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?

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Lessons Learned from Neil Gaiman: Take the Commonplace & Turn It Villainous.

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Before my sons were banned from the library, I always took a moment to peruse the giant poster of Newbery Award winners. Some titles fascinated me, like the 1949 winner King of the WindSome titles I knew and loved, like the 1972 winner Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMHAnd then, I found some I wanted to read for myself, here in the now, like 2009’s winner The Graveyard Book. The coolest achievement in this particular work by Neil Gaiman isn’t in the premise of ghosts raising a living child, or the humor, or the ability to maintain taut pacing while still covering thirteen years (These are, for the record, cool achievements, just not as cool.). No, the real brilliant element comes from the villain(s). Gaiman took something old and often overlooked in current society and transformed it into pure menace.

51tAOAlaH7L._SX334_BO1,204,203,200_What could it be? I’m talking about a single, mono-syllabic name:

Jack.

No, not Jack Nicholson, freaky as that guy can be.

It all begins with a single phrase, one rooted in Elizabethan English (according to Wikipedia, anyway): Jack of All Trades.

We’ve all heard that phrase. Sometimes it’s paired with “master of none.” It’s not a very nice phrase, depending on the connotation. Gaiman takes hold of the phrase and pulls it up by the root, tracking every dirty, worm-entwined tendril to other Jacks polite society endeavors to avoid by crossing the street, turning up its nose, rolling its eyes, anything it can do to not see these Jacks:

Jack Frost.

Jack Ketch.

Jack Dandy.

Jack Nimble.

Jack Tar.

Gaiman gathers up these weeds of forgotten history, lore, and song. He plants them in his own story, and lets them twist, strangle, and meld with the other tender shoots finding their place in his earth. Gone is the mocking tone, the condescension. One can never look down on Jacks of all Trades such as these:

The white-haired man took another step closer to the grave. “Hush, Jack Tar. All right. An answer for an answer. We–my friends and I–are members of a fraternal organization, known as the Jacks of All Trades, or the Knaves, or by other names. We go back an extremely long way. We know…we remember things that most people have forgotten. The Old Knowledge.”

Bod said, “Magic. You know a little magic.”

The man nodded agreeably. “If you want to call it that. But it is a very specific sort of magic. There’s a magic you take from death. Something leaves the world, something else comes into it.” (270)

So are all these Jacks parading about in the entire novel, flaunting their evilness and wicked magic? After all, the first sentence of the book is:

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There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife. (2)

This is how readers meet “the man Jack.” He has just finished killing Nobody (Bod) Owens’ family, and is now on his way to killing baby Bod. I’m not sure if there is a more obvious flaunting of evil than watching a man eager to kill a baby.

But flaunting often hides a deeper motive, doesn’t it? Take “the man Jack.” We may read of him cleaning his knife and leaving a bedroom with a dead child in it and think monster and that there’s all there is. He’s just a bogey man who needs to be stopped. But Gaiman makes it very clear we are dealing with a man. Because we do not yet know of the Jacks of all Trades, the “the” is a brilliant little misdirect, too: we think this man acts alone until the chapter’s ending, where we find out he is working under orders.

In the little town at the bottom of the hill the man Jack was getting increasingly angry. The night had been one that he had been looking forward to for so long, the culmination of months–of years–of work.

The man Jack was methodical, and he began to plan his next move–the calls he would need to pay on certain of the townsfolk, people who would be his eyes and ears in the town:

He did not need to tell the Convocation he had failed.

Anyway, he told himself, edging under a shopfront as the morning rain came down like tears, he had not failed. Not yet. Not for years to come. There was plenty of time. (32)

This man’s a planner, and he answers to someone, someone who wanted Bod and his family dead for reasons unknown.

Who holds these reasons? At the halfway point of the novel we meet “The Convocation.” Our fellow “the man Jack” is there, but we also meet some other Jacks, like Mr. Dandy.

“I still have time, Mister Dandy,” the man Jack began, but the silver-haired man cut him off, stabbing a large pink finger in his direction.

“You had time. Now you just have a deadline. Now, you’ve got to get smart. We can’t cut you any slack, not any more. Sick of waiting, we are, every man Jack of us.” (169)

Once again, Gaiman takes a common phrase people would use offhandedly, in this case one that would show a sense of unity, and thrusts it into darkness. If all these men share the same name, then they share the same skills, too. The same nature. The same need: to kill Nobody Owens. It’s the reader’s first glimpse on just how large a scale the threat to Bod is, and how many hands move to act upon it…with knives.

Surely there can’t be a way for readers to connect with villains such as these.

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But Gaiman knows what he’s doing (because of course he does). These Jacks have been blending in with society for centuries. It’s part of their power: to be overlooked and unassuming (save for Jack Nicholson). Since Gaiman has been writing with third person omniscient, he takes advantage of a second-string character from early in Bod’s life and has her return in Chapter 7. Her ignorance is the perfect tool for Gaiman to bring blind eyes to the graveyard. Her point of view couldn’t possibly see anything more than an older man making rubbings of gravestones…

His hair was thinning, and he smiled hesitantly and blinked at her through small, round glasses which made him look a little like a friendly owl.

