Good morning, friends! Snow falls gently outside my window now, but the storm of school work is not far behind. Let’s get right to it, and see what Chloe makes of the grandmother she never knew she had.
Chloe finally relinquished her coat to the coat rack and followed the doctor to the steps, straightening her turtleneck sweater as she went.
“Is it not a pity, Miss…?”
“Is it not a pity, Miss Chloe, that such a treasure of a place be treated so?” He gave the wooden crow carved into the bannister a light tap with his pointer finger. “Everyone ought to be allowed their eccentricities, but this—” his eyes rolled at the dozens upon dozens of crow drawings. “–is a bit much, even for me.” He grimaced, reminding Chloe of an angry toad.
Good thing he started chuckling so she could laugh, even falling in step with him on the stairs. “Guess this explains why Mom never wanted a pet.”
“Ha! Indeed. Your mother is a history teacher, correct?”
“That’s right, Doctor…?”
“Dr. Artair. Yes, she’s even applying for tenure at the University in Milwaukee.”
“You must be very proud.”
Thomas appeared then. Chloe waved down to him, and he waved back with a cloth wrapped around ice. He continued on to the living room, quiet now but for hushed voices and crackling flames.
“I wonder, then, what she would make of these.” Dr. Artair used the stirring spoon to point at the crow pictures.
The second level was only half a dozen stairs away. Only one lamp seemed to be shining out of side onto dark green wallpaper. One door closed, who knew how many hid from sight. One of those doors led to her. The grandmother who made her children draw nothing but crows… “She probably hated having to make so many,” Chloe said.
But Dr. Artair tisked Chloe’s words, and rapped a few of the pictures with the spoon. “Look a little closer.”
So Chloe leaned in, eyes squinting to see whatever it was she was meant to see. One drawing was just a series of hard, crude strokes with a black crayon. Another was more like pencil, a bit finer, with some shading. One had a peculiar smell to it, almost like sulfur.
“The corners. Look to the corners,” Dr. Artair whispered.
And there, finally, Chloe saw numbers smaller than a fly, written with precise, perfect lines: 1893.
Chloe gasped. “These aren’t all Mom and her brothers. These…” She thudded down the stairs and back up again, scanning row upon row of pictures, finding more and more dates. 1923. 1947. 1882. 1904. 1950. 1867. “She had to make more. Someone was always making them…”
Floorboards near them creaked loudly. Thock. A shuffling sound. Thock. Another shuffle.
Chloe looked over Dr. Artair’s shoulders to the top of the stairs.
They were no longer alone.
An old woman, draped in black lace and bent as a question mark, hobbled to the top of the stairs with a knobby wooden cane clutched by a gloved hand. Knotted locks of silver hair peeked out from the thick veil covering her head and shoulders. “Yes.” The woman’s voice seemed to claw at the very air between them. “A Perdido must make the sign to be protected. You.” She pointed the cane at Chloe. “You will make the next sign.”
Word Count: 527 Total Count: 7961
Gah, I hate interrupting a story, but I’m afraid we have no choice this week. I do hope you’ll stay tuned anyway–I’ve a lovely author interview to share, and Blondie wants to talk about her current projects. (Oh yes–she’s got quite a few manuscripts flying around!)
For a complete list of installments for What Happened When Grandmother Failed to Die, click here.
Hello, everyone! Thanks for sharing your wishes and prayers–yesterday was a rough one, but today can and will be better.It’s been wonderful to write a little every day, so much so that I am going to let myself take it a liiiiiittle bit easier this week, as my university students are starting to submit finals and I know I’m subbing for at least two full days in other schools. So, be on the look out for an indie author interview as well as some guest writing from my awesomely sweet daughter Blondie.
Now, where were we–ah, the mysterious doctor is stirring something while sitting next to a butchered rabbit.
Sumac pulled a long, dirty knife out of the kitchen sink and stabbed what remained of the rabbit’s abdomen. “Hungry?”
“You have got to be kidding me.” Chloe said, one foot already sliding back to the kitchen’s door. She stumbled back, and back, and lunged for the bare bathroom before the heaving started. At least the toilet wasn’t covered in animal blood, oh jeez I cannot STAND IT.
The doctor listened to Chloe puke, then said, “I may have something to help with that.”
