Wednesday, September 17, 2014

The Stagecoach Scenario

A number of years ago, I came up with a definition of my own for a plot device that I recognized as one of the most frequently-used and filled with possibilities. I call it the Stagecoach Scenario.

I borrowed the name from the classic 1939 movie Stagecoach, which demonstrates the idea in its most basic form. The setup is this: a group of people, usually (but not always) diverse in personality, background, profession and, depending on the setting of the story, social class—people who ordinarily would have little or no contact with one another—brought together in close quarters while traveling. Usually they are strangers to one another, sometimes there are unexpected (possibly unpleasant) reunions with past acquaintances involved. On the journey, some outside force poses a danger and/or strands them midway on their route, forcing them into closer communication with each other through a common struggle for survival. As a result, tensions and various relationships among the individuals come into play. The story's conflict derives from both the question of whether they will escape the threatened disaster and what will happen among them in the meantime.

All these elements are easily identifiable in Stagecoach: the close quarters are the stagecoach itself, the passengers the varied group of characters, the journey across the desert, the hostile Indians are the danger from outside. But once you've recognized the basic plot structure, you can see it framing dozens of different stories. A modern equivalent is the airplane disaster film, from The High and the Mighty onward. You have basically the same setup: the diverse group of passengers, the outside force of engine trouble or weather literally threatening the safety of the plane. With a few variations, you could have the same situation on a ship—or a train—or even a bus.

Introducing a crime and a criminal into the pool of characters adds another layer of complexity. Who is hiding something? Is one of the group not what they seem to be? Do they pose a hazard to their companions? The Stagecoach Scenario even serves as the frame for classic whodunits. Agatha Christie used it multiple times with stunning results. Murder On the Orient Express is a stellar example of the travel plot, with the snowbound train serving as the close quarters. In true Christie fashion she uses the basic setup, a crowd of diverse characters thrown together, as an integral part of her mystery plot. The limited amount of people present in a travel setting is helpful for a mystery writer, as John Curran notes in Agatha Christie's Secret Notebooks; it provides a limited pool of suspects to concentrate on, and the usually remote location also gives the detective a free hand (as in Appointment With Death, for instance). It's the outside force, the stranding snow, that gives Poirot the freedom to make his investigation in Murder On the Orient Express. Christie successfully used almost every single method of transportation mentioned above, including the ship (Death On the Nile) and the airplane (Death In the Clouds), but Murder On the Orient Express remains the finest example of 'stranded murder.'

But the Stagecoach Scenario can be stationary too. Take the hostage story, for instance (The Petrified Forest is a textbook case). In war stories or in Westerns, a siege produces the same effect: trapped characters, outside threat and internal conflict. The Old West is a particularly propitious setting, considering that it's filled with potential outside dangers and a great diversity of character types that can be brought together. An excellent example of this in book form is Last Stand At Papago Wells by Louis L'Amour. In this story the group of characters—men and women, Army and civilian, innocent and guilty, fugitives and pursuers—are trapped in a desert stronghold, surrounded by hostile Apaches and with a diminishing supply of water, with the tensions and suspicion among themselves proving an enemy as dangerous as the Indians.

It doesn't stop there. I've noticed that some war movies share a similar structure—again you have the dissimilar group (the soldiers, recruited from all walks of life) the exotic locale (overseas) the outside danger (hazards of war), the characters forced into close association and dependence on each other. And then there's the classic English country-house mystery, another device for gathering a cross-section of characters together and watching the sparks fly.

The defining feature of this scenario, in whatever setting, is that it's character-driven. Outside forces may apply the pressure, but the interest lies in how the characters react to it and how they interact with each other while under that pressure. And this is where the author steps in, to craft their own unique characters and build their own story off the basic foundation. That's why I love this scenario—the possibilities are endless. Once aboard the stagecoach, anything can happen.

So what are your favorite examples of the Stagecoach Scenario in books and film? How many additional variations can you think of?

Adapted from an old piece on a now-defunct prior blog.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Cover Reveal: Anon, Sir, Anon by Rachel Heffington

The 12:55 out of Darlington brought more than Orville Farnham's niece; murder was passenger.

