Monday, October 5, 2015

Journaling: A Resource For Fiction Writers

I had hoped to finish my first draft of Lost Lake House by the end of last week, but coming down with a bad cold put an end to that hope. When I have a bad cold I am not good for much in the way of intellectual pursuits except reading humorous literature (P.G. Wodehouse or Angela Thirkell fits the bill nicely). Oh, well; maybe this week I'll be able to get back on track with writing.

One thing I did manage to do, though, was start compiling notes for editing One of Ours, which I'm hoping to begin after finishing this draft of Lost Lake House. These particular notes came from a different source than you might expect. I've been keeping a journal pretty regularly for about six years now, and over the last few I've increasingly used journaling to brainstorm story ideas and work out kinks of plot and character. The kind of writing I do in my journal is much freer and more rambling than anything I do in a plotting notebook, and this talking out loud to myself on the page, so to speak, has often helped me work through a puzzling problem or come up with something new a story needed.

After I read Leaving a Trace: On Keeping a Journal by Alexandra Johnson, I adopted the practice of indexing my journals, and went back and indexed all my filled ones too. Indexing subjects mentioned in a journal can be particularly helpful for memoir and nonfiction writers who draw on their journals for material, but since I do so much brainstorming in mine I've found it very helpful for fiction too. I keep a separate index of story titles, referred to in shorthand by their initials to save time when I'm scribbling madly—The Silver Shawl was TSS, Lost Lake House is LLH, and so forth. So far I haven't run into the issue of two stories with the same initials...but referring to One of Ours does have its own peculiarity, as its initials, obviously, are OOO. After a few instances of that I tried to give it a slightly less disconcerting appearance by rendering it O.o.O. ("I should just invent a hieroglyph," I noted in one entry.)

Anyhow, one afternoon last week I got out all my filled journals and my almost-filled current one, and used the indexes to track down all mentions of One of Ours, which frequently contained notes-to-self about things I wanted to add or refine in the next draft. I made notes of all the useful suggestions and ended up with three-and-a-half notebook pages full of pointers for my first round of edits—ranging from things as simple as "Make the boys talk more in [this] scene" or "Possibly rename Mrs. Fullerton" to more detailed notes about developing certain themes in the story or a tentative suggestion for a different way to stage the novel's opening scene. Quite a lot of these notes involve ideas that came to me after I was deep into writing the book, which I now need to go back and weave into earlier chapters as well.

So if you keep a journal and you frequently use it for fiction-writing musings, an index could be a marvelous help in finding these things when you need them. The method outlined in Leaving a Trace is simple: using a ruler, divide the last three pages of your journal vertically and horizontally, leaving you with four squares of space on each page. Mark these with the letters of the alphabet—the letters A, B, C, S, and T will each require their own square, being most frequently used; the others share three to a square. If my journal has solid-color endpapers, I keep my separate story index there, but you could easily allot an extra page for that too. (Of course for filled journals, there were no blank pages left, so I did a makeshift index entirely on the endpapers.) It's recommended you number your pages and index what you've written every ten pages or so as you go along for convenience. And there you go—anything fiction-related you've jotted down in your journal will be at your fingertips when you need it for editing or inspiration.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

New Release - The Silent Hour: A Mrs. Meade Mystery

The Silent Hour: A Mrs. Meade Mystery

Ebook $2.99

Major Cambert and his grandson Jim were known to have quarreled bitterly over Jim’s choice of a wife, so when the Major is found shot dead by his own fireside a few nights later, Jim is the prime suspect—and a suspect without an alibi. But there were others who may have held a grudge against the Major too: an obnoxious ex-soldier, a sullen ranch hand…and Jim’s fiancée. And none of them can account for their whereabouts during the dark hour when Major Cambert was murdered. With no other evidence to go on, Mrs. Meade will have to apply all her wits to discover who is really guilty…

The Silent Hour is a novella, approximately 19,100 words long.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Quote: Another Human Being on the Page

Characters take on life sometimes by luck, but I suspect it is when you can write more entirely out of yourself, inside the skin, heart, mind, and soul of a person who is not yourself, that a character becomes in his own right another human being on the page.