“How—” Thomas’ hand swept from the shaven Santa Claus to the carcass and back. “How is this remotely sanitary?”
The doctor furrowed his brow and held up the spoon for inspection while the sounds of Chloe’s wretching lessened. “The dishes have been washed, if that’s your concern.”
“You have medicine next to a dead animal in the goddamn kitchen!”
“And where else is one expected to prepare food and drink?” The doctor’s belly shook as he laughed. “All will be well, Sir, if you calm yourself.”
When Chloe returned to the kitchen, the doctor was politely patting her father’ limp arm. Thomas was standing, but not with the straight back he always kept when a white man talked to him. “Yeah…” The word dropped from his lips, vague and distant.
“Oh, I admit, this place is terribly morbid.” The doctor went to grab the teacup, sniffing it with disdain. “But it won’t do a dying old woman any good to raucous over stuffed birds and dirty stoves. What matters now is giving her a bit of comfort–like a pain reliever in her tea–and a bit of company.” He was only as tall as Chloe, so it was her he looked to with a smile. The scar running along one side of his shaved face almost connected the smile to his eyes–almost, but not quite. “Would you mind attending her with me? Just for a few moments while this brogue tidies up.” The doctor added a rebuking look at Sumac for good measure.
Not that Sumac seemed to care. “Look, the lady wants to keep the crows coming, and they won’t come if there’s no food.” With four slick moves, the rabbits limbs were severed. “There’s proper human vittles in the fridge anyway. Unless you put something off-limits in there.” And this plowman Sumac gave the doctor a snotty stare.
Weren’t doctors supposed to be respected?
Chloe tugged her father’s arm. “C’mon, Dad, let’s—”
“Not your father.” The doctor raised a hand to stop them. He had a pretty fancy ring on, much like the professors who taught at Angela’s college. It reflected the light in their faces as the doctor continued. “Your father can find you something more appropriate to eat. I know I wouldn’t trust that butcher to boil an egg.”
A low rumble: Thomas’ stomach, then Chloe’s. She could picture a full plate of chips, grapes, pb and j, cookies, milk…she must not have emptied her stomach, but her whole body of fuel, and she so needed fuel. Her legs felt like they could buckle right now, and the rabbit didn’t look gross so much as dinner-not-ready-yet…“Nothing with, you know, its teeth still in.”
Thomas smirked, and gave his daughter a wink. “No kidding. Look, I owe your mom some ice, anyway. Five minutes, I’ll be up to get you.”
Thomas held up five fingers. Chloe clapped her hand against his, and said, “Okay.”
Word Count: 553 Total Count: 7434
I was going to go a bit longer, but the boys are demanding basement time, and those groceries ain’t gonna buy themselves. Guess we’ll all have to meet the infamous grandmother tomorrow. 🙂
Ugh, friends, what a day. I was determined to help sort and clean the basement; in the process I found correspondence from my grandparents, old friends…and from my parents in the weeks before I married Bo. I was an emotional wreck much of the day, so it amazes me I managed to write at all. I hope you enjoy this moment with Chloe and her father, the return of Sumac, and the introduction of yet another peculiar character…
Writing Music: Kronos Quartet, “Sigur Ros”
Chloe nudged her father away from the sliding doors and crying men. “So that Reg guy thought I was a monster?”
“I, I don’t know.” Her father paused to take in all the crows drawn or stuffed around them. “Childhood’s always been off-limits with your mother. Eating habits of ancient Egyptians, treasured relics of Spanish monks, secret treasure hoards of Celts…” Thomas approached the coat-rack with the decorative nest on top. His hand moved along the brittle sticks into the nest. His face changed as he lifted something out: a buckle attached to a strap of holed leather too short to be a belt.
Now it was his turn to swallow back his thoughts. “Any history but her own,” he said, and tucked the bond into his coat pocket. A low whistled song began in the kitchen. “Must be that Sumac. Let’s ask him about gas for the morning so we can get out of here.