In coming to Whistlecreig, Genevieve Langley expected to find an ailing uncle in need of gentle care. In reality, her charge is a cantankerous Shakespearean actor with a penchant for fencing and an affinity for placing impossible bets.

When a body shows up in a field near Whistlecreig Manor and Vivi is the only one to recognize the victim, she is unceremoniously baptized into the art of crime-solving: a field in which first impressions are seldom lasting and personal interest knocks at the front door.

Set against the russet backdrop of a Northamptonshire fog, Anon, Sir, Anon cuts a cozy path to a chilling crime.

Remember, remember, that on the 5th of November, Rachel Heffington's debut mystery will be available for purchase! In the meantime, you can add it to-read on Goodreads (and look out for my own review there sometime soon). And if you'd like to help spread the word, you can take this graphic for use on your own blog, website, et cetera:

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Flash-Fiction Fest: The Letter

Apparently flash-fiction challenges are addictive. This one comes courtesy of Yvette at in so many words, and the starting point this time is not a topic but an image. Participants got to choose from three vintage illustrations Yvette posted at the beginning of the challenge, and the idea was to write a short bit of fiction to go along with the picture. My choice was the one seen here, by artist Robert George Harris, and here's what I imagined lies behind it:

I closed the door behind me. The warm, quiet dimness of the room seemed to be standing still and listening, and I stood still for a minute too. I felt like I had shut out the clamor and chaos that had followed me all day, just as if I had cut off a clamor of sound by shutting a door. It had been a strange, tense day, with the consciousness of what was going on in the world lending a distracted edge to everything. Word of a naval battle was filling the news, in stark black headlines on the newsstands; in the tinny, stentorian voices of the war correspondents coming over the radio, with an undercurrent of tight excitement to every word that made you feel like you might hear the boom of the guns in the background at any moment.

I had read all about it in the newspaper at the counter of a drugstore at lunchtime, and then had gone on through my afternoon with a with a feeling of unreality in everything I did and looked at—as if this everyday life was only show, and the real thing outside had intruded on it and turned it hollow. It was a relief to be back in the quiet, comfortingly familiar embrace of my own room—I felt normal again, but still with a lingering, more acute sense of that world outside.

I went over to the desk and took out the letter that I had slid away there before supper, so I could come up and read it in peace and quiet afterwards. I slit the envelope and took out the sheets of paper, and walked over to the fireplace. There was just enough of a flicker coming from the coals that I could see the words on the paper, so I curled up into the comfortable corner of the big flowered armchair, tilted the letter toward the glow, and settled down to read. The letter was the same as always: brisk, practical, bantering; mixing incidents of service life with answers to what I had written. I read it through slowly, quietly enjoying it, a faint smile touching my face now and then.

When I finished, I put the sheets back in order, and my eye traveled up to the heading in the corner of the first one. The date on it stopped me. It was the day after the fleet had been in action, according to the newspaper. I fingered the letter slowly, my eyes drifting upward from it to look into space. It had been written after that battle, only hours after the action. And it was the same as always. I’d always known where the letters were written from, sensed the things they left out. But I’d never made the connection so strongly before to the things not said, as I did now with the black-headlined newspaper containing the account of the battle still lying on a table in the same room. The feeling of something dark and threatening loomed up at me out of the shadows beyond the firelight.

I sat very still and stared out from the depths of the armchair across the room, and in my mind I heard the guns thundering, growing louder till the echoes quivered in the dark corners around me. I saw the hot sun and the violently sparkling blue sea and the metal of the decks, shaken with impact and veiled in black smoke. Behind all the cheerful teasing and anecdotes traded back and forth in our letters, this was the reality; this was the danger that he had to live through. It was always there, though it only became real to me in brief moments of clarity, like this night.

