#AuthorInterview: #Indie #Writer Rob D. Scott Discusses #Writing and #Submitting #ShortStories. Thanks, @RDScott9!

Image from Wisconsin Public Radio

A good morrow to you, my fellow creatives! The cold clouds of April blanket my Wisconsin skies these days. The world is a palette of tans and browns, the wee specks of new green, new life, just barely peeking.

There is, however, always new life to be found in our words. I’m excited to share an indie author who has planted a number of stories across multiple publications. My friends, please welcome Rob D. Scott!

Let’s work through the niceties first. Tell us a bit about yourself, please!

I live in Edinburgh and work in a community college. I only started creative writing three years ago, which is crazy. I should have started years ago. That’s life.

Look for updates from Rob on Facebook as well as Twitter.

It was winter and a period of really awful weather. I started writing a novel for something to do and out of curiosity. I enjoyed it, so kept going. I read books about writing, did a short on-line course, and started submitting short stories to on-line magazines and competitions while I worked on my first novel (which is now hiding in a cupboard). I’ve started a second one, which will hopefully turn out much better.

I find a lot of writing inspiration in the rural landscape of my state, Wisconsin. How would you say the urban setting of Edinburgh—or the countryside of Scotland—inspire your storytelling?

Edinburgh is a beautiful, amazing city and so many writers have used it. I haven’t that much yet. The countryside is more likely to find their way into my stories.

I usually start a new piece of writing using a memory (recent or distant) of a place or moment; that might be in the city or countryside. I write it almost as a factual description and the story develops from there. Stephen King in his book ‘On Writing’ talks about fossils that writers dig up and that’s what I feel I do. Once I find the right fossil, it soon turns into fiction; (to mix my metaphors) it’s like a paper ship floating down a stream. I just go with it and see where it goes. I might have an idea where it’ll end up, but not always.

Image from University of Edinburgh

What literary pilgrimages have you gone on?

When I was twenty-one, I went for a job interview in a town at the other end of the country just so I could visit the Thomas Hardy museum there. That’s not very ethical – especially as they paid for my travel and a hotel! I was first in the museum in my horrible new interview suit and I lingered there too long and was late for the interview. I didn’t get the job, but the museum was great and the countryside from the train ride was amazing. I had forgotten all about that. I should write that up as a story!

Someday, I’ll visit the USA and go to lots of writers’ houses and museums. Carson McCullers is a big favourite, so I would maybe head down there first.

Thomas Hardy’s home (image from The Acorn Inn)

As you should! 🙂
Nothing saps my creativity like a telephone call from my children’s school principal. What is your writing Kryptonite, and how do you overcome it?

I really have no excuses not to produce thousands of words every day. I work but I have free time; especially in lockdown. I am amazed how people with busy lives and family responsibilities (like yourself) manage to write.

Although I don’t think I could live without it now, writing is not the top of my priorities. Work, other people, a day in the countryside, a trip to the cinema, etc make me put down my pen. Life comes first, writing second.

Have you read anything that made you think differently about fiction?

I just absolutely love this Ray Bradbury quote:

“Love. Fall in love and stay in love. Write only what you love, and love what you write. The key word is love. You have to get up in the morning and write something you love, something to live for.”

As an amateur/beginner writer, this makes a lot of sense, and is great advice – I guess for successful authors as well. We’re all different – so just do your thing. Give it your best shot. Try to find something that’s meaningful to you in some way to keep yourself going through the trickier times.

Your encouragement here reminds me of the theme of hope I see in your flash fiction “Goodbye, Frenetikov.” The beautiful level of detail in the beginning uniquely balances with the uncertainty felt in the end. Do you find yourself drawn to themes uplifting to readers, or do you take readers into the darker feeling as well?

Thank you for your comments. I wrote a few very sad stories during lockdown. I think I’m out of that, now. In fact, I’ve just started writing a longer piece, and before I started, I decided that it should be something with a very positive theme. If I am going to spend the next few months on it, given what’s happening in the world right now, I feel that’s where I would like to spend my writing time.

In writing short fiction, you have to hook readers to care about characters, ground them in your story’s setting, and leave them pondering about your story’s end all within a few hundred to a thousand words. (“You Die If You Worry” comes to mind.) Can you walk us through the process of crafting your fiction’s pacing and language to accomplish so much so quickly?

I am very much learning the craft and that there are many different ways to produce a successful short story. The word-length requirements (e.g. 300, 500, 750, 1000, 1500, 2000) can influence the plan. I usually write the story to its best, natural length and worry about where to submit to later.

If I pick up a collection of published short stories, what strikes me is the quality of each line, the language. So that is the number one goal for me; the quality of each sentence, the appeal and magic of the jumble of words. For the structure, I really only think in terms of a beginning, middle and ending. You get in the car, start it up, go for a drive and stop somewhere. Apart from that, there is so much variety in short fiction – anything goes. For example, you might have no dialogue or almost all dialogue in a story.

With very short fiction it can be frustrating not being able to fully flesh out character, setting etc, in the way a novel allows you to, but equally that provides much of the fun and challenge of the form – perhaps like poetry – to find evocative/resonant ways to hint at what’s missing, the spaces in between.

You are published in a wide variety of literary magazines and anthologies. Do you have any favorites you’d like to recommend?

The ones that accepted me are the best, of course!

HA! Sorry, go on. 🙂

There really is something for every taste out there. Much of my experience of the writing for the literary world has been for on-line magazines. The creativity and quality right across the board is very impressive.

I have to say Popshot magazine is just a beautiful object, as well as the great writing. It’s a lovely paper magazine with poetry, fiction and illustrations. I was lucky to get in there once. They commissioned an illustrator to produce something to accompany my short story, which was just amazing – that someone would do that.

Thank you for the recommendation! I’ll have to check them out. What would you consider to be common traps for aspiring writers? I imagine there are a few when it comes to short fic submissions.

I had to learn a lot about the technical side of things – voice, point of view, plot and so on. I think it’s good to remember there is a lot to learn (I notice in your other interviews, writers say this, too).

