What is it about the stories we save for Christmas time? Why do we pack them up with the ornaments and stockings as another special sparkly for December? This week I talk with my family about their favorite Christmas stories to discover what makes them so special.
Takeaway: Christmas stories should be fun, and elves are hilarious.
Takeaway: Christmas stories require a bit of action, even violence, in order to achieve the “happily ever after.” Also, alien robots.
Wonder what Blondie will add to the mix…
Takeaway: Learning what Christmas is all about is very important, especially when animals are involved.
Kids tucked up in bed, Bo and I pull out one of the many Christmas catalogs we’ve received lately to talk about a unique occurrence with Christmas: the HallmarkChristmas film. What has Hallmark figured out about Christmas stories that gives them the knack to make so many every year?
Takeaway: Pretty people with Christmasy names and/or places facing a little problem and/or a little death in order to achieve love…which basically means that Die Hard is the greatest Christmas movie ever. Even the 30th Anniversary trailer that just came out agrees. (For the record, Bo and I recorded our talk before seeing this trailer. Guess this makes us amazing!)
Will I ever write a Christmas story? I’m not sure. Bo and I began dating and even married around Christmas time, so I cannot deny there’s a certain magic to the season. I also know how sharp grief grows at Christmas, making its hope all the more critical to share before it’s too late.
Hmmm. Maybe Hallmark has a point about love…after Charles Dickens made it over 150 years ago:
I have always thought of Christmastime…[as] a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time…the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely…
-Nephew Fred, A Christmas Carol
So yeah, Christmas stories may seem a bit too schmaltzy at times, but know what? That’s okay. This is the season when we’re all just a bit more open to love’s magic. There’s a power in these December days unknown at any other time of the year. Use that power, friends, be it in your storytelling or your life’s story, to share the magic. Use whatever you need, be it dogs, cookies, or flying reindeer.
Also, alien robots.
Oh! Lest I forget, be sure to give some indie books to your fellow readers, and reviews to your fellow writers on Amazonand Goodreads! Nothing’s as awesome as the gift of words.
A most blessed Christmas to you all. Read on, share on, and write on, my friends!
Last week’s poston Alan Silvestri’s score for Predator didn’t have any room to touch on the bombastic ending that was Schwarzenegger vs. Alien From Unknown Planet.
Man, what a spectacle. Muscle and teeth and gutteral roars vs. creepy four-pronged jaws and lazers and bombs and stuff. Lazers! Helicopters! Green gooey blood! HUGE explosions! It’s an ending that has you knocking your beer over as you cheer for Earth’s Last Action Hero. Kick interplanetary ass, Arnie!
Perfect Days doesn’t end with an explosion, or aliens, or any of that. It’s a novel of the thriller genre, a tale told of one man’s love for a girl and the lengths to which he’ll go–i.e., abduction, rape, and murder–to have her.
(Spoilers abound. I still recommend the read, if you can handle this sort of thing.)
Are you familiar with the concept of “bookending”? It’s a method I recommend to my students when they don’t know how to write a conclusion paragraph for an essay. You look at how you began your work, and see what element can be brought back in the end.
In short, set up in the beginning for the pay off at the end.
No, it’s not easy, because for once it’s a pay off you don’t want readers looking for. This element needs to be something it feels like characters have walked away from, discarded, grown from, etc. Such is the case with Teo, a student on the verge of graduating med school. The book opens during one of his last classes.
Gertrude was the only person Teo liked. The other students weren’t quite as at ease around her….Teo didn’t want anyone to notice how good he felt there. He’d walk over to the metal table with his head down.
There she’d be, serenely waiting for him. Gertrude. …
In her company, his imagination knew no bounds. The world melted away, until he and Gertrude were all that was left. (1-2)
Teo, our main character, has forged a relationship with a corpse. Not physical, but intimate. Opening this way, Montes not only shows readers how uncomfortable Teo is around other people, but how much his imagination fills in reality for him; for instance, when another student makes a conclusion about something, Teo wants to laugh, “And if Gertrude could have heard that nonsense, she’d have hooted with laughter too” (3). Teo “knows” Gertrude, even though Gertrude is not this corpse’s name. He’s studied this body, and imagined all the rest. When the class–and chapter–end, so ends his time with Gertrude, and Teo is “alone again” (4). The character must now move on from this point.
So readers move on as well, and see Teo attend a party with his mother and meet Clarice, a petite free-spirit whose brief conversation leaves him absolutely smitten. He uses the university database to find her and, after another encounter, ends up striking her unconscious and taking her to the flat he shares with his mother.
He felt bad: it was the first time he had thought of himself as a villain. By stuffing Clarice in a suitcase and bringing her home, had he become a criminal? (32)
(I just had to share that line. No, this isn’t asked sarcastically–Teo genuinely contemplates whether or not he’s done something wrong. What a killer bit of pov.)
For the majority of the novel, Teo has Clarice locked up in two different cabins Clarice has used in the past, cabins owned by others who are used to her coming and going. At one point in the first cabin they’ve settled into a routine of sorts, and Teo begins to open up about his personal life.
He even mentioned Gertrude….He told her a serious [sic] of funny anecdotes about things he’d done with Gertrude. Clarice found it interesting that he was friends with a much older woman and said she wanted to meet her….It made him a little ill at ease, as he didn’t want to spoil things by telling her that Gertrude was a corpse. (81)
Teo doesn’t talk about Gertrude again with Clarice, and as tensions mount in Teo’s determination to keep Clarice and avoid arrest, readers don’t think much about Gertrude, either. Teo kills Clarice’s boyfriend, rapes Clarice, and even severs her spine to prevent her escape.
Climax: Teo is driving off a ferry, certain Clarice is still unconscious in the passenger seat from the last dose of sedative. But Clarice suddenly yanks the steering wheel, and their car goes straight into a restraining wall. Teo wakes up in a hospital. Surely it’s all over, with her family and police present, asking questions.
