#AuthorInterview: #Wisconsin #Mystery #Writer Patricia Skalka Shares Setting Inspiration and Tips on Writing a Unique Detective

A stormy August has descended upon us here in Wisconsin, my friends. Not only has rain come at last to our parched farmlands, but so has the lightning, thunder, and even tornados. We’ve had to huddle in our basement a few times in the last week around the transistor radio to hear of funnel clouds taking shape, of lightning striking power poles blocks away, of tornados destroying homes miles away. But we are all safe and well, and no deaths as of yet been reported. A prayer of thanks for that!

While storms will always trigger memories of flooding in our home, I know storms can also be an amazing inspiration for storytelling. There is something about that dark and stormy night that puts us all in the mood for a good ol’ whodunit…

…and I cannot think of a better series to tuck into during the next storm than the Dave Cubiak Door County Mystery series by Patricia Skalka. Not only was her first book a delight to sip on my podcast Story Cuppings, but I was happily surprised–and yet not surprised at all–to find out USA Today selected her first book, Death Stalks Door County, as THE story readers “traveling” the States through fiction should read to experience the Wisconsin setting. My fellow creatives, I am pleased as beer cheese to introduce you to the one and only, Patricia Skalka.

Niceties first! Please tell us about yourself.

I was born and raised in a blue-collar Chicago neighborhood, so I’m a city girl from way back, but I have a strong connection to rural Wisconsin thanks to my mother. Her parents, my grandparents, were Polish immigrants whose pursuit of the American dream led them to a small dairy farm in the north central part of the state, near the paper-mill town of Mosinee. I spent many summers on that hard-scrabble farm: milking cows, driving the tractor, baling hay, and staring at a night sky filled with stars. On one memorable night I even saw the aurora borealis flicker and dance above the horizon. To me, Wisconsin was always a magical place. I didn’t discover Door County until I was a young adult, but the majesty and sheer beauty of the area reinforced the notion.

Oh, yes, there is something magical in this land of forests and fireflies, I agree! Let’s get back to that in a moment. First, let’s explore the magic of the stories you enjoyed as a child.

When I was growing up books were a luxury we couldn’t afford. But I was a reader, and the books I enjoyed came from the library. Every Tuesday the bookmobile parked outside the neighborhood A&P grocery store and opened for business. Every week I walked in the front door –a seven-year-old proud to have her very own library card — and then marched out the back door with five books, the most you were allowed to check out. For the longest time, I was fixated by the biographies of famous women – women like Clara Barton, Betsy Ross, Molly Pitcher, and Florence Nightingale. Then one day, my Aunt Jean loaned me her childhood copy of The Secret Garden.  

My love of fiction began with that classic children’s story. The Secret Garden took me to a different time and place in a way that the biographies did not. Maybe it was the language or the fact that the story was about characters closer to my age, but I fell in love with the book. Just as Mary and Colin discovered the door to the hidden garden, I discovered a door to a limitless universe of literature, one that demonstrated the power of imagination.

Ah, so you were a frequent visitor of the library as a kid as well. I distinctly remember getting a small illustrated version of Sherlock Holmes mysteries, and that cinched it for me as far as the genre went. After going through all the Nancy Drew stories the library had on hand, I devoured Colin Dexter’s Morse stories, P.D. James’ Dalgleish stories, and of course, Agatha Christie’s Poirot. Did you experience a similar journey through the mystery genre?

Growing up I loved the Nancy Drew, Sherlock Holmes, and Miss Marple stories. Here were people following clues and solving puzzles, figuring things out.  Then I read Dorothy L. Sayers, and my sense of what a mystery could be shifted to something more.  Her books about Peter Whimsey and Harriet Vane did so much more than simply solve the crime. They revealed the pain and struggle of the human heart. They were windows to the soul.

I’ve had the same experience reading other mysteries, books such as The Honourable Schoolboy by John le Carre, Gorky Park, by Martin Cruz Smith, and The Secret History, by Donna Tartt. In each instance, the mystery was essential to the story, but in each instance the story encompassed more. These are tales of human strength and weakness, stories of internal conflict and struggle.

Thank you for these recommendations! I’ve not read Tartt or Smith, but I’ve enjoyed a number of Le Carré novels in the last few years. Now, what of your own fascinating mystery series? Just as Sherlock tells Watson in “The Adventure of the Copper Beeches”–

“It is my belief, Watson, founded upon my experience, that the lowest and vilest alleys in London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful countryside.”

–you create suspenseful tales of murder not in the urban land of Chicago, but the quiet, rural peninsula of Door County. What inspired that choice?

I always wanted to write a mystery, but I had no idea of where, who, or what it would entail. One day, I was sitting on a Door County beach looking out at Lake Michigan. It was a perfect day – blue sky, blue water, warm sun. The kind you could sell for a million dollars if only you could bottle it up. That night I sat in the same spot. Heavy cloud cover obscured the moon and stars; it was inky dark – and eerie. I kept looking over my shoulder and thinking: anything can happen here. The contrast between day and night prompted thoughts of light and dark, good and evil. And the idea was born: I’d write a mystery about a picture perfect location (Door County) where sinister forces were at work beneath the surface.

What were the sinister forces; who was responsible for them; what happened as a result; who suffered and why; who stood to benefit?  I wanted to write a story in which the contemporary crimes were linked to past events. People in Door County tend to know each other’s histories. My protagonist had to be a stranger –enter Dave Cubiak. A former cop from Chicago who could track a killer, a man with his own burdens, a man who didn’t know anyone and would have to ferret out the clues and follow their trail until he stood before the culprit and asked Why?

Death Stalks Door County was meant to be a stand alone. One and done. When I began my career as a mystery writer, I couldn’t imagine writing a series. But as I was going through the long initial process of writing and revising and hoping to find a publisher, different story ideas kept popping up and slowly the notion of writing a series loomed not as an impossibility but as a logical next step. By the time I had signed a contract for the first book, I was half way through the initial draft of the second book.

Along with Cubiak, I, too have been on a journey. Writing his story, his books, has taught me two lessons that I believe every writer must learn and embrace: one, believe in your story and two, believe in your ability to tell it even as you continue to hone your craft.

Dave Cubiak is indeed on a journey! Meeting him in the opening pages of your first book gave me such a powerful picture of a man trying to hide from his grief as much as move on from it.

(If the above podcast link does not appear, you can click here for my post with the podcast episode.)

Do you find it difficult to write a protagonist of a different gender? What tips do you have for other writers who struggle to write outside of their gender?

I don’t find it more difficult to write a male protagonist than a female protagonist. Either way, I need to know them fully – who they are, where they come from, their struggles, dreams, disappointments, weaknesses, strengths, values, foibles, fears, how they walk and talk and think.  Dave Cubiak evolved with the idea for Death Stalks Door County. He was an integral part of the story before I wrote a single word. In many ways, the book – and then eventually the series – is his story.

My books are more than mysteries; taken as a whole they trace Cubiak’s journey from the pivotal moment that changed his life to all that came after. One male reader said he felt they were stories of hope for anyone struggling with loss. Another man said he liked Cubiak because “he’s real.”

The challenge, then, is not to write either a male or female protagonist, but to write one that is real, one that belongs in the story.

The keys to writing outside your gender are empathy and observation. Try to understand that character; walk in their shoes; feel for them.  Watch how they act; listen to how they talk. Invite them into your imagination and live with them for a while. Put them in different situations (finding an injured kitten; stumbling on a wallet stuffed with cash; getting a letter from an old lover seeking forgiveness for the unforgiveable) and see how they react. If you can do all that, you can write the character.

You mentioned earlier that Death Stalks Door County was meant to be a standalone, but your imagination created more conundrums for Cubiak and inspired you to write a series instead. A happy change in plans, I’d say! Yet I should think such a change in plans requires a change to one’s writing process. How would you say your writing process changed after publishing Death Stalks Door County?

