C. Aubrey Hall's Blog
April 6, 2017
When it comes to plotting an urban fantasy story, keep in mind that you need more than just a weirdly cool setting and a character waving around sparkles of hocus-pocus.
Urban fantasy has roots that reach into both horror and film noir. Let’s deal with them separately:
Make It Criminal
Noir means dark and gritty, with shades of gray in the protagonist and shades of gray in the villain. Everyone has a dark past or has made mistakes or has weaknesses. No one is all good or all bad. If you’re still not clear about what noir is, then read the mysteries of Walter Mosley or Raymond Chandler. Watch some of the great film noir classics to get a feel for the flavoring your story needs. I recommend one of the best noir movies ever made–DOUBLE INDEMNITY from 1944. Written by Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler, the film is based on a James M. Cain novel of the same title. It features an insurance agent seduced by a beautiful woman into helping her murder her husband so she can collect on a life insurance indemnity clause.
In crime plots, if the villain’s identity is known from the beginning and the plot is focused on stopping this individual from continuing evil deeds, then we call this type of story a thriller. And thrillers require lots of action and danger; in other words, chills and thrills.
On the other hand, if the identity of the villain is hidden and if the protagonist is trying to determine the identity of whoever is behind the crimes, then the story is a mystery. That means investigating the situation through the protagonist asking a lot of questions, checking information, thinking, reasoning, and deducing. Mysteries have less dramatized violence than thrillers. Crimes still happen, but off-stage.
Urban fantasies generally feature crime plots. Which is why you need to understand how mysteries and thrillers work if you’re going to write this type of fantasy. The chief difference will be found in the presence of magic and the occult. But there will be criminal activity. There will be a force of evil seeking to gain from those crimes. There will be victims–some deserving of disaster, others innocent. There will be someone determined to end the crimes and save the day, even if it’s only to personally survive.
Whether you shape the story as a mystery or a thriller–and choosing which approach you’ll take will help you determine the events you’ll include–there’s a third option if you feel adventurous. And that is to combine mystery and thriller elements together. Generally in a combo plot, the mystery investigation will come first until the villain is identified in the book’s center. Then the pace will pick up with exciting chases and thrilling fight scenes filling the second half of the story.
Bring on the Horror
Besides the crime-centered plot, urban fantasy needs to deliver the atmosphere and mood of horror. To do this, it can feature the following elements drawn from the horror genre:
Shock–This will come through surprises, threats, and/or plot twists.
Atmosphere–There should be a dark, brooding tone, which can be achieved through the setting details and coded language. Can we say Edgar Allen Poe?
Coded language–This means special vocabulary chosen to reflect the desired imagery. It is sometimes known in erudite circles as diction.
Most genres have their own coding, and such language will be familiar to their fans.
Here’s an example of description employing coded language:
Drake flitted from shadow to shadow along the deserted alley. Out in the street, most of the lights had been shot out long ago, leaving vast pools of night undisturbed. Spiky weeds grew through cracked, broken sidewalks. Rusted hulks of abandoned cars–wheels long since stolen–rotted where they’d been left. The air smelled lightly of sulfur.
Do you see how every adjective has been chosen to stick with a dominant image? Do you see how this description is laden with atmosphere and mood?
Is this passage subtle? Nope. Coded language isn’t supposed to be. Just ask Mr. Poe.
Danger–This element should pervade the story. It keeps the tension high and the outcome of the story less certain.
A sense of danger is established if threats to the protagonist or other characters are real. Victims are attacked, injured, and possibly killed. The protagonist is also in harm’s way. If the supernatural villain stays hidden, then its minions are actively attacking the protagonist or those the protagonist cares about.
Gore and violence–These go along with danger and real threats like tomatoes and basil, but generally in urban fantasy they are presented only as an aftermath to violence not shown.
Because urban fantasy isn’t as intense as horror, the gore will usually be presented obliquely through how a victim is found and what’s been done to it. The actual violence isn’t dramatized through scene action while it’s occurring.
In Jim Butcher’s novel, Storm Front, protagonist wizard Harry Dresden is called in by human homicide detectives as a consultant. Two victims have been found in a hotel room, apparently killed by supernatural means. Their chests have been cracked open and their hearts removed.