Yet there are no charges.
He asks to see Clarice, and is escorted to her room.
When Clarice looked up at him…she stared at him with unprecedented interest… “I’m sorry, but… who are you?” (253)
She couldn’t remember having seen Teo before, or what had happened in the previous month or year…. She seemed truly perplexed that she was engaged. (254)
The advantage of her lack of memory was that he could tell her whatever he wanted; he exaggerated the details in order to make it all sound poetic and inevitable. (255)
As the last chapter progresses, we can’t help but think Teo’s won. He’s successfully avoided the police and familial scrutiny. He marries Clarice, and all is as it should be.
Clarice was having fewer nightmares, although sometimes she’d still wake up acting strangely, and it was very distressing–she’d shout and break plates of food against the wall, saying they’d been poisoned. Maybe their marriage wasn’t perfect, but there were much worse ones out there. (260)
Last page: Clarice is pregnant. A family! Teo’s happy, and “Clarice appeared to be too” (260). Teo’s overwhelmed with love when they learn they’re having a girl, and is about to speak when Clarice interrupts him.
She smiled at Teo and said, “A beautiful name came to me just now. Gertrude. What do you think, my love?”
No last-minute duel. No savior to put all things to right. But BOOM nonetheless.
A few things.
First, we’re left wondering about Clarice. Did she really lose her memory? She still calls him “my love.” But such a name as Gertrude…oh, that does not come out of the blue. We wonder now if Clarice is no longer trying to escape, but to dominate. Perhaps she has plans of her own for Teo.
Speaking of Teo, is he going to panic and kill Clarice? He’s killed his mother’s dog and Clarice’s boyfriend, so the act is not beyond him. He’s never handled moments of Clarice’s superiority well at all. Yet she’s smiling at him, calling him “love.” Will Teo leave his wife and unborn child lifeless as he did the corpse Gertrude at the end of the first chapter, and be alone all over again?
We do not know. We will never know.
That name, that single little element, is Montes’ bookend. He took the single most vulnerable point in the Teo’s life and gave it a body–a lifeless body, but a body nevertheless. And like all bodies left unburied, they come back to haunt even the most resilient of natures. By waiting until the absolute last line, Montes leaves readers in the wake of a narrative bomb: we don’t know if blood will be shed, if foundations will be cracked, or if all will go on as before, with “distressing” moments that might, just might, lead to a peculiar food poisoning.
So as you work out your ending, writers, ask: What element from the opening chapters can help create a narrative bookend? Perhaps a person, a token, a place may return. It could be as monumental as a dream fulfilled, or as momentary as a single name whispered on dying lips. It all depends if you wish to leave your readers happily tired by the journey, or blinded by the bomb. Either way, they’ll return to you knowing thrills are hidden in every chapter, right down to the final line.
(Oh don’t you think I’m done with Alan Silvestri yet. I’ve got a word or three to say about his score for The Polar Express.)
Subscribeso you don’t miss another round-up of terrific offerings from fellow Indie creators as well as updates on my own projects. I’d be happy to share your work, too! Justcontact me with your plug and I’ll include it in next month’s newsletter.
As 2018’s National Novel Writing Month draws to a close, I thought I’d offer a little music to help those entangled in face-offs and final battles. We all could use a little muscle to pull us out and onward.
I know: you’re not here to start an adventure. You’re here because it’s time for you–and the characters of your story–to kick some villainous butt.
So let’s join up with the best of the best, the men of muscle who fly across the border and walk into a guerrilla nest without flinching. Men who chew cigars, sweat through camo paint, and say lines like “I ain’t got time to bleed” and sound tooootally bad-ass.
Predator isn’t a scifi-action classic purely because of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s performance, or only because of Stan Winston’s monster creation. Silvestri’s score plays a HUGE role in this story’s atmosphere, too.
Arnie’s military group is sent on what they think is a rescue mission deep in central America–until they find men of a previous “rescue mission” skinned and hanging from a tree. We see no evil, but we see its horror. Silvestri gives only a single, drum-like percussion, far off. An alien’s heartbeat, an echo of another nature. It’s never completely gone; rather, it hides in the rest of the orchestra’s bursts of harmony in the brass, strings, and percussion. The music sweeps up, sweeps down, all stealth and caution….until the two minute mark. The low brass of epiphany emphasizes the characters’ realization the situation is not what they presupposed.
Silvestri nails suspense with a moment when Arnold’s crew sets a trap for whatever’s killing them. The strings remain high, tight. No aggression in these first few moments, only fear–though no one wants to admit it. The combination of high strings and oppressive jungle makes characters and audience alike ready to snap under the pressure to wait. This moment often helps me add extra setting details to make the characters look hard for the villain as they wait for the trap to be sprung. And you’ll know when the villain comes, all brass and drums.
Silvestri and violins, man…he just knows how to set them running up and down in arpeggios to quicken the heartbeat. With opening in a dissonance, we put our survival instincts into a panic. We run with the strings, and the moment they stop we skid to a halt. The brass and piano takes up the chase, hunting us, hunting the characters, both.
And climax? Ye GODS, Silvestri knows his pacing. The first minute is almost sweetly mysterious with the strings as we think we’ve won against the fantastic thing, this hunter. We can stand over it victorious as its strange insides are exposed to us…until the brass and piano begin. They begin a steady build, add the percussion, build. Then the strings start to run and you know you’ve got to get the hell out of there before evil steals your victory in death.
We all want our heroes to win the day, but we don’t want it to be easy for them–there’s no story without conflict. We gotta make our heroes scared. It takes some serious fear to make the final victory all the sweeter for characters and readers alike.
~*~ ~*~ ~*~ ~*~
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Do you have a favorite character from Tales or Fallen Princeborn: Stolen that you feel needs some extra page time? Please let me know in the comments below–maybe they’ll be featured in future Tales of the River Vine!