Mr. Um said his name was Frost, but she should call him Jay… (221, 225)

This man, Mr. Frost (AHEM), is extremely kind to the girl. He takes her out to eat, assists her with work, and even helps her open up about her parents’ divorce. He’s fatherly and kind, something Scarlett has been missing dearly. What reader can’t sympathize with a young girl who just wants a father back in her life? His goodness inspires much talk with Scarlett’s mother, too…

“You know, Scarlett actually used to play in the graveyard when she was little. This is, oh, ten years ago. She had an imaginary friend, too. A little boy called Nobody.”

A smile twitched at the corner of Mr. Frost’s lips. “A ghostie?” (226)

Mr. Frost knows exactly who Scarlett found in the graveyard. But not once does he betray his true intent, not even when Scarlett gets Bod out of the graveyard to meet Mr. Frost:

Scarlett had worried that Mr. Frost would ask Bod lots of questions, but he didn’t. He just seemed excited, as if he had identified the gravestone of someone famous and desperately wanted to tell the world. He kept moving impatiently in his chair, as if he had something enormous to impart to them and not blurting it out immediately was a physical strain. (252)

As far as Scarlett and Bod are concerned, this man is a mentor, a helper. His demeanor and his actions all relay as such. Only when Bod and Mr. Frost are alone does Mr. Frost thaw…or freeze. Whatever, the guy changes.

“We know he has dark hair,” said Bod, in the room that had once been his bedroom. “And we know that his name is Jack.”

Mr. Frost put his hand down into the empty space where the floorboard had been. “It’s been almost thirteen years,” he said. “And hair gets thin and goes gray, in thirteen years. But yes, that’s right. It’s Jack.”

He straightened up. The hand that had been in the hole in the floor was holding a large, sharp knife.

“Now,” said the man Jack. “Now, boy. Time to finish this.”

Bod stared at him. It was as if Mr Frost had been a coat or a hat the man had been wearing, that he had now discarded. The affable exterior had gone. (255)

What a transformation! I love how Gaiman describes it as a piece of clothing easily removed. On the one hand, we’d consider a coat or hat a rather ridiculous disguise, wouldn’t we? But that’s because such disguises are strictly external. There’s no hiding what’s beneath the coat.

With Jack Frost, the disguise is internal. By transforming his manners and personality, his entire exterior develops that “friendly owl” look that disarms Scarlett so completely.

Bod threw himself down the stairs…in his rush to reach Scarlett….

“Him! Frost. He’s Jack. He tried to kill me!”

bang! from above as the man Jack kicked at the door.

“But.” Scarlett tried to make sense of what she was hearing, “But he’s nice.” (256)

Readers met “the man Jack” when he was in control; when his target toddled away from him, he maintained that control. Yet there’s something about this final face-off between Jack Frost and Bod that gets me thinking.

What Scarlett saw was not what Bod saw. She did not see the Sleer, and that was a mercy. She saw the man Jack, though. She saw the fear on his face, which made him look like Mr. Frost had once looked. In his terror he was once more the nice man who had driven her home. (284-5)

“The man Jack” is running out of time. He needs to find Bod, and he is in that graveyard trying to figure out how he lost the boy’s trail so many years ago. He, this killer, is afraid of failure, and uses that internal fear to penetrate his exterior and become a disguise that fools the common individual. When the Sleer takes him, fear takes him, too.

Villains are more than silent feet and knives. They want. They need. They fear. But all of this, the feeling and motivation and all the rest, must stem from somewhere. Perhaps you plant the seed in a favorite urban legend of the community, or in a beloved song of your church. Or perhaps you walk further back, off to those forgotten corners of your world, where the childish things have grown wiry and wild with time. There’s no telling what knowledge their roots sip in the dark.

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Jean Lee & the Case of the Curtain Call Conundrum

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

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

So, how to do it?

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

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

And besides, none of them are Ewok-sized.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dammit!

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

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

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

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

Gwen snorted. “I’d expect no less.”

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

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

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

“Wait, Terrwyn!” But too late.

THUD.

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

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

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

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

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

Oh no.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was not taken.

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

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

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

End scene. Not book, but scene.

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

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

Lessons Learned from Agatha Christie: 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.

Lessons Learned from Agatha Christie: Have Mischievous Fun with Misdirection.

 

After a deep study of The A.B.C. Murders, I see just how bad-ass Agatha Christie was. She truly earned the title “The Queen of Crime.” One way she earned her crown: her use of clues.

Part of any mystery’s fun is the deduction of a clue’s status: red herring, or genuine? Mysteries must be addled with both in order to satisfy both the narrative and the reader. That woman managed to make a ton of clues both red herrings and genuine clues, and it’s never clearer than in The A.B.C. Murders. It’s so clear, in fact, that some publisher thought it was smart to throw the most important elements of the mystery onto a book cover.

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Gah, this one really pisses me off!

No, I’m not over-reacting.