In terms of submitting to litmags, not understanding at first why you get so many rejections can prove very disheartening. And it would be a great shame if beginner writers gave up because of that.

You learn that you have to know your audience and the market to give yourself a chance, so submitting to the right sort of magazines is important. That means reading the stories in the magazines to guess if yours might work for them, which is both enjoyable and a great way to learn from other writers’ work.

I must mention editors here because they really are the superheroes, along with their ‘readers’. They often do the job for love not money and are the people who choose your story. So be nice to them! And when you submit, follow all of their guidelines very carefully about format, word length and so on.

If you’re lucky they will help and even give a little advice. For some reason, I’ve found sci-fi editors to be especially supportive – or perhaps they’re just super-skilled at letting people down gently! I’ve been trying to ‘find a home’ for a couple of sci-fi stories since I started writing, with no luck. When I started, I kept a folder of ‘nice rejections’ to cheer myself up when the piles of rejections got too much.

I think one useful tip is that if there is a ‘themed call’ for an issue, you might have a better chance with that if you have a story to fit the theme.

As an indie author who is also having a go at lit mag submissions, I’d love to ask about your process in searching magazines and sending multiple pieces. Do you find yourself writing your stories first and then finding magazines that fit the story, or do you scope out the magazine themes first and then craft stories to fit them? I noticed you recently published in a “lockdown” themed anthology, for example.

Good luck with your submissions.

Thanks!

I usually write my story then look for a place to submit. The word length is a big decider on where to submit to, along with the house-style of the magazine.

Calls for submissions for a themed issue – with prompts such as ‘Road trip’, ‘First love’ or ‘Winter’ – can be a great way to get going on a story that you can end up submitting to more than one place or developing into something longer. The theme of the ‘Lockdown’ anthology I was published in fitted with something I was writing at the time and I spotted their call.

The submission pages are crucial. They describe the type of story they are looking for and often say ‘read some of our stories to get a feel of what we’re looking for’. That’s a must, but it’s also great to read the stories. You mentioned, Jean, that you’re inspired by the countryside – there are litmags that have a specific focus on that.

After three years of submitting, I have a much better idea of who might consider or accept a particular type of story.

Having said all of that, it is an amazing, random-feeling process, of being in the right place, at the right time, with a story that appeals to a particular editor, in terms of what they are looking for right then. Getting published anywhere – no matter how big or small – is an enormous thrill, but of course you set targets and have favourites you aim to get into.

Receiving acceptances are tremendously encouraging and validating. There really is nothing else like it. There’s more than a little ego and pride involved there, of course. But, it’s also reward for hard work and effort. And for not giving up.

Let’s wrap up with a little inspiration. Writing and reading can, to me, be a transformative experience. Do you view writing as a kind of spiritual practice?

Yes, in a way. It is certainly a deeply personal process, and also both reflective and instinctive. I often find it quite meditative, even therapeutic. It can be fulfilling and quite emotional at times – as you go through your imagined characters’ experiences. Although it’s a solitary activity you are very engaged with memories and thoughts of other people and the world.

Maybe it sounds corny, but I think words and the way they can be strung together really are magical. It expresses who we are.

Making the connection with a reader is very special too – even if you never meet them beyond a ‘like’ on Twitter or Facebook, or a purchased magazine. The thought that people read your work and find something interesting, rewarding, enjoyable makes the whole process more of a communal, shared activity. It must be great to have people buy your book because they know your work and love your characters. That’s something to aim for in future, for me.

A beautiful encouragement we all should aspire to, Rob. Thank you so much for sharing your time and thoughts here!

~STAY TUNED!~

Who else is ready for a month of Wyrd and Wonder-full fantasy? I am!

I’m super stoked to share an interview from a new SFF publisher as well some amazing music to inspire the epic adventurer within you. There’s also a side project of mine in the works that is so close to “publication”…

Every semester I encourage my newest group of students to read for fun to improve their writing skills, but then here I am, not getting much reading in. Oh, I’d just tell myself the excuse that if I commit to a book, I want to get something out of it as a reader and a writer, and how am I to know what book will give me that? I’ll just watch what my favorite book bloggers recommend and just go from there.

But that doesn’t force me to commit to reading, and that’s just not cool. Sure, time has always been that elusive treasure in this life as a mother, teacher, and writer. That’s not an excuse, though. Besides, there are plenty of other writers with jobs who don’t have much time to read and–

Oooooh.

And so, I decided to start a podcast.

Please watch for updates in May while I get this wee podcast off the ground. x

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

#AuthorInteriew: #Indie #Writer Claire Buss Chats About #HopefulDystopia, #ShortStories, and #Writing In the Midst of #Motherhood

Hello once again, my fellow creatives! While Wisconsin shivers beneath the hoarfrost, let’s travel over to the United Kingdom to meet a wonderful indie author who manages to balance writing and parenting on her own terms. She was very kind to host me on her blog last fall when I released my new novel, and now I’m excited to host her here. Please welcome Claire Buss!

Your bibliography shows you love crafting a wide variety of poetry and prose. For instance, your series The Gaia Collection explores what happens when the global environment is completely under commercial control. Can you describe your writing process for creating this dystopian setting?

The Gaia Effect, the first book in the series, was an idea I had for a long time just sort of kicking about in my head. I don’t know why it went the way it did, I’m a discovery writer not a planner and I literally had no idea what was going to happen next when I was writing. I just followed the characters. I realise authors aren’t supposed to admit that they don’t know what they’re doing lol. With each subsequent novel I write, I tend to plan a little bit more but then I have had two kids since I started writing so I find it harder to remember everything now.

After being an author for over five years, what would you say are common traps for aspiring writers?

Thinking that they know everything, I don’t think you ever stop learning about the craft of writing and storytelling. And also, not being able to take critique – figuring out that it’s different from criticism and that other people (writers and readers) can see things that you don’t. I do find it difficult to put that first draft out there and I often get highly defensive at feedback but that’s usually because they’re right and I just don’t want to admit I need to make the changes lol.