~Eudora Welty

Friday, September 25, 2015

Musical Interlude: 12 Favorite Sons of the Pioneers Songs

I typically have between twenty and fifty Sons of the Pioneers songs on my mp3 player at any given time. It's nice when your favorite group has a large discography, isn't it? I figured the simplest way to identify my real favorites was to look at which ones I listen to most, and sure enough, the results are accurate. I couldn't get it down to ten, and fifteen was likewise impossible—because I had about ten candidates for the last three spots and couldn't decide which ought to go in. So I left it at a nice round dozen. These are loosely in order, some with commentary and some without:

"Tumbleweed Trail" (Bob Nolan)
Not to be confused with "Tumbling Tumbleweeds." This was a song that became a favorite without my knowing how or why—but now I love everything about it: the melody, the vocals, the gentle melancholy with the uplifting note of hope at the end.

"Blue Prairie" (Bob Nolan/Tim Spencer)
Possibly holds a record for use of the word "blue" in one set of lyrics—and deserves an award for sheer atmosphere too.

"When Payday Rolls Around" (Bob Nolan)
See it performed very similarly on film.

"Chant of the Wanderer" (Bob Nolan)
I don't know what everybody else's definition of "cool" is, but I call this pretty darn cool. The catchy rhythm, clever poetic lyrics and echoes—it's just unique.

"Song of the Bandit" (Bob Nolan)
Trivia: songwriter Bob Nolan, who was strongly influenced by English and American poets (who else referenced Keats and Poe in cowboy songs?) said that this song was inspired by Alfred Noyes' "The Highwayman." There's various other recordings at a slightly slower pace, but I think it's best with the galloping rhythm of this one.

"Out California Way" (Carling Foster/Jack Meakin)
I typically don't care for the mid-1940s RCA recordings, where I think the sometimes cheesy instrumental accompaniment obscure the vocal harmonies. This is one of the exceptions. The smooth vocals, swinging rhythm and unobtrusive instrumentals are perfect, and it always puts a smile on my face.

"The Lilies Grow High" (Stan Jones)
Best "gunfighter" song I've ever heard. I listened to this one a lot when I was writing "Single-Handed."

"The Prairie Sings a Lullaby" (Glenn Spencer)
Incredibly, the only time this beautiful song was ever recorded was in the 1940 movie The Durango Kid. Fortunately there were no other noises on the soundtrack to interrupt it, so we get to enjoy it to the full.

"When the Moon Comes Over Sun Valley" (Tim Spencer/Roy Rogers)

"Trail Dreamin' " (Bob Nolan)

"Ridin' Down the Canyon" (Smiley Burnette)

"At the Old Barn Dance" (Tim Spencer/Carl Winge)
A rare example of two-part harmony that gives us a chance to hear better the Pioneer method of passing the melody back and forth between the different voices. And just a lovely little song.
These are, of course, strictly my personal favorites—it's not a best-of or introduction-to list or anywhere near a comprehensive one. It doesn't have any of the big hits ("Tumbling Tumbleweeds," "Cool Water," "Way Out There"), or examples of the famous harmony yodel ("Sagebrush Symphony," "One More Ride"), or the cattle-driving ballads ("Hold That Critter Down," "Move On, You Lazy Cattle"), or the pioneer songs ("Wagons West," "Following the Sun All Day"). I didn't get in "Ridin' Home" or "Rocky Mountain Express" or "Love Song of the Waterfall." It looks like I could easily make a dozen more lists if I tried...

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Near Relations: Historical Mystery and Classic Mystery

Mystery today is one of the most adaptable genres, or at least one on which a wide variety of variations are made. Booksellers split the main genre into half a dozen subcategories: hard-boiled, cozy, historical, British, police procedurals, and more. Authors have discovered over the years that the classic mystery plot can be given a fresh twist by trying it out in different scenarios and styles, sometimes with splendid results. I’ve read and enjoyed some of these attempts, but the lure of the classics is always strong. I’m always ready to go back to certain settings—say, an English country house in the 1930s, with a mixed bag of suspects and an enigmatic private sleuth to sift them out. One book along these lines may be better than another, but the formula never gets old.