Chloe paused near the base of the stairs to study the crow carved into the bannister. The carving was slow, methodical, precise–the same painstaking pace her father would take when rebuilding a broken music box. Music boxes, they are special. They’re like magic you can call back again and again, and see how this one’s got a tiny compartment for some lucky little girl to hide a treasure in? And little Chloe would nod, following her father’s large fingers move with the delicacy of a danger among the pins, wheels, prongs, and cylinder. She always wanted that magic on her shelf, in her room, but too often the magic was for some other girl living in a far cleaner neighborhood. But that magic’ll never come for song that don’t play. One loose pin, one bent prong–one thing out of place, Chloe. It takes one wrong thing to break it all.
Chloe held her fingertip at the edge of the crow’s beak–sharp, knife-sharp.
A pricking in her brain made her pull her hand back as though wounded.
“Chloe, you okay?” Thomas took her hands and checked for wounds. “Amazed that thing didn’t blind that Reg fella as a kid.”
“N-no, it didn’t hurt me.” Chloe tried to shake that pricking inside her, but she knew it meant something. Even now she could feel the golden eyes, just a scribble, and yet, those eyes were hidden under a mass of crow drawings.
And yet, those eyes of a snowy owl were drawn and pinned in this house of crows.
But it felt too weird to say to her dad–at least, at this point, it did. “I’m just thinking about Mom being a kid here. I can’t handle it.”
The father and daughter hugged as a shadow watched. “If I had to grow up in a place like this,” Thomas said, “I’d see monsters everywhere I look, too.”
“Would you, now?” Sumac leaned in the kitchen doorway, drying his hands with a ratty towel. “Can’t imagine any monster taking you down.” The towel shrunk in Sumac’s hands, small into a ball into a— thwip. Sumac whipped the towel-ball at Thomas—
–who caught it without moving a step. “I should hope not.”
Not another showdown. Chloe nudged her father, hard this time, so she could get in between him and Sumac. “Our tank got really low driving up here. Is there a town we can hit in the morning for gas, or just, you know, pay you for some? I’d…” she paused to throw in a dramatic look over her shoulder. “I’d rather Dad not have to leave my mother with these people.”
“Heh. No one should be left with these people.” Sumac motioned with his pointer finger that they follow him back to the kitchen. “Closest town’s twenty minutes in the truck. We can leave at daybreak, Miss…”
“Chloe. I like it.” He held the swinging door open to the kitchen.
Remembering Sal’s warning, Thomas and Chloe took their time going in.
The kitchen itself wasn’t overrun with crows, at least. There were more pictures pinned to the walls, sure, but there weren’t feathers pinned to the cupboards or beaks in a bowl. It was actually pretty plain in there–wooden cupboards too old for their varnish lined one wall, interrupted only by a window and a sink. A long, narrow butcher’s block sat in the middle of the room, and a simple ovular table with four chairs sat over by a row of windows along the far wall–the back of the house, Chloe figured, since there was a back door, a pile of wood for the fire, and an axe. A big axe stained with blood. Stained with the same blood, maybe, as the blood on one of the kitchen chairs. On the furthest cupboards. In the sink. Maybe the same blood as that which sizzled atop a coating of grease, of oil, of God knows what else on the old gas stove where a kettle steamed.
The body lay spread out on the butcher’s block, limbs spread, ribs cracked into sections, skin hanging over the side like a wet dish cloth, jaw snapped open to show a complete set of tiny teeth crowned with the two long incisors. Inches away from those incisors sat a teacup, a teacup being stirred with a spoon held by a man who looked like a Santa Claus who’d lost a bet.
“Ah,” the man said with a playful grin. “You’re just in time for the evening medicine.”
Word Count: 915 Total Count: 6881
Whew! Here’s hoping I can shine a light on things tomorrow…and find a smile or two to share with you. x
Hi, friends! Sigh…Well, so much for catching up. 😦 I mean, I’m glad I’ve got the extra teaching workto support my family, but still. It’d be nice to have a few free days to catch up with you on YOUR sites.
The man’s hands were curled as talons, saliva flying from his mouth when he screams for Chloe’s life.
Chloe thrusts her book bundle in front of her face just in time, blocking his first swipe as she staggers back, losing her shield, tripping on a small table in this room of eyes and crows, not knowing where to run—
Thomas Watchman cut in front of his daughter, fist damp with the man’s spit. The man’s glasses flew across the room and nearly hit the floor, if not for Sal.