Ha! I get pretty defensive about my own writing, too, but you’re right–that feedback is crucial in ensuring a plot line, a character arc, or whatever else actually makes sense. Would you consider this to be the most difficult part of your artistic process, or would you consider that to be something else?

Not being able to find enough time to work on my writing. At the moment, I have to squeeze things in between being a stay-at-home mum and oftentimes I am super tired in the evenings so trying to be creative can be tough. Also, my kids get up at 5am so trying to join in the 5am writers club is difficult as well. But you know, if you love doing something, you find the time for it.

OH MY GOSH I KNOW JUST WHAT YOU MEAN. Seriously, I totally do. I started blogging in 2015 when my kids were teeny. That was likely a crazy thing to do, but blogging helped me preserve what little sanity I had left, and eventually helped me re-ignite my creativity. Even though my kids are older now (well, still 10 and under, but still), they are my writing Kryptonite just as much as they are my writing inspiration. What is your writing Kryptonite?

Ironically, procrastination! I am an excellent procrastinator. I have even cleaned the oven instead of sitting down to write. But then at other times I’m in the writing zone and nothing can stop me.

I have a feeling you and I would be friends, because that’s just what I do on some days, too. Suddenly the floor absolutely must be cleaned that day because in my imagination, I just haven’t worked out a plot kink yet and it’s easier to clean than to sit and stare at my notes about fantastical elsewheres. I noticed that you enjoy writing all sorts of fantastical stories like Ye Olde Magick Shoppe, but you also enjoy exploring the “commonplace” kind of life. Now most people–me included–write to escape this sort of place, but you found so much inspiration you created a collection called Tales From Surburbia. Can you share that particular inspiration with us?

I had released my first book The Gaia Effect and although I thought there might be another book in the series, I didn’t feel ready to write it straight away but I wanted to maintain the momentum I felt I’d created by publishing a book. I decided to look back over short stories, plays and blog posts that I’d written previously and grouped together those that had a similar theme. I wrote a couple of new pieces and voila! I had a shorts collection on the theme of humorous observation of life in the suburbs. All of it is inspired in some way by real events that happened to me or happened where I lived at the time.

Life in the suburbs certainly has its own wacky misadventures, like when toddler Biff decided to just join our new neighbors housewarming party and started tooting through their toddler’s toys. Heavens, that was so mortifying! The most common thread of the misadventures around our neighborhood, however, would have to be the animals. There’s a fox that occasionally wanders through our backyard; I like to imagine where he comes from and what brings him hunting about our yard. As a writer, what would you choose as your mascot/avatar/spirit animal?

My writer mascot? Hmm… that’s a good question. I have absolutely no idea. Maybe a dragon, which is probably a little cliché. I’d actually love a dog

Ah, there is a history of beloved dogs among amazing writers! I’ll always remember my favoritest of favorite writers, Diana Wynne Jones, writing an entire fantasy novel inspired by her own dog. When we have the right inspiration, we cannot help but tell stories, you know? Does writing energize or exhaust you?

It depends – when the muse is with me, the words seem to run out of my fingertips into my keyboard and dance across my computer screen. Those are the days when I can write 2000 words in less than an hour and get to the end of the writing session feeling happy but wiped. Other days it’s a struggle and it feels like I’m pulling the words out. Those days are exhausting and filled with doubt. I think if writing doesn’t energise and exhaust you then you’re just not doing it right.

I completely agree, Claire. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts, your stories, and your life with us! My friends, you can learn more about Claire and her work via the various social media links below.

~STAY TUNED!~

Let’s explore some worldbuilding in the mystery genre, written by an author who embodied a time, a mindset, a world that feels long ago, but for some of us is not so long ago at all.

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

#writerproblems: #writing awesome #characterdesign in three sentences or less.

Yes, I know that hashtag #characterdesign is more of an art-related thing, but it fits with this little lesson learned, believe you me.

This week started with its usual chaos: calls at 5am for a substitute teacher in 5th grade–no wait, Kindergarten. No wait, art, just art for aaaaaall the grades, can you do that? Bash wakes up with a swollen eye from Lord knows what (don’t worry, it left just as mysteriously as it came), university students re-submit work I had already flagged as inappropriate for the assignment requirements. On top of all this, another university contacts me to schedule an interview for a full-time gig. (insert excitement and anxiety here.)

Meanwhile, I did my best to stay in the writing community loop, reading about the racial controversy over American Dirt and learning from fellow indie author Michael Dellert that The Arcanist is calling for western speculative flash fiction:

Is there another short story inside me for the bounty hunter Sumac? I asked myself as the twelve-year-olds tried to stab each other with colored pencils. 1000 words didn’t feel like a lot of wiggle room. Night’s Tooth was meant to be a short story, after all, but writing a fantasy western inspired by Clint Eastwood’s The Man With No Name trilogy meant a LOT of slow-but-tense moments. Thus, the novella instead of the short story. (Click here if you’d like to read one of those moments.)

As magical showdowns percolated in my mind, I continued planning my excursion into the “dark, impulsive, whiny villainy” of Disney’s Star Wars. I had my collection of Robert McKee Story quotes at the ready for studying the bizarre mix of Hux and Kylo interactions in The Force Awakens and shift from there into the smothering subversions of The Last Jedi.

That is, until my perusal through Agatha Christie’s short fiction sparked a little something that I just had to share.

So we all know that when it comes to short fiction, you gotta pack a lot into a tiny space. Plot, character, setting–aaaaall that jazz has gotta be played at a heightened, almost truncated speed. There’s no time for meandering interludes or long drum solos.

(RIP Neil Pert. I know he wasn’t a jazz player, but Bo’s a HUGE Rush fan, so he’s been showing concerts to the kids and now I’m stuck in a land of music metaphor that doesn’t jive and we’re just going to move on because I clearly have no sense of what decade I’m in.)

