Monday, September 1, 2014

The Fall Fresh Start

Life starts all over again when it gets crisp in the fall.
~ F. Scott Fitzgerald

I'm grateful for the changes of the seasons. Aside from the pleasant sense of something new that comes with the changing weather, they make such nice well-defined points to regroup one's forces, reorganize one's closet and drawers and bookshelves, start fresh with a new daily schedule or start a new project.

Granted, the weather hasn't actually gotten crisp yet. But September 1st sounds like a nice starting-over point, even if the weather doesn't want to cooperate. And incidentally, I remembered while composing this post that September 1st is also the four-year anniversary of this blog. I shall be very cliché and remark airily, "How time flies!"

The big news of today is that Corral Nocturne is now available for pre-order on Amazon Kindle! To quote Miss Matty, pre-orders are something that I have wished for for an age, so you can imagine how delighted I was when Amazon rolled out this new feature recently. The official release date is November 1st, so mark your calendars, mark it to-read on Goodreads, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera...

I spent the last week of August on vacation, and finding myself in need of some serious de-stressing, avoiding any kind of writing or publishing work. Which involved swimming, re-reading War and Peace (yes, I am odd; I read Tolstoy to relax), listening to my favorite Michael Buble songs, one particularly lovely afternoon picnicking by a lake, and just "doing nothing" (Christopher Robin would approve). Before that, though, I was putting Corral Nocturne through the final step in the process of writing historical fiction: last-minute fact-checking. This involves things like double-checking the dates of origin for phrases and inventions and finding out exactly what the different parts of a farm wagon are called. There's always a few things to check on at the last minute, though I try to do these things as I go along too. One of my nicest evenings earlier this summer was spent sitting on a boulder on a hillside, watching fireworks over the city and river below, and calculating their distance from me and taking note of what they sounded like at that distance. A session with Google Maps a few days later to find out exactly how far I was from the fireworks proved to my satisfaction that either by instinct or fortunate chance, I had the fireworks in Corral Nocturne behaving just as they should.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Until September

I think I've mentioned before that when I'm really locked in on a writing project, my blog tends to languish by contrast. At any rate, this has been a sort of haphazard, patchwork summer for me overall, and I don't think my blogging has been at its very best. So rather than cudgel my brains for half-hearted post ideas, I've decided to take a couple of weeks' break from blogging altogether. Look for me again at the beginning of September, by which time I shall hopefully have "Wanderlust Creek" in the bag, renewed energy and plenty of fresh new post ideas.

(And in the meantime, you can take a look at my guest post over at author M.K. McClintock's blog, in which I share Ten Facts About Left-Hand Kelly.)

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Summer Snippets

Snippets this round all come from the Western story I've been working on this month, "Wanderlust Creek." It started life as a short story, but decided somewhere along the way that it wanted to be a novelette. It has also unexpectedly proven to be an emotionally involving sort of piece: symptoms ranging from peculiar knots in the stomach while working out the more intense scenes, to a sudden vivid impulse to give one of the characters a good shaking...for behavior that I had carefully planned for them myself. I guess that means I did something right? I have a sneaking feeling that it's one of the better things I have written, but since emotional involvement and objective judgment are two different things, you may take that for what it's worth.

So here's Snippets. In no particular order.

Gloria looked down sideways at him. She had learned to know his moods well enough in a year of marriage to tell that he was still simmering with anger, though outwardly contained. He ejected the spent shell from the Winchester and slung the gun under his other arm as he walked. The rifle shot had shaken Gloria a little, though she could not say it was a surprise. Ray's patience had been short lately, for a number of good reasons.

They would have stayed there outside, but the rain was falling harder, soaking into the shawl on her shoulders and spitting off the brim of his hat.

“He's all right," said Ray with simplicity. "Butts into things headfirst sometimes, but he'll stick by you to the death. Not that I ever had to try him that far," added Ray, and Gloria found a laugh irresistible—it was so unlike the Ray of these late hard times to make a joke like that.

She said, hesitantly, "Ray, if you thought it was a better chance—"

Ray turned his head toward her abruptly and she shifted her eyes to the parcels in her lap, without knowing why she did it. "I told you, Gloria, it wouldn't work. I couldn't do that to you."

The younger of the two laughed suddenly as if he couldn't help it, then looked slightly ashamed of himself. Gloria barely favored him with a glance.

“You're not the one to be telling me what I should be doing. You never look more than ten feet ahead of you and you're happy that way."