Look, I get that all book covers need to attract readers, and what better way to draw readers to a mystery than by putting a mystery on the cover, right? If you pop on back to my earlier post on this story, you’ll see two covers that focus on different elements:

04db458e057ef85b0eb1f4e30ccee27f You got your railway guide. Important, but not a giveaway.

02368ff322ea2f21263540e8c89718c6You got the killer’s shadow and A.B.C. Neither are giveaways.

3fdbce79-c391-d822-f06e-75c7fc83740f-mediumoriginalaspectdouble Typewriter: Ibid.

925034295-2887690-1_s Corpse: Ditto Ibid. Etc. Etc. Etc.

That one cover with the stockings and letter, though…THAT one is showing off a little too much. (Shout-out to Sarah Higbee for getting me into these book cover comparisons!)

Let’s start with the letters. The first arrives on page 4:

MR. HERCULE POIROT–You fancy yourself, don’t you, at solving mysteries that are too difficult for our poor thick-headed British police? Let us see, Mr. Clever Poirot, just how clever you can be. Perhaps you’ll find this nut too hard to crack. Look out for Andover on the 21st of the month. Yours, etc., A.B.C.

The other three letters have this same tone: confident and mocking, with oodles of superiority. Inspector Crome of Scotland Yard, Hastings, and others dismissed the initial letter, but after the first murder each letter is treated as a window into the mind of the killer. Three of the four letters arrive some days in advance, even, as a way to let Poirot and the Yard prevent the next crime, but Poirot and the Yard’s measures are never enough. Only one letter arrives late because of an incorrect address, which the Yard puts off as an accident:

Poirot gave [the letter] to [Inspector Crome].

He examined it, swearing softly under his breath.

“Of all the damned luck. The stars in their courses fight for the fellow.”

“You don’t think,” [Hastings] suggested, “that it was done on purpose?”

Crome shook his head.

“No. He’s got his rules–crazy rules–and abides by them. Fair warning. He makes a point of that. That’s where his boastfulness comes in. I wonder now–I’d almost bet the chap drinks White Horse whisky.”

Ah, c’est ingenieux ca!” said Poirot, driven to admiration in spite of himself. “He prints the letter and the bottle is in front of him.”

The letters offer no forensic help, and only when the families of the first three victims come together does there seem to be any hope in catching the killer. In Chapter 21, Poirot deeply believes that conversation among the family members and witnesses will reveal the killer:

“Each one of us knows something about him–if we only knew what it is we know. I am convinced that the knowledge is there if we could only get at it.”

And sure enough, by the end of that chapter, a major connection is made when the third victim’s secretary recalls a stockings salesman coming to their door. The sister of the second victim mentions that her mother bought stockings for the victims the day she died. A reader can flip back and confirm what police say: a new pair of stockings was included in the first victim’s belongings.

Poirot presses the police to use the stockings angle, but they dismiss it as a coincidence. Of course they do! It’s only A MAJOR CLUE, right? And it does help: after the fourth victim is discovered, a man is spotted, bloody and bewildered, fleeing his room. A suitcase of new stockings was left behind. The man: Alexander Bonaparte Cust. A quiet man. Awkward. Shabby. Shy. Epileptic, and not medicated, so his memory has big gaps. He’s been to every location the day of a murder. He has a bloody knife, for crying out loud. The pressure to find him reaches such a fever that Cust himself walks into a police station in a daze and collapses.

So endeth the A.B.C. murders, yes? A typewriter in his room was the same used to write the letters. More stockings. More railway guides. All the clues are there….

And yet.

At the end of Chapter 31, Hastings wakes up from a nap to discover Poirot’s figured it out, and he’s going to be damned gleefully secretive about it. He’ll only say what he’s said before:

“There is nothing so dangerous for any one who has something to hide as conversation.”

Poirot meets face to face with Cust. Cust doesn’t recognize the detective’s name at all. He has no memory of the murders. Another man even remembers playing dominoes with Cust in a different part of the town where the second murder happened. And the second murder victim, a pretty young girl who liked to party, would NOT have given a guy like Cust the time of day, let alone her belt to be strangled with.

Yet the clues point to Cust. Cust even thinks he did the murders–he can’t remember those days, and as a stranger told him while reading his palm, he’s destined for the gallows…

Cust’s conversation reveals how some old clues are impacted by new clues. His character, for one, is in total contradiction with the letters. Unless the guy’s got split personality disorder, there’s no way a wuss like him is the snot who wrote the letters. He also talks about his dead-end job after the war, and the blessing that came with this selling job: a door-to-door job with a salary and commission. To any one with an iota of common sense, the idea of selling stockings door to door for a big salary and commission should sound questionable.

See what Christie did here? Those major clues–the letters, the stockings–were red herrings to take Poirot and the Yard to Cust. But those clues also reveal genuine hints of the true killer. By building us to this false climax of the killer caught, Christie increases tension a hundred fold. Despite Hastings’ skepticism (you’d think he’d know better by now), readers can’t help but read on to find out what Poirot’s discovered. I mean, I was super-peeved because my school contacted me about teaching and my son had the audacity to get sick. The wait until evening for those last fifteen pages was agony!