Agatha Christie wrote over a hundred short stories. If ANYone knew the importance of keeping the story elements thrumming along, it was her. This is especially clear when she describes her characters. Like any good musician, Christie’s style moves sweet’n’slick with just the right amount of flourish.

Miss Lemon was forty-eight and of unprepossessing appearance. Her general effect was that of a lot of bones flung together at random. She had a passion for order almost equalling that of Poirot himself; and though capable of thinking, she never thought unless told to do so.

“How Does Your Garden Grow?”

In just three sentences, we’ve got a sense of this character’s physical appearance, interests, and mindset. Christie doesn’t dwell on the minutiae, like what Miss Lemon wears or how she does her hair. That all falls under “unpreposessing appearance.” But some readers whine when they can’t “see” a character without more precise detail. What if we picture different things? What if we don’t see the character the same way the writer did? THAT CHANGES THE READING EXPERIENCE, DOESN’T IT?!

Honestly, folks, does Miss Lemon’s outfit affect the story? No. Does it matter if each of us picture “a lot of bones flung together” (damn, I really like that bit) in different ways? No.

More importantly, a short story doesn’t have space to waste on that kind of detail. When a writer’s looking into contests like The Arcanist‘s, he/she can’t afford to spend a hundred words on description when forty will do the trick. Heck, even twenty’s enough for Christie in some cases. Take these character descriptions of two parents.

Mrs. Waverly’s emotion was obviously genuine, but it assorted strangely with her shrewd, rather hard type of countenance.

Mr. Waverly was a big, florid, jovial-looking man. He stood with his legs straddled wide apart and looked the type of the country squire.

“The Adventure of Johnnie Waverly”

Again, the colorful details are skipped in favor for body language and behavior. We get senses of these people–the hard, heart-broken mother, the upper-class, happy sort of father. We may not know what these two look like, but we know their body language, and in this we get impressions of their attitudes and behaviors, which are far more important than hair color.

Six months ago she had married a fifth time–a commander in the Navy. He it was who came striding down the beach behind her. Silent, dark–with a pugnacious jaw and a sullen manner. A touch of the primeval ape about him.

“Triangle at Rhodes”

Those third and fourth sentences say it ALL. “Silent, dark”–readers can already get a sense of a nasty face, but since this man’s “a commander in the Navy” then we know he’s going to carry himself like a man of authority and power. Words like “pugnacious” and “sullen” tell readers how he’s going to interact with the other characters: always negatively, aggressively, and without any sort of kindness. The fact he’s “primeval” practically forces readers to picture this character as a sort of sub-human, incapable of empathy or feeling.

And aaaaaall that characterization is given in just eighteen words.

When Poirot’s friend Captain Hastings narrates the story, Christie is also able to take advantage of her ever-lovable unreliable narrator, which allows her to misdirect readers when she so chooses.

The sixth Viscount Cronshaw was a man of about fifty, suave in manner, with a handsome, dissolute face. Evidently an elerly roué, with the languid manner of a poseur. I took an instant dislike to him.

Mrs. Davidson came to us almost immediately, a small, fair creature whose fragility would have seemed pathetic and appealing had it not been for the rather shrewd and calculating gleam in her light blue eyes.

“The Affair at the Victory Ball”

Oh, Hastings, you do love a pretty face. Poirot’s partner loves to let readers know when he’s a fan of a woman or not, consistently keen to describe her appearance and whether or not she’s attractive.Once in a while, though, he’ll catch something genuine, such as Mrs. Davidson’s shrewdness. Likewise, if Hastings doesn’t like a man, he’s obvious about that, too, and these opinions from Hastings always alter how he interacts with the characters as well as how he interprets their words and body language. This in turn affects the information readers receive, and so by the end of “The Affair at the Victory Ball” we’re just as surprised as Hastings to discover how wrong we are about these people.

Once in a while, though, Christie does allow a little drum solo when a minor character takes the stage. It seems to happen when it’s a character type Poirot, Hastings, or the omniscient narrator ignores in favor of more interesting goings-on: a mere citizen, a member of the populace where the mystery occurs. Sometimes it’s this common-ness that plays its part in getting Poirot to the mystery, such as in “The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding”:

Everything about Mr. Jesmond was discreet. His well-cut but inconspicuous clothes, his pleasant, well-bred voice which rarely soared out of an agreeable monotone, his light-brown hair just thinning a little at the temples, his pale serious face. It seemed to Hercule Poirot that he had known not one Mr. Jesmond but a dozen Mr. Jesmonds in his time, all using sooner or later the same phrase–“a position of the utmost delicacy.”

“The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding”

And this bit from “A Cornish Mystery” is a lovely reminder to readers and writers alike that every setting’s character, no matter how bland and un-unusual, is still a person with problems, fear, and feeling.

Many unlikely people came to consult Poirot, but to my mind, the woman who stood nervously just inside the door, fingering her feather neck-piece, was the most unlikely of all. She was so extraordinarily commonplace–a thin, faded woman of about fifty, dressed in a braided coat and skirt, some gold jewellery at her neck, and with her grey hair surmounted by a singularly unbecoming hat. In a country town you pass a hundred Mrs. Pengelleys in the street every day.

“The Cornish Mystery”

It seems Hastings spends an awful long time introducing us to a character that’s just one of a hundred one would pass in the street–81 words, in fact. Why so much time on a single, ordinary character in a short story? Hasting’s description creates an expectation of ordinary-ness, regularity, typicality. But of course, Christie being Christie, this time spent on an ordinary character comes with reason: this ordinary character, this one of one hundred, is murdered. Why would someone murder this one Mrs. Pengelley out of a hundred one would pass on a country town street?

Ah. That is why the reader reads on.

So when you work on your own character designs, writers, always ask yourself what matters more: the character’s appearance, or behavior? The character’s look, or feelings? A character’s choices are often the influence of action and pacing, but there’s no denying that sometimes, a character’s appearance alone may twist the narrative into surprising directions. What matters is that you share character traits important to the story. Picturing a character’s apparel means little when readers cannot see a character’s attitude.