Frantic, Gloria tore herself away from the wall and stumbled out through the doorway, running blindly, running toward the other buildings of Baxter looking for someone, anyone who could stop it. She raced round the corner of the feed-and-grain soddy and cannoned into a man who said "Easy, there!" in an annoyed voice and held her arms to steady her.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Favorite Western Film Scores

Film scores are among my favorite kinds of music—and many of my favorite scores are from Westerns. To me, the colorful, energetic (and Copland-influenced) style that Elmer Bernstein and others developed in the early '60s is the signature Western film-score sound, even though most of my favorite Western movies come from earlier decades. It seems a shame that just as this wonderful music style was developing, Western movies were already changing, and the traditional Western would be well on the downward slide by the end of the decade. There ought to have been more movies and better movies to go with scores like this!

But anyway, to return to the subject of this post—I've done plenty of talking about Westerns, and a good deal about music, so I thought it was about time I did a post on my very favorite Western film scores. So here are my top three:

1. The Magnificent Seven (1960) by Elmer Bernstein
It's a classic, that's all there is to it. It's practically impossible not to get a huge grin on your face when you listen to the exuberant main theme. This is one of those scores that really 'makes' its movie—can you honestly imagine the film without it? I knew the music long before I ever saw the movie, and when I finally did see it, I was astonished that some of the most energetic cues, which sounded like they came from all-out action scenes, actually belonged to moments where not much was happening onscreen. As the CD liner notes observe, the music supplies much of the film's energy.

2. The Cowboys (1973) by John Williams
I wish the traditional Western movie had lasted another decade if only so John Williams could have written more scores like this. It's got everything—a lively, toe-tapping main theme with sparkling orchestrations, which reappears with a fresh twist and creative syncopation for each action scene; plus a couple of achingly beautiful slow themes. (Not to mention that utterly odd bass harmonica villain's theme.) I love practically every minute of this soundtrack.

3. The Big Country (1958) by Jerome Moross
A slightly earlier score, but with a similar sensibility. The marvelous sweeping main theme is undoubtedly the best part; it's another one of those pieces that you just can't help loving, both in the grand main title and the lovely slower renditions later on. There's other good moments throughout the score too.

Runners-up: The Sons of Katie Elder (1965) and The Comancheros (1961), both by Elmer Bernstein; the gorgeous main theme to Rio Grande (1950) by Victor Young; The Searchers (1956) by Max Steiner; Dances With Wolves (1990) by John Barry. I also really like the main theme of Silverado (1985) by Bruce Broughton, though I haven't heard the whole score.

It is a curious thing that my favorite scores don't come from my favorite movies. Quite a few of these films I've never seen, haven't seen all the way through, or didn't particularly care for. Favorite films are a subject for another day. But anyway...what are your favorite Western movie scores?

Thursday, August 7, 2014

"You will do yourself a personal favor and get my appreciation."

I have at last gotten one step more professional and created my own email newsletter. If you would like to receive early-bird notifications of new releases from Second Sentence Press, you can sign up for the mailing list right here! You won't be peppered with news of sales and events or miscellaneous updates; that's what my blog is for—you'll simply receive an email trumpeting the news each time I release a new book.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Back to Business

With the flurry of summer sales and giveaways and such (and a round of edits on Corral Nocturne) safely behind me, I've finally settled back into near-daily writing. Perhaps it's because of all that time I was forced to take off in the spring, but right now I tend to work in frantic bursts of hours on end, unwilling to tear myself away from the notebook. Working in this manner, I astounded myself by finishing up two half-completed short stories in just a few days, just before my family took a week's vacation. I'd had those stories on my conscience for months, and I figured it was time to just get them done for good and all.

I seem to operate better when I have short-term goals. Right now I'm in the middle of another short story that I've had planned for a very long time, which will also be very pleasant to have off my conscience. It and the two I just mentioned, all Westerns, are intended for my next collection of Western stories; and when I finish this current one I'll have a total of six completed story drafts to edit and put together into that collection at leisure. Could we see it published this year? Possibly, but I don't want to make any rash predictions.

After finishing this story, I intend to go back to The Summer Country, which I have no excuse not to finish with nearly half of the first draft done already and a full and coherent outline to work from.

Meanwhile, I've been picking away at my summer reading. This might be the first year in recent memory where I arrive at the end of August with a few books from my list still unread—no matter, they'll keep just as nicely for fall and winter. To be fair, I have filled in the gaps with some smaller things—re-reading Saki, for instance (I am still split between liking and disliking him); and after finishing Miss Elizabeth Bennet I discovered two volumes of Milne's plays in the public domain and of course had to read them all. They made charming, relaxing reading for sunny afternoons on the deck. I do not think there is such a thing as too much Milne.