As a crime scene, it’s dreadful and shocking, but because readers do not see the crime committed in moment-by-moment story action, it is less horrifying than it might otherwise be.
What’s at Stake
The final aspect of urban fantasy that I want to address in this series of posts has to do with the scale of the stories.
In traditional, high, epic fantasy, the whole world may be at risk. Vast armies are often pitted against each other. It is Good (capital letters) versus Evil (capital letters). If the side of Good should fail or be vanquished, DOOM will encompass the world and all will be lost forevermore.
However, in urban fantasy, the scale of the story situation is smaller. A few people are endangered, but not everyone. We have a mostly good (lowercase letters) protagonist versus a pretty bad (lowercase letters) villain.
In other words, the protagonist–perhaps with a few companions or allies–is trying to stop the supernatural menace. If the protagonist should fail, he or she will probably die or be enslaved, but the entire world as we know it won’t end. It’ll just be a bit worse than before.
Lesser stakes than traditional fantasy doesn’t mean a lesser story. After all, the life-or-death struggle of a lone hero against the Houston vampire queen means a tremendous amount to that hero. And readers bonded with that protagonist will care deeply and intensely about what happens.
March 30, 2017
A necessary element for urban fantasy is its supernatural population. Certainly the villain is going to be supernatural, but there can be other enemies or allies to the protagonist from the magical or immortal creatures as well. And diversity of supernatural entities adds extra layers to your story.
M.H. Borosin’s novel, THE GIRL WITH GHOST EYES, features a San Francisco Chinatown that’s riddled with demons, ghosts, grotesque creatures, witches, sorcerers, and shapeshifting tigers.
Daniel Jose Older’s book, HALF-RESURRECTION BLUES, is set in New York City’s Puerto Rico district with ghosts and resurrected dead people walking the streets at night.
In JACK THE GIANT KILLER by Charles de Lint, modern-day Canada is populated by leprechauns and boggarts, to name just a few.
Beyond sprinkling supernatural characters into the story world, and beyond the goals of individual characters in primary and secondary roles, how will various supernatural types interact with each other? With humans? What are their societies? What are their customs? What are their special powers? How do they live? What do they wear? Where does their money come from? How are they governed?
Which leads us into the next point of consideration:
So how, exactly, are your supernatural beings organized? Do your were-leopards get along fine with with the vampires? Or are they at war? Or do they maintain territories and an uneasy peace?
Who rules the vampire hive? How many vampire hives, for that matter, are in the city of your choice? Or in the country? Do all vampires get along with each other? That seems unlikely, given that predators generally have trouble in that department. So who controls them? What are the consequences if a vampire breaks the rules?
Is there a fairy queen presiding over a court? What are her laws? Who are her enemies? Her allies? How does she govern the fae? How does she enforce her will over them?
Do all the wizards belong to a union? I can’t see Gandalf joining, but then he’s not a character in an urban story. But with the modern-day settings of urban fantasy, how can wizards fit in and operate within present-day America?
Butcher’s Harry Dresden character advertises in the phone book. He tries to obey human laws as much as practical. He also lives under the strictures of the White Council. And his ethics of confidentiality toward his clients can clash with the demands of the human police department.
Kim Harrison’s Cleveland is divided between the part of the city where humans live and work and the part of the city where the supernaturals are supposed to stay.
If you want to write about vampires, is vampirism legalized? Do vampires have rights of citizenship? Are they allowed to vote? And since they naturally tend to prey on humans, what laws govern that?
Maybe in your world, all supernatural creatures live in US cities illegally, in violation of immigration laws, and have no citizen rights at all. Does Immigration hunt and deport them?
Rules of Magic
Rule #1: magic comes at a price. It should never be free because then magic makes getting out of difficult plot problems too easy. Story tension dissipates, and your plot will collapse.
Harry Potter can practice magic at Hogwarts, but he is forbidden to use his powers when he’s not at school.
In Robert Jordan’s WHEEL OF TIME series, the male wizards eventually go insane. How’s that for a future?