 In my own writing, historical mystery is my sub-genre of choice. It’s a pretty extensive sub-genre in itself—you can have a historical mystery set anywhere from ancient Rome to Regency England or the trenches of World War I. But in spite of this, and in spite of the fact that it’s one of many sub-genres, I personally feel it shares the closest kinship with the “classic” mystery, the style that many of us know best. Think about it for a minute. Mystery fiction as we know it began with authors such as Wilkie Collins, Edgar Allan Poe, Arthur Conan Doyle and their contemporaries in the 19th century, and was refined into an art by G.K. Chesterton, Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers and a multitude of others during mystery’s Golden Age in the early 20th century. A genre often permanently retains some of the characteristics of the era in which it was born or became most popular—certain plot devices, character types or literary styles that particularly resonated with the people of those times linger on through decades of later authors’ efforts. The detective novel was born in the Victorian era and came of age during the Roaring Twenties, the glamorous ’30s and the World Wars. I think to some degree, the culture of those times is woven into the fabric of the genre, and filters through our consciousness when we hear the word “mystery.”

That’s true, at least, for those of us who cut our mystery teeth on Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot. Modern-day mysteries just don’t hold the same appeal for me. There’s a certain flair and romance to the old standbys of the footprint and fingerprint, the cigar ash, the handkerchief with a whiff of perfume, the railroad timetable, the half-burned scrap of paper and the revolver in the desk drawer. Cell phones and digital technology just aren’t in it. And there’s the plot angle, too. Before the widespread use of forensic evidence, mystery plots focused in on suspects’ motivations, personalities and relationships—the human interaction element—of necessity. This is an element I’ve always found fascinating. Agatha Christie experimented with more dramatic examples of this back in the Golden Age itself, with situations that deliberately stripped away possible physical evidence and relied almost entirely on the testimony of witnesses (Cards on the Table and Five Little Pigs, for example). She even made an early foray into what we would now call historical mystery, setting Death Comes as the End in ancient Egypt.

At the root of it, I suppose, I write historical mystery because I’m a historical-fiction person any way you slice it. Writing in a modern setting has never really worked for me (and I’ve got a couple of failed story drafts to attest to that). When I had an idea for a mystery series, it was only natural that it should be a historical one. Perhaps it’s because of this relationship between history and mystery that I’ve always felt myself on familiar ground while writing the Mrs. Meade Mysteries. My own characters, their home town and their plots may be different, but I still feel I’m following in the footsteps of the mystery authors I’ve read and loved—or at least cutting a new path through a familiar forest.

This post originally appeared under a slightly different title as a guest post at Scribbles and Inkstains in April 2014.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

A Peek into "Lost Lake House" for the 7/7/7 Challenge

Annie Hawthorne of The Curious Wren tagged me for the 7/7/7/ challenge, which involves sharing a bit of one's work-in-progress—and since at the moment I actually have a work-in-progress with a seventh page, on which I may count down seven lines and share the next seven (without running into spoilers!), I thought I'd go for it. This is a bit from Lost Lake House, which, if you hadn't heard me mention it before, is a novella-length retelling of the fairytale "The Twelve Dancing Princesses" set during the Roaring '20s. Bear in mind that this is still a raw first draft and a scene I'm not wholly satisfied with, so it may change (we hope for the better) in future drafts.

She wished people wouldn't interfere with the music so much. But before she had too much time to think about it, a boy asked her to dance and she accepted with alacrity, warming quickly to her favorite pastime. While the mellow, swinging music poured out from among the ferns, and her nimble, scuffed shoes whisked lightly and skilfully across the polished floor, she was almost perfectly happy, and it almost did not matter who her partner was so long as he was a good dancer—although there were certain ones among the Lost Lake House habitués whom she preferred not to have if she could help it, for reasons apart from their dancing.

For several dances she was happily employed, and then, her final partner departing and no other immediately appearing, Dorothy sat down on a sofa in a corner and found herself left alone for a few minutes. She watched the drifting, fox-trotting crowd on the ballroom floor—the feathers and rhinestones against the women's shingled hair, the bright-colored silken frocks with draped backs and necklines—and many smart shoes. Many of the couples who drifted in through one particular door on the north side of the ballroom had glasses in their hands, and these were always a little more raucous and less in time with the music. Dorothy half unconsciously tucked one foot under her on the sofa as she sat in her bedroom at home, a little pinch of unreasoning loneliness drawing her a bit further into herself.

I hereby tag anybody else who'd like to play along—to recap, you flip to the seventh page of your work-in-progress, count down seven lines (which, following the precedent of others, I interpreted as sentences), and then share the next seven.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

The Lawman in Classic Detective Fiction

"Just one hint to you, Lestrade,” drawled Holmes before his rival vanished; “I will tell you the true solution of the matter. Lady St. Simon is a myth. There is not, and there never has been, any such person.”