Interlibrary loan has failed to find me a copy of Tarkington's National Avenue as yet. I'll give 'em a few more weeks, and then start hunting a used copy of my own. Who knew it would be so hard to finish out a trilogy?

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Western Roundup Giveaway Hop winners!

The Western Roundup Giveaway Hop has ended, and the Rafflecopter (I just love that helpful gadget) has chosen two random winners:

The paperback copy of Left-Hand Kelly goes to Jan Hall


the ebook copy goes to Joseph Hawkshaw.

Winners have been notified by email. Thank you very much to everyone who entered the giveaway!

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Decently and In Order

A comment left by Hamlette on my review of War and Peace last week got me thinking in a new way about the question of whether it's better to read the book before watching the movie or not. She said she often enjoys reading the book afterwards for the pleasure of discovering all the things that weren't in the movie, rather than watching the movie with the consciousness of all the things that are being left out. And that reminded me of my own experience reading several very good novels after having seen the film adaptations, which I'd liked simply as movies for their own sake. I started tallying up the numbers of book/film combinations I'd experienced in this order, and here's a few of the best examples:

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
National Velvet by Enid Bagnold
Random Harvest by James Hilton
All This, and Heaven Too by Rachel Field
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Mrs. Miniver by Jan Struther
Shane by Jack Schafer
A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
Life With Father by Clarence Day
Mama's Bank Account [I Remember Mama] by Kathryn Forbes
Old Yeller by Fred Gipson
Green For Danger by Christianna Brand
No Highway [in the Sky] by Nevil Shute
[The] Friendly Persuasion by Jessamyn West
A Night to Remember by Walter Lord
They Were Expendable by William L. White
The Longest Day by Cornelius Ryan
Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
Alice Adams by Booth Tarkington
The Winslow Boy by Terence Rattigan

Those are all good movies as well as good books. Most of them are very good adaptations, too (National Velvet and, to a lesser degree, Green For Danger are examples of book and movie being very different, but each good in its own way). The question is, would I have ever liked the movies so much if I'd read the book first? 

For argument's sake I've left out those where I simply didn't like the book—that always happens now and again. (I also left out miniseries, which are another thing altogether, and Jane Austen adaptations, which are practically a genre unto themselves.) And once in a while a film adaptation actually has a slight edge—I think the stage/film version of Life With Father outsparkles its source material just a bit; and I still prefer the film version of Friendly Persuasion to the book. Alice Adams kind of breaks even because of the slight differences between book and film; I liked some things a little better in each.

Nonfiction adaptations are a bit of a different creature—there's dramatic license taken, of course, which for some reason seems easier to put up with than the mangling of a fictional creation. (I wonder why that is? Perhaps it's because with fiction, each reader forms a stronger individual conception of what the story should be like; while the facts of nonfiction already exist independent of the reader's and author's minds.) But if you don't know all the facts beforehand, you don't have to spend the movie growling over that dramatic license. And for me, reading a nonfiction book after seeing its adaptation fills in details that give the film even more of an impact. It's one thing to watch a scene of glider troops landing in The Longest Day; it's another to read how a shortage of pilots meant that some glider planes had to be landed by totally untrained troopers if a pilot was wounded. The incident of an MTB's engine clogging because of sabotaged gasoline in They Were Expendable takes on more significance if you read how the squadron's entire supply of gasoline had been sabotaged, the effect it had on their motors and how that affected their missions through the entire campaign.

Now, for comparison, here's some of the books I read before seeing a movie adaption:

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
The Magnificent Ambersons by Booth Tarkington
Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson
Goodbye, Mr. Chips by James Hilton
The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett
Little Lord Fauntleroy by Frances Hodgson Burnett
Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
My Friend Flicka by Mary O'Hara
Johnny Tremain by Esther Forbes
My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier
And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie
Witness For the Prosecution by Agatha Christie

Interestingly, my reaction to a lot of these movies followed the same pattern: "Decent movie, but nothing compared to the book." Of course, the actual quality of these adaptations varies. Anna Karenina ('35) is pretty limp by any standard; My Friend Flicka and Johnny Tremain are colorless and trivial when compared to the books, and no version of Treasure Island that I've seen has ever quite got it right. On the other hand, Little Lord Fauntleroy ('36) and Goodbye, Mr. Chips ('39) were both very good and very accurate—Goodbye, Mr. Chips is probably the only one off this list where I can say I like book and film equally (worth noting, it's by far the shortest book here; much easier to adapt!). Several off this list are indeed pretty good movies, but there are few that I like as well as the titles on the first list. The interesting question is, would I have been quite so unimpressed if I hadn't read the books first?