I’d been a staff writer for the Readers’ Digest and a professional nonfiction writer for nearly twenty years when I decided to write my first mystery.  Death Stalks Door County was years in the making. I’d read plenty of mysteries and literary novels, but I’d always written nonfiction articles. Even a seven-thousand-word piece pales by comparison to a book of seventy-thousand plus words. With the first book I had a lot to learn. I wrote and edited; I revised and submitted. I got rejected. Repeat. And then again. At one point, I printed the manuscript and let it sit on a shelf for two years. One day I picked it up, fully intending to toss it in the trash. But as I flipped through, I realized that (1) it was decently written; (2) I really liked my characters; and, (3) I was the only person in the world who knew the story and if I didn’t tell it, then it would never be told. Sitting on the floor of my office, I decided that I would give it one more try. One more read through; one more edit; one more round of queries. And that’s when the magic happened. The email read: “Please send full manuscript.” Music to any writer’s ears.

I wrote Death Stalks Door County as a pantser. I had an idea and started writing a book. As I struggled with the process, I slowly evolved into a plotter. I began to think in terms of chapters, then scenes. Bit by bit, I broke the story down into pieces. The smaller the pieces and the more of them that I had, the better handle I had on the story and the more confident I became.

Last month I finished book seven and what changed from writing the first book to the way I wrote the rest of the series was my approach. Starting with Death at Gills Rock, the second volume, I realized that I needed to know the details of the story before I could write it, so I began to plot every step of the action. In essence, I created a road map that carried me from beginning to end.

There are writers who shudder at the thought of plotting the story first, and it’s not a technique that will work for everyone. But many will benefit from it. There are very clear advantages: Plotting ultimately eliminates writer’s block – with a well plotted story, you never sit in front of a blank screen or empty page and wonder now what because you know what comes next. Instead of writer’s block, however, you will have thinker’s block. Working out the kinks and inconsistencies and struggling to make sense of the story line takes work. It’s not easy but ultimately it means that you don’t toss out ten or twenty thousand words because you changed your mind midway through chapter three.  

I was once asked if detailed plotting doesn’t take the fun out of writing. Not for me, it doesn’t. In fact, it makes me more comfortable and confident and eager to write.

A seventh book in the works? Huzzah and congrats! I know just what you mean about pantsing. I enjoyed this style of writing quite a bit during the years I participated in National Novel Writing Month, but you’re absolutely right that when it comes to crafting a strong story–especially a mystery!–one needs to know where the clues are hidden, which characters are where and when, how the reveals happen, and so on. Having the plot planned takes a lot of the panic out of writing, to be sure.

You have been such a joy to converse with here, Patricia–thank you so much for sharing your time and talent with us! May we please close with any other tips you have for aspiring writers? There are so, so many traps writers can fall into, and any trap sprung often wounds, even scars, a writer’s imagination and motivation.

Based on what I have learned from presenting and attending various workshops and listening to aspiring writers discuss their work, I’d say there are three common traps.

  1. Not being clear on the kind of book you’re writing – this is most likely to be a problem for  first-time writers. To paraphrase Socrates, “To know thy book is the beginning of intelligent writing.”  Different types of books have different rules. Something as simple as word count varies from one kind of book to another. Taking the time to figure out what you want your book to be – memoir or historical fiction, cozy mystery or thriller – helps the writer focus and start and stay on the right track.
  2. Misinterpreting the advice to “show don’t tell.” We’ll all heard this dozens of times. Unfortunately, many new writers interpret the advice to mean that you show everything, but that is not what is meant. As a writer, you show the important parts and tell everything that happens in between. As I see it, we have a responsibility to hand the reader a finished story on a silver platter, not to present the verbal equivalent of an unedited video of everything that happens in a character’s life and expect the reader to ferret out the story.
  3. Trying to please everyone. After Death Stalks Door County, my first mystery, was published I was invited to a book club whose members included both men and women. Listening to the book club members discuss my work was an enlightening experience. One woman said she really like X about the book; her husband said X was what he liked least. Then a man said he wished I had included more Y, and the woman across the table said, oh, no there was quite enough of Y for her. As the back and forth continued, I asked myself: which of these people should I be trying to please? It didn’t take long to realize the futility of trying to write to accommodate the preferences of a specific individual or type of reader. My takeaway from the experience: Write the book you want to read. Write to please yourself.

And so we shall, Patricia. So we shall. x

My fellow creatives, you are welcome to visit Patricia Skalka’s author site as well as book review site for more information on what she writes and reads.


~STAY TUNED!~

Blondie and I are keen to share our own writing updates! It’s also high time, methinks, for a bit of creative nonfiction crafting when it comes to those everyday absurdities. x

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

Start #PrideMonth with #Magic and #Mayhem on this #Podcast: #Spellhacker by #MKEngland

Happy Wednesday, one and all! I’ve continued exploring unique fantasy reads, this time in the spirit of Pride Month. Let’s begin June with Spellhacker by M.K. England.

Let’s take a sip together to taste this urban world where magic is not…well it’s not your typical magical world.

 If the embedded link recording is not showing up, you can click here to access the podcast site.

If you’d like to recommend a read for the podcast, let me know in the comments below! I’d welcome reading any indie authors’ stories as well. x

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

#LessonsLearned from #JohnLeCarre: Always #Write a #Setting of Quality.

Welcome to February, my friends! Sunlight is rare in Wisconsin these frigid days. The snow has frozen, and mothers–well, this mother, anyway–cruelly refuse to let children hurl ice at one another for fun. This has led to lots of running about the house, blasting imaginary baddies while flying off on dragons, Transformers, and Federation star ships. So long as their epic battles do not end with more stitches, we’ll be fine.

Tales of action and adventure have been long been a part of my life, and Bo’s, too. James Bond is a mutual favorite–the suave rogue against impossible villains, constantly in daring chases across the world, winning all the women and destroying all the doomsday devices. That’s what spy films are all about, right?

And then I discovered John le Carré through a whimsical selection of the library: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy starring the late great Sir Alec Guinness. Bo, ever the student of all things related to cinema, told me Le Carré wrote the George Smiley novels as a literary retort to Fleming’s Bond.

Image from Bond on the Box. Click the link for more information on a fascinating debate between Anthony Horowitz and David Farr about the spy-worlds crafted by Fleming and Le Carré.

The two authors did actively serve their country in the Intelligence realm, so considering how each approached the world of spies, I’ll leave the idea of a rivalry up to you. Personally, when a character describes protagonist Smiley with “Looks like a frog, dresses like a bookie, and has a brain I’d give my eyes for,” I can see how one could perceive Smiley to be the antithesis to the debonair 007.

In celebration of the incomparable John Le Carré, let us visit the postwar England of his protagonist, George Smiley. Let us see how one author transforms the landscape for a story dark and full of danger…oh, but this is not a tale of international espionage. Oh no. This is but a humble tale of a village murder.

Yet even a village murder can be filled with secrets and lies. Even a village murder can be a story of quality.

In the spirit of SJ Higbee’s Friday cover comparisons, let’s see a few covers. while I love the ornateness of the Q, isn’t it a shame the back color is a drab white? The gold is practically lost to it.

We begin.

Chapter 1: Black Candles

The greatness of Carne School has been ascribed by common consent to Edward VI, whose educational zeal is ascribed by history to the Duke of Somerset. But Carne prefers the respectability of the monarch to the questionable politics of his adviser, drawing strength from the conviction that Great Schools, like Tudor Kings, were ordained in Heaven.

“Ordained in Heaven.” Already, Le Carré establishes Carne School’s feelings of superiority over the rest of the masses. Not only is this school connected to the throne and the aristocracy, but to God himself. Surely no common man would think himself better than such a place.

And indeed its greatness is little short of miraculous. Founded by obscure monks, endowed by a sickly boy king, and dragged from oblivion by a Victorian bully, Carne had straightened its collar, scrubbed its rustic hands and face and presented itself shining to the courts of the twentieth century. And in the twinkling of an eye, the Dorset bumpkin was London’s darling: Dick Whittington had arrived. Carne had parchments in Latin, seals in wax and Lammas Land behind the Abbey. Carne had property, cloisters and woodworm, a whipping block and a line in the Doomsday Book–then what more did it need to instruct the sons of the rich?

“Rustic hands.” “Bumpkin.” A school of the country, nestled in the dirty rural life, yearns to be a part of the “courts” and be “London’s darling.” Classism flows through the novel with a powerful current, the kind that grabs you by the foot and pulls you under if you’re not careful. We must tread on, carefully, for the students are arriving.