Chapter 34 is entitled “Poirot Explains,” for this is when all is explained to the families of the victims. Yes, it’s the typical gathering of suspects–it wouldn’t be a Poirot mystery without it. 🙂 Poirot focuses on the letters first: why write to Poirot, and not the Yard? Why commit these murders at all? Everyone else had thrown their hands up at “madness!” because that was the catchword of the day, apparently, and therefore everything’s justified. But Poirot points out that if a madman just wants to kill, why in Hades would he draw attention to himself, and therefore risk getting caught? He goes on with these contradictions found with the other clues, like the railway guide. There’s no discernable motive to be tied to Cust, or justification from any off-balance point of view.

So Poirot turns it all on its head with this base deduction about the letters:

“What was wrong with them was the fact they were written by a sane man!”

After all the “What?!?” by the victims’ families, Poirot points out how easy it is to hide something:

“When do you notice a pin least? When it is in a pin-cushion! When do you notice an individual murder least? When it is one of a series of murders.”

Now the letters become a major, genuine clue: the third letter, the only one mislabeled–the one Hastings wondered had been mislabeled on purpose–was for the murder that needed to happen without interference. When approached with that in mind, suddenly the true killer comes to the forefront: the boyish, adventurous, and broke brother of the third victim. He is one who could get that pretty girl to give him her belt. He is one with the snot-attitude that fits the letters to a T. He is one with the risk-taking spirit to kill in the open one night and approach the police the next. He had met Cust, and put the idea of the gallows destiny in his head. He planned out everything, from the bulk purchase of stockings and railway guides, to sending Cust the typewriter he used to type all the A.B.C. letters beforehand. He selected Poirot to get the letters because a letter addressed to Scotland Yard won’t go astray, but a letter to a private address can!

So yes, I’m still miffed about that one book cover. It took two of the most important pieces of the mystery and stuck them on the cover, forcing them to always be at the forefront of the reader’s mind. I’m also miffed this book isn’t used in more writing classes. It’s a brilliant piece of a mind-game: the clues alter in importance depending on the latest piece of information. What was once deemed important becomes a red herring only to become important again. And the fact that Christie gives us little chapters from Cust’s point of view early on makes us think we’re keeping tabs on the killer, and yet we can tell from those snippets what a shy, shabby fellow he is, devoid of confidence or wit. She’s giving us both a red herring and a real clue with every scene.

All method. No madness.

All hail the Queen of Crime!

 

Lessons Learned from Agatha Christie: Pack it on Every Page.

04db458e057ef85b0eb1f4e30ccee27fWhen we think “cozy mystery,” we think of a manor, or someplace isolated, with a limited cast and one, maybe two murders in a tight amount of time. Subtle clues that we didn’t understand come to light when the detective gives his Great Reveal in Act III. My study of The Mysterious Affair at Styles fulfilled such requirements, as do other major Agatha Christie novels, like Murder on the Orient Express, Cat Among the Pigeons, or Murder on the Nile.

So let’s not talk about any of those and look at A.B.C. Murders instead.

This particular mystery takes place in and around London. The victims are not known until they’re dead. The killer has no face–in fact, the only clue that connects the murders is an A.B.C. railroad timetable. That’s the mark of a serial killer. The cast morphs and sprawls with each death.

All the while Poirot’s little grey cells ponder over long periods of time.

Now I will admit to my own little crime: I am writing this post before finishing the book. I read it once as a child, but, as suggested by Damien Walter, I wanted to give A.B.C. a serious study for craft’s sake. Arrangements to face The Monster in two days’ time have made it hard to focus, but I did manage nine chapters, and that’ll do for the topic I want to cover:

Pacing.

In my earlier study of The Mysterious Affair at Styles,  I noted just how quickly Christie gets the story moving in that first chapter with character introductions. I wondered how every line’s got to count in a mystery, be it for the character or the plot. This time, I decided to see what Christie accomplishes on every single page of A.B.C. Slow work, but already I find it most worthwhile.

Rather than give you my notes–well, here’s some of them. Now go and be thankful you don’t see my handwriting on a regular basis.

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Chapter 1’s header already engages us: “The Letter.” Consider the book’s title: Are we talking about the letter A? Correspondence was still a primary form of communication–are we talking about a posted letter? By page 4, we find out it’s both: the first note from our killer, taunting Poirot with a murder to be committed in the city of Andover. Hastings, of course, does not take it seriously, but Poirot does. On page 9, the killer’s predicted day comes and goes, and Hastings calls it a false alarm. By page 11, we learn differently. Come page 12, we get one hell of an eerie statement from Poirot:

“This is the beginning.”

Every single page contains a clue of sorts: testimony from a witness/suspect, scene of the crime, Poirot’s critique, and so on. Trust me, I looked for a page that could have been cut for its insignificance. As of nine chapters, we have two murders, two different groups of suspects and witnesses, two different towns, two different inspectors.