So what do you think? Do you prefer to read the book or watch the movie first? Do you think you'd be inclined to like a movie better if you're not comparing it to the book as you watch?

Monday, July 28, 2014

Watch the Horizon: "Plenilune" by Jennifer Freitag is Coming

For a long time, Jennifer Freitag has dazzled us with bits and pieces of intriguing and mysterious works-in-progress over at her excellent blog, The Penslayer. This autumn, we will finally get to experience one of them in full:

~ * ~
The fate of Plenilune hangs on the election of the Overlord, for which Rupert de la Mare and his brother are the only contenders, but when Rupert’s unwilling bride-to-be uncovers his plot to murder his brother, the conflict explodes into civil war.

To assure the minds of the lord-electors of Plenilune that he has some capacity for humanity, Rupert de la Mare has been asked to woo and win a lady before he can become the Overlord, and he will do it—even if he has to kidnap her.

En route to Naples to catch a suitor, Margaret Coventry was not expecting a suitor to catch her.
~ * ~

Plenilune is the first in a planned series of fantasy novels, and it will be released on October 20th. I'm excited about this release, in part because I am going to be doing the ebook formatting for it—which makes me an advance reader by default. I haven't read a fantasy novel in years, but I am decidedly intrigued by this series, owing to those stunning snippets of Jenny's writing I mentioned above. So mark your calendars, and in the meantime you can add Plenilune to your to-read shelf on Goodreads right here.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

War and Peace (1956)

I waited quite a while to see this movie. I'd told my mom that it would best be seen after reading the book—which I'd already done several years ago—and she had plans to read it, so we put off watching the movie till then. Mom finally read the book this summer. For a long time she kept telling me it was slow going, but by the final quarter of the book she was completely invested in the story and characters—giving the rest of us periodic bulletins on what they were up to, while I was kind of grinning behind my hand because I already knew how things turned out and had a feeling she'd like it. And when she finished the book last week, we finally watched the movie.

The first thing one has to acknowledge, of course, are the film's limitations. So much of the meat of Tolstoy's novels lies in the thoughts of his characters; so many important events are viewed through their eyes. That's the kind of thing that is nearly impossible to transfer to the screen. And the sheer massive size of War and Peace means that a feature film, even a three-and-a-half-hour one, must choose which scenes to dramatize and move quickly through them. The beginning of the film feels a little piecemeal, with a little of these characters, a little of those, different scenes that don't connect right away, but it gradually picks up steam and draws together a little as it goes on. I told my mom that if you borrowed a bit of music terminology you could call it "Selections From War and Peace." But there are a lot of individual moments and crucial scenes that are beautifully done.

The thing that has to be the biggest head-scratcher for anyone who knows the book is how the character of Pierre Bezukhov, variously described as "stout," "enormous," "corpulent" and "fat," could possibly be portrayed by...Henry Fonda? Yet he manages to give a pretty good performance. In spite of the obvious wrongness of his age and appearance, one still somehow gets glimpses of the personality and mannerisms of Tolstoy's Pierre. I don't know if it's the spectacles or something in makeup or hairstyling, but Fonda doesn't even look quite like himself sometimes (though there's never any question of his being the least bit stout).

On the other hand, the casting of Audrey Hepburn as Natasha Rostov is absolute perfection. She brings to life the flighty, heedless but bewitching girl and her gradual, sometimes painful maturation through love, mistakes made and the suffering of war. And she looks and sounds just as I always pictured Natasha. Mel Ferrer's Prince Andrei is also excellent, in spite of the script's stinting a bit on the development of his character. I thought their real-life chemistry (they were newly married at the time) particularly showed through in the lovely proposal scene, one of those fine moments of the film. (I also loved the whole sequence of Natasha's first ball). John Mills has fairly little screen time in the role of Platon Karatev, but makes the most of it, although the film doesn't really capture the importance of the character. I was amazed how entirely different his voice, accent and entire personality were from other characters I've seen him play. Some supporting characters, such as Dolokhov (Helmut Dantine), Anatole Kuragin (Vittorio Gassman) and the rest of the Rostov family, come off well, but others such as Helene Kuragina (Anita Ekberg) and Lisa Bolkonskaya (Milly Vitale) don't really have enough screen time to be understood or make an impression.