Rule #2: magic must be limited. This is for the same reasons as stated in Rule #1. Unlimited use of magic destroys story tension because there can be no uncertainty as to the story’s outcome.
A sure thing kills fiction.
Rule #3: obey the rules you establish. It’s fun to set up a system of magic at first, but then in the story’s climax when your protagonist is cornered and desperate you may feel tempted to cheat a little and let the protagonist use magic in violation of the rules just this once.
BOO! HISS! CHEAT, CHEAT, CHEAT!
Never fudge your rules to save your plot. That is the completely wrong thing to do.
Instead, you have a couple of options:
*You can rewrite your rules from the story’s beginning and give your hero an escape hatch.
*You can force your protagonist to pay the price that magic requires.
The second choice is terrible and difficult. It may upset you. Certainly it will be tough on your character. But it will leave you with a stronger, more complex story. Isn’t that a good thing?
Rule #4: magic and its use should have consequences and repercussions. Maybe this should be discussed under Rule #1, but the point here is that magic shouldn’t be thrown casually into a story without consideration of how it will affect the plot’s unfolding, the characters involved, and even everyday life.
I’m thinking of the old television show BEWITCHED, where the beautiful witch Samantha promised her human husband that she would not use magic in their home. So these sit-com plots would revolve around some domestic crisis, where she would wrestle with trying to use a human solution for a while and then she might wriggle her nose and use magic to solve it instead. Samantha always meant well and tried to honor her promise, but audiences were aware of her inner struggle and determination to go against her natural proclivities. However, it’s like leaving a dish of raw hamburger out on your kitchen counter and expecting the cat to ignore it when no one’s at home.
In the classic film comedy, I MARRIED A WITCH (starring Frederic March and Veronica Lake), the witch Jennifer is much less ethical. But her evil plan backfires and she becomes the victim of her own potion.
In the next post, I’ll continue with plotting.
March 28, 2017
Ready to construct the fantastical, the supernatural, and the magical?
Come with me as I list numerous elements that go into the creation of this subgenre. There’s no particular order to determining them. Whatever works for you and your imagination is fine.
Usually this character is mortal or human. The protagonist may possess some magical powers or be partially supernatural–think of Percy Jackson, demi-god, in Rick Riordan’s The Lightning Thief. The protagonist is often less powerful magically than the supernatural creatures he or she is dealing with.
The point is that whatever the protagonist is, or whatever the protagonist can do, he or she has to be vulnerable. In other words, capable of being killed.
Often, the protagonist is a hunter–e.g. Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden is a wizard private investigator; Kim Harrison’s witch protagonist is a bounty hunter. Such occupations give the protagonist license to track and pursue rogue supernatural baddies.
Of course, sometimes the protagonist is involved through proximity and sympathy for a supernatural group. For example, in Patricia Briggs’s novels, the protagonist Mercy is a car mechanic who also happens to be a shapeshifter. Her other form is a coyote. Because of that, she is acquainted with several werewolves living in her community and sympathetic to them. As a coyote, she is no threat to the wolves, which also helps them accept her friendship and assistance when needed.
Let’s not be sensitive or PC about this. I’m not going to be nice and call this role the antagonist, as I do so often in my writing posts. In this genre, we need a villain, a foe that’s seriously, seriously bad beyond the bone.
Now, urban fantasy will often serve up antagonists for the hero to contend with in addition to the true bad guy, but there must always be a dangerous, nasty, evil, supernatural villain causing the primary trouble.
Because the villain is supernatural, this character possesses the advantages of possible immortality, very dangerous powers, and a lot of magical strength.
It’s important for the hero and villain to be unevenly matched–at least on the surface or initially. Give the advantage to the villain. Otherwise, what’s the danger for the protagonist?
If urban fantasy was going to take place in a meadow, why would it be called urban? Okay, goes without saying but I said it anyway.
While occasionally I encounter a modern fantasy located in the suburbs or a small town, for true urban fantasy the setting needs to be a large city. The larger it is, the more diverse its population will be, which lends itself to more types of conflict and trouble as cultures, goals, and misunderstandings collide.
