#lessons learned from #RayBradbury: #write #setting details that creep out #characters & #readers alike.

Autumn washes over Wisconsin with gold, crimson, orange, and steel. Rain keeps the farmland cold and wet, turning three pumpkin pickers into wet whiners.

Still, we manage to pick pumpkins without kicking them at the tractor like soccer balls (don’t ask about that year). Bo stocks our freezer with delicious apple pies. Time to settle in with some hot spiced cider and a spooky read.

Of course that book could be MY novel coming out on Halloween, but for now let’s study a classic, a book that makes my flesh crawl with every read. A book that won’t let you look at carousels the same way ever again.  A book whose language spellbinds and bewitches. A book whose film adaptation is…well, Jonathan Pryce and the music are amazing.

Oh, Ray Bradbury.

Oh, the magic you weave in Something Wicked This Way Comes.

Where does the magic begin?

The prologue, of course.

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First of all, it was October, a rare month for boys. Not that all months aren’t rare. But there be bad and good, as the pirates say. Take September, a bad month: school begins. Consider August, a good month: school hasn’t begun yet. July, well, July’s really fine: there’s no chance in the world for school. June, no doubting it, June’s best of all, for the school doors spring wide and September’s a billion years away.

But you take October, now. School’s been on a month and you’re riding easier in the reins, jogging along. You got time to think of the garbage you’ll dump on old man Prickett’s porch, or the hairy-ape costume you’ll wear to the YMCA the last night of the month. And it it’s around October twentieth and everything smoky-smelling and the sky orange and ash gray at twilight, it seems Halloween will never come in a fall of broomsticks and a soft flap of bedsheets around corners.

But one strange wild dark long year, Halloween came early.

One year Halloween came on October 24, three hours after midnight.

The prologue goes on for just a little bit, but I want to focus on the setting here. The first paragraph establishes a unique focus: the autumn season through the eyes of a boy. Sure, we grown-ups might like the pretty colors. The little kids may be keen to jump into leaf piles. But we’re not talking about those age groups. We’re talking about boys, boys the age of 13, we learn. They’re not too old for pirate voices or costumes for Halloween, not too young for pranks about the town. Bradbury’s voice and choice in detail are going to reflect this “elder youth,” which come in a beautiful trio of sensory details in that second paragraph: “…everything smoky-smelling and the sky orange and ash gray at twilight, it seems Halloween will never come in a fall of broomsticks and a soft flap of bedsheets around corners.” In a single sentence, Bradbury moves us from the boyish plans of Halloween to the smell, sight, and sound of late October. We are on the streets as child-ghosts float by in the dusk, adults sitting round their fire-pits in drive ways with chili and beer…

…oh wait. That’s Wisconsin now.

Timeless details, I tell you!

But it doesn’t end there. Let’s keep going a bit. I want to show you how just a few drops of sensory detail in the first chapters fill readers—and our protagonists—with foreboding before Cooger and Dark’s Pandemonium Shadow Show even arrives.

Take the opening of Chapter 1:

The seller of lightning rods arrived just ahead of the storm. He came along the street of Green Town, Illinois, in the late cloudy October day, sneaking glances over his shoulder. Somewhere not so far back, vast lightnings stomped the earth. Somewhere, a storm like a great beast with terrible teeth could not be denied.

Firstly, one doesn’t come across a traveling lightning rod salesman every day. Already, we have a touch of not-normal coming into a typical small town, the kind of town that builds on the railroad in the middle of farming country. That the man “sneaks glances over his shoulder” gives readers that sense of foreboding and intimidation. Were this man unafraid, he’d simply look back. But no—he’s “sneaking” the looks, just like Bash sneaks looks out of his bedroom door when the scary owl flies towards the television screen at the beginning of It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown.

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Bradbury also instills a visual in readers of something not yet seen: the storm, a “great beast with terrible teeth.” A storm-sized monster “stomping” the earth surely cannot be stopped by mere mortals, can it?

By opening our first chapter with this storm, we already have a sense of “something wicked” coming—only the true wickedness is something else. Bradbury continues to use the storm, too, to crackle the setting and our senses: “Thunder sounded far off in the cloud-shadowed hills…The air smelled fresh and raw, on top of Jim Nightshade’s roof” (11, 12). Once more Bradbury touches our ears, eyes, and noses. The thunder may be “far off,” but the “cloud-shadowed hills” reveal its hiding place. We all love our “fresh” smells, so very pleasant and enjoyable, but “raw”? “Raw” immediately calls up bloody meat, yucky veg, skin cracked and bleeding beneath a dry cold.

These unsettling sensations follows protagonists Will and Jim to the library in Chapter 2. Now we’re in town, where something creeps along behind them, invisible yet…

Jim and Will grinned at each other. It was all so good, these blowing quiet October nights and the library waiting inside now with its green-shaded lamps and papyrus dust.

Jim listened. “What’s that?”

“What, the wind?”

“Like music…” Jim squinted at the horizon.

“Don’t hear no music.”

Jim shook his head. “Gone. Or it wasn’t even there. Come on!”(13)

Because only one ear catches it, both boys are quick to excuse this single-sense moment. But when the boys leave the library in Chapter 4, another single sense is touched again…

Mr. Crosetti, in front of his barber shop, his door key in his trembling fingers, did not see them stop.