Lestrade looked sadly at my companion. Then he turned to me, tapped his forehead three times, shook his head solemnly, and hurried away.

~ from "The Adventure of the Noble Bachelor" by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Most classic mystery fiction seems to feature an amateur or private detective. There have been plenty of police procedurals written, and even some Golden Age mystery authors who featured a police inspector as their investigator, but the detectives who seem to have left the biggest mark on the genre are the independent ones, receiving clients in their libraries or poking about inquisitively in country villages. Nevertheless, whenever an actual crime is under investigation, the official police must be involved, and frequently their presence adds another whole layer of conflict to the story.

In some earlier Victorian-era mystery novels, particularly those written in the first person, the police are an outright antagonist, with the book’s narrator frequently in sympathy with some unhappy suspect (usually a lady) and forever in fear of the police’s turning up some evidence against them—sometimes going so far as to try and misdirect the police or actively shield the person from suspicion. As we get into the classic private-detective mystery mold, however, the relationship between detective and policeman is more of a polite but aggravating alliance. They are working toward the same goal, the apprehension of a criminal, but in what very nearly amounts to competition with each other, and often a low opinion of each other’s methods.

Amateur detectives are necessarily aggravating to police, particularly if they happen to be stolid British police. They get information by unorthodox means, they get to the information first, or (most gallingly of all) they manage to get information where the police failed. And—bane of a fictional policeman’s existence—they propound cryptic, outrageous theories and then decline to explain why.

Most of the private detectives of literature had an official nemesis, one who might be brought to grudgingly admit their expertise but was still driven distracted by their methods. Sherlock Holmes had his Lestrade, Hercule Poirot his Inspector Japp. Their service as a different sort of foil to the detective is almost as valuable as that of the loyal companions-and-narrators Watson and Hastings. (The quote at the beginning of this post is my favorite Lestrade moment in the entire Holmes canon.) Yet they’re not the only type of policeman to appear. Holmes and Poirot both occasionally met with intelligent, sympathetic inspectors with whom they had a pleasant working relationship. Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple encountered her fair share of skeptics, but was fortunate enough to have friends in high places as well—her old acquaintance Sir Henry Clithering, for instance, the former Police Commissioner who is always ready to champion her abilities to disbelieving subordinates; and the younger Inspector Craddock (whose relationship with her progresses as far as calling her “Aunt Jane” by their later cases together!). Dorothy Sayers took it a step further with the character of Detective-Inspector Parker, making him a close personal friend of her independent sleuth Lord Peter Wimsey, and their working relationship perhaps one of the best examples of policeman and private detective combining efforts. Yet even here, in spite of their friendship, the tension between official and independent methods is occasionally felt.

When I first created my own lawman for the Mrs. Meade Mysteries, the blunt, gruff Sheriff Andrew Royal, I had no idea that he would develop into a full-fledged recurring character. I needed a sheriff in The Silver Shawl and I invented one. But since then, he’s become one of my very favorite fictional characters to write. He adds a welcome jolt of energy and a dash of humor to every scene he appears in. As a mystery-fiction lawman, he’s partly of the Japp and Lestrade variety, often driven distracted by Mrs. Meade’s baffling methods of reasoning, but he’s also a worthwhile ally to have on your side when you need him. (As remarked in The Parting Glass, he has “a respect for Mrs. Meade’s insight that she had well earned, but he had not yet accustomed himself to the unexpectedness of her thought processes.”) There’s less absolute clash in methods, since Royal, the sheriff of a small rural town, is not quite as formal as Scotland Yard, but he does have his own blunt ideas about doing his duty.

Beyond that, though, what makes his and Mrs. Meade’s conversations work is the fact that they’re also old friends— in spite of their widely differing personalities, they can discuss things more freely and understand each other’s point of view better than they ever would otherwise. Though I’ve read hundreds of mysteries, until I created Sheriff Royal, I’m not sure I ever fully comprehended the use of a lawman as a foil for the detective. Now, though, it’s become one of my favorite aspects of writing the series.

This post originally appeared as a guest post on J. Grace Pennington's blog in April 2014.

