You’ve Got Five Pages, #ThePersonalAssistant by #KimberlyBelle, to Tell Me You’re Good. #FirstChapter #BookReview #Podcast

We take a darker turn today into a thriller fueled by the virtual illusions created on social media.

As writers, we hear all the time that we’ve got to hook readers in just the first few pages or else. We’ve got to hook agents in the first few pages or else.

Whether you’re looking to get published or just hoping to hook your reader, first impressions are vital. Compelling opening scenes are the key to catching an agent or editor’s attention, and are crucial for keeping your reader engaged.

JEFF GERKE, THE FIRST FIFTY PAGES

Well then, let’s study those first few pages in other people’s stories, shall we?

Today I snagged from the New Release shelf:

The Personal Assistant by Kimberly Belle

Ironically, the prologue is my favorite part of the opening pages in Kimberly Belle’s The Personal Assistant.

If you do not see the audio player above, you can access the podcast here.

These first two pages are a well-paced scene with balanced external action and sensory detail from the perspective of an unnamed girl without a dime to her name. Her car’s run off the road by a farmer in the middle of nowhere, her tire blows out, and she has no one she could turn to for money. The prologue ends with a mysterious man pulling up to her vehicle offering aid.

Now I mention in my episode that prologues make me nervous because they seem to be the author’s backup plan to hooking readers when they know the first chapter is a slog.

Lo and behold…

We meet protagonist Alex, a social media influence married to a financial talking head named Patrick who also does a lot on social media. The opening pages detail how happy she is with her rise to fame, his skepticism about why people care enough to follow her online, and how he never cared about her daughters.

+++CORRECTION+++ It is not clear in these opening pages if Patrick is the father of those girls or not. In the episode, I interpreted that he is, which makes him sound like an even bigger jerk than he is supposed to be. Upon checking later pages, he is not the father of those girls, so at least this guy is decent with kids. Just wanted to clarify that. +++

Kimberly Belle clearly knows how to craft a scene. Belle knows how to balance detail and action, and she knows how to use dialogue to relay information. If I spot another book by Belle, I’ll likely give it a try. I just struggle to read a story about this particular kind of character. For folks who enjoy the realm of social media drama, or thrillers with that social media flare, this fiction will fit right in with your tastes. As one who is not as keen on such drama, I struggle to relate to such personalities. So, I’m going to see what the next mystery from my library contains.

No matter what the season brings, keep reading!

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

#WriterProblems: The Absent Protagonist (or, a Quick Rant about a #MissMarple #Mystery)

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Happy New Year, my fellow creatives! I hope 2023 is a kind one to us all. I’m eager to work with my university to develop strong goals as an educator, an advocate, and as a writer. That includes chatting with you here, and (fingers crossed) getting something published before 2023 ends.

To start the year off right, I picked up a cozy mystery my husband Bo had given me for Christmas…in 2021, but better late than never. Miss Marple has really grown on me over the past couple of years, and since I’ve not read all her books, I wanted to see if I could cover the rest in 2023. So, here we are with her third mystery, The Moving Finger.

One of the creepier covers.

And I’m peeved.

Not deeply peeved, mind you. The mystery itself is rather good. A brother-sister pair settle in to the countryside for a few months while the brother recovers from a back injury. With the peaceful setting situated, the “harmless” crime of poison pen letters begins with a flurry of notes to different members of the community–Jill’s a floozie, Tim’s not your husband’s child, etc. Even the urban siblings receive a letter that they’re not really siblings. The town gossip burns bright, but no one really takes the letters seriously.

That is, until a woman apparently commits suicide. When her maid is later found murdered, the letters suddenly feel like ticking time bombs. When will the next letter lead to the next death? Cue Miss Marple….

…a few dozen pages before the end.

That’s what brings me here for a brief rant/chat with you all. I know my blogging was rather sporadic last year as I continue to find my place academically and creatively, but one thing that I hope will help is to keep my blog posts shorter than the 5k essays I’d been writing. The short story collection I began in November reminded me just how much fun creative writing can be when we give ourselves time to actually write. We must still take a moment to learn from others, though, and that’s why we’re here.

No Pevensie to be found here!

When one writes a series, one cannot just use the same group of characters over and over and over again. A story-world is usually populated by more than a dozen folks, yes? So, there must always be someone new to the mix. Perhaps that new person is a side character, or perhaps that new person is a real first-stringer, a protagonist in their own right. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this in an established series so long as we establish why the, well, “established” protagonists are on the sidelines. For a big example, see the Chronicles of Narnia. The four Pevensies are only protagonists in two of the books; two Pevensies are protagonists in a third with their cousin, and then that cousin is a protagonist with a schoolmate in another book. Two books have nothing to do with the Pevensies at all, yet they’re still in the series because the series is focused on the world, not those characters.

Okay, let’s look at a series based on a character–James Bond. Bo, who chides me for not having read the Bond books yet (shall I remedy that this year?) explained that The Spy Who Loved Me, Fleming’s ninth Bond novel, doesn’t bother introducing Bond into the story until around the halfway point. Because the story is told from a civilian woman’s point of view, we can’t just pop over to wherever Bond is, even though this is technically a James Bond novel. We’ve just got to wait for him to show up.

I assume a moped is involved in the story somewhere…

Diana Wynne Jones also has some stories like this in her Chrestomanci series. Technically, technically, Witch Week is a Chrestomanci novel because he has to get involved to make things right in the chaos of a world where burning witches is the law and schoolchildren are on the run for their lives. But like Marple, Chrestomanci does not show up until Act III of the story.