What had stopped them?

A teardrop.

It moved shining down Mr. Crosetti’s left cheek. He breathed heavily. … “Don’t you smell it?”

Jim and Will sniffed.

“Licorice!”

“Heck, no. Cotton candy! … Now, my nose tells me, breathe! And I’m crying. Why? Because I remember how a long time ago, boys ate that stuff. Why haven’t I stopped to think and smell the last thirty years?”

…And they left him behind in a wind that very faintly smelled of licorice and cotton candy. (21-22)

Now we know that the boys aren’t the only ones catching a whiff, as it were, of something peculiar in the wind. Not only is this adult moved to concentrate on a single smell, but he’s moved to tears. This speaks to a longing inside the character, a want for what was.

For what’s coming.

With lightning and licorice, Bradbury tangles our senses with intrigue. We need to see what lightnings stomp in the hills. We need to see what brings the cotton candy so sweet the very scent of it makes a grown man cry.  As you write the first few chapters of your story, take a moment to drop setting details for a few senses, just enough to put the heroes–and readers–on edge.

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~And now, a brief excerpt from Fallen Princeborn: Stolen, 
coming this Halloween~

Don’t go. Stay here.

Charlotte’s hand presses the pendant into her sternum as if to cover
whatever’s cracked open inside her. It’s all she can touch—Anna’s out of reach,
she and every other passenger, their bodies floating about behind dimmed
windows. Does no one else smell the old oil and neglect, like meat burned down
to nothing? The way Jamie stands by the door, hands clasped behind him,
grinning like a choir boy, all pleased with himself, Charlotte knows, freakin’
knows, someone’s pulled an Ed Gein and made the bus seats out of bodies.

“Sweetheart, you’ve got to board, okay?” Maisy calls from the coach. “You
can’t stay here with me. It’ll take days to get the bus fixed.”

And you know you’re oversmelling it, Charlie, just like earlier with the
bears and shit. It’s just an old bus, is all. But Charlotte continues to hesitate.

“Hurry up, Charlie, let’s go!” her sister calls from a window. “They’ve got
food in here. And it’s all posh, come on!”

Jamie’s grin grows.

It’s just a bus. Charlotte decides, and tucks the necklace away.

DON’T GO.

~STILL SHOUTING FOR SHOUT OUTS!~

I can still take on a couple more plugs for my monthly newsletter From the Wilds of Jean Lee’s World. It’s a separate set of updates from that of WordPress.  If you have a book coming out, a book to sell, music, art–any creative endeavor’s worth shouting about! Just email me at jeanleesworld@gmail.com to snag a slot in a future edition.

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

Tales of 100 Hearts

I never linger in sight. Last time I did, Bash screeched his head off the entire march down the stairs from his classroom, and Biff nearly pushed the child ahead of him down the stairs. So I remain around the corner where a small corridor leads to the church’s daycare.

February holds two major events for an elementary school: Valentine’s Day, and the 100th day of school. I don’t remember celebrating the 100th day as a kid, but Blondie assures me this is a big deal that requires special games and treats all revolving around the number 100. O-kay.

The boys’ school was in the spirit, too. I couldn’t stand far enough away to get a complete shot, but I was able to take a few close-ups.

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I loved studying the variety of writing styles, of what must have come from adults vs. tweens, of kids vs. teeny ones. And the choices made in both topic and writing fascinated me. Take that pink heart in the bottom photo–why history? And why write it with the teensiest letters possible? One seems to enjoy her cursive “friends” (because I’m guessing a boy’s not going to change font, let alone write the cursive so carefully), while another is equally writing friends so long as it can be in nearly invisible red ink. Two kids apparently like Spirit Week, though one’s definitely younger than the other…

I love the creativity little ones put into spelling words they don’t know, with letters big and proud. And then you have some who wrote at a weird angle–why? And one who really digs the teacher but must have forgotten how to spell her name, so a few letters had to go above the “Mrs.” Then, of course, there’s the over-achiever who had to explain why she picked what she did, and needed to make extra hearts to emphasize her love for it.

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Yes, being a Christian school, there were bound to be a few God-related hearts. But the heart in white is the one that really got my attention.

Bo’s certain it was written by a grown-up, but I’m not so sure. I studied that heart quite closely compared to the others, and the letters are a bit stilted and crooked when compared to the other more rounded, brighter teachery lettering.

The political climate of the United States has become a nightmare for many. I’m not going to lie–Wisconsin feels very cut off from it all. Milwaukee’s always been racially tense, Madison’s always been loudly liberal, but the rest of the state is, well, quiet. It can be easy to forget such a basic want is still very much a want everywhere: to be safe. To be where one is wanted, protected, and loved.

Every heart shares a piece of life tied to that school. I look upon how these words are rushed, curled, misshapen, stiff, and cannot help but wonder what else is tied to these hearts. That if I were to pick a heart from the wall I’d find a string, a string leading up and down stairs and around the playground and back into the room where the heart’s maker sits. I’d look upon the maker, tied to all the scraps and bits of life that brought the heart maker to write that word above all words.

And I’m betting I’d find a story.