The city needs to be old enough or financially stressed enough that it has some ghetto flavor, some inner-city decay, a collapsing infrastructure, and a lot of crime. This is much more useful for story purposes than a city that’s clean, renewed, bright, and upbeat.
Know Your Town
It’s one thing to pick a city by closing your eyes and pointing at a map, and another thing to know it well enough to present it as a character in your story. Because the setting matters. It will play a large role. It will color the plot and affect the cast. It will influence the tone you achieve.
So you have to know it, understand the pulse of it. You should know it well, or at least have visited it more than once.
Never pick a city that you’ve encountered only through film or television because you’ll never get the details right. Hollywood is notorious for shifting streets and combining landmarks to suit a director’s vision. Remember the films that supposedly take place in New York City but feature a Canadian skyline?
Even if you choose a setting that you’re very familiar with, do you know the inner city, the derelict dangerous parts of it? Do you know where the tenements are? Rusting, abandoned train tracks? Empty factories abandoned when labor went off-shore? I’m not suggesting that you venture into physically dangerous places where you might come to harm, but research them. Look at photos of them. Talk to the public information officers at your police station about the problematic areas and ask questions. Find safe ways to glean the details you need. They will bring your setting to life on the page.
I will continue with more elements in my next post.
March 9, 2017
As many of you know, I’m a rabid old-movie buff. This week was exciting because I showed my students a 1957 courtroom thriller called WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION. Based on a play by Agatha Christie, the idea was subsequently translated to the screen by genius writer/director/producer Billy Wilder. Christie supplied the plot and the dynamite twists; Wilder fleshed out her characters. (I think I read somewhere that Christie was paid about $450,000 for the film rights. Not bad in 1950s-era money! Even today’s money would do.)
Over the years, whenever I have coached students wanting to write a courtroom drama, nine times out of ten they make the same mistake: they establish the defendant as their protagonist. In theory, this should work. After all, the protagonist is supposed to have the most at stake and be at the heart of the story.
Well, the defendant has the most at stake, but otherwise is stuck passively in a jail cell, unable to drive the story action. Therefore, the defendant can not be an effective protagonist.
In WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION, the protagonist is Sir Wilfrid, an experienced and wily defense barrister considered to be the best in the Old Bailey, but he is recovering from a serious heart attack and his health remains uncertain. His doctors have forbidden him to conduct any more defense trials, yet he cannot resist taking on the case of Leonard Vole who has been accused of murder on circumstantial evidence.
Wilder, directing the film, is smart enough to take his time. We don’t meet the accused, Vole, right away. Instead, Sir Wilfrid is introduced first and shown pitted against his nurse who is determined to make him follow doctor’s orders to take it easy, get plenty of rest, and avoid cigars and brandy. Their conflict starts in the first movie frame and continues to arc over the entire duration of the movie. And that arc about whether Sir Wilfrid will achieve his goal of resuming his trial career is the spine of the story. The primary subplot centers on the trial itself and attempts to gather sufficient evidence to exonerate Sir Wilfrid’s client. And although the trial is gripping–not to mention twisty, thanks to the devious imagination of Dame Agatha–it is the characters that make this film stand out.
Therefore, it is these characters that I use as classroom examples of design, introduction, and revelation of true nature. They have vivid and distinctive entry actions, usually in plot conflict or in dramatic contradiction to audience expectation. They wave numerous distinctive tags–e.g. the nurse Miss Plimsoll in her uniform, carrying her small medical bag, wielding her syringe for Sir Wilfrid’s calcium injections; and Sir Wilfrid’s monocle, his wig, his thermos of coco, his pills, and his cigars. Each of them with possibly the exception of the murder victim is designed with complexity. True nature is revealed and concealed in various ways. At first we think of Sir Wilfrid as a sick old man long past his prime, even a bit of a mischievous buffoon who is rude and unnecessarily gruff, but then we learn how intelligent, how clever, how determined to save his client, how wily, and how caring he is. The characters’ clashing goals and motivations bring all of them to life.