Yet I’m not peeved about Chrestomanci’s late arrival like I am with Miss Marple’s in The Moving Finger. Why?

It has to do with agency. Chrestomanci may have been late to the Witch Week party, but he took action. He dealt with the witch-burners and saved the children. He DID SOMETHING.

Includes The Magicians of Caprona, which also fits my concerns with the absent hero, too.

I’m not going to spoil the resolution of The Moving Finger, but I will say that Marple’s interactions with others can be counted on one hand. Readers don’t see her talking to police or many townspeople. She’s with the vicar’s wife, and she talks to the urban siblings. That’s it. Yet she gets the pages of explaining the mystery at the end? What did she DO???

For the record, I think the mystery’s plot is fine. The characters are a little cheesy with the romance, but not to the point of irritation. What bothers me is that Marple’s absence from the story would not alter the story’s outcome. A little tweaking of interactions with the regular cast here would lead to someone realizing the truth and catching the culprit. Miss Marple had no real agency in her own story, and that just leaves me confused as a reader: why is this a Marple story at all?

There’s nothing wrong with a different cast shining inside an established protagonist’s universe. The key is to make sure that established protagonist still has a moment to shine themselves. So long as readers know their favorite hero(ine) is still ACTIVE in the story-world, they will be happy to see others take action, too.

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

You’ve Got Five Pages, #TheManWhoDiedTwice by #RichardOsman, to Tell Me You’re Good. #FirstChapter #BookReview #Podcast

Hello, my fellow creatives! After a bout of illness and some time writing for NaNoWriMo, I am finally back and able to read the opening chapters of various new releases at my local library.

As writers, we hear all the time that we’ve got to hook readers in just the first few pages or else. We’ve got to hook agents in the first few pages or else.

Whether you’re looking to get published or just hoping to hook your reader, first impressions are vital. Compelling opening scenes are the key to catching an agent or editor’s attention, and are crucial for keeping your reader engaged.

JEFF GERKE, THE FIRST FIFTY PAGES

Well then, let’s study those first few pages in other people’s stories, shall we?

Today I snagged from the New Release shelf:

The Man Who Died TWICE by Richard Osman

It’s been a while since a story truly tickled me, and Richard Osman’s The Man Who Died TWICE did exactly that.

If you do not see the audio player above, you can access the podcast here.

Here we watch a group of four friends having lunch after their “Murder Club” meeting, where they get together to study cold cases. I didn’t even realize this was the second book of the series until I caught this brief exposition in the first chapter, and thankfully, that was all I needed to be brought up to speed. The chemistry and personalities of these characters will have readers chuckling before they’ve even gotten to the third page, let alone to any murder. When a writer can establish four unique characters through a single lunchtime conversation, then you know their writing is worth a study! For those who need a lift in the heart and spirit while also tucking into a good mystery, then I have a feeling Osman’s Thursday Murder Club series will be the perfect fit for you. I know I’m excited to find the first book!

As always, I love hearing what’s on the shelves of your own libraries. No matter what the season brings, keep reading!

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

#LessonsLearned from #NaNoWriMo2022: Start the Story with Conflict, Not Contemplation. #Writetip #ShortStories

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Good afternoon, my fellow creatives! May your words be flowing free to the page this National Novel Writing Month.

I was doing so gosh darn good at getting the story out every day. Sometimes the installments here were dialogue-heavy, other times detail-heavy, but the stories did come.

And then I got stuck.

This may be partly due to choosing a story inspired by my daughter Blondie. An amazing writer in her own right, she has not stopped asking, “When are you going to write about me?” Ever since I used her little brother Bash for “The Boy Who Conquered Goose Island.” When the kid actually knows she’s a muse, she gets, um, a bit assertive about it (“Will there be dragons? Can I ride dragons? When do dragons show up? YOU HAVE TO HAVE DRAGONS!”). At this point, I had alluded to the presence of dragons in the world where Pips Row resides, but if their eggs are illegal to carry, then how on earth could I have dragons buzzing about the town? When I did hit upon something she’s genuinely worried about that would make for a compelling story…well, now she doesn’t ask what I’m writing about.

And that stung a bit.

And I got more than stuck–I was downright stucker.

The first installment I shared about Choosing Day still feels like the best path to take, as we all relate to what Soffire will be dealing with: the expectations of society vs. our own dreams. Blondie’s feeling that now as she creeps closer to the time of high school and those expectations society puts on teens: get a job! get straight As! be on social media! start dating! do what other people like so you fit in! be amazing at everything you do, especially in front of other people!

I initially liked starting the story “Graduation Glums and Glamours” at the Choosing Day ceremony. That’s in the moment, right? That moment of pressure, of a townwide amount of things to look at and see. Lots of action, right? Plus it’s relatable–many of us have experienced some form of a graduation ceremony in our lives. Plus it reminded me a little of Lois Lowry’s The Giver, or some of those other Young Adult dystopian books that love the whole “I choose” kind of ceremony. But to me, The Giver route was more important, as we need to consider that not all characters can simply buck what society says.

And frankly, isn’t that what we expect as a bored reader at this point? The defiant teen feels as cliche as the “cop who doesn’t play by the rules.” Let’s not do that.

But as a writer, that put me into the very real conundrum of how to move the story forward. Do I walk through the entire Choosing Day ceremony? That could be fun worldbuidling, but that’s not where the story is. I tried writing a second installment of Soffire’s classmates helping her calm down by sharing their own worries, but the story isn’t about them, either. Both chapters had to be scrapped–they just grind the plot to a halt.