The man shook like a struck dog, wavering on all fours. The firelight couldn’t reach the floor beyond the couch, robbing his shape of anything human. He panted, moaned, “Aaaaang”
“I’m here, Reg.” Angela ran past her husband, pulled away from his own clawed plea, “Stay back, Ang, he’s dangerous,” and Chloe’s plea, “Mom he tried to kill me!”
But Angela did not stay back. “No, he didn’t.” She ran her fingers through the crumpled man’s hair. “Get Reg some ice, Thomas.”
“Thomas.” Angela undid her coat and folded it to lay upon the floor. “Please.” She looked at him, at Chloe. “Please,” she said again.
The crumpled Reg turned his face up to Angela’s, his eyes darting, constantly darting. Chloe hugged the back of father tight to stay as hidden from those eyes as she could.
Sal gave a little cough near Thomas’ ear, and nodded towards the sliding doors out. Chloe didn’t want her dad to back away, to leave space for that crazy Reg to grab her mom, but…but the guy was just crying on her coat-turned-pillow now, thumb near his mouth like some little kid. Angela kept right on stroking his hair, humming the same melody chimed by the grandfather clock back home.
Thomas reached around and felt Chloe’s body shake against him. “Okay.” Not that it was actually okay, not with that growl beneath it. “Chloe and I will be right back.”
Sal walked with them to the sliding door and paused. “I’m so sorry you’re seeing Reg like this first.” He held the glasses in his palms like a child holds a butterfly. “He’s usually the gentlest of us, setting spiders free outside and rescuing rabbits from Mother’s traps, that sort of thing.”
Chloe scoffed. “That doesn’t explain why he called me a fake, or why he tried to strangle me.” Damn, her books were scattered on the floor with her blanket from home, a real home with family photos, and laundry, and records not put away, and sketches of old machines’ insides, and piles of history books all cracked open to different pages with notes stuck in every one of them.
Sal turned towards the fireplace, looking at a dark corner beyond it where a dented bucket sat, covered with old soot. “This place…Mother. She liked to scare us, you see. Keep us here with stories of, of monsters out to eat us.” He laughed nervously and lay Reg’s glasses to rest on a shelf next to the door. “They could take any shape, the monsters, and…anyway, together we three could handle it all right, especially because of Angela. But when Mother’d catch us alone…” A beastly sound warbled in Sal’s throat. “Well. You see what she did to Reg in just one hour.”
“One hour?” Thomas asks. His growl was gone.
“Yeah.” Even Sal sounded like he couldn’t believe it, “Doctor says I arrived just an hour after Reg. One hour alone with that woman…” Sal shook his head, and wandered away from Thomas and Chloe to stand and stare at the fire, hands and thoughts to himself.
Word Count: 608Total Count: 5359
I wasn’t planning on going THIS slow here, but I do like how the next scene can focus on the “outsiders” Chloe and her father Thomas…plus maybe get Sumac and the mysterious doctor into the mix.
Pardon me, friends! I’m quickly uploading this while sitting in the teacher’s lounge for lunch. Most of the students are off to a soccer match today, so I’ve been given the fortunate job of watching the teenage stay-behinds. 🙂
So, where were we…ah. Chloe’s mother Angela is finally entering her childhood home, the Crow’s Nest.
Writing Music: Rob Simonsen, Foxcatcher (I really need to get a hold of this soundtrack)
Angela Perdido Watchman gave little attention to
the crow-filled room. “I’m better now, really,” she whispered to Thomas, but
Chloe knew her dad didn’t believe her. He dropped one hand down only to keep
his other arm snug around his wife’s shoulders.
But still, Angela was smiling–and to Chloe’s
relief, a real smile, at that. She even took off her mittens and tucked them
into her coat pocket. “Hi, Sal.”
Sal blinked back a couple tears, making his
eyelashes sparkle like the snow. “Hi, Ang.”
The two shared a nervous laugh. “You got tall,”
said Angela, looking up into his face. If not for constantly bowing his head
down, Chloe was sure he’d be taller than her father Thomas.
Sal laughed a little more. “You got a clone.”
And he nodded at Chloe.
For the first time since the phone call, Chloe
felt like her mom saw her instead of whatever was going on in her head.
All the black feathers and bones, all the fear around whomever called herself a
mother in a house like this, didn’t have to matter, at least in this
moment. “Had a little help,” she said, and nodded to her husband.