This cover tells me I am in a school, but that’s it. The font for title and author are equally vague. Blech.

And they came; each Half they came (for terms are not elegant things), so that throughout a whole afternoon the trains would unload sad groups of black-coated boys on to the station platform. They came in great cars that shone with mournful purity.

They came to bury poor King Edward, trundling handcarts over the cobbled streets or carrying tuck boxes like little coffins. Some wore gowns, and when they walked they looked like crows, or black angels come for the burying. Some followed singly like undertakers’ mutes, and you could hear the clip of their boots as they went. They were always in mourning at Carne: the small boys because they must stay and the big boys because they must leave, the masters because mourning was respectable and the wives because respectability was underpaid…

Oh, this imagery! All the vibrant energies equated with youth have been cloaked with black and contained with piety.

But more on that in a moment, I just want to pause here on the importance of connecting what is “normal” in one setting is not always normal elsewhere. Sending children away to boarding school is not a common thing in the United States; I did so in high school (that is, for ages 14-18), and even for my religious boarding school, life was nothing like Carne. At first read, I couldn’t help but think of Ripping Yarns by Michael Palin and his episode all about poor Tomkinson’s transformation from a lowly first year to…well. You can watch the episode. It’s brilliant. 🙂

For those who did not send or attend a boarding school for children, this idea of youth forced to attend a starkly religious place for education completely justifies this procession of “black angels” and “little coffins.” But Le Carré also says the boys look like “crows,” and this hints at something a bit more malicious, a bit more sinister. After all, crows are the mediators between life and death, and feasters upon the rotting flesh of others.

Crosshairs! Well now, that is exciting. 🙂 But why the pea green?

We’re not two pages in, yet we are already keenly aware Death is afoot in this place.

…and now, as the Lent Half (as the Easter term was called) drew to its end, the cloud of gloom was as firmly settled as ever over the grey towers of Carne.

Gloom and the cold. The cold was crisp and sharp as flint. It cut the faces of the boys as they moved slowly from the deserted playing fields after the school match. It pierced their black topcoats and turned their stiff, pointed collars into icy rings round their necks.

“Gloom and the cold.” I love that this is a sentence fragment after such lines about gloom over “grey towers”–for an institution that considers itself divine, Carne certainly has no physical sense of light or hope. But gloom can be a different thing on warmer days, when sunlight is not so rare. In the wintry days of Lent (Carne can’t even refer to this time as the Easter Term, Easter being a holiday of light, resurrection, glory, HOPE!), when the Divine is at its lowest point in preparation for crucifixion, the cold has a physical power to “cut” the innocents of this school.

Carne isn’t the only gloomy place

in England on this day. London, too, struggles beneath foreboding.

Who the bloody hell designed this?! There are no mysterious men in sunglasses, no sexy dames with their thighs hanging out. Just because a spy is in the novel doesn’t make it a spy novel! You are a very stupid boy, Tomkinson!

Abruptly [Brimley] stood up, the letter still in her hand, and walked to the uncurtained window…She looked down into the street, a slight, sensible figure leaning forward a little and framed by the incandescent fog outside; fog made yellow from the stolen light of London’s streets. She could just distinguish the street lamps far below, pale and sullen. She suddenly felt the need for fresh air, and on an impulse quite alien to her usual calm, she opened the window wide. The quick cold and the angry surge of noise burst in on her, and the insidious fog followed. The sound of traffic was constant, so that for a moment she thought it was the turning of some great machine. Then above its steady growl she heard the newsboys. Their cries were like the cries of gulls against a gathering storm. She could see them now, sentinels among the hastening shadows.

This theme of proper mourning flows downwards from the school to the nearby village. For instance, Le Carré has readers picture the village’s hotel as “sitting like a prim Victorian lady, its slate roof in the mauve of half mourning” (24). When a policeman meets with George Smiley about the murdered wife of a teacher, he wastes no time in establishing the set-apartness of Carne School:

“Funny place, Carne. There’s a big gap between the Town and Gown, as we say; neither side knows or likes the other. It’s fear that does it, fear and ignorance. It makes it hard in a case like this….They’ve got their own community, see, and no one outside it can get in. No gossip in the pubs, no contacts, nothing…just cups of tea and bits of seed cake….”

“Town and Gown.” What a phrase. Now this definitely recalls something of my own boarding school experience. We were all of us outsiders to this small Midwestern community. We weren’t of their earth, we teens of unknown backgrounds. And with all the rules dictating where we could go and when, we rarely connected with any peers of town. Where no one knows the other, ignorance will take root, and in Carne, those roots run as deep as the currents of classism. All are beneath the sanctity of the School, worthy only of “bits” of seed cake and tea. Not even seed cake–bits of seed cake. It hearkens to the Biblical image of dogs begging for scraps from the Master’s table, and that such scraps of Gospel Truth are the key to salvation.

Now this one I rather like. The red threatens, the long shadow looms. The boy on a bicycle looks to the side as if worried (as he should be). The text size and color aren’t ideal, but they do stand out without detracting from the boy.

Yet clearly Carne School does not feel the rest of the town is worth such truth, as one teacher proves in a conversation with Smiley:

“The press, you know, are a constant worry here. In the past it could never have happened. Formerly our great families and institutions were not subjected to this intrusion. No, indeed not. But today all that is changed. Many of us are compelled to subscribe to the cheaper newspapers for this very reason.”

It is quite a surprise to Carne School’s faculty, then, when the new teacher’s wife refuses to follow the rules and restrictions that keep Town and Gown apart. After this same wife is found brutally murdered in her home late one snowy night, both Town and Gown are suspect because, as another teacher’s wife put it, “‘Stella didn’t want to be a lady of quality. She was quite happy to be herself. That’s what really worried Shane. Shane likes people to compete so that she can make fools of them.’ ‘So does Carne,’ said Simon, quietly.”

Let us close this analysis with Smiley’s glimpse of the murder scene.

[Smiley] glanced towards the garden. The coppice which bordered the lane encroached almost as far as the corner of the house, and extended to the far end of the lawn, screening the house from the playing fields. The murderer had reached the house by a path which led across the lawn and through the trees to the lane at the furthest end of the garden. Looking carefully at the snow on the lawn, he was able to discern the course of the path. The white glazed door to the left of the house must lead to the conservatory…And suddenly he knew he was afraid–afraid of the house, afraid of the sprawling dark garden. The knowledge came to him like an awareness of pain. The ivy walls seemed to reach forward and hold him, like an old woman cosseting an unwilling child. The house was large, yet dingy, holding to itself unearthly shapes, black and oily in the sudden contrasts of moonlight. Fascinated despite his fear, he moved towards it. The shadows broke and reformed, darting swiftly and becoming still, hiding in the abundant ivy, or merging with the black windows.

We return to darkness, slick and liquid, seeping into all the cracks seen and unseen. We return to the imagery of a woman from a bygone era and the doomed youth. In this place ordained by heaven to protect and enlighten, the pure innocence has been stained black and red. Beware the Town. Beware the Gown. Beware the Devil flying with silver wings.

Such are the details that catch the reader’s breath in their throat. Hold it there, writers. Take a lesson from the Master of Subtlety and Method, whose Slow Burns creep so delicately the reader never notices the licking flames until it’s too late. Use the details of the setting to bind actor, atmosphere, and action together, leaving no chance for escape until the final page is read and the reader can breathe at last.

~STAY TUNED!~

Along with more lovely indie author interviews, I’m keen to share my process in worldbuilding for my own fantasy fiction. We’ll have a go at a little mapping, a little digging, a little thrill-seeking. 😉

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

#Writing #Music: #JamesNewtonHoward

In these weeks where light bleeds to night bleeds to light–

–I lose my creative fire to static.

Not the static of radios or televisions. I speak of life’s static, day in, day out. After celebrating the release of my novel Fallen Princeborn: Chosen, I knew I had to brace for the impact of a full-time grading load, something I’d not known since before Blondie was born. The music of writing gave way to podcasts and commentaries upon YouTube as I worked, a low hum of wordy noise I would hear without really listening.