~STAY TUNED NEXT WEEK!~

Back to The Young and the Restless of Disney’s Star Wars villains!

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

Madame Midsomer’s Final Tampering

how much

“How Much?” by Joshua Evan of https://joshuaevan.org/

Madame Midsomer braced herself against the wind. It was at its most mischievous outside her building, always plucking hats and wigs from those who dared walk the street and plopping them down on children, even babies. Those keen to keep their headgear wisely took care to purchase a meatball or two from Meatball Obsession and toss those to the wind instead, which accepted the alternative with a fathomless appetite. Children bought the meatballs to toss at everyone else.

Madame Midsomer, however, had no time for such niceties. Her yeti-hair coat repelled all forms of seasoned meat, and her hat had been woven with all sorts of incantations by a sorceress of great renown from Market Chipping. Whenever the wind slipped its naughty fingers round the brim it would get a nasty shock of lightning. So long as this didn’t happen near the kerosene carts, Madame Midsomer found the side effect inconsequential. It did once, of course near The Tower with council just exiting, and a Green Trench had the audacity to write her a ticket for the fire. Never mind she put it out before The Kitten Parade was completely roasted. Those fools just don’t appreciate how even the best-behaved magic sneaks out now and again.

“Hullo, Seller!” She clacked her way down the walk with the straightest of spines and the most pointed of chins. Her right hand kept her coat closed against the half dozen meatballs cast by a school group as she waved with the other—first at Seller, then at the school group. Seller’s face turned grim. The children turned into sloths. The chaperones, knowing a good thing when they see it, whipped out their phones to play SweetieSmash.

“And how is your family, Seller?” Madame Midsomer spoke with a smile that told the story of many years smoking and laughing and allowing the occasional fight to knock loose a tooth. “All well, I hope?” The pavement shivered with her approach, sending a few pears and apples askew.

Seller kept his hands busy with straightening the produce. The last time he shook hands with Madame Midsomer he got some sort of ghostly powder on his hand. It took a fortnight for his hand to be solid enough to pick things up again, which is damn inconvenient when you’re a fruit farmer. “Well, Madame.” He knew better than to give someone of Madame’s aptitudes his family name.

“It is the greatest luck you’re on my street today.”

“I’m here every twenty days, Madame.”

“Yes yes, but I needed you here today, and here you are! My will is insurmountable.” That bit seemed less pointed at Seller than at the Green Trench just coming up the walk now—a rookie, by the look of his panic when he saw Madame Midsomer near fruit. “This city simply cannot function against it, Seller.”

Seller smiled and said nothing.  He was in no mood to sell as anything but a human. No one wants to buy fruit from an aye-aye.

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Madame Midsomer let go of her coat and held out both hands. Her fingers twitched as she moved them in the air from one end of the tables to the other. It reminded Seller of typing, and if she was typing, that meant she was working. Damn.

The low table creaked painfully as the ground shook with uneasy persistence, rather like a child who isn’t a sloth tugging at one’s pants with the urgent need for more meatballs. Seller watched Madame Midsomer’s fingers pass over his bananas, grapes, tomatoes, and mangoes. That was close—he always did his best business with grapes.

The high table held apples and pears and some wrapped fruit a bit ripe, but still good for baking. The fingers moved over them. Stopped. Moved back.

Madame Midsomer pursed her lips. Seller worked hard not to think about how the lipstick had been smeared on much too thick, and was now clumping together in the middle of her lips. Her fingers typed over the apples, back and forth, then stopped completely. “Yes. These are what I need. I’ll take the lot.”

“Madame, surely you remember the limit is one per customer.”

“Yes, but today is different. An emergency, you can say.” She made a peculiar kissy-face towards the ground, sending a tiny bit of lipstick downwards. The pavement turned the same shade of “killer crimson” on impact. “And I say a dozen will just cover it.” She held open her hands to take the trays.

Seller felt the Green Trench’s stare and thrust a single apple into her hands instead. “Madame, it is the law. One per customer. I cannot possibly sell you 12.”

The wind nudged Seller, found neither hat nor wig, then snuck a grab at Madame Midsomer. The lightning managed to short out the SweetieSmash tournament and sour the chaperones. The children went on being sloths.

She stood there, arms outstretched, grappling one apple. One. What in all the Multiverse was she supposed to do with one? “Now you listen to me, Seller. I need all twelve. It is imperative.”

“And it is imperative I follow the law, Madame.”

“Sod the law!” And she readied her hand for a wave, her eyes as white as the pearls dangling from her ears.

Seller covered the remaining apples with his arms. “Better an animal above ground than a prisoner beneath it, Madame.”

Madame Midsomer squinted with that hideous darkness only known in The Cautionary Tales the wind whispers to children on the schoolyard. But the Green Trench was no child, and thought only to protect the victim of Cruel Magic.

The pavement leaned, shook, wobbled—Seller ran for the bananas and tomatoes before they could fall upon the aye-aye, googly-eyed and drowning in his emerald coat, already frustrated by those impossibly long fingers. Seller skewered a few grapes on one, since it seemed the sort of thank you an aye-aye would appreciate.

Madame Midsomer ignored them both. She turned her eyes upward, apple still at a distance, and looked to her flat.

Fissures fat and determined ran from her windows down the building’s height. Dust sparkled with shattered glass, cutting the wind in a thousand places and sending it off screaming for its mother. Brick and steel crumbled and regrouped into a head the likes of which no zookeeper could ever identify, Seller was sure of it.

The Tower of Height Street raised the alarm. Madame Midsomer lunged for the apples. Seller grabbed the umbrella for a shield.

“Give me those apples!” She still had time, it had not yet found its feet…

“Grow your own apples!”

“HALT.” More Green Trenches climbed down the wind and formed a circle around the fruit stand. One saw his fellow officer transformed, called out, “Corporal, there’s more here than Tampering.”

The Old Corporal moved behind the circle with his eyes fixated on Madame Midsomer. Madame Midsomer held the apple at him, then at the created head high above them, now with girdered neck and creeping fingers and the occasional flat resident holding on for their pitiful lives. A couple Trenches went after them. “Officers, you must let me stop this.”