The film spends a while on Peace before working its way into War, but once there, the historical scenes really crackle with the contrasting personalities of the two commanding generals, Napoleon (Herbert Lom) and Field Marshal Kutuzov (Oscar Homolka). The appearance, posturing and mannerisms of Lom's Napoleon are so remarkably like every picture I've ever seen of the real man, it's uncannily like seeing a historical figure come to life before your eyes. The initial battle scenes seemed a trifle flat, but as the film goes on they gradually built in complexity and intensity—the battle of Borodino is staggering in its sheer scale and detail; moments like the French cavalry charge just stunning. It all climaxes in the devastating retreat from Moscow, with the demoralized French army struggling through rain, mud and snow. The final shot of Napoleon's face as he leaves the scene of the disastrous Varya River crossing says it all.

The one thing that I found unforgiveable in this adaptation, however, was the slashing of the subplot concerning Nikolai Rostov (Jeremy Brett) and Princess Marya (Anna Maria Ferrero). In the novel, they are the most significant characters after the trio of Pierre, Natasha and Andrei, with large sections of plot told from their perspective; and incidentally some of my favorites. In the film they are reduced to peripheral characters, Marya practically a nonentity. The scene where Nikolai comes to her rescue during the French invasion becomes an off-screen incident, briefly mentioned in a couple of lines spoken by Pierre. I was also disappointed that the character of Denisov (Patrick Crean) was cut down to practically nothing; I enjoyed his scenes in the book.

Is it a good adaptation? Yes and no. The ending is obviously too quick; there isn't enough emphasis on how much time is supposed to have passed since the end of the war, and an important relationship is brought to a resolution almost instantly instead of undergoing the slow and natural growth it sees in the book. But this, as with most of the film's flaws, has to be put down to time limits. A viewer who doesn't know the book would probably find it an occasionally wandering but predominately well-acted and visually beautiful film. I still think it's best seen after reading the book; even though you know there are enormous gaps, it's worth the experience of seeing some parts attractively brought to life.

And now if you'll excuse me, I think I'm off to read War and Peace again...

Monday, July 21, 2014

Summer Sales

“I’m not a bargain hunter,” she said, “but I like to go where bargains are.”

~ Saki, Beasts and Super-Beasts

I'm on vacation this week, but there's a good deal going on with my books. Whether you're a bargain-hunter, or just like going where the bargains are, do stop and cast an eye over these tempting opportunities to nab a good book for little or nothing:

~ Today through Wednesday only, Left-Hand Kelly is free on Kindle.

~ Meanwhile, don't forget you can also enter to win a paperback copy in the Western Roundup Giveaway Hop, which runs through July 31st.

~ As part of the Read to Win event hosted by the Homeschool Authors blog, the Kindle edition of The Ranch Next Door and Other Stories is on sale for 99¢ all this week.

~ Also as part of that event, I've been interviewed again at Homeschool Authors today, talking about The Ranch Next Door and Other Stories, encouraging reviews, summer reading and more.  I'll also have a guest post there later in the week, on the little details of historical research.

~ The Silver Shawl is also currently free on Kindle (and at Barnes & Noble and Smashwords, if your taste runs to .epub files).

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Western Roundup Giveaway Hop 2014

The time has come around again for the Western Roundup Giveaway Hop, hosted by author M.K. McClintock. Participating bloggers will be giving away a variety of Western-themed books, so be sure and explore the different entries in the linky below for more giveaways to enter.

As for me, this year I am giving away two copies of my new Western release, Left-Hand Kellyone signed paperback and one ebook. Read on to find out more about the book, and then scroll down further to enter the giveaway via Rafflecopter:

~ * ~

Sixteen-year-old Lew Kelly grew up idolizing his enigmatic ex-gunfighter father. Everyone thought Lew’s habit of practicing his quick draw was a harmless amusement—until the day when a boys’ hot-headed quarrel exploded into gunplay, with disastrous results.

Three years later, Lew is withdrawn and bitter—and he still carries a gun. When an unexpected twist of circumstances forces him to face again the memories and the aftermath of that ill-fated fight, will old wrongs be righted—or will the result be an even worse tragedy than before?

Novella, approximately 38,000 words.
~ * ~

"A very difficult to put down read...Foley’s characters are both complex and well developed...The tale is beautifully paced, building through tense and frantic scenes to its neat conclusion."
~ Western Fiction Review

a Rafflecopter giveaway