Although several characters are introduced through characteristic entry action, some are brought in differently. One such alternative method is through discussion, whereby two characters are talking about a third character about to appear in the story for the first time. The introduction of the defendant’s wife is done through character discussion. Sir Wilfrid, before meeting her, makes an assumption about her that proves to be entirely erroneous the moment she first appears. His mistake emphasizes our dominant impression of her vividly and unforgettably.
The mystery clues are planted through dialogue and character behavior. In watching the film for the first time, you sense something is off and yet you find yourself doubting your judgment. Is it the actor’s performance? Is the character lying? What’s wrong? As Sir Wilfrid says in frustration, “It’s too symmetrical. Something is wrong, but I can’t put my finger on it!”
I love how the plot is put together. There is comedy and broad exaggeration. There is audience manipulation. There is the buildup of anticipation and the creation of suspense. The two ticking clocks–Sir Wilfrid’s worsening health and the trial’s verdict–keep your attention hooked to the finale. Even the flashback–always a risk to pacing–works beautifully in planting more clues and pointing to motivations.
I don’t know how many times I’ve watched this film. I don’t care, because every time I am struck anew with how well-written it is, how well-plotted and paced it is, how well-acted it is, and how well-directed it is without any reliance on fancy-schmancy special effects. The sets are limited and very tight–reflecting its origins as a play. I’ve read a modern-day review that pokes a hole in the storyline, criticizing it for allowing Vole to exclaim and interrupt during the trial, but I don’t know enough about British courtroom procedures in the 1950s to understand if this is a valid criticism or not. All I perceive as a writer is that Vole’s comments serve a specific plot purpose, and from that restricted perspective they work.
Beyond my enjoyment of the movie’s skillfully employed techniques, I love the reactions of my students. At first they’re delighted to watch a movie in class instead of sitting through a dull lecture. But then they realize it’s an old movie. Even worse, it’s in black and white. They’ve never heard of any of the actors–Charles Laughton, Marlene Dietrich, Tyrone Power, Elsa Lanchester–and the cars are weird, the clothes are weird, the setting is a London from an era they don’t recognize so it’s also weird. I watch them stiffen in their seats, rolling their eyes and sighing a little. The movie starts with the comedic bit they find cheesy. I can feel them wishing they could ditch class and check their text messages. I know they’re wondering how long this torture will take.
(This time, one brash young man actually asked me if we were going to watch the whole movie. “Yes,” I replied firmly. “You have to stay with it to the end.”)
And then, as always, there comes that moment when I sense a change in the room. The silent intensity in the class tells me they’re absorbed. I know the movie has grabbed my young students by their throats. They are captured by the story question. They want to know what will happen and how it will turn out. And that capture has nothing to do with technicolor, a soaring soundtrack, special effects, wild stunts, exploding buildings, or CGI. It has everything to do with plot and characters–with story.
And that is what writing should be about.
February 21, 2017
Character emotions bring fiction to life.
You can have a well-designed, logical, plausible plot and characters that look good in the abstract with useful backgrounds, skills, capabilities, and personality traits, but without injecting emotions into their reactions, they will remain as lifeless as ventriloquist dummies latched inside carry cases.
Here’s an example:
Jane looked up at him. “Bob, I’m sorry, but we can’t see each other anymore. My husband is growing suspicious. I can’t risk him finding out about us.”
Bob sighed and nodded. “I guess you’re right. I don’t like it, but I understand. I’ll never forget you though. Believe that.”
They hugged, and Bob watched her walk away.
Flat, isn’t it?
Or are you thinking that maybe this example just needs some context. Maybe if we’d read all that had happened between the couple up to this point, we’d know what Bob was feeling.
Perhaps. Perhaps not.
If a writer can flatten the breakup of a so-called passionate love affair to this extent, probably every encounter between this robo-couple will be equally ho-hum.
The only indication readers have that Bob experiences any feelings whatsoever comes through his sigh. And that sigh is too vague. It doesn’t convey whether he’s sad, relieved, miserable, exasperated, frustrated, or just clearing his throat.
Without emotional reaction to what’s happening in the story, Bob is boring. His lack of response and unfeeling acceptance trivializes what could be a strong, poignant moment.