“Not this time, Madame,” said Old Corporal. He held out his arm to the aye-aye, who crawled up gratefully. “Willful Cruel Magic against an Officer and Unlawful Tampering? There’s only one punishment for such crimes.”

“You’re all pathetically inept. I’m the only one with the power,” she said with chunks of lipstick flying dangerously close to their coats. Killer Crimson splashed onto the street, the mangoes, and Seller’s legs instead.

Hands folded behind him, shield-badge aglow, Old Corporal stood his ground, even when the sofa exploded on the pavement behind him. The other shield-badges carried the glow through the circle, and soon the light began to weave and bind…

No!” Madame Midsomer hissed and called the power of the apple’s life, but the shield-badges took it first, and when the light pulsed away she found her wrists in cuffs. “You can’t, you can’t do this, the city needs me!” She clacked backward, swayed, she was but an old woman, after all, was there no pity? “Seller, please, tell them!”

Old Corporal glanced at Seller. The man was smart, and said nothing Madame Midsomer could capture and hide in that blasted coat of hers.

The deluge of rocks and residents stopped. Apparently, it had a taste for meatballs.

“I warned you, Madame Midsomer, that the new council wouldn’t tolerate your Tamperings. Now maybe this city can finally take on someone a bit more reputable for Lead Sorceress.” Light ribboned down from each shield-badge in a criss-cross beneath Madame Midsomer’s ridiculous shoes. “You’re under arrest.” Light and pavement vanished. Madame Midsomer fell with a shriek, but not before the wind caught her hat and danced about with it, giggling.

Old Corporal wiped his hands. “‘Bout bloody time that happened.”

Seller sighed over the hexed mangoes, not to mention his pants. “Those sloths are children, too.”

“We’ll get round to them later. Can’t have them poking about the building while we fix it.” He skewered a few more grapes for the rookie and pulled out his phone to contact his superiors. He paused. “Quick game of SweetieSmash?”

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#writers, when good #storytelling requires #fieldresearch, you better be prepared.

I’ve been putting it off for months. Last week’s interview with Laurel Wanrow, however, brought matters to a head.

It’ll take too much time. C’mon, is it reeeeeally necessary for the sake of the story? Just watch a video or something.

Jean, you’ve got no life experience for context. No member of your family ever did it. No mere video will give you the sensations and emotions, to build upon for the plot and character development.

So what?! I can still make up stuff.

Jean, you gotta do it.

No!

You gotta.

I don’t wanna!

Do you care about the story or not?!

…Yeah.

Then you go in there and face that source of embarrassment and anxiety.

NO NO NO NO NO NO!

If you truly care about your next Tales of the River Vine story, you must…

…have a go at canning.

My ineptitude in the kitchen is legendary. I’ve started no less than three fires in my oven. I’ve burned food to the bottom of pots so badly we had to throw the pots out. Even the most basic of cookbooks goes all twisty-turny in my brain so that I switch ingredients, switch steps around, mix up cooking times, etc.

But field research isn’t about doing what’s easy, or doing what we already know well. It’s time to step outside those comfort zones and experience something new, dammit!

Now granted, there’s only so much one can spend in the name of field research. It’s not like my family’s budget allowed for me to take a hot air balloon ride solely for “experience” to write “No More Pretty Rooms.” I simply drew on the experience of parasailing with an improperly buckled harness. Puh-lenty of excitement and terror in that memory from the teen years.

So to begin this adventure into canning, I get some books from the library with emphasis on making small batches with natural ingredients.

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(Yes, I was won over by Marisa McClellan’s inclusion of many pictures so I had a clue what the finished product should look like.)

I poured through the recipes with focus on canned fruit. Something with a realistic fruit for Wisconsin, and with minimal ingredients to befit an impoverished pantry in the wilderness. (That, and fewer ingredients means a smaller dent on the food budget.) Gimme something with five ingredients or less, you books!

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Aha!

Look at that: four ingredients. Peaches are…okay, they’re a bit of a stretch, but doable, as peaches supposedly came to the American colonies in the 1600s. Since Wisconsin became a state in the 1840s, it’s reasonable to expect peaches are in the state by the early 1900s, which is when “Preserved” takes place. The only other items I need are a lemon, some sugar, and bourbon.

Welp, the kids weren’t gonna touch the stuff anyway.

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That be a lot of peaches.

Okay. I gotta just hack them up to get the pits out, boil the jars, boil the fruit and then plunge them into ice, skin them, cook sugar water, pack peaches, pour some cooked sugar on them, add the bourbon, then cook the lot. Sounds straightforward enough.

So, first: a pot and a round cooling rack.

You know, the round cooling rack YOU DON’T HAVE.

NO! I WILL do this! I just need to utilize that beloved resource most assuredly available one hundred years ago: The Internet.

Aha! I can build one of my own with aluminum foil! That’s…not entirely appropriate, but at this point, I don’t care. I didn’t buy 6 pounds of peaches for nuthin’. I need the sensory experience of canning, not the…you know, technical whozamawtzits.

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With foil grid thingey in place, I can start boiling the jars. I’m only making four pints’ worth, so I can get these jars done in one go.

Eeeeexcept they don’t fit in our pot.

Well…whatever, I gotta slice the peaches up.

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“Eeeew, peach brains!” says Bash, all too eager to poke’em around. Blondie makes puking noises. “I’m never eating peaches again.” Biff just shoves a peanut butter sandwich in his mouth and continues reading his Calvin and Hobbes, devoid of interest.

“Scoot you, Mommy’s workin’.” I go over the book’s directions again to see what else I can do while the jars are heated. Hmm, I gotta simmer the lids, okay, and then cook sugar water into syrup, and boil the peaches for one minute at a time to be tossed into the ice-water for peeling.

Well I can’t wait to see you swing that, Jean, since you only have TWO WORKING BURNERS on that stove. 

Bo comes in from work to find the kids munching supper and me staring at the stove, utterly flummoxed. “Well?”