A rare gift comes to the writer when the story and its mixed tape of music ka-chunk and transform. No longer is the music merely the writer’s atmosphere, her source of ambience while storytelling. Oh no. The music is the heroine. The music is the villain. The music is the tension. The music is the scene.
This happened to me during 2010’s National Novel Writing Monthwhen I first began drafting Fallen Princeborn: Stolen. At the time I was only using instrumental music for storytelling, while music like The Who’s Quadropheniahelped me survive the piles of grading in my dropbox. The month had barely started, so I was early in the story of Charlotte and her sister leaving their abusive family in the Dakotas for Wisconsin. Their coach bus breaks down in the middle of nowhere. Another peculiar bus appears with far-too-friendly good Samaritans, and despite Charlotte’s suspicions, she gets on, too.
I tried magical feathers. I tried mysterious goo in the axles. How could I get Charlotte and her sister to the Wall if I can’t make this frickin’ Samaritan trap–I mean, bus–have a plausible reason (for humans, anyway) to break down near the farmland by the Wall? I shoved the story aside and opened up a batch of essays. In the midst of telling the umpteenth student to please remember her thesis statement in the introduction, The Who’s “The Real Me” came on…
…and I saw it.
I saw the scene. I saw it all, frame by frame like a movie trailer. I knew what had to happen: utilize the shapeshifters’ gifts, the song to feel Charlotte’s fear race like a heartbeat.
For this song, I realized, embodies Charlotte.
The percussion, guitar, and style of singing are defiant to the point of raging. The song demands anyone, everyone, to look past the surface and see the pain, confusion, and ambition to be.
In this snippet of the story, though, it is Charlotte who does the seeing. Only she sees the bus driver’s inhumane ability, and realizes they’re all trapped. I could feel all this when I first drafted the scene with the song on repeat in 2010.
Eight years later, little’s changed.
~*~ From Fallen Princeborn: Stolen ~*~
Charlotte bites back the snark and hides in her headphones again. She starts “The Real
Me,” thinking, The bus SMELLS old and gross, but nothing FEELS old and gross. Give me two seconds and I’d be out cold, it’s so damn comfortable.…
… At least food has settled Anna down. Now she’s content to walk that quarter from Uncle Mattie up and down the fingers of her right hand. Then flips to her left. The quarter continues its deliberate tumble from pinky to ring to middle to forefinger to thumb and back again. Up and down. Then down and up. Like practicing scales on a piano, observes Charlotte.
“Nice moves.” Studchin’s face betrays a lack of skills with a napkin.
“Thanks. My uncle taught me.”
Charlotte does a quick passenger check: Potential Homicidal Maniac sits as far from Anna as possible. Twitchy is de-threading his own coat. Mumbles starts singing “Lizzy likes locked things.” The Sweenils argue over who won that Waters Meet Bingo tournament. Mr. Smith sings too softly for her to hear.
Black feathers fly across their window. Violet flashes, a cackle rumbles.
Charlotte spins ’round and stares at the back of the bus.
Jamie is gone.
“Where is he?”
Anna bats those damn glitter-lashes at Studchin one more time before asking, “Who?” Slurp.
“The crazy acne boy with the bags. Where is he?”
Anna opens another cake. “Probably bathroom. Why, wanna ask for his number?”
“What’s this about numbers?” Studchin’s breath reeks of mouse turds and sugar. “Cuz I’ve got one, if you want it.” |Charlotte’s chest burns beneath the pendant. It’s burning like hell, she’s going to pass out— “Can you see the real me, can ya? Can ya?” What the—? Who the—? Who has the audacity to sing a Who song OVER The Who? Charlotte swivels around in her seat, trying to locate the source. Not Studchin, he wouldn’t know good music if a chorus of show girls sang it from a Jacuzzi of custard. Not his bandmates and, thank god, not Mumbles. Potential Homicidal Maniac? Nope. Dead silent, head still.
It’s Mr. Smith, singing right along with Roger. But how can he hear what she’s listening to on her headphones, from that far up front? Charlotte shakes her head and stares at the back of Burly Man’s head. He stares right back at her from the rearview mirror. Not even the Sweenils notice him singing. No one but Charlotte, always Charlotte.
“Charlie?” Slu-urp. “What’s going on?”
“Char—” “Can you see, can you see the real me?”
“SHUT IT.” To Anna or to Mr. Smith—Charlotte doesn’t care. Get away from my music, my head, my sister. Get away.
Ash-wind pulls on Charlotte’s nose. Black, green, black, green, black: the raven’s circling again. Get AWAY! “Can you see the real me, Preacher?”
“I mean it, where is that Jamie guy?”
“I don’t know, Charlie. Why do you care?”
“Dude, what is up with your sister?” Studchin to Anna. “Can you see the real me, Doctor?”
Ash chokes, feathers fly, song deafens, eyes glitter— “Can you see the real me, Mother?”
Charlotte sees Mr. Smith’s fingers drum along in perfect sync with the song.
And he stares right back. His teeth are painted, ablaze in his smile. “Can you see the real me me me me me me?”
The raven strikes.
Of course, using a song in a story is one thing. Getting permission to use that song is another matter entirely, as I explain in “Days of Walkmans Past.”
My deepest thanks to all fellow writers and readers who have been sharing my stories and thoughts on craft. No matter how much I beat myself up for not writing enough, reading enough, living enough, you step up and share my words and make every struggle matter. Folks, these are writers well worth sharing, reading, and befriending, I promise you.
In the meantime, I’ve signed up for NaNoWriMo for the first time in years. It’s time to rewrite the third novel of the Fallen Princeborn Omnibus. I promise you even more mystery and mayhem, perhaps even a murder or two in the dank Pits dark and deep…
Are you joining thirty days and nights of literary abandon? Let me know so we can be writing buddies!
My sons dress in their Transformer costumes with giggling hops. “Trick or treating!” They chime over and over, so thrilled to begin the candy feast early with a special Halloween event at the zoo. My little Optimus Prime and Bumblebee are ready to roll out against Decepticons and other devious evildoers in the name of candy.