After a few weeks inside a classroom, Biff and Bash’s school closed back down and returned to virtual. While not nearly as chaotic as the spring, the boys are bored by the diet of worksheets and videos. Even the extra aid for Bash is now going to be yet another face on yet another screen for yet another period of the day. It is difficult seeing my sons and thousands of other children lumped into this remote learning landscape where so little learning is done at all. (For some excellent insight into the matter, please check out this article from ProPublica.)

But as I must remind myself: this is something over which I have no control.

So we build our little forts of sanity, we three, as Bo goes to work and Blondie attends her school in-person in the next county just a few miles away (which, wouldn’t you know, has not had to shut any school district down thanks to careful quarantining and safety measures.) Biff gathers up the sofa cushions and blankets and hides away with his BBF (Best Bear Friend) to work or read. Bash burrows into his bedroom with his rabbit and robots to tell stories and craft a world of folded paper. I remain in my room with my computer to teach, to grade, eternally typing. The sounds of teachers, educational videos, commentaries, Transformers episodes, Mario games–all of it culminates into this white noise that propels one forward on the outside while restraining one on the inside.

Until some thing–some curious, unexpected thing–cuts through the static with kinetic dissonance.

What was this? Something vicious is lurking, its jaws snapping…I was preparing to teach, had no time to listen…yet I listened.

Paws drummed the ground. Wildness was coming, coming out of the frontier to scratch, to eviscerate–

But they couldn’t, not when class had to begin.

After class, I opened YouTube to see what music had slipped into the cracks of all those commentaries. It was a soundtrack–for of course it was–to a film I had only seen once.

Another surprise: the score had been saved to my computer long ago. No need to search for the individual tracks. It was time to travel beyond the static down a road unknown.

The solo violin guides me, too awestruck not to follow. Piano trickles as a river nearby. I feel like a Lost Girl yearning to remember her Neverland, hands open at my sides, fingers outstretched on which a tire fairy may perch.

Then the dissonant flutes remind me danger is afoot, and someone has blocked the piano’s river. A single note tap tap taps, and I must return to teaching, to parenting.

But not with the static. That, I leave in tatters upon the ground.

Re-discovering The Village‘s score by James Newton Howard has been a magical addition to this topsy-turvy autumn. Hillary Hahn’s craft as a violinist is nothing short of stellar (she even discusses recording for the score here!), and I look forward to finding more of her work to add to my recordings of Mari Samuelsen. Hahn’s violin is the perfect protagonist in this sound-story, the musical shadow of Bryce Dallas Howard’s character in the film, and Howard’s score captures the spirit of this isolated little world surrounded by forbidden wilderness.

No matter what howls from the winds, the strings dance at forest’s edge. They dare one another to move a step too far.

It is up to us, the storytellers, to decide who steps first.

We all lose our Neverlands every now and then. We just need the right voice to guide us, be it a story, a friend, a star, or a song. As your friendship keeps my creative sparks alight, may this story’s song ignite your own imaginations with adventure and hope.

~STAY TUNED!~

I’m really excited to share an indie author who writes some amazing children’s literature for a furry important cause. 🙂 We will also need to dive into a few holiday-ish things before 2020 ends, because it’s me so of course we must. xxxxx

And to all who have read and helped promote my novel–THANK YOU! These words feel too small for the feelings that match them, but they are all I can write now that the kids are fighting. Sigh.

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

A #writer’s thoughts on boundaries in #magic. Plus a #CoverReveal and #ARC access to my new #YA #Fantasy #Novel!

Wisconsin’s upper half is filled with roads like this:

Narrow strips of asphalt and concrete wind their way through woods of towering pines, oaks, and birches. Turkey, deer, ravens, and squirrels keep a mindful watch of the roads we meager humans travel, feeding in the nearby grass and trees, unafraid to cross what little land we claim for our own. The North Woods may have its cabins and towns, but make no mistake–it is a wild place of bears and coyotes, wolves and cougars. It is not a place for wandering off the known paths.

Yet it is so very tempting, especially when someone has been there before…

I don’t know what it is about ropes, chains, and logs being used to mark a territory, but they always make me smile. I suppose it’s because they assume we Wisconsinites are polite folk adequately deterred by a rope. “Someone put up a rope? Well, I can’t go there, then.” It’s just a rope, not barbed wire. All it would take is a little slip under.

Not that my goody-goods of kiddos would allow it. “You can’t go in there, Mom!” Blondie says. “It says no trespassing!” Bash says. “Can I call the police now and tell them what your’e doing?” Biff asks. This then devolved into who would get to talk to the police officer, who would get to sit in the driver’s seat of the police car, who would get to use the radio, aaaaaaaand I didn’t get to cross over. Probably for the best–I don’t want them wandering off where wolves will happily greet children with toothy grins. But oh, my friends, that desire to explore was so very strong, for magic buzzed among the cicadas and dragonflies that day. And who doesn’t feel the magic when surrounded by trees so tall the sun only greets your face at midday? Who doesn’t follow the herons’ call as they soar overhead? Who doesn’t sit upon the lakeshore to watch the eagles swoop across the water to pluck thrashing fish with their talons? Who doesn’t feel their spirit glow green as the moss upon the rocks, eager for the North Woods to burn bright crimson, orange, and yellow in the coming autumn?

All it takes is a willfulness to cross into the forbidden.

It’s the start of so many beloved stories, isn’t it? The Father in Beauty and the Beast is a classic example, or Alice crawling into the White Rabbit’s hole in Alice in Wonderland. Many of Diana Wynne Jones’ stories involve crossing into new lands and/or worlds, be it Deep Secret, House of Many Ways, Fire and Hemlock…heavens, there’s a lot. The first that came to mind, though, was Enchanted Glass. The entire story revolves around Aidan and Andrew defining the invisible boundaries of Andrew’s “field-of-care” bestowed upon him by his wizard grandfather so they can determine who’s siphoning magic away for their own purpose. In Naomi Novik’s Uprooted, Agnieszka defies village law and enters The Wood, a place full of cursed, angry magic, to rescue her best friend. In Peadar Ó Guilín’s The Call, Faerie re-define their own borders by surrounding the Emerald Isle in a timeless fog. Nessa and other youth must face The Call, that moment when they are transported into the Faerie realm, or find that access point to the realm first. The mound Nessa finds that marks the entry point reminded me of the mound Camilla Bruce creates in You Let Me In (a wonderful review by fellow indie author S.J. Higbee put me on to this dark adventure). The protagonist Cassandra has been involved with Faerie all her life, and in this moment she describes that initial crossing from “her path” to the Faerie path to the mound.

The shift was subtle, like the beginning of a rainstorm with oncoming mist. My trees gave way to strange ones, taller and wider, older by far, thick roots curling at their trunks. Their branches brushed my head as we walked beneath them, felt like fingers with very long nails. The path beneath my feet shone dimly in the faint light, scattered with fist-sized leaves, it was like walking on glass or silver, or on a frozen stream…the ground turned soggy and moist; the trees were drooping shapes with clusters of leaves brushing the ground…Finally, we came to a halt by a circular shape in the landscape, a grass-covered mound studded with jutting stones…They parted for us when we approached. Smiling faces, glimmering eyes. Hands that patted and touched.
Inviting me into their nest.
Into the dark, dark earth.

And then there are portals through boundaries so very ordinary that no one bothers to notice them. The wardrobe in C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe comes to mind. In Philip Pullman’s The Subtle Knife, Will finds a typical looking knife that it is capable of literally cutting through the boundaries of time and space and into other earths. In J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, passages between the muggle and magical pieces of the world can be separated with very commonplace things, like a tavern or a train station’s wall. Recently I read the graphic novel version of Neil Gaiman’s Coraline, where unlike the stop-motion film, the door to the Other Mother looks like any other door in the house. But we all know what looks can be, don’t we?

She walked into the drawing room and looked at the door. She had the feeling that the door was looking at her, which she knew was silly, and knew on a deeper level was somehow true.

In another Neil Gaiman novel, a town next to a magical border is literally named Wall.

Immediately to the east of Wall is a grey rock wall, from which the town takes it name. This wall old, built of rough, square lumps of hewn granite, and it comes from the woods and goes back to the woods once more.