On page 24, for instance, Poirot took time to study the only three photographs in a victim’s apartment. You just know that’s going to be useful later, right? On page 25, Hastings tells us what he sees in the apartment; no overlap, and it sounds mundane, and yet in a mystery everything counts, so one of those items just has to stand out sometime.

By page 37, Poirot has met with the first victim’s family and usual suspects, then visited the scene of the crime. At this point, all leads to dead ends, and Poirot tells Hastings that there is nothing that can be “done” until the murderer strikes again. Hastings, being British, loathes this not-doing-anything, and spends page 38 lamenting Poirot’s clear loss of detecting powers. Sounds pointless? Not at all. The page puts doubts in reader’s mind as to whether or not Poirot really can solve this crime. For those who have read from Hastings’ perspective before, we know he’s not a reliable narrator, yet we can’t help but feel our faith shaken.

Then comes page 39, and another letter predicting murder with a B. Christie breezes over weeks of time by distracting us with Hastings’ doubt. From pages 40-42 we get the new victim, the conflict with a new inspector, and the increase in doubt of Poirot’s abilities.

By page 48, we start to see at least one connecting thread between victims thanks to Poirot. No, not the railway guide, that’s the obvious one left by the murder. Poirot remarks on the beauty of both victims. Why? Hastings doesn’t think on it, passing it off as something foreigners do. You’d think Hastings would know better by now…Anyway, that makes nine chapters.

It was as if every couple hundred words Christie took care to stick a useful02368ff322ea2f21263540e8c89718c6 tidbit in. Maybe she counted, maybe not. But I could certainly see why The New York Times said that this book is “The very best thing Agatha Christie has done”–at least that’s what it says on my edition, a 17th printing (SEVENTEENTH!) from 1967.
Christie lets no page go to waste. Only one page of genuine reflecting in nine chapters, and not general reflecting, either–it has an underlying agenda. Setting details are given quickly, almost waved aside:

“A dingy little place…A commonplace little shop, one of many thousand such others.” (23)

“Situated on the sea front, this was the usual type of small tea-room. It had little tables covered with orange-checked cloths and basket-work chairs of exceeding discomfort with orange cushions on them.” (45)

Did I mention the one departure from Hastings’ point of view? Chapter 2 focuses on a man named Mr. Alexander Bonaparte Cust? A man in a “shabby bedroom,” who smokes “cheap cigarettes,” and cults a “railway guide” and a “typewritten list of names”? We get this on pages 6-7.

He’s not been mentioned since.

But cheap cigarettes and railway guides sure have.

Such little things, and yet because of this single departure  from Hastings we hunt through the little details Christie places on every page, measured and sprinkled like chocolate chips for muffins. Too many and they’ll just spill off and melt on the pan. Too few, and the children will gripe and revolt and demand better muffins. (What, that doesn’t happen in your house?) Measuring out the placing of details gives readers reason to read not just the good chocolatey bits, but the whole thing. Give readers a sweet on every page, and they will not walk away until you’re story’s devoured completely.

 

 

 

Pride of Place

20150905_162501The concept of theme alluded me for years. I’d read various articles, listen to graduate school classmates deliberate and professors pontificate, but still not “get” it.

A story entertains readers, gives them a chance to escape the everyday. It can teach a lesson, too, I suppose–rather like parables: “earthly stories with heavenly meanings.” But isn’t theme something readers interpret for themselves? I couldn’t correlate the characters with the writer’s intent. Characters are supposed to be their own entities, moving about the stage the writer creates. Writers create people, not marionettes. If I want to see stringed creatures tugged about and opening their mouths for voices projected from behind a curtain, I’ll attend a puppet show, not read a book.

Yeah, no. I was pretty wrong about that. About theme, I mean. But I didn’t really understand how wrong until a few days ago.

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I’ve taken on a Middle Grade fantasy based in Michael Dellert’s Matter in Manred series. The characters and setting were not mine at the outset: I guess you could say I adopted them. I love them like my own, and while they certainly piss me off some days, I refuse to give up on them. They’ve even made me brave enough to share freewrites and scenes on Facebook.

The latest scene I shared on Facebook was a dinner gone horribly awry. The protagonist’s parents have invited another family to dinner in hopes of acquiring a suitor for the protagonist, Gwen. The scene ends in a debacle, of course. Awesome. Great.

Now what?

Well, I knew I had left the progatonist’s mentor in a hot-temper; she wouldn’t wait to make her feelings known. I’ll have her show up and get things moving.

Life got muddled for a bit after that.

Gwen didn’t know who overturned which chair first, or whose cup flipped across the table, or how Murtagh and Nutty got barred from leaving when Demmán came in with warm water and cloths for cleaning. But you better believe that when the door broke open to a stormy gust of stink and Fiachna’s whine of, “I’m sorry my lords she made meeee!” everyone stopped to look.

Terrwyn’s iron leg reflected the fire. Fists at hips. Braids half-kept in leather strips. Raindrops fled away from her face and down her leather coat.

Eyes over all. Even Nutty looked down and away when that glare was on.