Our exteriors say so much about us. I’m not just talking about donning the armor of alien transforming heroes, but our behaviors around other people. How we are around others can differ vastly with how we think, act, and exist in solitude. We–and our characters–are so often “more than meets the eye.”
Let’s consider a few examples, beginning with the well-known Katniss Everdeen of Hunger Games. The story opens with Kat being tender to her younger sister Primrose on the morning before the Reaping, when candidates are selected for the Hunger Games. When Prim’s name is chosen, Kat cries out to volunteer in her sister’s place. Prim tries to stop her, but Kat refuses to give in.
“Prim, let go,” I say harshly, because this is upsetting me and I don’t want to cry. When they televise the replay of the reapings tonight, everyone will make note of my tears, and I’ll be marked as an easy target. A weakling. I will give no one that satisfaction. “Let go!” (23)
From here on out, Kat is about as gruff and curt as she can be with nearly every other character in the book. She knows what it means to hunt, starve, and lose a loved one. Kat’s determined to survive for her family’s sake, which means she will not let any other tributes figure out her skill set or weaknesses.
But I want to note here that Kat does have a tender heart. It’s been burned, yes, but it’s there, visible any time Kat’s with her sister (and her eventual love interests, but blah blah on that for this post). Had Suzanne Collins merely wrote Kat as a hunter without family–that is, made Kat nothing but her tough shell–then what would Kat’s motivation be? The entire tone of the narrative would change from one of survival to protect to…acceptance? Glory? Who knows?
Heroes and villains both can have these tough exteriors with the occasional crack. And cracks they must have, or again, readers will think the character nothing but the tough shell. Take two of the primary characters in The Boys— Homelander, leader of the elite superhero group The Seven who is also the primary antagonist of the series, and Butcher, leader of The Boys, the group created to keep superheroes in line.
Each has their tough exterior: Butcher can be a right bastard to people, ready to literally rip someone to shreds for being a “supe.” Homelander, all posh and elegance in front of the cameras, is all too eager to make Starlight have oral sex with him in order to join The Seven. He’s also gathering up all the superheros to support a takeover of the American government, all too eager to cut the corporate leash upon him with a blink of his eye lazers.
Yet this same Homelander will cry in a fetal position in the bathroom, asking himself why he can’t remember ripping up human beings with his teeth. This same Butcher didn’t always swing fists or revel in pain. He had a wife once. He had love once. And because Butcher once knew love, he’s willing to give his fellow Boy and friend Hughie a chance to save his girlfriend Starlight before Butcher attempts to wipe every supe off the planet.
These cracks don’t have to appear often. If they did, then readers and other characters aren’t going to see a “tough” exterior at all. These cracks need only be visible at a few important moments for the sake of plot, conflict, or other narrative element.
Consider the classic A Christmas Carol (Yes, I know it’s only October, but hey, there’s ghosts in this.) The Ghost of Christmas Past has brought Scrooge to his years of apprenticeship under Fezziwig. The Ghost points at Apprentice Scrooge and the other youths praising and thanking Fezziwig and says:
“A small matter…to make these silly folks so full of gratitude…He has spent but a few pounds of your mortal money: three or four, perhaps. Is that so much that he deserves this praise?”
“It isn’t that,” said Scrooge, heated by the remark, and speaking unconsciously like his former, not his latter self. “It isn’t that, Spirit. He has the power to render us happy or unhappy; to make our service light or burdensome; a pleasure or a toil. Say that his power lies in words and looks; in things so slight and insignificant that it is impossible to add and count’em up: what then? The happiness he gives is quite as great as if it cost a fortune.”
He felt the Spirit’s glance, and stopped.
“What is the matter?” asked the Ghost.
“Nothing particular,” said Scrooge. (49)
See that? For a brief moment, Scrooge is no longer the “Scrooge” we saw at the beginning. The bitter miser has been replaced with a man of passion for his first employer and mentor. Only when the Ghost of Christmas Past studies him and calls attention to the crack does Scrooge seal his exterior back up again. But thanks to this moment, the Spirit and readers both know there is more to Scrooge than the opening pages suggest.
I’ve been thinking about these tough exteriors a good deal with my Fallen Princeborn series, especially with my latest short story, “Tattered Rhapsody.” The last story in my collection Tales of the River Vinecenters on heroine Charlotte: her ragged, “goblin-bent” form of broken fingers and boney limbs. Her quick words and quicker fists. Her music. Her sister. And, at last, a moment of true hope.
One of the elements within a timeless story are complete characters: not just HEROES made only of dash and daring, or VILLAINS only vile and wicked, but people. People who don an armor to protect their inner selves, who only reveal those inner selves when least expected by readers–or themselves. What hopes and fears hide behind your characters’ armor? Set them alight, and let readers see–just for a moment–the cracks in the tough exterior.
Thanks so much for reading. As previously mentioned, the last short story in my collection is now available FREE on Amazon, Nook, and other outlets.
It’s been so exciting to read comments and reviews from readers. If you snatched a free copy of Fallen Princeborn: Stolenduring my ARC giveaway, I hope you’ll share your thoughts on Amazonand Goodreads! You can share your thoughts on the short stories there, too. Seriously, every review makes a HUGE difference for these stories’ visibility on the global bookshelf. Even Kirkus Reviews has some pretty sweet things to say about Stolen—click here and see!
For those waiting to purchase a copy: next week, folks. Next. Week.
Autumn washes over Wisconsin with gold, crimson, orange, and steel. Rain keeps the farmland cold and wet, turning three pumpkin pickers into wet whiners.
Still, we manage to pick pumpkins without kicking them at the tractor like soccer balls (don’t ask about that year). Bo stocks our freezer with delicious apple pies. Time to settle in with some hot spiced cider and a spooky read.