There is even a guard who watches over the wall. Sure, those who live in Wall think that guard is crazy for thinking anything interesting could be beyond the wall, but the guard knows what lies beyond is not ordinary at all…

Such a wall became an inspiration for my own fantasy series, Fallen Princeborn. Readers first experience the Wall’s power with protagonist Charlotte when she’s stranded on an old farm with her sister. The farmer’s daughter, Jenny, trusts Charlotte to tell her about what it’s like to live in this unnatural place:

Chattering. Outside.
Charlotte looks out to see the full moon blanketing the woods in pale light. The Wall glows but for its shadows, and one in particular: a tiny shadow moving swiftly along the stones. The squirrel.
It stops. Faces them.
Jenny’s body seizes.
“Shit—” Charlotte blinks.
“Where’s my Charlie? My badge could use a shine.”
Charlotte blinks. What the—? Dad? No—
The squirrel, chattering.
Charlotte pulls the window shut and hugs Jenny to her chest. “Breathe with me, kid, one, two. Breathe with me, okay? Come on, he’s gone,” she lies, afraid of the squirrel’s chatter because it shouldn’t be able to create ghosts out of wishes and dreams—
A howl, long and furious. A swift black shadow runs along the Wall’s edge.
It leaps into the air toward the Wall and—with a streak of violet and shadow—is gone.
Charlotte waits for the squirrel to return, or that wolf, but nothing comes.
Even the stars seem to move and search the Wall, their light transforming the
clouds into fleeing ghosts.

Jenny’s face breaks from relief. “D can’t do much in the day, but at night he
chases the nightmares away.” She puts her head to the floor and listens.
Television voices keep talking. The hall floor doesn’t creak. Mrs. Blair never
heard them.
“But where do they go? Where do they come from?”


“The Wall.” Jenny crawls to one side of the sewing table while Charlotte positions herself on the other. Together, they can just see different pieces of the Wall exposed by moonlight. “My parents have never gone over it, and they’ve never talked about anyone living back there. It’s not marked as a nature preserve or conservancy or anything. It’s just… there. It’s been there as long as this farm. Longer.”
“Some wall, if it can’t keep them in.”
“I don’t think it’s about keeping them in so much as keeping us out.”
Autumn so often brings traces of smoke in the air from those who burn leaves or have final campfires. This evening there is a smell in the air, but it’s not leaves: it’s thick. Sticky. Persistent.
Hate.
Jenny pulls another sheet from her book, a page ripped out of a literature textbook. Jenny’s circled the four-line refrain over and over and over:
Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.
“Yeats. ‘The Stolen Child.’ You think…” Charlotte has to pause, because to
say this is even possible… No, she couldn’t let this be possible. “You think those
animal things are fairies?”

Now, at long last, we can continue Charlotte’s story beyond the Wall, where another wall, this one underwater, awaits her crossing into the unknown…

It towers above them, surely taller than Rose House. Yet it stands incomplete: the wall runs about the width of Rose House, but the lake waters continue on either side. And directly in front of them there’s a large hole in the wall, as if it was built that way. Unlike the Wall above, this one allows life to grow upon it: seaweed, old and frayed as an ancient mariner’s hair, yes, but still, it is something growing upon the rock around that hole. The hole has a pull to it, a current that barely touches them with soft fingertips, but it is there, palpable, and Liam’s wings feel its pull. He has not known such a pull since traveling the Water Road so very long ago… “Where does that go?”
Blinkey sneers, steps backward. “Nowhere. Everywhere.”
“On pain of death, we’re bound by magic to remain within the Wall of River Vine—”
“Is that what you are afraid of?” Blinkey grins, displaying two solid rows of teeth shaped like little white Ws.
Charlotte feels the muscles in Liam’s arm tighten as he replies, “I am not afraid.”
“Think, Blinkey: your queeny can’t talk to us if these cursed tattoos kill us first.” Charlotte holds her right wrist up actually hoping the thorns will start moving. But they don’t.
Blinkey lazily twirls her spear as she steps out of the air bubble back into the water. The magic that reshapes her legs into a tail comes and goes, but the smile has not yet left her face.
Charlotte wishes it would.
Liam can’t take his eyes off the hole in the wall, or the seaweed that fails to sway with the current flowing through the wall. The seaweed is still. Resistant. It keeps all its fronds away from the hole. The water beyond the hole, it looks… dark, unfathomable.

Yup, this last bit is an excerpt from Fallen Princeborn: Chosen, the second installment in the Fallen Princeborn series. Despite what happened with my publisher, you all encouraged me to fight the good fight and write on, so write on I did! Now at last Chosen is ready to be shared with you via ARC–Click here to access and get started. Come the week of Halloween, the ebook (and paperback, I hope!) will be ready for purchase.

The Blurb!

CHARLOTTE’S FAMILY MAY NO LONGER REMEMBER HER NAME,

BUT HER ENEMIES WILL NEVER FORGET.

Charlotte just wanted to start a new life with her sister Anna out of the reaches of their abusive uncle. When their journey led to Anna’s disappearance from human memory, Charlotte hunted for her sister and the mysterious creatures that took her behind an ancient Wall that hid a land of magic the world had long forgotten. Charlotte woke the Princeborn Liam Artair, and with his return the conflict between factions of the magical Velidevour turned cursed and deadly.

Now Charlotte must end this conflict before the land of River Vine and the inhabitants she’s befriended are consumed by Orna, Lady of the Pits, who is still very, very eager to see her beloved return. And Orna is not the only one who wants hold of the Princeborn Liam’s heart. These Velidevour come armed with firey wings, crimson claws, and pale fire, and like dead magic, they know no kindness.

The Bloody Days are soon returning, and they will not end until a choice is made, a choice that could tear the heart of River Vine apart.

Fallen Princeborn: Chosen is a direct continuation of Fallen Princeborn: Stolen. Recommended for fans of Neil Gaiman’s Stardust, Brigid Kemmerer’s A Curse So Dark and Lonely, and Sarah J. Maas’ A Court of Mist and Fury.

I am thrilled beyond measure to finally reach this milestone, and I cannot thank you again for encouraging me through all my doubts and fears. You, each and every one of you, are a blessing to cherish in this community.

Do you have a favorite story with a boundary into a magical realm, where a character willfully crosses into the unknown? Please share in the comments below!

~STAY TUNED!~

I’ve got some fantastic interviews underway as well as music both cozy and creepy to get our autumn adventures started. I’ll also be sharing more excerpts from Fallen Princeborn: Chosen and the sources of inspiration that helped create pivotal moments.

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

My #Top20 #Countdown with #DianaWynneJones’ #Fantasy #Writing Says Farewell to #WyrdandWonder with #Wizard #Etiquette

Hello, Friends! I wanted to run by with a quick hello while fleeing the wizards…and the essay grading, but mostly the wizards.

NOT THOSE WIZARDS!

Ahem. No no, just the wizards Diana Wynne Jones describes in The Tough Guide to Fantasyland. As a final jaunt through her critical parody of fantasy writing for this year’s Wyrd & Wonder

–it is high time we take a look at the most powerful magic-wielders in any fantasy realm: the Wizard.

WIZARDS are normally intensely old. They live solitary lives, mostly in TOWERS or CITADELS, or in a special CITY which has facilities for study. They will have been studying MAGIC for centuries and, alas, the great majority have been seriously dehumanized by those studies. Two-thirds have become EVIL, possibly agents of the DARK LORD. The remaining GOOD one-third have become eccentrics or drunks or just very hard to understand. Evil or Good, Wizards are the strongest MAGIC USERS of all except for the DARK LORD and GODDESSES and GODS, and can usually be distinguished by the fact that they have long beards and wear ROBES.

You need to distinguish Wizards: if crossed, most Wizards get childishly offended and exact terrible revenge. Angry Wizards are likely to throw lumps of LANDSCAPE hither and thither, move MOUNTAINS, wave WEATHER systems about (see STORM CONTROL), hurl DEMONS, flood or bury CITIES, and pollute whole COUNTRIES with sleeting Magics. This is how the WIZARDS’ WAR seems to have come about: too many Wizards got too annoyed at once.