Something broke gently in the fire. I looked at the letter, and then I folded it slowly, the paper crinkled where my sweaty fingers had left spots of dampness. I was about to get up, to put it back in the desk, but I stopped. I leaned my head against the back of the chair and stayed there, very still, the folded letter clasped beneath my hand.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Monthly Verse

Thirty days hath September
April, June, and November
All the rest have thirty-one
Except for February, which, alas!
Hath broke my rhyme; it shall not pass
Without rebuke for letting stray
That twenty-ninth elusive day.

~ * ~

That ought to do as well as any; I can never remember how the darn thing actually ends.

And this is why I write fiction, not poetry.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Chatterbox: Three Crates of Pears

I failed at Chatterbox in July and it was on hiatus last month, but now it has returned! When I saw the announcement, I eagerly opened up the post, and found that Rachel had chosen for this month's subject...pears.

Pears? Honestly? I don't even know if I like pears; I'm not sure I've ever tasted one in my life. I suspect I may have consumed them in pureed form as an infant, but my memory does not go back that far. And I was firmly convinced there wasn't a shadow of a pear in any of my stories. If it had been onions, now—onions are a versatile vegetable, with many inherent dramatic properties. But pears?

Still, necessity, as they say, is the mother of invention. If one must write about pears, one writes about pears. Somewhere a very small wheel started turning in my mind, and eventually kicked the others into gear. So here's the result. Since Rachel, to my mind, decidedly bent the rules by assigning us a topic she'd already written about, I feel entitled to bend them a little further and write something in the first-person again.

I am not going to tell you what this is from—or more accurately, what this could end up being a part of one day—because I've refused to let myself write it until I've finished about three other things. It ought properly to be a deep dark secret between me and the notebook and the private Pinterest board. I still don't know how I got hoodwinked into Chatterboxing it.

Dear Leo,

Please excuse the horrible handwriting in the latest installment of this thrilling serial. My pen is still leaking, and I’m too exhausted to write legibly tonight. The smudges could serve a purpose, I suppose; if you’ve got any fingerprint experts on board they can compare the prints with my last letter (similarly smudged) and confirm that it’s not a forgery and really from me.
Please excuse incoherence as well. I am writing this sitting at my desk with my aching feet up on the arm of an armchair. If you’ve a reasonably clear mind at present, which I don’t, perhaps you can help me solve a conundrum: how does one dispose of three crates of nearly-overripe pears? If the answer may be construed in any way as helping the war effort, so much the better.
I should explain. I spent most of today helping to set up a hall for a Red Cross charity supper which is, hopefully, taking place at this minute. I’d spent several hours running back and forth answering frantic calls for chairs, silverware, string, scissors, and someone to tame a wild tablecloth, when I was summoned to a back door to confront a totally original problem. It seems that a Leading Citizen whose name I never did find out (and it’s lucky for him I didn’t) had decided to do his part by donating three large crates of pears.
“Well, that’s nice,” I said, “but what are we going to do with them?”
Nobody knew. They weren’t exactly on the menu for dinner, and there didn’t seem to be any gap in the program that could suitable be filled by three crates of pears. My fellow-laborer, a short and ingenuous person named Mandy, suggested that we make pear preserves and send them to the troops.
“I wouldn’t wish that on the troops,” I said. “Anyway, it’s got to be something more immediate than that, because judging by their fragrance, these have about reached the peak of their usefulness. Well, let’s put them in the kitchen.”
Mandy and I took a heavy crate and shuffled into the kitchen with it, but were thundered at by a volunteer cook that there wasn’t an inch of space left anywhere. We shuffled back out into the hall, set down the crate, and looked around. “There’s just too many,” said Mandy despairingly. “Even if we put one at every place we’ll have tons left over. Should we put them around in baskets?”
“We are not putting a pear at every place,” I said firmly. “Not everyone likes pears. If they find the place lined wall to wall with them they might never contribute to the Red Cross again. We’ve got to be more unobtrusive. How do you hide a thousand pears in plain sight?”
I was looking at a table, and had my great inspiration. The flowers hadn’t come yet, and there was an empty space in the middle of the table. “I know what I’ll do,” I said, seizing a pear in either hand. “A fruit centerpiece always looks elegant—and it’ll look as though it were planned. The flowers can go somewhere else.”
I was never trained in fruit-arranging, but I think I did all right. In ten minutes I’d built a pyramid about a foot high. I was very carefully balancing the best-looking pear I could find on top, when Mandy came by again and looked at it admiringly. “That really does look nice,” she said.
At that moment the entire pyramid collapsed, sending a chinook-flow of pears onto the floor and annihilating a couple of place-settings (I’m afraid the china was loaned for the occasion). Mandy was too horrified even to speak. I sat down matter-of-factly in the wreckage and thought about staying there, supper or no supper.
“I’ll tell you what we’re going to do with them,” I said. And we did.
We loaded all the pears back in the crates and lugged the crates up to the front of the platform where the band and speakers were to sit. We swathed them in red-white-and-blue bunting, and plopped a large pot of flowers (also highly fragrant) on top of each. The result, we thought, was quite artistic, but it’s going to be very aromatic in the region of the platform when the room gets warm tonight. I hope the musicians are not too sensitive to smells; it would be rather awful to have horn players punctuating the national anthem with sneezes.
I don’t intend to be on hand when the pears are discovered tomorrow, and I hope Mandy isn’t, because I suspect she’s the kind who squeals. In that case, if you receive a suspiciously squashy and sweet-smelling parcel at next mail call, you have my full permission to toss it over the starboard rail (or the larboard; whichever’s closest). The Japanese are welcome to them.