First of all, it was October, a rare month for boys. Not that all months aren’t rare. But there be bad and good, as the pirates say. Take September, a bad month: school begins. Consider August, a good month: school hasn’t begun yet. July, well, July’s really fine: there’s no chance in the world for school. June, no doubting it, June’s best of all, for the school doors spring wide and September’s a billion years away.
But you take October, now. School’s been on a month and you’re riding easier in the reins, jogging along. You got time to think of the garbage you’ll dump on old man Prickett’s porch, or the hairy-ape costume you’ll wear to the YMCA the last night of the month. And it it’s around October twentieth and everything smoky-smelling and the sky orange and ash gray at twilight, it seems Halloween will never come in a fall of broomsticks and a soft flap of bedsheets around corners.
But one strange wild dark long year, Halloween came early.
One year Halloween came on October 24, three hours after midnight.
The prologue goes on for just a little bit, but I want to focus on the setting here. The first paragraph establishes a unique focus: the autumn season through the eyes of a boy. Sure, we grown-ups might like the pretty colors. The little kids may be keen to jump into leaf piles. But we’re not talking about those age groups. We’re talking about boys, boys the age of 13, we learn. They’re not too old for pirate voices or costumes for Halloween, not too young for pranks about the town. Bradbury’s voice and choice in detail are going to reflect this “elder youth,” which come in a beautiful trio of sensory details in that second paragraph: “…everything smoky-smelling and the sky orange and ash gray at twilight, it seems Halloween will never come in a fall of broomsticks and a soft flap of bedsheets around corners.” In a single sentence, Bradbury moves us from the boyish plans of Halloween to the smell, sight, and sound of late October. We are on the streets as child-ghosts float by in the dusk, adults sitting round their fire-pits in drive ways with chili and beer…
…oh wait. That’s Wisconsin now.
Timeless details, I tell you!
But it doesn’t end there. Let’s keep going a bit. I want to show you how just a few drops of sensory detail in the first chapters fill readers—and our protagonists—with foreboding before Cooger and Dark’s Pandemonium Shadow Show even arrives.
Take the opening of Chapter 1:
The seller of lightning rods arrived just ahead of the storm. He came along the street of Green Town, Illinois, in the late cloudy October day, sneaking glances over his shoulder. Somewhere not so far back, vast lightnings stomped the earth. Somewhere, a storm like a great beast with terrible teeth could not be denied.
Firstly, one doesn’t come across a traveling lightning rod salesman every day. Already, we have a touch of not-normal coming into a typical small town, the kind of town that builds on the railroad in the middle of farming country. That the man “sneaks glances over his shoulder” gives readers that sense of foreboding and intimidation. Were this man unafraid, he’d simply look back. But no—he’s “sneaking” the looks, just like Bash sneaks looks out of his bedroom door when the scary owl flies towards the television screen at the beginning ofIt’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown.
Bradbury also instills a visual in readers of something not yet seen: the storm, a “great beast with terrible teeth.” A storm-sized monster “stomping” the earth surely cannot be stopped by mere mortals, can it?
By opening our first chapter with this storm, we already have a sense of “something wicked” coming—only the true wickedness is something else. Bradbury continues to use the storm, too, to crackle the setting and our senses: “Thunder sounded far off in the cloud-shadowed hills…The air smelled fresh and raw, on top of Jim Nightshade’s roof” (11, 12). Once more Bradbury touches our ears, eyes, and noses. The thunder may be “far off,” but the “cloud-shadowed hills” reveal its hiding place. We all love our “fresh” smells, so very pleasant and enjoyable, but “raw”? “Raw” immediately calls up bloody meat, yucky veg, skin cracked and bleeding beneath a dry cold.
These unsettling sensations follows protagonists Will and Jim to the library in Chapter 2. Now we’re in town, where something creeps along behind them, invisible yet…
Jim and Will grinned at each other. It was all so good, these blowing quiet October nights and the library waiting inside now with its green-shaded lamps and papyrus dust.
Jim listened. “What’s that?”
“What, the wind?”
“Like music…” Jim squinted at the horizon.
“Don’t hear no music.”
Jim shook his head. “Gone. Or it wasn’t even there. Come on!”(13)
Because only one ear catches it, both boys are quick to excuse this single-sense moment. But when the boys leave the library in Chapter 4, another single sense is touched again…
Mr. Crosetti, in front of his barber shop, his door key in his trembling fingers, did not see them stop.
What had stopped them?
It moved shining down Mr. Crosetti’s left cheek. He breathed heavily. … “Don’t you smell it?”
Jim and Will sniffed.
“Heck, no. Cotton candy! … Now, my nose tells me, breathe! And I’m crying. Why? Because I remember how a long time ago, boys ate that stuff. Why haven’t I stopped to think and smell the last thirty years?”
…And they left him behind in a wind that very faintly smelled of licorice and cotton candy. (21-22)
Now we know that the boys aren’t the only ones catching a whiff, as it were, of something peculiar in the wind. Not only is this adult moved to concentrate on a single smell, but he’s moved to tears. This speaks to a longing inside the character, a want for what was.
For what’s coming.
With lightning and licorice, Bradbury tangles our senses with intrigue. We need to see what lightnings stomp in the hills. We need to see what brings the cotton candy so sweet the very scent of it makes a grown man cry. As you write the first few chapters of your story, take a moment to drop setting details for a few senses, just enough to put the heroes–and readers–on edge.
Charlotte’s hand presses the pendant into her sternum as if to cover
whatever’s cracked open inside her. It’s all she can touch—Anna’s out of reach,
she and every other passenger, their bodies floating about behind dimmed
windows. Does no one else smell the old oil and neglect, like meat burned down
to nothing? The way Jamie stands by the door, hands clasped behind him,
grinning like a choir boy, all pleased with himself, Charlotte knows, freakin’ knows, someone’s pulled an Ed Gein and made the bus seats out of bodies.
“Sweetheart, you’ve got to board, okay?” Maisy calls from the coach. “You
can’t stay here with me. It’ll take days to get the bus fixed.”