This time, Chloe’s father didn’t prove himself
with a strong grip. Handshakes are hard when one’s being hugged by a lanky
“Uh, hi.” Thomas patted Sal awkwardly on the
back while mouthing What the? to Chloe. Angela’s hand found Thomas’ on
Sal’s back and threaded their fingers together to keep Sal close. He shuddered
in their hold
“This place, Ang…” he said, and sobbed.
“I know.” Now Angela was starting up again.
Chloe bit her lip, looking around for something to stop the damn panic. Her
dad, too, was whispering lots of “come on, now” and “it’s just one night, okay?
We’re together, we can do this.” He even managed to nudge their huddle far
enough from the door for Chloe to close it.
Then Chloe remembered the man who practically
carried her in, the not-Sal. “What about Reg?”
That broke the huddle in a hurry, much to
Thomas’ relief. “Reg!” Ang said. “How is he?”
“Reg is…Reg.” Sal bit his lip. “He got here
“Oh no…” Angela’s eyes searched the stairs, her
body began to shake—
“I think he went in there, Mom.” Chloe grabbed
the iron handle for the sliding door and tugged…and tugged…she even set
her bundle down to try with both hands. ”I think he did.
Chloe’s dad joined her. “Let’s all look in here
first,” he said, and with Chloe tugging and Thomas pushing, they finally
managed to open the partition enough for a person to walk through properly.
Three of the old scrawls of crows crumpled and broke free of their pins to fly
a few inches before coming to a rest at Sal’s feet.
“We never did try pinning them to the floor…” he
Thomas stared at Sal until Chloe gave him a
little kick to stop. “And you don’t have to now, either, because tomorrow we’re
all leaving. Right Ang?”
Angela walked by all of them without a word but
“Reg?” They followed her into the living room, though Sal kept to the walls,
fingers tracing the tattered paper decorated with a strange stencil of a “Y”
with an extra line in the middle.
The room had to be as big as the Watchman’s
apartment if all the rooms were stacked in a cube. The ceiling was just as high
as the foyer here, but thanks to the blazing fire in the large fireplace, Chloe
felt warm enough to unbutton her coat and set it on the dusty couch. “Reg?” she
said, joining her mom and the others. He wasn’t hiding behind the two easy
chairs, or under the desk Thomas tapped. Even the few bookcases gave no sign of
him…or books, for that matter. Instead, the shelves were pinned with more
pictures of crows, so many they were pinned in layers upon each other. She
lifted a few. Her mom must have made at least some of these. What a hell, to be
stuck drawing crows over and over and over…
Big, yellow eyes, squat liike eggs, with sharp
black circles for pupils. They stared at from the paper like the snowy owl atop
the truck, mindful, amused, curious—
Some distant door in the kitchen slammed.
“Getting more wood!” Sumac called, and slammed away again.
“Who is that?” Angela asked.
Sal made a face. “Oh, you haven’t even seen the
doctor yet. I’m sure he’ll be down shortly.”
Chloe backed away from the drawings and turned
towards the mirror windows. A form moved across them in the dark–that Sumac,
likely, for wood. Three worn, broken chairs surrounded a circular game table
covered by a lace tablecloth. When Chloe lifted it, the dust left a perfect
shadow pattern of the lace.
The grown man who carried Chloe in sat curled up underneath. Sweat beaded from his head down his glasses to drip on his knees. His forehead twitched as he spoke through gritted teeth. “You’re not Angela, you, FAKE!” The table flew back as he leapt up, hands out for Chloe’s neck.
Word Count: 865 Total Count: 4751
Break time’s almost up! I’m rather hoping I don’t have to sub tomorrow so I can 1) grade for the university and 2) finally catch up with you folks!
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?
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…
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.
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 Princebornomnibus, 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 Supremacy, and others of heavy percussion help with action-heavy moments, it’s important to find the music to counter-balance that. Mychael Danna’s Breachhas 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.
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 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.
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.
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–
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 Zeldagame, 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.
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.
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. 🙂
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.”
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 Parman, I 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.
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 Movieplays 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 Hobbit, and 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.
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.
I 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.
Well to start, they’re all killers.
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.
This 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.