Gwen wanted to hide under the table. Somehow this was all her fault. She didn’t get to her home when Terrwyn said, and now everything was wrong, and Terrwyn was mad, and—

“My lord, is it not time to visit your family’s shrine?” She spoke with such a polite calm that even the visitor-mother felt it acceptable to sit while Demmán cleaned her up. Her eyes, however, shone with the white-hot heat of a forge.

Lord Aillil brushed the remains of his dinner of his tunic. “Ah.” He coughed. Raised his eyebrows at his friend, who nodded in kind. “Yes, you are right. Muirgius, you will pray with me later. Please tend to our guests while I escort your sisters and mother.”

“But it’s my ancestor—“

“Since your…duties…prevented you from tending the gate, you can pay your proper honors now.”

Muirgius dropped the half-squashed apple cake, defeated. Gwen struggled not to smirk as she walked out to him stammering, “So, ah, a good walk? Oh yes, you rode. That carriage must have cost…”

The moment their other house-servant Iarél closed the door behind them Saffir hissed, “What duties?”

“Damned if I know,” Aillil halted himself time and again to keep behind Terrwyn. No one went near Terrwyn for fear of getting her bellows going again. “Iarél lost him by the mill. He wasn’t bothering Aberfa, as far as Pyrs knows.”

Nutty walked by Gwen, face pinched at everything she laid her eyes on. “I thought you weren’t the trickster with the flies.”

Gwen said nothing. She knew better…especially when Terrwyn’s leg swung so with that angry gait.

“It certainly explains where the miller children get it from. The whole lot’s dumber than a sack of seed. Dumber than Aberfa.”

Gwen grabbed Nutty, made her eyes bulge out at the sight of soot on her pretty dress. She cocked a fist ready to take out a few pretty teeth but—

“Aberfa knows better than to insult her peers over nothing.” Terrwyn stood, cane between her legs, at the altar. Gwen looked for her mountain-land: it had turned in upon itself, and continued to turn, slow, like a spinning wheel transforming cloud to the thread of lightning…

Saffir stood some feet away, at the shrine’s outer edge. Her muslin, stained with grease and wine, fluttered about her spotted face. “Mind your tongue, Neued.”

“But since when do we go to the shrine? This belongs to Muirgius’ mum, not us.”

“Since I needed to remind you that this suitor was for your sister. Not. You.” Saffir pulled a ring off Neued’s finger and put it on her own. “You cannot marry before her. I trusted you with one thing: to get Gwenwledyr ready while I tended the dinner. And what do I see? You dressed in her clothes.”

Soot, grease, dirt, hay. Somewhere under all this lay a dress of some sort. Blue, maybe? Gwen honestly couldn’t remember, it’d been a few days. She had some boots with holes by the ankle and heel. Her hair thick and coarse as a hedge.

This wasn’t the kind of body to go in a dress like that. She wasn’t the person. The thought made Gwen feel sick all over again. Even Nutty’s swelling tears did nothing to make her feel better.

“She’s not my real sister, and he’s not my real father.”

Gwen never thought she’d seen Saffir get color in her cheeks before.

“Neued. That is enough.”

A rumble from above, and from Lord Aillil.

Terrwyn remained still as a lone fly buzzed into their circle.

Lord Aillil caught it, crushed it. “Go back with your mother. And remember her words. Well.”

Neued stomped off past her mom. Saffir’s gaze shifted as Lord Aillil wipe the fly on the grass. “Gwenwledyr…” She bit her lips, blinked away a rain drop. “Oh, if only you were a proper daughter!”

My face scrunched as I forced myself on, despite Biff screaming to “FIND the shiny truck! Find it, FIIIIIND IIIT!” and Bash grabbing at my coffee any chance he could, even after I made him his own cup. (Oh hush, he ain’t your kid.) Writing when the kids are around is always hard, but lately the boys have almost no patience when I’ve got the computer out. My stomach throws some acid into my throat every time I say, “No, you can’t sit in my lap. No, I can’t read a story. No, no no no…” But the logical part of me swallows it back down: One hour. You are allowed one FUCKING hour for YOU. 

Time up, scene done.

I didn’t like it.

Kinda hated it.

I sent it to Michael with an “ugh. I don’t know. Gwen may as well not even be there.” Michael agreed: “Gwen’s lost in it.”

At first I blamed the scene itself: too many people, too much going on. I’m not a good enough writer to handle so many characters interacting at once. Even in a play, action and dialogue are limited among two to three at a time while others shift into the background. (Unless you’re into musicals and dance numbers, which I am not. At. All.)  I didn’t like the guests being present for Terrwyn’s entry. I didn’t like Gwen being the only one NOT doing anything. I didn’t like how whiny step-sister Neued was. And the plot-drop about the suitor felt dumb.

Michael suggested a smashcut to the shrine, and to focus “on Gwen’s conflict.”

I shirked at the thought of a cut, but Michael was right: I wasn’t putting Gwen first. The protagonist of any story needs to be front and center. If she’s not physically in the front and center, then the other characters MAKE her the front and center. That’s why the dinner debacle felt right: she wasn’t participating, but she was the topic of conversation.

