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

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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!

#Podcast: Crown of Feathers by Nicki Pau Preto. #FirstChapter #BookReview #FantasyFiction #PrideMonth

Welcome back, my fellow creatives! It’s been a whirlwind of a week with my university’s literature festival, where I got to present on the diverse representation Outsider Hero in film and the joy of finding humor in everyday experiences. Let’s take a break from academia now to fly away with Crown of Feathers by Nicki Pau Preto.

What does a reader experience in those opening pages, and what does a writer learn? Let’s find out!

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

I hope you enjoy this sip from Crown of Feathers with me! If there are any stories you would like to recommend for sipping on this podcast, let me know in the comments below! I’d also welcome reading any indie authors’ own stories.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We begin.

Chapter 1: Black Candles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Carne isn’t the only gloomy place

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~STAY TUNED!~

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

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

#Writing #Music: #JamesNewtonHoward

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

–I lose my creative fire to static.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~STAY TUNED!~

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

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

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

#Indie #AuthorInterview: @KMAllan_writer discusses #magicalrealism in her #YA #Fantasy series

Hello, you amazing creatives, you! While I fuss about with preparations for my new teaching responsibilities as well as the launch of my new novel, I want to introduce you to an awesome YA fantasy writer who has a flair for bringing magic into the everyday world. K.M. Allan is a stellar indie author who loves sharing tips on writing and “authoring” on her website, and I’m thrilled to have her share some of her lessons learned with us.

Even though I’ve loved writing all my life, I still feel like I’m a newbie to this whole writing thing. What would you consider to be traps for aspiring writers?
Never knowing if you’re good enough. All writers have a level of Impostor Syndrome, but as an aspiring writer, it can be very crippling. You’re constantly looking for others to validate your work and tell you if it’s good enough when you should learn how to judge that for yourself. Another common trap, and one that I learned when I was first starting to query, is thinking you need to pay to have a submission professionally edited or assessed before sending it out. While you need to make sure what you’re sending out is as polished as you can make it, and definitely have it read by someone else to see if the writing works and there aren’t any typos, but it’s unnecessary to pay for these things.

That’s a great point! I have a short story submission I need to finish tweaking without stressing about it. Does writing energize or exhaust you?
It depends on what I’m doing. If I’m writing and it’s going well and the ideas are flowing, it’s very energizing. If I’m editing, especially the nit-picky type of editing like looking for weak words to remove, it can be very exhausting.

Uuugh, the editing! I had to lock myself in a room to force myself through those final edits of my novel. Hands down, editing is the hardest part of my writing process. What would you say is the most difficult part of your artistic process?
Definitely motivating myself to write. I love writing and always enjoy it when I do, but sometimes the motivation to sit down at the keyboard, especially when there’s a huge task ahead, can be hard to do. I think the fear of writing perfectly also hinders the artistic process. I definitely have ideas for how I want a scene to play out, and getting the words to create that same picture so others can see it too, can be difficult.

Selecting the right character for the focal point of the story is one of the crucial decisions a writer makes as they craft a story. Your Blackbirch series follows a male teen protagonist. Can you explain the process that led to the choice of choosing a male lead and not a female?
This is a bit of a hard one to answer. The writer in me has always considered one of the female characters, Kallie Jacobs, to be just as much a lead as Josh. She’s in the first scene of book 1 with him and is one of the first characters the reader meets. Book 2 is mostly her story and contains a scene where she saves Josh, which is what gave me the initial idea to write the series. From a reader’s perspective, though, the story of Blackbirch starts with Josh Taylor and what happens to him, so by default you could say Josh is the lead. It wasn’t a conscious effort on my part to choose a male lead over a female; it was just how it ended up being once the plot came together on the page.

I’m a sucker for worldbuilding studies, especially when rules for magic are involved. Can you walk us through the process of the magic system in your Blackbirch series?
The source of Blackbirch’s magic (or magick, as it’s referred to in the books) comes from an ancient form of power. Eve Thomas, the book’s self-proclaimed witch, tells the MC, Josh Taylor, that the magick used to belong to ancient gifted humans but it became too much for them and was shared into every living thing, tainting and weakening the magick. There are some, like Eve, who believe greater sources of the power exist and are hidden in magical objects like crystals. She believes that if you find them, you can harness the power for yourself. What Eve doesn’t know is that Josh possesses the power Eve has been searching for. How he got that power and what he does with it is a big part of the first book in the series. In the second book, he learns more about the magick from a girl named Kallie who also has power like him. In that book, it’s revealed the power gives special abilities or gifts to whoever has the power, and these gifts are unique to them. If a witch dies, then whatever gift they possessed and their magick is gone forever, making it a rare and dangerous thing to have. 