And that got me thinking–why start with the Choosing event? Was it because I wanted that scene from The Giver a little too much?

So I pulled back and thought: where does the story REALLY start?

Soffire dreads Choosing Day. Why? Because her dream is to go to a university in another town and study dragons. But Pips Row graduates are designated to jobs in Pips Row. No one leaves Pips Row for university.

Well no one’s going to know that if I start with the Choosing Day ceremony. Sure, I could flashback later, but why? Plus, this is a short story. Bouncing around timelines is tricky. I already did that a little in “The Boy Who Conquered Goose Island” because the character-narrator is telling the story. We have no such speaker here.

Where does the story REALLY start?

Short stories need to do the same job as a novel but with far less time and far fewer words. I needed to get Soffire’s inner conflict established immediately, or any of the other conflicts–with her mom, her town, etc.–just wouldn’t make sense. She’d just be another Defiant Teen to readers, and that’s the last thing I want for this character, this fictional piece of my Blondie. Readers need to see what Soffire wanted so very badly and why this Calling Day was, in Soffire’s eyes, the end of her dreams.

So let’s try starting this again.

~*~*~ Another Try at Story 4: Graduation Glums and Glamours ~*~*~

Calling Day. Her Calling Day.

“Soffire?” A quick two raps on the door—her mom was getting impatient.

Soffire straightened out the shoulders of her long white robe. It looked ready to hide her…or drown her. Both, maybe.

“Soffire, did you hear me?”

“I know, I’m getting my shoes on.” But those were already on. Soffire had to look one more time, just once more, at the University’s catalog. She pictured herself walking through its campus on Ford’s Bluff along the sea. Imagined meeting other teens who wanted to keep learning amazing things they could never understand in their own stupid little towns. Stuff about inter-being relations, the science of Workings, the geography of the Land Between Existences. About dragons.

Especially Dragons. All the best pilots, warriors, explorers—they all began with Dragon Studies.

One rap. “Young lady, I will vanish the door if you don’t open up.”

Soffire slammed the catalog shut and threw it under her pillow in time. “Sorry.” She opened the door with a small smile. “Sorry,” she said again.

Her mother sighed as she straightened Soffire’s plain woolen headband to keep her while curls out of her face. Her own mother’s wild hair had long since tired into a drab bun on the back of her head. “We have got to get a move on or you’ll be late for the processional line.”

“I know.”

Even Soffire’s mom caught the sadness in her voice. She cupped her daughter’s face and stroked her cheek. “Calling Day is scary for everyone, and I mean everyone. No one knows what comes after school until this day, but everyone finds their place in Pips Row this way. And your place is going to be special,” she said with a kiss on Soffire’s forehead, “I just know it.”

Soffire just didn’t have the heart to tell her mom the last thing she wanted was to grow old in this town like everyone else. Now more than ever, Pips Row felt like a prison she’d never get out of. Calling Day was just the final sentencing.

~*~*~ End Scene ~*~*~

This is still a work in progress–it is NaNoWriMo, after all–but I feel this opening scene of just a mom and daughter allows the inner conflict of my protagonist to actually be seen. No mysterious allusions to her shattered dreams like I had in the first go at this story. Here readers see the representation of what Soffire wanted for her future as well as what she has to do: bury it and walk away.

No one ever wants to bury their dreams.

This is something all readers can relate to, and I think such a start adds more weight to the Choosing Soffire will be given later in the story. Yes, this erases the “mystery” of why she was sad at the ceremony, but that mystery is not the point of this tale.

I just need to have a better way to segue away from mom-and-daughter to the ceremony. I don’t like telling readers, HEY, THIS IS WHAT THE PROTAGONIST IS FEELING. So, still some kinks to work out, but much happier and less stuck than I was before. 🙂

Of course, now I don’t know how to end this post, so I’m going to reshare something I posted two years ago from Donald Maass’ The Emotional Craft of Fiction. This excerpt fits perfectly with my new conundrum, so I’m going to ponder this and see what I come up with over the weekend.

This excerpt comes from the chapter “Inner versus Outer” discussing that ever-nasty writer problem of showing vs. telling.

Writing out what characters feel ought to be a shortcut to getting readers to feel that stuff too, shouldn’t it? You’d think so. After all, it’s through characters that we experience a story. Their experience is ours. Actually, the truth is the opposite. Put on the page what a character feels and there’s a pretty good chance that, paradoxically, what the reader will feel is nothing.

Here’s an example: His guts twisted in fear. When you read that, do your own guts twist in fear? Probably not. Or this: Her eyes shot daggers at him. Do you feel simmering rage? Meh. Not so much.

Such feelings fail to excite us because, of course, we’ve read them too many times. Those daggers have dulled. What gets readers going are feelings that are fresh and unexpected. Yet those feelings also need to be real and true; otherwise, they will come across as contrived–they’ll ring false and fail to ignite the reader’s emotions. ….

Human beings are complex. We have emotions on the surface and emotions underneath. There are emotions that we minimize, hide, and deny. There are emotions that embarrass us, reveal too much, and make us vulnerable. Our emotions can be profoundly trivial or so elevated that they’re silly. What we feel is unescapably influenced by our history, morals, loyalties, and politics.….

We’re clear. We’re vague. We hate. We love. We feel passionately about our shoes yet shrug off disasters on TV. We are finely tuned sensors of right and wrong, and horrible examples for our kids. We are walking contradictions. We are encyclopedias of the heart. ….