What are the stakes for Bob? Is he devastated at losing Jane? Is she the love of his life? Is he afraid for her to return to her husband and desperate to persuade her to change her mind? Does he fear for her safety? Does he yearn to protect her? Does he burn to cherish her? Is he terrified of never seeing her again?
Or is Bob furious that she now wants to go back to her husband? Is he swept with jealousy and angry at the time and money he’s spent on her? Does he feel used and discarded?
Is Bob’s love about to morph into hatred?
From the passage above, we don’t know anything. And when the viewpoint character fails to feel, readers assume that the plot problem isn’t as important as it first appeared because the character didn’t react to it.
No character reaction = no importance.
Is that the effect you want? I hope not. Because why would you want to write about–much less design a scene around–something that’s unimportant or trivial?
Here are a few things that are awful about dealing with character emotions, at least from the writer’s perspective:
*They’re challenging to write.
*They’re hard to do well.
Many writers would rather dodge the whole business, but I’ve already explained the pitfalls of doing so. Your stories need characters, not automatons.
When I encounter a wannabe writer whining about the drawbacks of injecting emotions into characters, my response always boils down to a so what?
Never let yourself be dissuaded by how difficult some aspect of writing is. The degree of challenge you face is probably an indicator of how vital and necessary to your story that element will become.
Once writers grasp the necessity of including emotions, another area where they can stumble is by not writing them with sufficient intensity.
Jane looked up at him. Tears swam in her eyes. “I’m sorry, but I can’t see you anymore. My husband is growing suspicious. I can’t risk him finding out about us.”
Bob sighed, feeling miserable, and nodded. “I guess you’re right. I don’t like it, but I understand. I’ll never forget you though. Believe that.”
Well, we’ve got emotion in our example now–from Jane the non-viewpoint character who is about to cry–and from Bob whom we’re told feels miserable. Won’t that do?
It’s better than nothing, but it’s too tepid. If the stakes are high enough for the moment to be dramatized, then make it compelling. Push those emotions past your comfort zone.
Does this mean you must create hysterical, histrionic, over-the-top characters? Does this mean you have to write the way William Shatner acts?
Uh … why not? Shatner knows how to deliver a quiet, nuanced, restrained performance, but doing so hasn’t kept him working all these years.
Okay, your characters don’t have to be hysterical and histrionic, but they need to be E-X-A-G-G-E-R-A-T-E-D. And if exaggeration puts them over the top, so let it be written; so let it be done. You can always tone down the draft later in revision if it’s too much. But in rough draft, push the emotions until you flinch. Then push them some more.
Let’s try one more time:
Jane looked up at him. Tears swam in her eyes. “I’m sorry, but I can’t see you anymore.”
“Wait! What? Darling, what are you saying?”
“I mean it. My husband is growing suspicious. You know I can’t risk him finding out about us.”
A sour, sick taste flooded Bob’s mouth. He curled his fists, wanting to drive down to the coffee shop and pound Eric Rankin to a pulp for what he’d put Jane through all these years. Still, for Jane’s sake, Bob tried to rein everything in. His stomach burned from the effort. It took all he had to speak normally, calmly. “I’d like for him to find out. I want him to know. Let me take you away. I can keep you safe from him. You know I can.”
Well, well. Look what’s happened to Bob. When I intensified his emotions, he came alive, and suddenly he has an ulcer, something of a violent temper, and he isn’t meekly agreeing with Jane’s decision. Instead, he’s arguing with her. He’s showing her (and readers) that he cares.
And maybe readers will start to care also.
February 15, 2017
“A room without books is like a body without a soul.” –Cicero
The battle between my love of books and reading and the need to avoid old, dusty, musty treasure-tomes wages on. Like most who are on the wagon of no-more-old-books, I do pretty well until I come face-to-face with a heap of them, and then–despite my efforts to resist–too often I succumb to temptation.
I shall blame it on improved health–or the sinus condition that prevents me from realizing just how musty a book really is until it’s too late and I am dragging it home with a mixture of guilt, defiance, joy, and anticipation. To have to chuck it aside when I open it and start reading the first page . . . oh, that hurts.
To have to not only lay it aside, unread, but to seal it up inside a Ziploc baggie hurts even more.