And you know you’re oversmelling it, Charlie, just like earlier with the bears and shit. It’s just an old bus, is all. But Charlotte continues to hesitate.
“Hurry up, Charlie, let’s go!” her sister calls from a window. “They’ve got
food in here. And it’s all posh, come on!”
Jamie’s grin grows.
It’s just a bus. Charlotte decides, and tucks the necklace away.
~STILL SHOUTING FOR SHOUT OUTS!~
I can still take on a couple more plugs for my monthly newsletter From the Wilds of Jean Lee’s World.It’s a separate set of updates from that of WordPress. If you have a book coming out, a book to sell, music, art–any creative endeavor’s worth shouting about! Just email me at email@example.com to snag a slot in a future edition.
We’ve got a lot to cover, folks–studying Ray Bradbury, chatting with amazing indie writer Shehanne Moore, exploring a special facet of character development, and sharing The Who’sinfluence on my writing.
But before we go into ANY of that, let’s kick off this month of “ohmygoshiamactuallypublishinganovelthsimonth” panic–I mean, excitement–with some music I’ve known since college, music of vital importance to my telling of Fallen Princeborn: Stolen. Music of origins mythical and mysterious…until SoundCloud yelled at me for uploading it and pointed out the proper composer.
We begin with a simple CD created to accompany my college’s production of Medea. I didn’t make the cast that term (not that I’m still bitter about that. I’m not. Seriously. WHY DIDN’T I MAKE THAT SHOW?!), but my roommate, herself a theater major, was the stage manager and therefore in charge of all things technical, which must have been a challenge when the director decided to get all “experimental” with stage direction, set, and soundtrack.
Because this play was to be experienced like a film, apparently.
Thankfully, my roommate knew when to pull back the soundtrack so the audience could hear the cast. Yes, I put aside my inner grumblings and attended the show. I had a lot of friends up there and behind the scenes, and I wanted to cheer them on in what had to be the toughest show performed that year.
When I think back to that performance now…I don’t really remember seeing the show. I remember hearing it–my friends’ cries when the children are killed, the Greek chorus chanting, the raging howl of anger and revenge…and this music. This, this choir of Latin caution, eternally building with strings and low rumblings of percussion. The sudden sweep into thunderous drums and the harmonies of battle until the last scream pierces the air–
And all is silenced.
Fast forward to New Mom Me writing whenever baby Blondie sleeps. It’s National Novel Writing Month of 2010, and I’m writing what will be the first draft of Fallen Princeborn: Stolen. It’s the moment when Charlotte first meets the book’s villain and realizes the lethal situation she and her captured sister are in. They are surrounded. They are underground.
There is no way out.
There is no hope.
I used the music of Medea to imagine the scope of impossible escape, the cold darkness that buried Charlotte and her sister underground. You can hear it, too, in the first four minutes of this track.
But as the baddies learn, you can bloody Charlotte, but you can never break her.
I’d repeat the change in music at the 4:17 marker to watch Charlotte rise up & fight back. The music careens up out of despair and dives, talons at the ready, to draw blood and breath from every evil. Over and over I listened to this music to catch the fire, the blood, the defiance, the sacrifice.
Eight years later, despite all the changes Stolen has experienced, that scene–and its music–remain the same.
Now that I know Scottish composer Craig Armstrong wrote this score, I’m excited to wander his music and pocket a few seeds to plant for stories years in the making. What music of your youth still nurtures the storyteller within? Perhaps it’s time to put on your headphones, close your eyes, and fly into the harmony of story.
~And now, a brief excerpt from Fallen Princeborn: Stolen, coming this Halloween~
Rot, age, old bones, twice-burned ashes—they choke the air like gasoline. What Charlotte feels is cold. Lots of cold. All she can trust is what she sees, and what she sees right now is white, brittle wood beneath her, the lavender light pulsing more intensely now from her feet and spreading out and down the tunnel. Occasional claw marks. One bloody handprint that begins on one root and is dragged across seven more before vanishing. It’s not a big handprint. There are little traces of purple in it too, almost like purple glitter. Glitter. Didn’t Anna have purple glitter? NO. Get your freakin’ act together, Charlie, and focus. Dad, I wish you were here. “Charlie?” The voice is rich, deep, and kind. And dead. Charlotte’s free hand wavers when a new breeze of gunpowder and chili wisps by. “D-dad?” The power of this place can’t summon the dead. Dad’s buried in holy ground far from here. “He can also take you to your sister, if that is what you wish.” The pulse light beats faster from Charlotte, racing to catch up with her heartbeat, so damned fast, she prays Campion cannot hear it from his perch among the last of the tunnel roots. His eyes are swirling, almost glowing, as the rest of him turns still, like the living tree-bones behind him. “After all, this place is where dreams come true.”
~HEY! I’M SHOUTING FOR SHOUT OUTS!~
Shy about promotion? Me, too. So let’s try and share our stuff together, hmm? I just started up the monthly newsletter From the Wilds of Jean Lee’s World.It’s a separate set of updates from that of WordPress. In the newsletter, I share not only updates on my own fiction, but I’ll share updates on your wild creative endeavors, too! Just email me at firstname.lastname@example.org to snag a slot in a future edition.
“This is a SAD BIRTHDAY!” he wails, complete with a “WAAAaaaaAAAAaaaa” that could drown out a fire truck. My mother holds him, soothes him, to no avail.
Why the tears? Because “There are NO TOYS ARE PRESENTS! I WANT A TOY!”
Meanwhile, Biff sits content with his new collection of Disney Cars stories, and Blondie–who already shed her tears over the fact that today isn’t her birthday–eyes the cupcakes, knowing she at least gets sugar and a race car ring out of the deal.
Despite having received toys at the party hosted by in-laws less than 48 hours ago, Bash continues sobbing until bedtime. “This was a SAD BIRTHDAY,” he declares again, thoroughly traumatized.