With so much rich human material to work with, it’s disappointing to me that so many manuscripts offer a limited menu of emotions. I want to feast on life, but instead I’m standing before a fast-food menu, my choices limited to two patties or one, fries or medium or large. …They work only with primary emotions because that is what everyone feels, which is true, but this is also a limited view.

So how does one create emotional surprise? …

Be obvious and tell readers what to feel, and they won’t feel it. Light an unexpected match, though, and readers will ignite their own feelings, which may well prove to be the ones that are primary and obvious. third-level emotions. That’s the effective way of storytelling.

Have you encountered any conundrums this NaNoWriMo? I’d love to hear!

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

#WriterProblems: How Many Characters Do You Really Need? #DeathOnTheNile #AgathaChristie

Welcome back, my fellow creatives!

Last year, my husband and I began watching various episodes of mystery series together. It began with Columbo–

–continued with Sherlock Holmes–

–and ended with some Poirot.

Now as I’ve noted, my dear Bo is quite the cinephile, so on top of the television adaptations of these stories, we were also watching the film adaptations. This meant we saw four different versions (at least!) of Hound of the Baskervilles and a couple versions of Death on the Nilethe 1978 version starring Peter Ustinov as Poirot, and the 2004 version starring David Suchet as Poirot. (I had yet to see the new Kenneth Branagh adaptation at the time.)

While Bo was giving me commentary on what actor had gone on to do X or Q or T, I was noticing how certain plot threads would come and go depending on the adaptation. Now for technical reasons, I could see how a story is condensed so it can fit into a two-hour movie or three-part special. This will mean cutting characters or condensing characters for the film–normal stuff. As writers, we can debate the trials and tribulations of film adaptations until the cosmic cows come to roost, or however that saying goes.

But there was something about the Poirot Death on the Nile adaptations that left me pondering. Lots of good fiction depend on multiple plot threads to keep the reader engaged from the first page to the last. Mysteries in particular need those extra plot threads to create red herrings and plot twists so that the solution to the mystery is a surprise to the reader. In order to populate those other threads, one must have a sizable cast of characters.

But is a big cast really necessary for the story, or are they just filler?

THAT is the question I’d like to discuss with you today, and I’m keen to use Death on the Nile to do so. If you don’t recall the original story’s plot, the Wikipedia entry covers it fairly well. (The entry also mentions the film adaptations I’ll be mentioning here, too.) I’ve also snagged the original cast list from Litcharts so we can see what Agatha Christie saw fit to print. I’ve actually trimmed a few folks out, trying to limit us to the folks who rode the Karnak during the majority of the novel.

ALSO: Spoilers abound. Writer problems trump “spoiler-free” descriptions any day.

THE ORIGINAL CAST OF THE 1937 NOVEL (PRETTY SURE, ANYWAY)

Hercule Poirot: This is a given.

Linnet Doyle: the spoiled rich English lady who marries Simon Doyle and gets murdered.

Jacqueline De Bellefort: Linnet’s best friend who was engaged to Simon until Linnet gets involved. Also, one of the story’s murderers.

Simon Doyle: the youngest son of a well-to-do family, so he loves fancy things but has no money for them. Loves Jackie but marries Linnet. Also also, the other one of the story’s murderers.

Colonel Race: I didn’t remember him from other stories, but apparently he befriended Poirot before Death on the Nile takes place. (Edit: I had to look this up–they do meet in Cards on the Table.) He is present on the riverboat Karnak due to a potential Communist and/or Anarchist threat, but from a storyteller’s standpoint, he is the trustworthy one Poirot can speak freely about his observations so readers know what’s going on.

Andrew Pennington: An American trustee for Linnet Ridgeway due to family connections. There’s a partner, but he barely factors in, so we’ll not bother with him.

Mrs. Salome Otterbourne: a writer of sensational, sexualized fiction who drank more the less her books sold.

Rosalie Otterbourne: Daughter of Salome–and because of the alcoholism, her mother’s keeper. This leads to Rosalie being very difficult for folks like Poirot to interact with.

Mrs. Allerton: the “nice” character of the novel, and essentially Poirot’s gateway into meeting all the other passengers of the riverboat Karnak.

Tim Allerton: son of Mrs. Allerton, eventual lover of Rosalie Otterbourne, and cousin of Joanna Southwood who enjoys hanging out with Linnet before the trip to Egypt. He helps Joanna steal jewelry and make forgeries, and on this boat, it’s his job to switch their fake pearls with Linnet’s real ones. This leads to one of the minor plots of Linnet’s missing pearl necklace being a possible motive for murder.

Miss Marie Van Schuyler: wealthy old American lady who bosses her cousin Cornelia and nurse Miss Bowers around throughout the novel. She’s also a kleptomaniac, which adds to the pearl necklace subplot.

Cornelia Robson: a nice girl who becomes a tool for Linnet and Simon and an object of the affections of Mr. Ferguson and Dr. Bessner.

Mr. Ferguson (Lord Dawlish): a Communist who is hateful to pretty much everyone except Cornelia, infatuated with her genuinely kind nature. Secretly a member of a very well-to-do English family. His brazen comments about how awful rich people and capitalism are material for the political agitator subplot.

Miss Bowers: nurse to Miss Van Schuyler who isn’t actually treating the old lady for anything. She’s there to keep the kleptomania in check and return things Van Schuyler steals, which means there is a “mysterious” return of the necklace, only it’s a forgery, and…yeah, the necklace subplot is a bit much.

Signor Richetti: a middle-aged Italian archaeologist that Poirot meets on an excursion near the hotel (which Ferguson also came on). He turns out to be the political agitator that Colonel Race is after. He has absolutely nothing to do with the deaths on the Nile. He’s just there to be ominous and threatening.