What was this story called? The Middler’s Pride.

What was missing? Gwen’s pride.

The dinner had cut her down; now she needed to cut back. But the story had to move forward, and that wasn’t going to happen until I established the relationships with her parents. From Gwen’s point of view, she’s treated like crap. She makes that clear within the first few pages, and the dinner debacle seems to prove it.

But pride does funny things to one’s perceptions, such as seeing how one’s treated by others. Back when I brainstormed this story out, I saw the arc being Gwen’s transformation: how her pride feels like an asset when all it’s been is a deceiver, and only when her pride is totally crushed does she find proper strength in herself and through others.

Huh. Well, what do you know: a theme.

But I didn’t want to pull the characters’ mouths with strings to make them say what I wanted them to say. I wanted to give them the chance to be themselves, so Gwen could naturally rise, fall, and rise again with this transformation.

This meant whatever happened after that dinner party needed to give her pride a chance to show as well as move the plot. Since her father’s the one that gets Gwen to Act II, why not him?

Nope.

Not going back.

Not ever ever EVER.

Never mind the cold water, or the cloud mountains’ destruction above her as rain started again. Gwen wanted nothing to do with the manor or any other piece of Easavainn Mills. She’d rather stay in the river until the goddess Gasirad herself said otherwise.

Gwen swam against the current, its fingers clutching her dress, boots and hair. It pulled her down. Roared in her ears. But she always pulled harder, up to the surface, and down again. She swam this way around the thorp to the mill itself, where the water kept the wheels ever-turning. Then she’d stop, float downstream, and start again when the shrine came in sight.

On her third trip down stream, she caught scraps of Terrwyn’s tongue-thrashing:

“—only child DOING anything—“

“—talk to horses more—“

“—handing off like grain—“

“—BE a father for two bloody minutes—“

She wanted to look, she really, REALLY wanted to look, but no: Gwen kept her eyes to the water, to the feel of fish fighting past her, and pressed back. Every stroke felt like a question:

Why? Me? Why? Me? Why? Me?

New fingers, tighter and stronger and—formed! Fingers pulled her down she could SEE hands, and Gwen knew eyes of rainbow stared at her in waves of pitch-black hair, lips moving, but she didn’t understand—

Gwen kicked up, hard, harder, and threw herself out towards the small dock she and the baker’s dozen used for fishing. Fingers just grazed the splintered edge—

Caught.

Pulled up. Out.

Lord Aillil held Gwen off the ground with hands as big as bear paws. His dark eyes gripped hers, his nostrils flaring.

Gwen dangled, caught sight of Terrwyn seated by the shrine, striking flint against her iron leg to light her pipe.

One heaving breath.

Two.

What to do?

“Thanks.”

Lord Aillil blinked, set her down. Gwen couldn’t remember the last time he’d held her, or even stood this close. “You always swim fully dressed?”

Gwen shrugged. Even shrugging hurt, but it beat talking.

He studied the river’s current while tucking fallen locks behind his ears. “Takes a warrior’s strength to swim like that.”

A flicker of linden leaf shone against Terrwyn’s face. Gwen thought of the hunting trips with her father and step-brother. Of her traps that worked, her successful spears. And how she was denied to continue once Muirgurgle became an adult because HE was the son. He was the one who was supposed to be the strong one. The warrior.

But talking was hard. It was always hard. So she said: “Yes, it does.”

Rain weighted Lord Aillil’s hair, pulling it back down in long, earthy strips. “What do you want, Gwenwledyr?”

Oh, the things that popped into her head…

The lost hunting trips.

The refusal of the family weapon, a spear imbued with magick from long ago.

The denied chances to sit on his knee.

The denied chances to leave the thorp with travelers who spoke to her more in one hour than her own father spoke to her in days.

“I want what’s mine.”

Lord Aillil started to shake his head.

“It’s all I have, and I want it. I want to answer the blood-feud.”

“No.”

“Those people drove my mother out of her home, they killed her family. My mother’s spirit deserves justice.”

No.”

“It’s all I want! I don’t want a husband or land or title. I’m not asking you to give up your family. I’m not asking you to give anything.”

Gwen puffed herself up. She no longer shivered. Even her hands remained still. She survived the trickster in the deep. She survived pestilence and fire. She survived houseguests.

She was Gwenwledyr, and she would. Be. Heard.

Lord Aillil’s right hand twitched at his side. He lifted it, almost reached through the space between them…but scratched his beard instead. His eyes drifted from the nearby manor and stables towards the water, the forest. When he looked on her again, a strange glitter filled them—raindrops, perhaps. “Yes, you are.”

Of course. He thinks I’ll take a horse. Gwen readied herself to say otherwise, but the wind picked up, blowing old kindling for the shrine down the hill. Some leaves and twigs fell upon them, others into the water, where colors sparkled underneath. Eye-shaped colors.

“Come inside. It is late, and the fire is warm.”

Gwen spat a leaf out of her mouth. “No.”