Your exhausted and affectionate cousin,
Read previous Chatterboxes here.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Cover Reveal: Corral Nocturne

Here it is! Behold the gorgeous cover for Corral Nocturne, designed by Jenny Quinlan of Historical Editorial. It is just perfect for the story. Corral Nocturne is available for pre-order now, don't forget, and it will magically appear on your Kindle on November 1st, 2014. If you've pre-ordered it, that is.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Hardcover Happiness

Yesterday I reorganized and dusted my bookcase. (That's the one thing about neat library shelving: you've got to take all the books out and dust the shelves once in a while, because the dust collects in the space behind them.) I had two substantial hardcovers I wanted to fit in somehow, which looked like a forlorn hope, since it was already packed to capacity—but somehow, with the removal of one book and a great deal of shuffling the others around, I managed it.

Since I shared a look at my little library last spring, books have come and books have gone, but it doesn't look too different. I've parted with a couple I didn't really need; others that didn't belong to me have moved off to other locations. There's a few new ones. A volume of Robert Frost's collected poetry that used to be my grandfather's has moved in on the bottom shelf—I've only read a bit of it, but it just seems like a book to hang on to. And there's the copies of The Hanging Tree and City Editor I got last Christmas...oh, and a couple new paperbacks of my own creation, too!

Anyhow, the reason for this latest upheaval was the addition of those two hardcovers I mentioned: Alexander Stephens' History of the United States, which I want to read as a sort of refresher course on early American history—and most notably of all, this volume here, which is now one of the coolest vintage books in my collection:

I had finally come to the conclusion that the only way I was going to read Booth Tarkington's National Avenue was purchasing a copy myself, so I went browsing online booksellers and found something even better—all three books of Tarkington's "Growth" trilogy in one volume!

From what I gather, they may not have originally been written as a trilogy, but in 1927 Tarkington collected three of his novels with a connecting theme—the Industrial Revolution around the turn of the 20th century—in one volume under the name "Growth." Though there is no direct relationship between the stories themselves, all are set in what is presumably the same nameless "midland city," which is likely based on Tarkington's native city of Indianapolis. In this volume, they appear not in the order they were written, but chronologically, according to the time at which the novels were set. Thus The Magnificent Ambersons, written in 1918 but beginning in the 1870s, comes first, followed by The Turmoil (1915) and finally The Midlander from 1924 (it was retitled National Avenue for the trilogy collection). The first few pages of The Turmoil were moved to the beginning as a kind of prologue, and Tarkington added in a few sentences to the opening paragraphs of each novel to loosely tie them together. It's pretty neat. I can't wait to read National Avenue and re-read the other two.

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.