Friday, September 11, 2015

They Have a Story: At the Turn of the Road

"LaGrange vs. LaGrange" by Mort Kunstler

Emily Ann Putzke recently introduced a new historical fiction link-up on her blog: They Have a Story. The idea is for each participant to write a short piece of historical fiction inspired by a chosen picture. Since I haven't had the fun of writing a spur-of-the-moment bit of flash fiction in a while, and this month's picture was a good one, I decided to jump in and give it a try. This piece turned out a bit longer than I thought it would—they almost always do—and yet I still felt that if I wanted I could have expanded it and made it twice as long. There's that much food for story in this picture! But for the sake of experiment, I kept it tight.
“They’re coming!”

A small boy ran barefoot up the steps to where the women were clustered, their wide skirts sweeping to the edges of the veranda. Priscilla’s throat went dry, and her fingers pressed tightly around the barrel of the rifle she held. She looked around with a sense of unreality at the others beside her. There was Sara Crosby who had never had occasion to touch a gun in her life before—Priscilla only hoped she would remember to hold it the right way up—there was Mrs. Eythe, who knew how to load and fire a rifle as well as either of her sons, now somewhere up north with General Lee. The firearms they held were a motley collection, mostly old flintlocks and fowling-pieces, but Catherine Moore had a nearly-new Enfield that had belonged to her husband.

The sound of trotting horses was heard round the bend now, and a puff of dust drifted ahead of it as a herald. The women filed down from the veranda, catching their skirts up from the dust by habit, and grouped themselves at the spot where the road narrowed to pass the house. In a moment the cavalry came in sight: dark-blue coats filmed with dust, faces carved hard with weariness and fighting, brown and bay horses snorting and sweating. Just behind the captain a sergeant and some men drove two prisoners in Confederate gray on foot—their hands tied, stumbling stiffly as if their feet were dead.

The captain reined in his horse and lifted a gauntleted hand, and the strung-out troop gradually jingled and rattled to a halt, piling up against itself in closer ranks. He lowered his hand and stared for a moment at the women with rifles, stared as if he thought his eyes were deceiving him—or as if he hoped they did. Priscilla’s eyes ran along the front rank of horsemen, across a seemingly innumerable amount of glinting sabers and holstered sidearms. The metal of her rifle-barrel was warm now from her fingers clutching it—her stomach roiled and there was a sour taste in her mouth. None of the women moved—their leveled rifles made a ragged fringe barely extending beyond their hooped skirts. Behind them, the leaves rustled gently in the stately old trees over the village green…where Catherine Moore’s husband had been hanged by a Union cavalry patrol two weeks before.

There was a determined calm among them, through Priscilla knew that more hearts beside her own must have been beating swiftly. They were old and young, many of them relations in some way, all of them neighbors. There were some who never spoke to each other more than they could help, but they were entirely in agreement on what was to be done today. They were united to prevent the repetition of a tragedy, this time at the expense of a frail white-haired little woman who sat by an open window in a small house on the far side of the green, unaware of what was taking place.

It was Catherine Moore who spoke, her voice firm and cool and bold. “Captain, we would that you turn over those two prisoners to us.”

The captain touched his wide-brimmed hat, bending slightly in stiff courtesy, but he did not remove it. “Madam, that I do not have the authority to do.”

“Neither do you have the authority to hang them. These men are not spies nor criminals, nor are they even deserters from their own army. They are entitled to be treated as prisoners of war.”

Priscilla’s hands trembled for the first time as she allowed herself to look toward the prisoners. She saw Jeff Prentiss, lean and ragged, his fair hair rough and grayed with dust, looking too dulled by exhaustion to know what was going on—his eyes blankly scanned the group of women; he stared straight at her for a second and Priscilla thought he did not recognize her.

The captain raised his voice slightly. “Ladies, I will ask you to remove from the road.”

There was not a flicker, not a word, not a hesitation among them. The motley rifles did not waver.

A sort of charged amusement ran through the ranks of cavalrymen, a murmur that spread back down the lines. A smart-looking lieutenant in blue said something about the monstrous regiment of women that it was just as well the captain did not hear. The second prisoner, a gaunt bearded man who was a stranger to the women, seemed to be almost enjoying the situation.

At last the captain sighed harshly. He lifted his hand palm upwards in resignation. “Madam, as a gentleman I have no other recourse. I will not turn these men over to you. But I will give you my word of honor that they will be safely delivered as prisoners of war.”

Catherine Moore’s gaze remained steadily fixed on him for a moment, as if she were trying to read something in his face. Then she raised the Enfield slightly, so it no longer aimed at the deep blue of the captain’s coat, but at the fairer blue of the sky. She said, “And may the curse of a just Heaven and a bereaved mother be upon you if you should break it.”