Louise Bourget: maid to Linnet and Simon Doyle, Louise initially appears to be a minor character, until suddenly she takes center stage when she becomes the second murder victim.

James Fanthorp: a young English lawyer for Linnet Ridgeway, the nephew of the lawyer William Carmichael. I vaguely remember this guy.

Dr. Bessner: a middle-aged European doctor on board the Karnak who takes care of Simon after his leg injury and who eventually proposes to Cornelia Robson. Yes, Cornelia chooses this dude over the English Lord, much to her grandmother’s chagrin.

Fleetwood: an engineer on the Karnak who attempted to marry one of Linnet’s old chambermaids, despite the fact that he was already married to an Egyptian woman. Linnet prevented the marriage, which made both Fleetwood and Louise extremely angry.

So, we have our cast, and it’s not a small one. We have our primary players who drive the plot forward with their secret and not-so-secret actions, and those who make stuff happen for our primary players to react to.

Realistic Population

Death on the Nile primarily takes place in Egypt, broken up with stops at hotels and busy locations. The named characters ride on the S.S. Karnak up the Nile River together, and it is on this boat that the murder and mayhem take place. In the original novel, Ustinov adaptation, and Suchet adaptation, most of the characters have negative, tenuous connections to Linnet Doyle–her father bought out one character’s business, ruining the family, for instance. In another example, we see that in the Ustinov adaptation, Dr. Bessner’s clinic is about to lose its funding because Linnet Doyle is changing her father’s financial ties. But not all characters have these connections, and that is okay. Something we must remember as writers is that when a story is taking place in a public space, there will be strangers to the story. There are plenty of other visitors to the hotels in Egypt, and the riverboats are common transportation for tourists. Readers don’t expect every tourist on a boat to be connected to every other tourist on the boat. That’s what makes the old connection between Mrs. Van Schuyler and Linnet Doyle a surprise. On the surface, Mrs. Allerton and her son Tim have no connection whatsoever to Linnet Doyle, but when Joanna’s name is mentioned, a shady connection reveals itself.

To put it another way, it’d be as if the Hogwarts School was only populated by Harry and his friends, and Draco and his friends. The school just has four teachers at any time and that’s it. None of the other students and faculty matter, so trim them out!

Readers expect a school to be populated. They expect a city to be populated. They expect a passenger boat to be populated.

Of course, Agatha Christie had plans for the characters she put on the Karnak, but at the outset, having this large group made sense because it’s a tourist’s boat. It’s supposed to be busy and crowded. But it’s not necessary to make all those characters obviously connected. She didn’t make intricate connections between every student and every teacher in Cat Among the Pigeons, either; sometimes, you just need people there because people are supposed to be there. They are, essentially, moving scenery. And because those extras are treated like scenery, we readers are not expecting backstories on all of them. We don’t know all the backstories of all the crewmembers on the Karnak, nor are we looking for them. They are there to simply fill in the scene.

In the most recent Branagh version, however, this entire cast–yes, all those people–are the wedding party for Simon and Linnet Doyle. Considering Branagh’s time in Shakespeare, I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised by this strategy. Now the entire cast’s presence on the boat is justified. Such a move, however, means all the secretive, surprising connections are thrust out into the open. The chances for surprise go way down. And the fact some of those connections are negative at the outset makes it all the stranger some of these people are invited to the wedding. For instance, Branagh transforms the Dr. Bessner role part into another doctor who was Linnet Doyle’s former fiance. The man is clearly fawning after Linnet until she dies. Why is he at this destination wedding? No idea. But we need our suspects, dammit!

More Characters = More Subplots. Yay!

As previously noted, having this size of a group means one can have some other plot threads. These smaller plot lines give the writer a chance to break up the major plot and allow little breaks from major events without bringing the story to a standstill. After all, if all the major plot points of Death on the Nile were smushed together (marriage/murder/second murder/third murder/reveal), you’d have an overwhelming episode of a television show rather than a movie, let alone a novel. So having other plot lines allows the writer to build curiosity in the reader. What did that dollar fragment in the maid’s hand mean? Wait, who is Mr. Farnthorp, really? Why is the Signor so upset about his note? Why is Rosalie Otterbourne so protective of her mother?

Now even in a novel, one can have superfluous plot threads. Yes, Dame Christie, included. Take the Signor Richetti character. His sole purpose is to be the reason Colonel Race boards the Karnak. He is a sulky man who has no connection whatsoever to the Doyles or anything going on. He gets to have one angry interaction with Linnet Doyle, and that’s it. There’s a reason that all three adaptations of this novel omit this character. One could remove the “political agitator” subplot and affect absolutely nothing else in the story, which is why the films consistently cut him out.

The pearl necklace subplot is altered from film to film. Sometimes the pearls are forged, sometimes they are just stolen. Sometimes it’s the klepto old Miss Van Schuyler, while in the Branagh version the character created to replace Col. Race took the pearls in order to have a clean start with his love, Rosalie Otterbourne, whose mother is a jazz singer hired by the Doyle’s for this destination wedding thing. Unlike the political agitator plot, the stolen pearls provide a worthwhile red herring to Linnet’s murder–someone may have murdered her out of hate, but maybe they were just greedy for the money in those pearls. Greed doesn’t require a previous relationship or connection, and such greed allows strangers to become suspects. In a mystery set on a tourist boat, such a move makes sense and therefore requires characters to flesh it out.

If I could have a smidgeon of the fun Angela Lansbury has in acting for this film, I would be a happy soul, indeed.