As a result, full-scale Magic Wars have been prohibited by the Rules. Nowadays most Wizards are bored. Evil ones have to occupy their time with BREEDING PROGRAMMES and plans to rein over the world. Good Wizards could not do this, and so the Tours have come as a godsend to them. Some Good Wizards can accompany the Tourists as MENTORS, and all of them have fun bossing the show and delivering PROPHECIES or cryptic advice. And the Management in its turn is grateful to the Wizards, both for making the Tours so interesting and for obligingly putting all teh Landscape back together again after each Final CONFRONTATION, so that the next Tour may visit Fantasyland and find it whole and entire, as if as always.

I do so love Jones’ take on the Wizards’ War consisting of a bunch of annoyed Wizards in a snit with one another. I can only imagine she had this in mind as she crafted the world around the country of Ingary and its own population of witches and wizards, many with temperaments liable to bring about pools of green ooze or something worse: a curse.

So, let us all keep in mind the importance of Wizard Etiquette, shall we? One never knows, after all, just who walks by us on the street…

HOW TO INTERACT WITH WIZARDS

Treat all Wizards with the utmost politeness, even if one of them is your Tour MENTOR and you are trying to bully her/him into providing some action or telling you something. Remember that Wizards do not need anything from you and do not like to be coerced. Even the smiling ones with bushy eyebrows are touchy on this point.


Evil Wizards are liable to immure you in ice, bury you alive, or just transmit you to the Breeding Pens as food for their MONSTERS. Be highly civil.


Good Wizards do not go so far. They will just remove your skin and then make you itch. Be very courteous.
Poor Wizards, who are back at MAGIC, need to be treated with even greater politeness, unctuously in fact. If they botch the SPELL they put you on in anger, they might turn you into

anything an then not be able to undo it. Positively crawl to these.

And, please, please, never attempt to seduce a female Wizard. The consequences can be terrible.

Thank you all so very much for travailing with me through The Tough Guide to Fantasyland! We didn’t get to all the people and places I had hoped (the Crone, oh heaven, the Crone!), but I’m thankful for how far we could go together. I can’t wait to spend June catching up with you as I teach summer school, university, and attend school for another Masters. I’m also excited share a few fun interviews, some music, some lessons learned, and God-willing, some WRITING.

But first…the larch. The. Larch.

Sorry, I just couldn’t resist that one. 🙂 I’m in such a loopy mood…ANYway, I just wanted to say I’ll be sharing a new Diana Wynne Jones analysis with you just as May departs us. The kiddos have been mightily enjoying our lunchtime read, and the last chapter awaits us tomorrow. What did we read? What did we learn? Stay tuned and find out!

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

My #Top20 #Countdown with #DianaWynneJones’ #Fantasy #Writing to #Celebrate #WyrdandWonder Continues…with a #Breakout from #DistanceLearning

Good evening, everyone! May is almost at an end. I’ve informed Biff and Bash’s teachers that they will not be continuing in school after this week; there’s only one week left after this, and from what I’ve been told, the week’s going to consist of nothing but Zoom meetings. Oh, they can call them “Ph Ed Parties,” “Sing-Alongs,” or whatever else. In the end, it’s a Zoom meeting with kids who have the patience of a gnat as far as cameras go. Soooooo nope. It’s time we break out of the school year and escape to freer lands of imagination, where Lego robots and Cuddly Crews roam free.

Not that I’m one to equate school with prison.

There’s always opportunity to learn when we step out. The village executions, for instance, always help us learn something new.

EXECUTIONS are frequent in any COUNTRY not ruled by a Good KING. They take place in public in a holiday atmosphere. People flock to Executions and bring their CHILDREN, and sales of snacks and rinks are vast. Methods of Execution are various but are generally designed to be as much of a spectacle as possible. Thus burning at the stake is a great favorite, along with impaling, crucifixion, disemboweling, etc., while suspending the victim in a cage to starve is also very popular. Hangings and beheadings, being over rather swiftly, are generally done only in batches of ten or more. Some Tours will generally include an Execution in their schedule, but on most Tours the Management wishes to spare its Tourists the sight of anything so painful. You will be irritated to find you have just missed it.
The approach to the CITY will be flanked with stakes and crosses carrying fresh corpses; its streets will be lined with severed heads or rows of throttled dangling bodies; its walls will be hunt with desiccated cadavers or skeletons in small iron cages; and outside there will be large charred patches smelling of mutton chop. But you will be too late to witness anyone actually dying
.

See? We now learned that witches weigh the same as ducks.

Oh stop, you know I’m joking. Wyrd and Wonder is almost at an end. The school year is almost at an end. The confinements of math sheets, recitations, and journals suffocate more than ever before. Like good ol’ Calvin and Hobbes, we want out, darnit!

TORTURE is obligatory at some stage on the Tour. Generally this takes the form of being tied to rings in the wall almost too high for you to reach, and then being flogged. But on occasions worse things happen. Tourists usually find the Management blanks their minds to the details afterwards.

(I originally found that image of Gollum being tortured in Fellowship of the Ring, but Calvin’s cries are all too fitting with what I’ve been hearing the past few weeks.)

Springtime sun beckons my kids to bike rides outside, to sidewalk art, and to bubble battles. The last thing they want to do is be stuck inside and learn about clocks. On these golden days, when the bumblebees meander from yard to yard, and the neighbors pull out their firepits for an evening of beer and lazy chat in lawn chairs, our school space in the house may as well be Azkaban prison.

PRISON is really a lot of DUNGEONS in one place, plus a fairly grisly TORTURE chamber. The prison will be reached by a stone stair, dampish, lit by torches in brackets on the walls, and guarded by sadistic soldiery. Most of these GUARDS are rather careless: they think no one can escape. All Tours tend to prove this assumption wrong.

So, I admit it: I’m not all that restrictive these days. Much like the GUARDS in Diana Wynne Jones’ The Tough Guide to Fantasyland, I’m not going to be harping on anyone too much unless I absolutely have to.

GUARDS are the TOWN Watch and quite useless. They always arrive too late to quell a TAVERN BRAWL or riot. This is because there are too few of them and all of them are stupid. Tourists will be glad of both these facts at the point when they are trying to leave the Town unseen.

While I’ve never passed out like an elf at the table, I do get lost in coffee and grading, Biff is all too eager to escape with his bike for a trip around the neighborhood. For that kid, his bike = Biff’s happy place.

UNDERGROUND PASSAGES are usually there when you need them. No FORT, CASTLE, MONASTERY, or TEMPLE is without one. Thus your escape from an uncomfortable PRISON or situation is assured. Traditionally, the Underground Passage will be down some stone steps from the cellar or DUNGEON, where you may have to clear away some rubble, and then it will be wet and slimy with puddles underfoot, because it always takes you under the nearest RIVER. It will bring you out a good healthy distance from the DANGER you were escaping usually into a clump of prickly undergrowth. This is how the Management takes care of its Tourists.

Yes, we all could use an escape. While I can’t ignore teaching for the university, the twins and I are most certainly ready to break free of 1st grade shackles and move on to summer freedom. We want to return to the playgrounds, the rivers, the ducklings. We don’t want to worry about reading assignments, music glyphs, or *#Y#)#%*$#@ Zoom meetings.

Let’s get out. So long as we don’t run into any wizards, we’ll be okay.

DAMMIT!

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

#LastDay for a #freeread! #Celebrate #WyrdandWonder with #freefiction and all those peculiar #fantasy #characters

Okay, I’m being a very naughty person right now, writing this while attending a virtual workshop on Google Classrooms, but it’s just, so, BORING. I mean, there’s no bountyhunters or sabotage in a talk about building quizzes.

(Though if you dig bountyhunters and mysteries trains, my historical fantasy is still free! Today is the LAST day, so grab it while you can!)

I just want to escape dull online meetings for that mysterious River Town, something akin to Diana Wynne Jones’ Fantasyland, and get lost among the townsfolk who don’t worry about Discussion Boards, Rubrics, or Co-Teaching.

Art by Ryan Lowe

Perhaps I’ll wander the Market, watching merchants gather from nearby towns to sell their hometowns’ specialties. Artisans show their wares while bossing around their apprentices.