Magical Realism is a very unique niche in the urban fantasy sub-genre. What was it about the worldbuilding process that made you feel this was the right direction to take your story as opposed to something in a different time or place?
I didn’t know Magical Realism was the genre of my book until I started looking at what I needed to categorize it as when I was first querying, and then later picking the right category for self-publishing. I wasn’t aware it was a unique niche, so correct me if I’m wrong hehe. When I first started writing this series I was inspired by TV shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Roswell (the original TV series, not the reboot) and the YA books I’d always read. These were all set in modern times, so it made sense that my series was also written in a modern-day setting. It never occurred to me to write it in another time or place because that’s not what I like reading or watching. 

As a little preview for readers here, would you like to share a favorite exchange, description, or moment from your latest Blackbirch installment?
Yes, I would, thanks. This exchange is from book 2, Blackbirch: The Dark Half and happens right around the time Kallie Jacobs is first pulled into the world of magick when she witnesses the death of a friend. Kallie has always had a natural ability to see the future, and that comes into play when a witch named Melinda uses it to help Kallie—with fatal consequences.

“Don’t move,” a woman whispered in Kallie’s ear. “And don’t scream.”
The hand dropped from her mouth, followed by the arm around her waist.
“My friend,” Kallie’s voice cracked. “He’s hurt.”
“Your friend is dead.”
Kallie shook her head, as if it would somehow erase the truth.
The woman’s hand returned to her, fingers combing through Kallie’s blood-tangled locks. Who was the person trying to comfort her? The lined face and long blond hair weren’t familiar.
The woman tilted Kallie’s face toward herself. They didn’t know each other, yet the lady’s blue eyes trained on her like she was staring at an old friend.
“Surely you knew about the boy. You foresaw it.”
“How… how do you know about that?”
“I was watching the two of you when you entered the forest.”
“Why didn’t you help us?”
The woman glanced over her shoulder; in the direction the man had run. “I can’t interfere.”
What kind of bullshit was that? “Who is that man?”
“It would be better for you if you didn’t know.”
“It would have been better for me if you helped!” Kallie scrambled to her knees. The woman grabbed her wrists, holding her in place.
“Don’t ignore the things you see, or you will lose everything.”
Heat rushed to Kallie’s cheeks. “Are you threatening me?”
“You threatened yourself. And that boy’s life.”
Kallie twisted her hand free, slapping it across the stranger’s face. “I did not kill Jerry!” She flexed her wrist, her stomach sinking as finger shaped welts surfaced on the woman’s cheek.
The lady touched her reddened skin. “When we don’t ask for our gifts, they’re hard to accept.”
“I didn’t ask for anything.”
The woman nodded, the deep lines around her mouth sagging. “But you still have it.”
Her hand reached back to Kallie’s blood-stained hair and Kallie flinched, worried the woman was going to slap her back. Instead, her touch tapped across Kallie’s forehead. How did this woman know about the pictures she saw in her head?
Kallie yanked herself away, spying a tattooed wrist. Black ink in the shape of a witch’s pentacle stained the blond woman’s skin.
“You’re the witch! You did this!” Kallie clenched her hands. “I didn’t see anything real until you started watching me.”
“I started watching you because you began to see what was real.”
“No! You made this happen. You knew Jerry would die, that’s why you’re here.”
“You knew it too.”
“My vision of Jerry wasn’t real. It didn’t feel like the others.” Her usual visions came to her like snapshots, surfacing in her mind without any effort on her part. The image of Jerry in the water had been different, forced, jammed inside her head like an intruder. Like it was placed there… “By someone else,” she whispered the end of her horrified thought out loud. “What did you do to me?”

Many thanks to K.M. Allan for sharing her time, tips, and story! You can catch her on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Goodreads.

~STAY TUNED!~

I’ve got some bonus posts on the way to celebrate my own novel’s release!

I want to share the inspiration for my new antagonists, music for those moments of action and tension, and more. My first novel, Fallen Princeborn: Stolen, will also be on sale during the last five days before Chosen‘s release.

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