More Subplots = More Characters to Keep Track of. UGH.

So you saw that list I made earlier. Let’s face it–that list is huge. Macbeth has roughly the same number of named characters. There’s a reason films often condense or omit characters from a movie: it’s just too much. The Suchet adaptation, for instance, eliminates three characters. The Ustinov adaptation deletes six. Branagh cuts a few, but then also adds some different ones to fill in the gaps. Yet these adaptations were able to tell the same essential story.

This means the effects of cast changes are felt far more in the subplots than in the major plot. Branagh’s adaptation, for instance, pushes love as the major motive for everything: the pearl necklace is stolen for love. Linnet is murdered for love. The maid–and the necklace thief–are murdered to protect love. By reorganizing the characters and how they connected, Branagh altered the very subplots those characters served.

And…sure, I guess that’s okay. But when there’s only one real reason folks are doing anything, you suck a lot of mystery out of the story.

Yes, having a big cast is a pain. Keeping track of multiple motivations is a pain. The Ustinov adaptation made this painfully clear with the connections they created for motives: Mrs. Otterbourne was getting sued by Linnet for libel (and Rosalie would go far to protect her mother, wouldn’t she?); Dr. Bessner’s clinic was going to lose funding; Communist Ferguson openly despised Linnet’s wealth and wanted to see her dead; the trustee Pennington was embezzling Linnet; even the nurse Miss Bowers blamed Linnet’s family for ruining her own. You couldn’t take a step on that boat without bumping into someone with the motivation to kill Linnet.

Keeping track of all those motivations and connections is very, very hard, for on top of making them exist, you have to make them matter. This means dedicating page space (or screen time) that adequately gives every plot thread relevance and urgency to the overall storyline. The more plot threads you have, the more complicated your pacing will have to be, too, for the major plot thread can’t be out of sight for long.

Final Thoughts…

So if you the writer are not sure you can make it all weave together, DON’T DO IT.

There is nothing wrong with keeping to a few plot threads and a small cast. There’s a reason “cozy” mysteries typically use a small group of characters: readers can track them easily, their motivations are easy to track as a writer, and any change to those characters is easier to distinguish because there’s less moving scenery to distract a reader. As one who has read mysteries for a few decades, nothing infuriates a reader like goofed character/plot connections. It messes up the story, and it makes you the writer look like you don’t know your own story-world.

Now I’m sure that, assuming you made it to the end here, you have your own thoughts on stories and the size of their character cast. I’d love to hear them!

I know that the easy advice here would be to “create only the characters your story absolutely needs,” but sometimes we just don’t know how many characters that entails–not in the first draft, anyway. I still grind my teeth over the plothole the filmmakers created in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban because they condensed the story too damn much. It takes time and practice to first find our central plot thread, and then the characters needed to see that plot thread through. I’m still working on this just like you, so I’d love to hear your take on big/small character casts, plot threads that could have used a few more characters, a few less, and so on.

And what’s your favorite book cover from the assortment in this post? I admit, I love the clean, cool colors of this one.

~STAY TUNED!~

I’ve another indie interview on the way! Plus we could wander the Holmesian countryside if you’d like, dissect the plot and characters of my own fiction, find inspiration among the sounds of nature, or take up a dragon to fight Napoleon. Mystery and adventure await!

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

Author #Interview: Let’s Chat with #IndieAuthor Dawn Bolton!

A new year means new interviews! I’m excited to share my space with folks who have connected with me through this wonderful writing community. First, let’s meet multi-genre writer Dawn Bolton.

What was an early experience where you learned that language had power?

I played a cat in a poetry reading at school. The audience of younger children went on to read the poetry book in English and loved it.

What’s your favorite under-appreciated novel?

Georgette Heyer’s These Old Shades. Her humourous dialogue and her development of characters fascinated me when I was a teenager. This book stimulated me to write The Spymaster’s Redeemer under the pen name Alexie Bolton. The character is ruthless and sinister like Heyer’s Duke of Avon.

Have you ever gotten reader’s block?

Yes. Sometimes I have read so many books particularly on a review site I need a break from reading or a new genre.

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

Not in a major way but I have spoken to editors and readers who do expect a particular style and sometimes try to straightjacket authors. I think it is important to develop one’s own voice but I like reading a wide variety of authors and I do adapt my style if I think a change would enrich my book.

That’s an important point! Finding ways to enrich our writing can be a difficult part of the writing process. What would you say is the most difficult part of your artistic process?

The editing and making sure the language is suitable for the various reader groups. The dialogue I have to use is substantially different in books situated in Miami from that of California. Some American readers complain if I use English slang when one of the characters is English but living in America. I have to get the balance right between authenticity and pleasing critical readers.

I do love readers to give me feedback about my books and I do take reviews very seriously. Some reviewers have made me think seriously about how to improve my writing style and provided ideas for books.

I see you use different author names for the different genres you write. When it comes to writing those different genres, what kinds of research do you do, and how long do you spend researching before beginning a book?

I spend a couple of months researching my crime and historical novels. There are wonderful articles about criminal psychology and the way the FBI work which are easy to access online. I am finding accessing materials for my medieval paranormal which I am writing quite difficult but there is a lot of material available for my regency novels. I update my research while I am writing the novel if a new idea comes into my head while I am writing the first draft.

It sounds like your storytelling will appeal to all sorts of different interests! Do you want each book to stand on its own, or are you trying to build a body of work with connections between each book?

I have two series, one romantic suspense/crime and the other historical. All but one in the crime series are standalones. I also have several paranormal and crime novellas which are standalones.