Annoyed as I am, I can’t bring myself to scold him for his meltdown. Our basement flooded two weeks before his and Biff’s 6th birthday, sending the house into chaos. Everything is everywhere. Stuff’s crammed into the garage, piled in the living room. There’s a mattress and box spring tipped on their sides in the hallway. Decorations are somewhere in the labyrinth of tubs frantically filled as water seeped up through the seams of the house’s foundation. We’re all stepping on each other’s toys, books, and nerves.
But is it traumatic?
Sure, if you spin it right. Horror fiction’s got a knack for taking anything–like a ruined birthday party–and turning it into motivation for a killing spree.
But if you’re not out to birth a slasher, then what qualifies as “traumatic”?
TRAUMA :a very difficult or unpleasant experience that causes someone to have mental or emotional problems usually for a long time. medical:a serious injury to a person’s body. —Merriam-Webster Learner’s Dictionary
So often trauma is used as the seed to germinate our characters’ motivations. We want our pro/antagonists compelled to act in such a manner as to drive the narrative forward. Sometimes that drive comes from the goal that lies ahead: the love interest, the home, the chance for redemption, etc.
But sometimes that drive comes from what lies behind in the histories of the characters, and what lies behind them is often traumatic.
The most popular “trauma” I find in storytelling is personal loss. Take comic books, for instance. How many become superheroes because they lost a loved one? Batman–parents. Spider-Man–uncle. Green Arrow–parents. Punisher–family. Nightwing–parents. Flash–mother. Captain Marvel–parents. Daredevil–father. The list goes on for a looooooong time.
Now I’m not saying that personal loss isn’t traumatizing. I should know: I’ve watched grandparents waste away. I drove to the hospital thinking my father ill only to be told at the door he’d died of heart failure. Everyone else already knew, but didn’t want to say anything until after I’d arrived.
Loss fucking sucks, and you’re damn right it changes you.
But there is something cliche about a backstory of personal loss driving one to heroics. Must a character always become a warrior for justice when his parents are shot in a dark alley?
No. Take Jude in Holly Black’s The Cruel Prince.A Fae general comes into her house, kills their parents before her eyes, then takes her and her sisters back to the land of the Fae to raise them as his own. Is Jude driven to heroics?
She kills at least two people and readies herself to kill more out of loyalty to her new Fae court. She’s got the drive and calculating mind of her “new” Fae father.
Not sure what Bruce Wayne would make of that.
Trauma doesn’t require death, either. Consider Starlight from the comic book series The Boys.Of all the young superheroes, it is she who’s given the chance to leave her ultra-conservative group Young Americans and join the Seven, the most powerful group of heroes on the planet. She gets there, thrilled to take the last test and make a difference…
…only to discover the test is having oral sex with Homelander and two other members.
Do they force her? Use their own superpowers to render her helpless?
And for the rest of the series she has to struggle with that decision and all its consequences.
Trauma’s not just about losing a piece from our lives, but a piece of ourselves. I know this first-hand. When your body becomes someone else’s thing, you don’t want it. You don’t want to take care of it. You want it to remain separate, the real you buried in the bile churning at the bottom of your gut. You separate your soul from your body because if you don’t, then your soul’s as worthless as your body, as much a nothing to be spat upon and left in the alley. That separation means survival.
But survival and living with oneself are two very, very different things. Trauma, from my experience, does not inspire love.
More like the opposite.
We survive. And we hate that we survive.
Athanasius, one of the little boys in my first short story “The Boy Who Carried a Forest in His Pocket,” was so desperate to flee his “survival” of an abusive home that he happily left with the first stranger he met. Fallen Princeborn: Stolenopens with Charlotte running away from an abusive home. We learn in the opening pages that she’s a fighter, so much so she’d rather punch out your teeth than listen to you talk.
That drive to violence–to hurt others before they can hurt us–that’s what trauma teaches us. This can easily drive a character to do terrible things to those around her. But it is also this drive that can be nurtured to make one want to defend others before they get hurt. It all depends on the character’s environment when the seed of trauma is planted.
Again, there doesn’t need to be some dark, extraordinary experience for a “traumatic event” with long-lasting impact. In my serialized novel Middler’s Pride, Meredydd recalls a moment in childhood when an evil sorcerer attempted to curse her family’s land, but was thwarted when child Meredydd interrupted the spell. Sounds pretty traumatic, running into an evil sorcerer. Yet Mer’s driven, obstinate attitude was the same before and after this event. Apart from shaking hands, her body’s the same before and after this event. So what drives her onward into the story’s narrative?
A childhood without affection. No one abused her, killed a loved one in front of her. Heck, the girl never even broke a bone, or went a day without a full belly. But year after year of watching her step-siblings receive love and attention while she must catch scraps of love from others outside her family…that can hurt far more than any magic curse.
So consider carefully, writers, whether or not your character truly needs trauma in her past for present-day motivation. Death can make its mark, but sometimes the mark need only be a scar, a touch, a moment of undulated terror. Or perhaps it need only be the gathering of little things, subtle as water beneath the ground to eventually flood over your character, altering her nature for the better.
Often times writers are told to go people-watch for character inspiration. This is certainly all well and good if your senses are allowed to wander about the town, in the library, at the pub, and so on.
And then, there’s parenthood.
(Yes, both Biff and Bash are missing their top two front teeth. God has a sense of humor.)
I thought for sure a trip to the North Woods would give me at least some opportunity to catch a few interesting characters. After all, this is the land of the columned white arrow signs. You better keep your eyes open for these, or you’ll never know where stuff is.
This is the land of quiet waters, of river-kissing mists departing with dawn’s light.
Of eagle homes hidden among the oaks and evergreens.
Unfortunately, the only eagle we spotted all week was this one:
Still, the kids were all able to find their special little somethings. Blondie found snail shells.
Bash found his grumps.
Biff found his chainsaws.
No, he didn’t grab one (this time). Bo was able to keep the kids a safe distance away from the carving demonstrations at the Paul Bunyan festival.