MERCHANTS—when freelance—travel from an unknown place in the south northwards to another uncertain place. They own CARAVANS loaded with BALES. And they love MONEY. This must be the reason so many of them travel, because nearly all of them fall by the wayside, victims of BANDITS or other AMBUSHES, and the rest must know the risk. But they keep coming. Individual Merchants are portly, warmly dressed, and rather prone to trust hired GUARDS on small evidence. While alive, they drive a hard bargain. Many of them travel with young female relatives. This is unwise. See SLAVES, FEMALE.

APPRENTICES are people who are training for a trade or skill, which means they are usually quite young and bad at what they do. Most of the time they are like nurses during an operation, being there only to hand the master his tools. They seem to have to do this for a good many years before they get to do anything more interesting, and it is therefore not surprising that some of them get restless and either try to do the interesting stuff themselves or simply run away and join the Tour. The Rules state that if an Apprentice tries to do the interesting stuff on her/his own it will blow up in her/his face. If she/he runs away, she/he will learn all sorts of things very quickly and also probably prove to be the MISSING HEIR to a Kingdom. Surprisingly, very few Apprentices do run away. If you have one on your Tour, you are in for an eventful time.

Oh dear. Well if the Apprentice is blowing up the workshop, I should maybe get that kid out for a break at the Inn. I’ll buy him a pint, so long as the Innkeeper will serve an outsider.

INNKEEPERS are all so alike that the Tourist may be pardoned for thinking she/he has not moved from one INN to the next. Innkeepers are tall, fat, male, aproned, busy, and normally jovial. They are there to serve and shout order to barmaids. They take everything in their stride, from STRANGE RACES and TAVERN BRAWLS to peculiar requests from Tourists with awkward SECRETS to conceal. They seldom otherwise intrude on the action. They are always too busy. It is not known when these admirable men find time to eat or sleep.

The Apprentice calms down after a pint, though he’s still smoking a bit. The Innkeeper’s third chin wiggles a bit while he slides a mug to a darkened corner of the tavern. Who goes there?

ASSASSINS are numerous and widespread. They are said to be very good at their job, which is of course killing people for money, and to proceed on all occasions with strict regard to law and protocol. From one-third of the way through your Tour onwards, you may expect someone to have paid an Assassin to slaughter you. The traditional venue of this murder is a townhouse (Assassins, for some reason, do not operate in open country) or WHARF, so be on your guard in these places. But do not lose sleep over it. As the Assassin approaches you will get a sense of wrongness or feeling of being watched, and this should alert you in time. Once alert, you will find it surprisingly easy to kill this practiced killer. He will die protesting that you broke some Rule or other.

Dammit, now I have to pay the Innkeeper for the drinks AND the cleanup.

Still, I dump some money and drag the Apprentice out before he can whine for a third pint. A beggar notices I have money, so of course takes to poking my boots with his walking stick. For a blind pirate, he sure has a keen sense of his surroundings.

BEGGARS are to be found in all major CITIES, always wearing rags and often with hideous deformities. They will pester Tourists for money from the City gates onwards. As soon as the City comes under SIEGE, however, all Beggars vanish. The Management has prudently withdrawn them for use in other Cities along the Tourist routes. This makes sense. Beggars would only be in the way during the fighting.

I’ll have to slide my remaining coins into my boot, because there’s eyes a’plenty watching me pay, and I’m not keen to lose my boat-fare for the way home.

THIEVES’ GUILD. The Thieves’ Guild exists to transfer wealth but not to distribute it. Its members are pickpockets, burglars, robbers, fences, and housebreakers, but never muggers. The Guild claims to be a body of artists. All its members profess horror at violence (but are quite proficient fighters all the same) and pride themselves on bringing off robberies in apparently impregnable TREASURE stores, on picking locks, and on climbing smooth walls. You will be taken to see the Guildmaster, who rejoices in such NAMES as The Faceless Man or The Gentleman, at some point when your Tour visits a City.

I have to lose myself among the townspeople. Surely they can’t ALL be cut-throats and miscreants, can they?

AVERAGE FOLK are any people inhabiting the continent who are not specifically mentioned in the list of PEOPLES. They are not precisely normal all the same. Those who are not ASSASSINS, BEGGARS, or THIEVES will be INNKEEPERS, MERCHANTS, or peasants, and therefore they are busy trying to either rob you, rub you out, or cheat you. The rest will be fully occupied being taxed out of existence or dealing with a variety of magical nuisances. Otherwise they are rather like you, give or take a few hideous sores, gnarled hands, and suspicious scowls. Do not expect help or sympathy from any of them.

Looks like I have to escape my own little fantasy visit just to make sure I’m not left destitute in some alley. Jeez, for once it’s safer with my kids and their Lego wars. Legend has it, however, that a child of golden hair has the ability to capture a dragon’s likeness upon the page. I think we’ll seek that child out tomorrow to learn what breeds she’s studied so far…

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

#Celebrate the #fantasy of #WyrdandWonder with #freefiction, #roads, and #rivers to impassable #mountains

“Mommy, I’m Bandit!” Biff hops toward me with his bear held high. “And this is Snowman! We gotta go to Texarkana County for cookies!” He runs in place, revving noises loud and strong, and then bolts down the hallway to my room, where there is no trace of cookies or Texas.

Bo sits at the table with his latest P.J. O’Rourke book, tea in hand. He’s trying to look innocent, but it’s not MY doing that the soundtrack for Smokey and the Bandit has been on for HOURS. Biff didn’t find that CD downstairs on his own, oh no. That little bugger had help.

“At least he’s not talking about bootleg beer,” Bo says.

“EW, beer is GROSS!” Biff hollers from my cookie-free room. “I’m on the run for bootleg cookies, not Coors!”

Bo hides behind his book.

“Eastbound and Down” starts up for the 3,511th time.

Must. Go. Outside.

Blondie and Bash are in a fit of camaraderie, which I’ll take over the previous fit of racing and grabbing at each other’s hoods and yanking each other to the ground. The two are blowing bubbles and talking up a storm over their new Comfie Club, choosing with of their stuffed animals will be in charge and whether or not Biff will even be invited.

The last bit, I admit, hurt. Biff’s the middle kid, just like me, and I was often left out of my brothers’ games when we were kids.

“Watch out, Snowman, here comes Smokey!” Biff tears by the window, “horn” blaring as his bear shakes frantically above his head. “We gotta jump the bridge, look out! Aaaaaaaah!”

I watch that boy and his bear leap from couch to chair and back as the banjo strums on. He’s reveling in an adventure all his own. Who am I to force him out of his imagination and into another’s?

We all need our passage out of reality once in a while. Thankfully, Wyrd and Wonder provides the perfect opportunity to escape the humdrum for something new.

Perhaps, like Biff, you wish to escape via the roads. Weeeeell they ain’t exactly paved in Fantasyland.

ROADS in Fantasyland are not good. Tourists have frequent cause to complain. There are several types of Road, each with its characteristic inconvenience.

  1. Ancient magical ways, normally engineered from some black rocklike substance impervious to wear. These are so old that only short stretches remain. The rest has been torn up or buried in some ancient CATACLYSM. This can be exasperating. You are just beginning to make some decent mileage on this tarmaclike surface when it stops, and you are back to a snail’s pace again.
  2. ANCIENT ENGINEERING PROJECTS. These are wider than an eight-lane highway, dead straight, and made of cobbles that preternaturally show no sign of aging. Though hardly ever used today—they are characterized by windswept emptiness—they were clearly built to allow a traffic of horse-drawn carts, four lanes in each direction, travelling at seventy miles per hour.
  3. Old trade routes. These are long-disused and normally serve to do little more than point you in the right direction. If you try to follow them you are quite likely to get lost when the route peters out into pathless moorland or even MARSHES. If the route is obvious, you will find no shelter along it, and no WATER.
  4. Unpaved roads. These are the norm. They are always muddy and full of deep ruts from the passage of MERCHANTS and previous Tours. They lead through dangerous WOODS and abound in rocky defiles ideal for AMBUSH. Nobody ever maintains these, despite frequent representations to the Management, and you have to use them because they are the only way to get about. Some Tourists lose patience and ride across country, but this is not recommended because it is the surest way to get attacked by APELIKE CANNIBALS.

Hmmm. Maybe roads aren’t the best way to go with those cannibals and ambushing bandits hiding all over. What about the mountains?