“This is going to be an epic failure,” I say, and lob another peanut butter sandwich over the kitchen counter to Biff. “We don’t have a stock pot or the right cooling rack. And we don’t have four burners.” I tip a tablespoon’s worth of  hot water from our electric kettle onto a small bowl with the lids.

“Waaaaaaaaaait, wait wait.” Bo puts his lunch cooler down and looks at the directions. “You did read this before you got started, right?”

“Yes!” I’m all indignant about it, but how well did I read it, really? I was so fixed on finding a recipe with minimal ingredients, let alone fixed on canning in general, that I didn’t once stop to study the logistics of it all. I just assumed one needed a pot, some, jars, and some fruit. Wasn’t that how it used to be?

If field research is to be helpful, we can’t treat it as some slipshod affair. One can’t try ice fishing without the right gear. One can’t learn to sew without certain materials. So one sure as hell ain’t gonna can fruit unless she’s got some basic tools like four working burners on a stove. Had I bothered studying the recipe’s logistics, I’d have seen the futility of this field research and saved myself a lot of time…not to mention six pounds of peaches.

“Honey. Schmoopie. Darling.” Bo takes me by the shoulders and kisses my forehead. “I love you. I love how smart and creative you are. You’re beautiful. You’re amazing. You’re not afraid to try new things outside your comfort zone. But with all that research and prep, you’ve been foiled by boiling water?” He turns off the burners, pulls down the Halloween Oreo cookies for the kids.

“No. I’ve been foiled by that flippity flappin’ stove.” I harrumph and try to peel the peach skins, despite the peaches not even being ripe enough for this exercise, or cooked long enough, or cooled long enough.

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Of course, it doesn’t work.

Hmm. Maybe I can utilize my frustration into the narrator. Maybe he doesn’t get the canning done the way he normally does because he’s being distracted by taunts over transformers and peach brains and grilled cheese and…maybe not that last part, but still, there’s an emotional bit of field research done here.

And a wise lesson learned, too:

GET A NEW STOVE.

No, no…well yes, there’s that.

Always have a chest freezer in case you end up with two baking trays filled with peaches that will hopefully keep for a winter’s worth of peach cobbler.

Yes, okay, I GET IT. My point, patient writers and readers both, is this: never let ambition lure you into the field before your creativity–and your common sense–are ready.

October is almost here! That means a new installment of my monthly newsletter will be hitting your inboxes on the 1st. I like giving kudos to kindred creative spirits in my newsletter, as well as sharing updates about my Fallen Princeborn Omnibus and other writing endeavors. If you haven’t subscribed yet you can do so here

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

#Summertime with #Family & #SummerReads with @ZoolonHub, @chloekbenjamin, @naominovik, & @ChuckWendig ‏

When there’s deadlines for two novels and six short stories, it can be pretty easy to forget about little things like family time or relaxation.

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Bash and his favorite comfy, a rabbit named Hoppy

It’s bloody hard to write when the kids are home, but sometimes they manage to occupy themselves creatively while I work. Blondie works on her comic book starring Ruff Ruff and Stormfly…

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…while Bash draws picture after picture of Star Wars droids. “Is that R2-D2?” I’ll ask. “No, that’s Q3-5A,” I’m corrected. Okie dokie!

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Biff loves to read, but he’s not much for writing or drawing like his siblings. He gets his creativity on with Legos, which suits me find for this little engineer.

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We’ve taken the kids to the North Woods a few times, and hope to do so once more before the school year starts. Princeton’s not far from the family cabin, and it hosts a weekly flea market throughout the summer. Bo has many treasured childhood memories of this market, so we always take care to visit it at least once a summer. He gets to dig through old comic tubs, and I get to take a gander at all the people.

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The booths are filled with everything from liquidation buyouts, bottomless tubs of toys from the last fifty years, handmade doll clothes, or antler home decor. Who wouldn’t want a fireplace poker made of deer antler?

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Plus there’s always a few tables laden with books–hooray! I didn’t know I needed a cookbook by the Dixie Diamond Baton Corps, but come on–you know there’s got to be good stuff in there.

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I don’t know what qualifies as “antique” outside the US, but I just cannot consider ’90s nonsense as “antique.” (I went to elementary school with people who wore those buttons, for cryin’ out loud.)

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Now I do not know how this guy does it. Poetry on demand? Brilliant! And he always had someone waiting for a poem. Either he’s that good a writer, or Wisconsinites are just that tired of all the booths selling crocheted Green Bay Packer hand towels and beer cozies.

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Speaking of writing on demand, let’s see what could make for some awesome reading for August. I’ve added these to my TBR list–I hope you will, too!

Indie Writer

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The Words & Thoughts of a Dyslexic Musician by George Blamey-Steeden

George has been an amazing support over the years in the blogosphere, so when he announced he put a book together, I had to give it a shout-out! He shares pieces of life and inspiration that help him create his lyrics for his three published albums. Do check this out!

Zoolon, the alter ego of George Blamey-Steeden, is a musician & sound artist living in Dover. He has a number of albums to his name, ‘Liquid Truth’ (2012), a concept album themed around Plato’s ‘Allegory of The Cave’; ‘Cosa Nostra’ (2014) a sound art creation based upon ‘Romeo & Juliet’, plus his two latest albums displaying his songwriting skills, presently on sale via Bandcamp, namely ‘Dream Rescuer’ (2017) & ‘Rainbows End’ (2017). http://www./zoolon.bandcamp.com An accomplished musician, he has a BA (Hons) Creative Music Technology (1st Class Degree) and his passion for composing is only matched by his love of wildlife and his support of The Arsenal football club. http://www.zoolonhub.com

Wisconsin Writer

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The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin

I saw this at the bookstore under “Local Authors” and became intrigued. There’s a supernatural element here, but a family drama at the heart. The allure of such a mix can’t be denied!

If you knew the date of your death, how would you live your life?