Priscilla saw one…two…several more heads in the front ranks of horsemen turn to look speculatively at their commander. He was not the only gentleman in the troop…and their silent scrutiny would bind him to his word if ever he should be tempted to break it. The captain gave an order, and the column of cavalry began with a jingling and rattling to turn itself about. Priscilla pressed forward suddenly, bumping the stock of her rifle against her neighbor’s elbow, trying to get a glimpse of Jeff Prentiss before the blue ranks closed about him. One more glimpse, for it was the last she would see of him for a long time…

Taking DictationA horse moved in front of him, and the cavalry was on its way—picking up its regular trot again. On the other side of the village green the breeze would bring the sound of the hoofbeats to old Mrs. Prentiss’s open window, and she would wonder what the sound was from.

As the last of the troopers disappeared round the bend the women broke ranks, their tongues loosed at last, skirts swishing as they crowded warmly round Catherine Moore. But Catherine stood like a stone, looking after the retreating soldiers, her husband’s Enfield in her hands.

Priscilla drew a deep shaky breath. She let her rifle slide through rather weak hands and rested the stock gently on the ground.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Beautiful People: Dorothy

September's Beautiful People coincides nicely with my beginning a new project, so I thought it would be both fun and useful in helping me develop my main female character a little better. As always, if you're not familiar with the exercise, Beautiful People is a monthly blog link-up hosted by Sky of Further Up and Further In and Cait of Paper Fury, in which writers answer a set of questions about the personalities and habits of their characters. Taking a cue from Jenny, I bent this set slightly by swapping out a few questions that just didn't seem to have any bearing on my story, and substituting a couple from the Beautiful People archive. Hope that doesn't disqualify me? Anyhow, my chosen character this month is the heroine of my Jazz Age novella Lost Lake House, Dorothy Perkins, who's about sixteen years old, I think.

She's in a crisis: who would she really like to see right now?

That's rather the unfortunate thing with Dorothy: she doesn't know. With no mother and a busy and distracted father, she doesn't really have one person she can lean on or run to when she's in trouble.

Is she easy to get along with?

Most of the time, yes. She's a generally sweet-tempered girl—but she does know how to be quite stiff-necked if you cross her the wrong way!

Does she see the big picture or live in the moment?
In the moment. She's prone to making impulsive decisions based on the moment, and then feeling rather dismayed as she gradually becomes aware of the big picture later on.

Is she naturally curious?
Indeed. With Dorothy, curiosity occasionally overcomes such other natural sensations as doubt or fear...which isn't always the best thing.

She's in the middle of a huge crowd of people: how does she feel?
Dorothy likes people, and likes a bit of sound and color and excitement; so as long as it isn't a positively hostile kind of crowd or one containing some element that makes her uncomfortable, she can hold her own quite well.

Does she believe in luck or miracles?
She had rather hoped such a thing might get her out of the sticky situation she's in at the outset of the story, but by this time she's just about given up hoping.

If she could travel anywhere in the world, where would she go?
At this stage in her life, I think she would probably choose a place with a tradition of glitter and excitement, like New York City, perhaps.

How does she feel about her appearance?
She finds it satisfactory for the most part, but she does occasionally feel exasperated that no matter how she tries, she can't quite look as grown-up and sophisticated as she would like to. Her youthful features and curly hair simply don't lend themselves to what she sees as grown-up elegance.

Friday, September 4, 2015

Blog Tag Addendum: Favorite Quotes

A few weeks ago my laptop of five years decided to start coming apart at the seams—literally. Endeavoring to extend its life at least till Christmas, I've been doing most of my Internet browsing on a different computer, with an unfamiliar keyboard and touchpad that lead to strange mistakes sometimes. I partly blame that touchpad for the fact that when I did Annie Hawthorne's blog tag questions last week, I managed to miss one of them entirely when copying and pasting the tag into my own post, and didn't notice the error till the next day! The one I missed was "Share favorite quotes from four books," so I thought I'd correct the error and do it now. The way it ended up, this could also be construed as "Share quotes from four favorite books":