MOUNTAINS are always high and mostly snow-capped. There seems to have been no ice age in Fantasyland, so the Mountains rise tens of thousands of feet into pointed, jagged peaks, which have evidently never suffered erosion. They are full of rocky defiles and paths so steep you have to dismount and lead the HORSES. Almost certainly there will be at some stage a ledge along a cliff that is only a few feet wide with an immense drop the other side. This will be covered with ice. Snow will be xweeping across it. The Rule is that you always in a hurry at this stage.

MOUNTAIN PASS, BLOCKED. The Rule is that any time you need to get from one side of the MOUNTAINS to the other, the pass across is blocked. The pass will be a narrow rift high in the Mountains, and by the time you have climbed up there, either with the forces of the DARK LORD hard behind you, or knowing you have only so long to get to the other side before the forces of Darkness get there first, you will find the pass…impassable. Usually the Management applies this Rule by prudently sending you off in winter, so that the pass is snowbound; on occasion, though, the blockage can be a landslide or a fall of rocks. In some cases, you can go down and round the long way, but mostly you just have to bash on through. Somehow. See also HARDSHIP and HYPOTHERMIA.

Oh yeah, hypothermia…never mind! Well I do like my rivers. My town’s on a river, my state’s on a river. Heck, did you know that Wisconsin is home to 26,767 miles of streams and rivers? That’s enough to circle around the entire globe and THEN some! (I learned that while digging up facts about Wisconsin for the kids to copy for handwriting. Ain’t that neat?) So, let’s try a river.

RIVERS  in Fantasyland are often very peculiar. Some even flow uphill. Setting aside normal features such as the fact that neither WITCHES nor the forces of the Dark are able to cross RIVERS, , we are left with the unaccountable way that each bank of a given RIVER is liable to be different, and even more unaccountable way the local inhabitants ignore this oddity. The reason seems to be that the left bank of a River (face downstream) is often Highly Magical and full of Hidden Dangers, so that the dwellers are unable to see that side of the River at all. Heaven knows what they think they see instead, or the reason for the difference between the two banks.

BRIDGES. The inhabitants of Fantasyland seem to have a distrust of Bridges, maybe because they provide an easy way for an invading ARMY to cross to a VILLAGE on the other side of the RIVER. This is a great inconvenience to the Tourist. The Rule is that, when being pursued by the forces of the Dark, you are going to need to cross a Bridge, and there will be no Bridge. While the Tour is waiting to find a way across, the forces of the Dark have time to catch up. Even if there is supposed to be a Bridge on the route, you are likely to arrive to find it broken–whereupon the forces of the Dark gain steadily again. The only Bridges sure to be still in place are ANCIENT ENGINEERING PROJECTS, and they will be huge, with, as soon as you get to the middle, a tendency to develop a small but impassable gap right at the apex.

Well, how on earth can we get anywhere when the mountains are blocked, the roads are awful, and the bridges on the verge of collapse? I guess we’ll have to stop at a river’s town and socialize with the townsfolk therein…tomorrow. x

Until then, you can still catch my novella for FREE! Enjoy a little history of railway bridges over the timeless Mississippi as bounty hunters race to catch a saboteur determined to destroy a mysterious train…

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

My #Top20 #Countdown with #DianaWynneJones’ #Fantasy #Writing to #Celebrate #WyrdandWonder Continues…with a #map for a #journey to #adventure

Good morning, Friends! Do you recall on Mother’s Day how my kiddos were watching Smokey and the Bandit (highly edited, of course) with Bo?

Well, now Biff’s insisting that we study the Bandit’s travel route from Texas to Georgia and back. He’s grown quite flustered he can’t find the state highways on our big ol’ basic country map.

All this talk of maps got me thinking about the fantasy genre’s love of maps. It seems like every fantasy, epic of not, simply must have a map. Diana Wynne Jones wrote about them with the love and humor she’s shown all other fantasy-related things in her Tough Guide to Fantasyland.

Thanks for a copy of Jones’ map, Calmgrove! 🙂

Find the MAP. No Tour of Fantasyland is complete without one….It will show most of a continent (and sometimes part of another) with a large number of BAYS, OFFSHORE ISLANDS, an INLAND SEA or so and a sprinkle of TOWNS. There will be scribbly snakes that are probably RIVERS, and names made of CAPITAL LETTERS in curved lines that are not quite upside down. By bending your neck sideways you will be able to see that they say things like “Ca’ea Purt’wydyn” and “Om Ce’falows.” These may be the names of COUNTRIES, but since most of the Map is bare it is hard to tell.

These empty inland parts will be sporadically peppered with little molehills, invitingly lablelled “Megamort Hills,” “Death Mountains,” “Hurt Range” and such, with a line of molehills near the top called “Great Northern Barrier.” Above this will be various warnings of danger. The rest of the Map’s space will be sparingly devoted to little tiny feathers called “Wretched Wood” and “Forest of Doom,” except for one space that appears to be growing minute hairs. This will be tersely labelled “Marshes.”

That is mostly it.

No, wait. If you are lucky, the Map will carry an arrow or compass-heading somewhere in the bit labelled “Outer Ocean” and this will show you which way up to hold it. But you will look in vain for INNS, reststops, or VILLAGES, or even ROADS. No–wait another minute–on closer examination, you will find the empty interior crossed by a few bird tracks. If you peer at these you will see they are (somewhere) labelled “Old trade Road–Disused” and “Imperial Way–Mostly Long Gone.” Some of these routes appear to lead (or have led) to small edifices enticingly titled “Ruin,” “Tower of Sorcery,” or “Dark Citadel,” but there is no scale of miles and no way of telling how long you might take on the way to see these places.

In short, the Map is useless, but you are advised to keep consulting it, because it is the only one you will get…. Further, you must not expect to be let off from visiting every damn place shown on it.

Reading entries like this makes me look at some of my own maps and cringe a little. As writers, sure, we need a layout of the setting so we know what’s where, but you know, when there’s a chunk of the map labeled with “Beyond Desert,” “Elsewhere Lands,” or “My Characters Don’t Go This Way So Ignore,” must one really include that map?

Don’t get me wrong–some maps are provide plenty of reasons to wonder upon the wyrd and fantastical. Colin Meloy’s Wildwood has a glorious map used in the story that not only intrigues the reader, but the young protagonist as well…

Who wouldn’t want to know what’s in that Impassable Wilderness? Most of the citizens of St. Johns Portland, actually, which adds a whole new layer of intrigue and potential magic to young Prue’s town.

All that we need is a reason to enter the Map. Give us a mission–whether it’s rescuing a child, uncovering an object, finding a truth, a treasure, a love–and we will take on a place no matter how absurd its Map is.

For all we want, be we readers or protagonists, is a reason to go on a journey.

Now granted, that Journey may seem a little absurd, as Jones points out…

JOURNEY is of course your Tour. No discovery or action can take place in Fantasyland without a good deal of traveling about. This is in the Rules. The Tour will be set up so that you will find at the outset you need to go to a CITY on the other side of the continent. Once there, you will find you need to go to the extreme south. And so on. You can count on the worst conditions for doing so. (See HARDSHIP, which the Management seems to find synonymous.) (See also LANDSCAPE, ROADS, and TERRAIN, of which you will see lots.) (Oh, and HORSES, which you will have to ride, BOOTS, which you will need when your Horses are dead, and DARK LORD, who will be trying to stop you every mile of your journey.)

…but that doesn’t make the Journey any less beloved or memorable.

How are your own journeys into the Wyrd and Wonder-full going? Be sure to share in the comments below! And don’t forget my historical fantasy novella Night’s Tooth will be FREE tomorrow through Monday (May 15-18). If you know anyone who loves bounty hunters with a touch of magic set in the Wild West, please guide their reading journey to my corner of Fantasyland. x

Having read Jean Lee’s ‘Fallen Princeborn: Stolen‘ I was really looking forward to this, and I wasn’t disappointed.

This is a vivid and immersive little novella, where magic and murder abound in the gritty and desperate old ‘wild west’. The realistic setting and surreal characters collide in a strange and utterly intriguing way, making the reader anxious to know more of this unfolding story.

Thanks for the review, Chris Hall!

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