Lord Aillil bit his lip, smelled the air, and shook his head. He couldn’t even look at her, cleaning his eyes as he turned away. The moment his foot touched Easavainn earth, his gait and posture returned. A coin sang and sparkled as he flicked it through the air to Terrwyn, who caught it with ease. The moment he reached the hilltop Terrwyn called to Gwen: “Come along. I’m cold and tired. So are you.”

Gwen was. By gods, she was. Everything felt heavy, in and out. The coin still smarted. “So he’s paying you to keep me now, is he?”

Terrwyn puffed as she hobbled. “No.” The thorp center opened beneath them: a circle of lamplights and hearth-fires. The smell of warmed cider and bread set Gwen’s stomach roaring for its supper. “I merely wagered you’d refuse.”

Lord Aillil’s the biological parent, so it makes sense for him to be the first to interact with her after the dinner debacle. Plus, he’s the one Gwen’s mentor Terrwyn would ream out (being a former soldier herself), which allows her anger from before the dinner to come back into play.

I also wanted readers to have a chance to see Gwen alone with her father. All they’ve heard and seen is his formal self, his pride-filled self. Sound familiar? That’s when I knew Gwen needed to look a lot like her father rather than the dead mother. They mirror each other more than they know, and in this scene, I think Lord Aillil finally realizes it. This spurs him to petition the king to enlist Gwen in the Shield Maidens, and help her become the warrior she thinks she already is.

The idea of Gwen swimming just to swim, just to prove she could, felt like the right show of pride: it’s a solitary task, one no one can really interrupt…except a goddess. Yeah, that bit excited me when I thought of it: the river goddess comes to Gwen for help to begin Act III. Why not have her first appearance here and now?

Yes, letting the scene be just Gwen and her father made me remove the stepmom and stepsister. Not a fan of that at first, but when this one-on-one with the father worked, it seemed only right Gwen be the center of a scene with her stepmom, too. I didn’t want Saffir to fit the “evil stepmom” stereotype. I wanted her to apologize and reach out to Gwen in her own way. Nutty/Neued already had her establishing scene with Gwen; we don’t need another one. A one-on-one with Saffir could finish establishing the “normal” life in their society before Gwen is exposed to something totally new. It would also give Gwen a chance to buck, shut down, and cover herself in pride yet again.

Theme itself really does have pride of place in the elements of story. All the choices we make about the setting, the characters, all that happens or does not, hinges upon theme.  It is THE definitive in a world our imaginations have not yet defined.

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 1: “I Go to Styles”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then we start to meet the aforementioned characters.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~*~

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

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

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

To be concluded…

*(insert lightning crash and maniacal laughter here)*

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Writer’s Music: John Powell

71urxg-0jl-_sx355_I wanted to label this post “John Powell III,” since technically I’ve shared his music twice in the past, but those posts were during National Novel Writing Month. Care to hear them? Both selections are brilliant. The first, from his Academy Award nominated score How to Train Your Dragon, is just…wow. It’s beautiful, lifting, hopeful, and the swell cuts off at just the right moment. The second is from the same album I’m about to talk about, The Bourne Supremacy. It’s a fantastic bit of action, with all the ups and downs a fight and chase scene require.

Both tracks as well as “Berlin Foot Chase” should help you see why John Powell is one of my favorite composers. His music has such a brilliant narrative feel that never draws from the visual story, but strengthens it from start to finish. For all the action and tension in the Bourne movies, it’s Powell’s keen sense of when to reign in the strings and percussion and when to really give’em that makes viewers clutch the armrests and hold their breath.

Powell is also one of the few composers that’s helped me work through multiple WIPs.

I like having a score to my story. I rarely get a story from my daily life; instead, a scene comes to me during a song, and the scene is so. damn. vivid. I can’t let go of it. I’ll listen to that song, again and again, see the scene replay before my mind’s eye, and…pause it, I suppose I’d call it. I’ll study one character in his motions, then another. The place where the scene is. And then I seek other songs that pull new elements of the characters out, bring the other settings to life. Rather like making a patchwork quilt, you could say. Only the right combinations of colors and patterns will do. And when it comes to my WIPs, certain bands or composers have already been stitched into place. I can’t use them again, for they FIT precisely where they are.

That’s partly what makes this Middle Grade fantasy story so bloody maddening–I mean, incredibly challenging. I was given the character first from Michael Dellert, then the place. While I was able to imagine a plot line, one that I hope is, um, decent, I couldn’t FEEL anything.

Music helps me feel outside myself. Without music, I struggle to place myself next to Gwen. The #13WeekNovel freewrites have helped me talk to her a little, but I’m still not SEEING from her point of view. Even Powell, whose music has been of use to me in three different WIPs just doesn’t fit in Gwen or Droma, blast it.

So, as I embark on this quest for Gwen’s song, please enjoy one of my favorite bits of Powell. Yes, this is the end of the post, and in less than 1000 words! MIRACLE!

Click here for more on John Powell.

Click here for more on The Bourne Supremacy.

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

mediaLast Time, on Jean Lee’s World…

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

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

~*~

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

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

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

Yes, Eco.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then what’s the point?

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

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