’s all they want.

But in stories to be read, we want titles that grip and hold. Don’t warp that grip into a bait-and-switch. What influences the characters? What place affects the plot? What taunts your hero from afar, that if he could just push himself a little bit more, he can touch it, taste it, know it? Your answers hold the key to a title of relevance, spirit, and strength.

Authors Should Always Stay Clear of the Top of the Volcano, and Other Tips from Famous Author Blondie

Two years ago, I introduced you to my daughter Blondie. At the time I was befuddled by her refusal to explore her imagination with words or pictures. These days? Well, let’s talk to her and find out what she thinks of writing. In honor of her 7th birthday, I give you: Blondie.

We start talking about her poetry and proceed to her story, but then the boys cause a ruckus in the yard and I have to pause.

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Biff decides to add his own two scents…from the toilet.

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Then Bash just had to get involved, too.

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Am I keen to push Blondie to do more and more with her writing? Two years have shown me Blondie adventures creatively on her own terms. It’s so easy for a parent to hoist those passions onto the kid and expect the little one to love it just as much. A child’s got to find her own way through her own imagination, as well as her own way to express it. Maybe she’ll complete her 12-volume set of mysteries, or maybe she’ll start writing about tornadoes.

The joy buzzing through me when she’s eager to create makes any wait totally worth it.

Lessons Learned from Neil Gaiman: Some Questions Ought Not Be Answered.

As a child, I spent most of my time with cozy mystery writers like Agatha Christie, P.D. James, Colin Dexter, Ellis Peters, and, of course, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. By saturating myself with mysteries, I grew accustomed to quick character development, red herrings, plot twists, and, of course, explanations. A good mystery must show the whodunnit, howdunnit, and whydunnit. If the mystery isn’t solved, then the protagonist is clearly not worth his weight in pages.

It’s with this mindset, cemented over, oh, a couple of decades, that I entered the fantasy worlds of writers like Diana Wynne Jones and Neil Gaiman via film adaptations of their stories.

While both films take great liberties with the stories, I saw enough to get hooked on these writers for life.

Now I’ve got to admit something shameful: The first time I read Coraline–before motherhood and writing were serious endeavors–I was deeply disappointed. All these kudos on the back cover about how awesome the story is, it’s the new Alice in Wonderland, blah blah blah. Gaiman doesn’t EXPLAIN anything! What IS this button-woman? Why rats? Did no one else ever notice that giant door? Surely other people lived in the flat before that. Humbug, I say!

Five years later, I hope I can say that hearts change, and that what I felt about the book before: that was a humbug, as George C. Scott’s Ebenezer Scrooge put it.

Does this mean I discovered the answers to those questions? Nope.

It means I’m okay with there being questions unanswered.

Current culture revels in creating backstory questions the initial stories were not asking:

What made Michael Myers so evil? See the movie!

When did Anakin Skywalker turn to the Dark Side of the Force? Answers revealed!

How did Hannibal become Hannibal the Cannibal? Find out now!

Why do magic ladies go bad? Disney’s got the goods on The Wicked Witch of the West and Maleficent

Everything has to be explained. Everything has to be known.

Part of what makes fantasy fiction so enjoyable is its unknown, the extant of not-like-reality it contains. Neither the film nor book of Coraline explain what’s with the door between worlds, why there’s only one key, why sewing buttons into a child’s eyes keeps him/her in the other world, or even what the Other Mother is.

Because guess what–a kid don’t care. Coraline knows the Other Mother has her parents. She knows the Other Mother uses buttons to trap kids. She knows the Other Mother wants that key.

When I studied point of view, I realized just how vital that ignorance/acceptance trait is with a child character. While the writer knows how the world works, he can’t imbue that knowledge into the child. The child takes in the world as it enters her immediate perception, and she absorbs what impacts her personally. Coraline initially enjoys the Other Mother’s world very much, but when she’s asked to give up her eyes for buttons, she prefers her own home. Only then does the predatory nature of the Other Mother’s world become clear.

Mysteries thrive on what’s hidden: a character’s past, a buried piece of setting, and so on. But what’s hidden must also be exposed in order for a mystery to fulfill its promise to readers. Even mysteries for children will do this, as I’m currently learning from Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit for the gazillionth time, as it’s my kids’ favorite movie.

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Coraline, however, is not a mystery as far as the genre’s concerned. It is a perilous adventure through a dark fantasy land, something which kids are not often exposed to. The world both excites and tests the protagonist, and because the protagonist is as young as the readers, the readers share in the experience.

As Reality often proves, there just simply isn’t an explanation for everything that occurs in our lives. We have to learn how to accept the unknown as it comes as well as how to overcome it. These require courage, strength, determination, and wit–all traits Coraline uses to survive the Other Mother’s world.

No explanation required.

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.