I’m not sure what was so Paul Bunyany about it–there was no blue ox, no giant lumberjacks. Plenty of beer and football signs, though. Nothing says Wisconsin like sports and alcohol!
Surely a festival drawing in a wide range of tourists and locals would provide SOME opportunity for characters, right? Bo knew I wanted to walk around with my camera, so he took advantage of the chainsaws and stuffed the kids with chocolate-covered graham crackers so I could take a quick look around.
Biff notices my absence all too soon, and jumps over to my side of the street. Despite the lumberjack quartet trying to strum banjos and harmonies, Biff belts the theme to “Ghostbusters”at the top of his lungs and dances down the walkway. I hold up my phone to take a video of him singing, but then…oh, but then…
Who in Sam Elliot is THIS? An older man–70s, I’ll say. Jeans and flannel despite summer warmth. Cowboy hat. Glasses, mustache. Baby carrier. Dog. A wide-eyed, scared-stiff, shaky little dog. In the baby carrier.
So don’t fret if you can’t get out much, writers, or you’re not able to let your eyes wander. Sometimes it’s when our focus is distracted from the hunt that we find what we’re hunting for, and then some.
Speaking of hunting, if you’re looking for a wicked read to welcome Autumn, then I do hope you’ll check out my debut dark fantasy YA novel, Fallen Princeborn: Stolen.
In rural Wisconsin, an old stone wall is all that separates the world of magic from the world of man—a wall that keeps the shifters inside. When something gets out, people disappear. Completely.
Escaping from an abusive uncle, eighteen-year-old Charlotte is running away with her younger sister Anna. Together they board a bus. Little do they know that they’re bound for River Vine—a shrouded hinterland where dark magic devours and ancient shapeshifters feed, and where the seed of love sets root among the ashes of the dying.
You can snatch up a paperback on Amazon today! If you’ve got an e-reader, the online edition can be FREE via Kindle Unlimited, too.
Composer Ennio Morricone–how to describe Il Maestro? He is an institution, an inspiration. He gave us THE showdown music, music so powerful the Sergio Leone would construct his films movie around Morricone’s music. You don’t edit Morricone. You follow Morricone. That’s how we have some of the most iconic moments in cinematic history, such as the climax from The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly:
Aren’t you just on the edge of your seats as the trumpets and drums build and build and build, the close-ups quickening and quickening until you can’t stand it anymore and SOMEONE HAS TO SHOOT and bam bam bam–just like that. Your heart remembers how to work, and you realize you’d stopped breathing for the last several seconds.
That’s the power of Il Maestro.
I use Morricone often for writing my Fallen Princeborn Omnibus, both the short stories and the novels. No, not the western soundtracks–powerful as they are, one cannot think of anything but Clint Eastwood staring down the likes of Eli Wallach and Lee Van Cleef. When the narrative turns down the dark road and finds itself stranded in menace–that is when I turn up The Thing.
The score composed for John Carpenter’s The Thing is not what I would call complex, and that’s fine. An orchestra would feel strange for a Carpenter film, and Morricone knows how to draw out unsettling harmonies for maximum effect. Just listen to this theme (roughly the first four and a half minutes of the track). It’s so simple. So, so bloody simple. The synth rhythm, steady as a comatose heartbeat. The synth chords moving in their own quiet pattern in sync with the heartbeat. Nothing loud. Nothing heroic. Just this slow, slow add to the harmony: more synth around the 2:00 mark, and more around the 3:00 mark, this time off-rhythm, just slightly. Just…not quite right, just like The Thing that hides so damn perfectly at the Arctic research base. Morricone’s rhythms of sounds, of notes-not-quite-notes: he takes the synth and forms them into a bleak landscape. We see nothing with this music. We hope for nothing. We escape nothing.
Now let’s see how such a dire emptiness feels with an orchestra in Quentin Tarantino’s brilliant western The Hateful Eight.
Strictly strings at first. The endless bass with a steady rhythm of violins: The Thing‘s influence, perfect for this moment of travelers approaching a lonely outpost on a mountain with a blizzard at their heels. Around 0:50 the xylophone begins a simple harmony, its repetition reminiscent of the chime of Lee Van Cleef’s watch in For a Few Dollars More. The minor key of the string’s harmonies further presses the boreboding into our psyche. We can’t not think something bad is going to happen.
This has to be my favorite track from Hateful Eight. The drums a bit faster here compared to The Thing, which gives us the feel of impending…something. Something, we don’t know what, is coming. We also get the feel of characters not sitting around, waiting for that Something to come. They’re hunting Something as much as Something is creeping up on them. There’s a multi-layered mystery here of who’s hunting who, who is who, and the treachery you know lies in every heart of the Eight just bleeds through the music onto the story.
Now for the record, I should note that Morricone considers this composition to be a bit lighter compared to some of his other work. As Michael Ordoña of the LA Times quotes Morricone:
“What I wanted to do with the two bassoons at first — and later there is a tuba and later on the contrabassoon and then the trumpet, and in the end, the male voices — I wanted to de-traumatize the dramatic content of the music,” says Morricone. “To add something lighter, more curious, more interesting. The contents of the theme remain tragic and dramatic, but the way these instruments are played, to the extreme ranges of their timbre, makes them quite lighter and ironic.”
-Article: Ennio Morricone says a hands-off Quentin Tarantino let his ‘Hateful Eight’ music flow
When I first saw this quote, I couldn’t believe it. Lighter? Ironic?! What in the brewin’ blazes is he on about?
But then I realized that whenever I write with this track, I am writing a scene with my villains from my heroine’s perspective. We are sizing up the villains through her wise-ass frame of mind, so in a way, Morricone’s music fits even better than I expected. He creates the unbeatable menace, yet also defies it with a glint in the eyes and a smirk on the lips.
Il Maestro gives writers the music of dire emptiness, where a setting must not only be seen, butfelt. Heard.