It’s 1969 in New York City’s Lower East Side, and word has spread of the arrival of a mystical woman, a traveling psychic who claims to be able to tell anyone the day they will die. The Gold children—four adolescents on the cusp of self-awareness—sneak out to hear their fortunes.

The prophecies inform their next five decades. Golden-boy Simon escapes to the West Coast, searching for love in ’80s San Francisco; dreamy Klara becomes a Las Vegas magician, obsessed with blurring reality and fantasy; eldest son Daniel seeks security as an army doctor post-9/11; and bookish Varya throws herself into longevity research, where she tests the boundary between science and immortality.

A sweeping novel of remarkable ambition and depth, The Immortalists probes the line between destiny and choice, reality and illusion, this world and the next. It is a deeply moving testament to the power of story, the nature of belief, and the unrelenting pull of familial bonds.

Fantasy Writer

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Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik

I am so stoked about Novik’s latest! Uprooted was a joy, reminiscent of Diana Wynne Jones’ quests and battles with quirky yet complete characters, so when I heard Novik’s got another fairy tale in bookstores, I had add it to my list.

Miryem is the daughter and granddaughter of moneylenders… but her father isn’t a very good one. Free to lend and reluctant to collect, he has loaned out most of his wife’s dowry and left the family on the edge of poverty–until Miryem steps in. Hardening her heart against her fellow villagers’ pleas, she sets out to collect what is owed–and finds herself more than up to the task. When her grandfather loans her a pouch of silver pennies, she brings it back full of gold.

But having the reputation of being able to change silver to gold can be more trouble than it’s worth–especially when her fate becomes tangled with the cold creatures that haunt the wood, and whose king has learned of her reputation and wants to exploit it for reasons Miryem cannot understand.

 Writing Craft

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Damn Fine Story by Chuck Wendig

While it’s great getting perspective on strictly characters or strictly world-building, I want to study the art that is storytelling. Writing beautiful prose always a sweet endeavor, but to keep readers gripped, to keep them from putting down the book because they need to know what’s happening to characters they care about–now that makes me writer-proud. I’m looking forward to this one!

What do Luke Skywalker, John McClane, and a lonely dog on Ho‘okipa Beach have in common?

Simply put, we care about them.

Great storytelling is making readers care about your characters, the choices they make, and what happens to them. It’s making your audience feel the tension and emotion of a situation right alongside your protagonist. And to tell a damn fine story, you need to understand why and how that caring happens.

Using a mix of personal stories, pop fiction examples, and traditional storytelling terms, New York Times best-selling author Chuck Wendig will help you internalize the feel of powerful storytelling.

And of course, because I’m a writer…

If you’d like a little breather from your typical summer reading fare, try my serialized novel Middler’s Pride on Channillo or Fallen Princeborn: Stolen, FREE on KindleUnlimited! 2019 Update: Due to recent changes in the publishing relationship between Aionios Books and myself, Tales of the River Vine has been pulled from the market to be repackaged and distributed in fresh editions.

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

When your old #writing experiment transforms into a series of #free #shortstories, you find yourself in #RiverVine.

Some explores aren’t planned.

We only want to check out what’s behind this one corner before we continue on our way. Peek into this one strange window and then go back to our business. Stick our heads into this one rabbit hole, then move on with our lives.

Only we fall in.

And we don’t always climb out.

In the winter of 2017, the music of John Carpenter set my creative cogs turning round and round a character from an old WIP. But I was already set on my path among Shield Maidens and OCD sorcerers. I only had time to peek into the princeborns’ universe and spy their battles waged in their universe before moving on.

But now with Aionios Books I’ve found the rabbit hole and tumbled back into Wisconsin’s secret places. The more my editor Gerri and I dig into the world-building of Fallen Princeborn: Stolen, the more I find myself going over the old notebooks and sketches. Then  “Normal’s Menace,” the short story popped up–Oh yeah, my point of view experiment from last year…I sent it to Gerri for fun because it featured my pastry-obsessed crusader for children, a wolfish fellow named Dorjan. Gerri enjoyed it so much she suggested writing a series of short stories on the various characters involved in the River Vine world.

While I hadn’t been planning to spend time running around and away from the series’ narrative arc, I gotta admit–it’s been really fun. As I learned when experimenting with point of view, short fiction is all about the powerful, passionate moments. All the world-building, the character development, conflict and such–none of it can afford to be a slow burn, because moments don’t burn slow in short fiction. Anger, regret, desire, fear, defiance–when these feelings ignite within us, they burn our spirits until we crumble into ash, or forge us into something new.

These are the moments I now hunt for on the fringe of River Vine. They appear in the not-quite-common places: breaking up with a girlfriend…who is capable of eating you. Disagreeing with a boss…who promises to burn your legs off. Telling off a stranger…who somehow knows your nasty secrets.

Enter “The Boy Who Carried A Forest in His Pocket,” the first short story in Tales of the River Vine.

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My sons love to pick up tree seeds and bring them home. Biff is very methodical about it, fixating upon the number of seeds he can stuff into his pocket, while Bash is already growing them in his mind. “What if they make trees in my pocket?” he asks as he skips along at my side. “Then my bed can be in a tree, and my comfies can sleep in trees, too!”

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From this, my first short story grew.

“Just.” Jamie tosses his glasses onto the grass. “One.” He blinks, and suddenly Buddy sees nothing but light, beautiful, soft, warm, violet light, like he can sleep in a bed of violets, like he’s clothed in the royal robes of Jerusalem. “Trick.”

“Just. One. Trick,” Buddy echoes. He is very tired. Sugar crash, a voice in his mind says, and he believes it.

“The Boy Who Carried a Forest in His Pocket”

Each of the six short stories in Tales of the River Vine will be free to download as they are released one at a time in the coming months on Amazon’s Kindle and Barnes & Noble’s Nook. I’d love to hear your thoughts on these stories, too, so please be sure to read, review, and share.

2019 Update: Due to recent changes in the publishing relationship between Aionios Books and myself, Tales of the River Vine has been pulled from the market to be repackaged and distributed in new editions. Stay tuned!

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