Some of the baggage was out on the tarmac. I could see my own shabby case wedged between a brand-new Revrobe and something huge and extravagant in cream-colored hide. Mine had been a good case once, good solid leather stamped deeply with Daddy's initials, now half hidden under the new label smeared by London's rain. Miss L. Martin, Paris. Symbolic, I thought, with an amusement that twisted a bit awry somewhere inside me. Miss L. Martin, Paris, trudging along between a stout man in impeccable city clothes and a beautiful American girl with a blond mink coat slung carelessly over a suit that announced discreetly that she had been to Paris before, and recently. I myself must have just that drab, seen-better days shabbiness that Daddy's old case had, perched up there among the sleek cabin-class luggage. 
~ Mary Stewart, Nine Coaches Waiting

It oughtn't to need a war to make us talk to each other in buses, and invent our own amusements in the evenings, and live simply, and eat sparingly, and recover the use of our legs, and get up early enough to see the sun rise. However, it has needed one: which is about the severest criticism our civilization could have.  
~ Jan Struther, Mrs. Miniver

"Old man Hasken o' the "East Wind"—Troop seemed to be talking to himself—"he tripped on a hatch an' butted the mainmast with his head—hardish. 'Baout three weeks afterwards, old man Hasken he would hev it that the "East Wind" was a commerce-destroyin' man-o'-war, an' so he declared war on Sable Island because it was Bridish, an' the shoals run aout too far. They sewed him up in a bed-bag, his head an' feet appearin', fer the rest o' the trip, an' now he's to home in Essex playin' with little rag dolls."

Harvey choked with rage, but Troop went on consolingly: "We're sorry fer you. We're very sorry fer you—an' so young."  
~ Rudyard Kipling, Captains Courageous

The twin spirits Romance and Adventure are always abroad seeking worthy wooers. As we roam the streets they slyly peep at us and challenge us in twenty different guises. Without knowing why, we look up suddenly to see in a window a face that seems to belong to our gallery of intimate portraits; in a sleeping thoroughfare we hear a cry of agony and fear coming from an empty and shuttered house; instead of at our familiar curb, a cab-driver deposits us before a strange door, which one, with a smile, opens for us and bids us enter; a slip of paper, written upon, flutters down to our feet from the high lattices of Chance; we exchange glances of instantaneous hate, affection and fear with hurrying strangers in the passing crowds; a sudden douse of rain—and our umbrella may be sheltering the daughter of the Full Moon and first cousin of the Sidereal System; at every corner handkerchiefs drop, fingers beckon, eyes besiege, and the lost, the lonely, the rapturous, the mysterious, the perilous, changing clues of adventure are slipped into our fingers. But few of us are willing to hold and follow them. 
~ O. Henry, "The Green Door"

Monday, August 31, 2015

Fairytales on the Menu

As I mentioned in a recent post, I've been having a lot of fun with fairytale retellings lately. It's a genre I was never even really aware of until Rooglewood Press's Five Glass Slippers competition gave me the inspiration to write Corral Nocturne. Writing for that contest and reading the winning entries was such fun, I've long toyed with the idea of writing more fairytale-based stories at some point. More recently, I've been inspired by Suzannah Rowntree's wonderfully creative takes on both well-known and lesser-known fairytales. So the long and the short of it is, I have a couple more of my own in various stages of pre-production (to borrow a filmmaker's term). Lost Lake House is a retelling of the Twelve Dancing Princesses set in the Roaring '20s. And The Mountain of the Wolf, an idea that basically came out of nowhere and smacked me between the eyes this month, is a Western tale of outlaws and revenge based on Little Red Riding Hood. I'm planning to work on one or both of these over this autumn.

Along the way, I've been considering the question of why fairytale retellings are such fun to read and especially to write. Perhaps the appeal lies in starting with an existing story structure—for writers like myself, anyway, who find crafting a cohesive plot one of our biggest challenges! The few main plot points are laid out for you, almost like a template, leaving you free to play with the more colorful and subjective elements of character and setting to your heart's content.

Looking for a metaphor, I thought at first of comparing it to a recipe, but then thought better of it: you don't have quite so much freedom to shuffle the ingredients of a recipe. It's more like a menu. On a menu you have a list of categories or components—appetizer, soup, meat, vegetable, side dish, dessert—and it's up to you to fill in the blank on each and come up with as many different combinations you can think of, using a specified number of each of those pieces.