I do like to link the characters in the books and the minor characters in each book usually become the central characters in another book. I think relationships between the characters over a period of time enrich the novels.

I agree! Sometimes people I meet inspire my stories, too. Do you find people to inspire you, or some other stimuli in the world around you?

An idea that comes out of the blue. A newspaper article mentioned a man who had found behind a wall a doll with a notice pinned to it saying he had killed someone in the house. That will make a great story for me to write one day.

Such a headline has a wealth of potential for various stories in any genre. Would you say the act of writing energizes or exhausts you?

It energizes me but editing tires me.

I can spend FOREVER editing something, that’s for sure! Do you think other aspiring writers fall into this trap?

Yes. They are getting bogged down on tidying the work and becoming disillusioned instead of completing a first draft and then editing it.

What is the most unethical practice in the publishing industry?

A small publisher told an author he would publish her book. She waited a year and then he said there wasn’t sufficient demand for her book and he refused to publish it. The amount of time publishers take to respond to writers is shocking and demoralizes authors.

Thank you so much for this chat, Dawn! Let’s end with something fun. As a writer, what would you choose as your mascot/avatar/spirit animal?

A big cat like a panther or an owl. I love mysterious animals.

~STAY TUNED!~

Blondie’s hard at work on chapter 3 of her Elementals story, and I’m working on a tangled web of a writer problem that becomes painfully clear when studying Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile. We’ll see who’s done first! 🙂

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

We’ve Been Magicked Away in this #Podcast: Jack Hughes and Thomas the Rhymer by @Paul_JHBooks

Welcome back, my fellow creatives! We’re back with more beautiful brews from fellow indie authors of the writing community.

Let’s finish the fall with another magical tale written by a lovely soul and support in this indie author community. It’s time to sip from Jack Hughes and Thomas the Rhymer by Paul Andruss.

What does a reader experience in those opening pages, and what lessons can a writer take away in studying but a few paragraphs? Let’s find out!

If you do not see the audio player above, you can access the podcast here.

I had a wonderful time interviewing Paul Andruss last year–click here to check that out! He also has a blog where he shares his thoughts on writing and reading, including a podcast where he speaks more about his book. Be sure to stop by and say hello!

Aaaaand December is right around the corner, so that means…

Yes yes yes! Blondie’s got a stack of books ready for us to taste over TWELVE podcasts. She’s also started a new story that she wants to share with you. Bust out that Proud Mom Happy Dance!

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

Let’s Set Sail Upon Magical Seas in this #Podcast: Voyage of the Lanternfish by @Virgilante

Welcome back, my fellow creatives! We’re back with more beautiful brews from fellow indie authors of the writing community.

After a couple rounds of wartime fiction, it is time to partake of something more magical, more fantastical. Who’s up for a bit of monsters and mayhem? I am! So, let’s try Voyage of the Lanternfish by C.S. Boyack.

What does a reader experience in those opening pages, and what lessons can a writer take away in studying but a few paragraphs? Let’s find out!

If you do not see the audio player above, you can access the podcast here.

I had a wonderful time interviewing Craig Boyack a few days ago–click here to check that out!  Please be sure to visit his blog for fun writing insights, updates on his writing life, music playlists, and more.

The indie goodness is falling around us like the autumn leaves. Stay tuned! 

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

Let’s Savor Some #Wartime #Fiction with #Arthouse Flair on this #Podcast: The Snow White Tigress by @michaelsteeden

Welcome back, my fellow creatives! We’re back with more beautiful brews from fellow indie authors of the writing community.

Another marvelous writer who shares characters woven with threads of another time is Michael Steeden. After sharing Anne Clare‘s Where Shall I Flee?, I was still in the mood for another brew of wartime fiction, and one of Mike’s books takes place before and during WWII. Sounds like The Snow White Tigress is the perfect cup to try next!

What does a reader experience in those opening pages, and what lessons can a writer take away in studying but a few paragraphs? Let’s find out!

If you do not see the audio player above, you can access the podcast here.

I had a wonderful time interviewing Michael Steeden a while back for Poetry Month–click here to check that out! Michael’s flash fiction and poetry are immersive, passionate, hilarious, and more. Please be sure to visit his blog for a journey through prose and poetry you’ll not experience anywhere else.

The indie goodness is falling around us like the autumn leaves. Stay tuned! 

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

#IndieAuthor #Interview: Jason Savin Shares the #Magic of His #Reading and #Writing Journeys. Thanks, @KingsofMunster!

Welcome back, my fellow creatives!

Autumn is slowly but surely falling to our feet.

It’s been a joy to read indie authors on my podcast Story Cuppings these past few weeks. The tasting began with Jason Savin, who reached out to me about his book Beyond the Elven Gate: A trilogy of works. Not only was it a joy to read his book, but it was a treat to interview Jason as well! My friends, it is an honor to introduce you to Jason Savin!

Thank you so much for taking time to chat here, Jason! Let’s start with your journey through literature. What is your favorite childhood book?

I only began reading Wind in the Willows and Peter Pan about 20 years ago, when I was in my early 30s, and really loved them. But from my own childhood I loved The Folk of the Faraway Tree by Enid Blyton. Those exciting tales of Moonface and his friends really transformed my dull childhood into a world where excitement could be found.

Ah, I didn’t read those classics as a child, either. Oddly enough I didn’t read as much fantasy in my child as I do now; back then it was all Nancy Drew, lol. I don’t recall any deep emotional connection to the characters–I just enjoyed a fun mystery! Did you ever feel yourself overwhelmed with emotion while reading?