So, to take the most familiar example, the list of components for a Cinderella story looks something like this:

Key components (main dish and entrees, shall we say)
  • 1 heroine in unhappy or restricted circumstances (Cinderella)
  • 1 unkind relative/figure of authority responsible for heroine's unhappy state (Wicked Stepmother)
  • 1 hero, deemed inaccessible to heroine by his station in life or some other circumstance (The Prince)
  • 1 important event at which hero and heroine are brought together, with a crucial moment or disaster coming at midnight (The Ball)
  • 1 benefactor who makes it possible for heroine to attend said event (Fairy Godmother)
  • 1 lost shoe that proves vital to the heroine's fortunes (The Glass Slipper)

Minor components, optional (appetizers and desserts, if you will)
  • 2 other relatives/persons in heroine's life who assist in making her unhappy; also frequently rivals for hero's attention (Wicked Stepsisters)
  • Parent or parents of hero, preferably in position of authority and/or grandeur (King and possibly Queen)
  • Variable number of small friends or allies of heroine (mice, dogs, horses, etc.)
Putting it that way, you see how innumerable variations can be crafted on this one basic plot! How many difficult situations can we think of for our heroine to be trapped in (we writers are much too good at inflicting trouble on our characters), how many different eccentric or unlikely benefactors can we invent—how many creative uses can we find for a stray shoe? (Has anyone done a version where the shoe gets flung at someone?) Outlining my second and third, I've realized that my own particular angle on retellings—unintentional but consistent—is their real-world setting. They're straight historical fiction, without magical creatures or imaginary kingdoms involved, but still paralleling the characters and plot of the original fairytale. Coming up with those real-world equivalents is a fun challenge.

Do you enjoy fairytale retellings? If so, what do you think makes them fun to read and write?

Thursday, August 27, 2015

The Curious Wren Blog Party & Tag

One of my Twitter writing pals, Annie Hawthorne, is launching her brand-new blog  The Curious Wren this week, with festivities including a blog tag and a giveaway. Which is a good one—a copy of Steal Like An Artist by Austin Kleon, which I highly recommend! So click here to visit The Curious Wren and enter. In the meantime, here's my answers to Annie's tag questions:

What was the last book you read, and would you recommend it?
August Folly by Angela Thirkell. I've been working my way through Thirkell's Barsetshire series—light, witty comedy-of-manners type novels set in the 1930s and onward. August Folly wasn't my favorite of the four I've read, so I don't think I'd recommend starting with that one, but if you'd enjoyed other Thirkell books I'd recommend it!

Describe the perfect reading spot.
A corner of the living-room sofa on a cozy fall or winter evening, with a comfortable pillow at hand and the warm light of a lamp over your shoulder.

Favorite book beverage? Tea? Coffee? Hot chocolate? Tears of your readers?
Probably hot chocolate. Though I do enjoy peppermint tea and an occasional decaf coffee. (That about covers everything, doesn't it?)

What is your most loved fantasy read? Dystopia? Contemporary? Sci-fi? Classic?
Fantasy: Pendragon's Heir by Suzannah Rowntree. I've never read a dystopia. I hardly ever read contemporary, but I did enjoy Dear Mr. Knightley by Katherine Reay. Sci-fi: Firmament: Radialloy by J. Grace Pennington. Classic...well, there's so many it changes from time to time, but a couple favorites around now would be Persuasion by Jane Austen and War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy.

List three authors you’ve collected the most books from.

If you count physical books and ebooks combined, I think it's B.M. Bower, Booth Tarkington and P.G. Wodehouse.

What are your thoughts on magic in literature?
Honestly, it's not something I've given much thought to, since fantasy fiction isn't my home turf. I doubt I'd be comfortable with witchcraft-type magic in a story, but a simpler fairytale-ish magic that is clearly defined as make-believe doesn't bother me.

What types of book covers capture your imagination most strongly? Feel free to include images.

Probably because I like history so much, my eye tends to be caught by covers that give an intriguing, vivid glimpse of the book's time and place.

Mention the first book character that comes to mind. Elaborate on this.

It may sound cliché, but one of the first to come to mind whenever someone talks about memorable characters is Anne Shirley. Spending an eight-book series with one of the most vibrant and memorable personalities in literature makes her like an old friend. I re-read a couple of the early books this year for the first time in a while, and find I identify even more than I used to with her enthusiasm for life, vivid imagination and love for the beauty of nature. I'm happy to say I don't experience cooking disasters half so often, though.

Do you lend out your books? Or is that the equivalent to giving away your babies?

Well, it doesn't happen very often.