It may have been To Kill a Mockingbird. The court scene was so unjust, knowing that an innocent man was going to jail for such a vicious crime that he clearly hadn’t committed. It is still a very powerful book today.

Indeed, Jason, it really is! I’m sure many other readers would agree with you, too. Is there a story you love that you feel is under-appreciated today?

Many years ago, I bought a book called Period Piece written by Gwen Raverat, who was a grand-daughter of Charles Darwin. It’s not really a novel, as it’s autobiographical, but it takes the reader to a different world of long ago. It’s filled with little artistic sketches drawn by Gwen herself and it is so beautifully written. I own almost a thousand books and this is one of my favourites.

Have you ever gotten reader’s block?

I regularly get this, when I’m reading a passage and my mind begins to wander. I then have to re-read sometimes a few times before I can get through the ‘block’ to find out what is actually happening in the story.

I’ve had that same experience! It usually happens when I have to read something about teaching philosophies….or when I’m reading final exams, but that should be a given. 🙂 What was an early experience where you learned that language had power?

I really don’t remember the first time, but I am acutely aware of many incidents when people have tried to vocally put me down. It’s probably because I’m quite quiet so I can sometimes appear to be an easy victim. And I have verbally ripped those people apart. Not noisily, just in a more intellectual way than they are prepared for, and anything that they say back to me, I can turn those words on their head and use it like a weapon against them. I sometimes find it a little annoying how much enjoyment I get when this happens. But I really can’t stand bullies.

You and me both, my friend. You and me both. I think that’s why I love words so much: Words Have Power. They have the power to amuse, to intrigue, to seduce, to inform, to enrage, to inspire, to…well, to do anything. I know my own spirit is always lifted whenever I have the chance to write. Does writing energize or exhaust you?

Mostly energize. Hours can pass very quickly when I’m writing. And when I’m finished, it is usually only because of some pressing chore that needs doing, and I feel a little peeved that I can’t continue with my creativity.

I feel that way every time I have to focus on school work than writing! Such time is so very precious; in fact, I’d have to say that one of the toughest pieces of my writing life is finding time to write. What would you say is the most difficult part of your own artistic process?

That’s an easy question. The most difficult part is trying to find the time to write, too. It is hard to empty your mind to fully concentrate on writing knowing that you’ve got housework to do, or a needy dog that needs some love and attention.

Let’s ignore that housework just a bit longer and discuss your book. Beyond the Elven Gate: A Trilogy of Works includes a history of the Elven race that you researched from “historical records.” I love the variety of sources you used to create this history–from burial records to newspapers and everything in between. What first spurred you to start this project, and how do you shift yourself from the researching process to the writing process? I know my research can overwhelm my own creativity, to be sure!

Thank you for that. That particular piece called A Treatise on the Evolution of the Fairy began when I was writing another book, called Kings of Munster. (I’m still writing this other book and have been working on it for over 10 years now). But this history of the Elven race was basically a lot of information that I had found whilst researching my other book. I was fascinated by what I was reading and thought that many other people might also be interested, so I tried to write the information in date order to see what this evolution of the fairy race would look like. I was quite astounded by my findings. 

It was quite easy to shift from researching to writing, as I was keep trying to write whilst I was researching. Until finally I was doing mostly writing, and only researching the odd fact or detail. But I had to consciously stop researching really, as it is a subject that I could easily have spent years working on and would never get my Kings of Munster finished.

One tale in Beyond the Elven Gate is about a mother’s search for her adopted son at the time when the Fairy-Mounds are open.  What’s the most difficult thing about writing characters from the opposite sex?

I began writing this tale, as normal, until I realised that I was writing from a Mother’s perspective. I tried to change it, but quickly realised that this was the voice that the story needed. Obviously writing characters from the opposite sex in some ways will always be impossible, because most people only live their life as one sex, but as I trained as an actor and have inhabited many different characters over the years, who are all very different to myself, some of them even being women, I find that I can somehow morph into different people when I’m writing. Whether or not I’m any good at it I really don’t know; I’ll leave that to the reader to decide.

Let’s wrap up looking at another tale in Beyond the Elven Gate. “Good People” takes readers on a journey with an elderly gentleman as he deals with challenges put to him by the Good People. Such a variety of characters and character types in a single volume is so delightful for the reader! Do you feel yourself drawn to write a certain aged character? What process do you have to help you enter that older–or younger–mindset in order to make the language and mannerisms remain true?

When I was writing this character of Wilfred, I partly based him upon my own Grandad, who I was very close to. Due to this closeness, I was naturally drawn to writing this elderly character this way, probably in a bid to bring him back alive, in the only way that I can. To enter into the mindset of these different characters I tend to use an acting technique called ‘the Magic If’. Which is basically if I was that character how would I feel, how would I think, how would I react. This helps me to try to become that person whom I’m writing about.

Thank you so much, Jean, for asking me such thought provoking questions. It has been a joy to answer them.

And many thanks to you, Jason, for taking time to chat with us! I’ll be watching for Kings of Munster to appear at my virtual bookshop. If you, my friends, haven’t had a chance to hear a sample of Beyond the Elven Gate, you can listen to my podcast episode on Story Cuppings.

~STAY TUNED!~

October is coming! We simply must get a bit spooky. I’m keen to share the roads diverging on that “Blue House Doll” snippet I shared with you in my last post. Perhaps we’ll uncover some music to inspire a fright, or perhaps visit a beloved tale from my childhood. Or shall we wander Wisconsin to find a haunted home both beautiful and lonely? Let us see. x

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