But worst of all is to find a treasure, a book once read and lost, a book that cries out as if to an old friend, a book like a stray puppy with soulful eyes that begs to be taken home and given a safe, warm, dry, secure place on a bookshelf–only to accept that it is in no condition to come home with me.
“I cannot live without books.” –Thomas Jefferson
So it was this past weekend. I was out and about, enjoying the unseasonably hot weather, when I stumbled upon a trove of old books. And not just any old books–the kind best burned rather than dredged from the damp corners of old garages, black and swollen with mold–but instead a collector’s collection, a lifetime’s accumulation of really good reads, a reader’s collection above and beyond an antiquarian’s.
Of course there was a smattering of Victorian volumes with ornate covers, a sprinkling of Edwardian romances with color renderings of Gibson-girl-type heroines glued to their covers, and the requisite books of the Old West that always come highly priced. But the real treasure was to be found past all those temptations, when I found box after box of books by authors I had long ago discovered in my childhood spent among public library shelves, books long since faded from print, books that inspired wonderful old movies now seen only on TCM or not at all.
The first title that leaped at me was LORD HORNBLOWER by C.S. Forester. I pounced with an inner burst of excitement. At that moment, I was thinking of how I struggled in college to assemble a complete set of the Hornblower sea-faring adventures in hardcover on my meager pittance of a monthly allowance. I was thinking also of how I was forced to throw out that set after the house-flood, when the bottom shelves of my entire library suffered damage. And I was thinking with glee, I can assemble another set. Look!
But even as such thoughts flashed through my mind, I knew the heartbreaking truth. I lifted the book and it was too musty for my tolerance level. Back in the box it went. I had to turn away, unable to save it from the awful fate that happens to unwanted books both good and bad.
Another table, another box, more treasure. For now I found a first-edition Pearl S. Buck, and a first-American-edition T. H. White, then moved on to Samuel Shellabarger’s CAPTAIN FROM CASTILE, Rafael Sabatini’s SEAHAWK, Hull’s THE SHEIK, early Grace Livingston Hill, and a Mary Roberts Rinehart mystery that I’d never read.
“There is more treasure in books than in all the pirates’ loot on Treasure Island.”
Did I buy any of these old friends? Oh yes, a few. The mystery stayed in my hands. I couldn’t bring myself to administer the sniff test lest my heart break then and there. I know it’s probably too musty for me to read, because nearly all the old Rineharts I find seem to fox and molder, and yet I so hunger for her fiction that I will face that defeat if and when necessary. White came home, clean and acceptable, but Sabatini did not. Shellabarger did not. But I will be able to ride across the sands once more with a desert sheik.
[In the night, I promised myself that I would return on reduction day. I could give some of them a second chance. Maybe they weren’t as bad as I thought. No doubt I’d missed several and overlooked others. It’s always best to come back and look again. After all, even if I couldn’t keep them, surely I could harbor them in my garage and find them good homes by selling them to others. However, to my disappointment, I could not return for the discounts. A forty-degree temperature drop in the weather and the threat of a sore throat kept me home. Developing a cold, or administering too many sniff tests for book mold, who can say?]
Are the authors I’ve mentioned completely forgotten? (Not all, perhaps, but surely some.) Are they even recognized? Do their names still resound with readers? They are long gone, their works out of print, their adventures and imagination so much dust. And yet how good they were and are. How deserving to be read still, to ignite the minds of children and adults alike.
While I was looking and grabbing and oohing and laughing over being reunited with old friends, I spoke briefly with a young father who was digging as avidly for treasure as I. His attention was divided, however, by having to watch his four-year-old son. The young man asked me if I was a collector, and when I said, yes, told me of his favorites and shared a find with me that he said he already owned. I thought of how lucky that little boy is, to have a father that loves books so much. What discoveries they will share. What places they will visit in their imaginations if only the child will learn the value of reading and won’t succumb to so many other amusements now out there to ensnare and deflect him.
For I am always looking for the young readers-to-be, hoping they continue to come along. Without them, who is there to write for?
February 12, 2017
Some years ago, back in the late twentieth century when I was an avid gardener and had not yet wrecked back or knee, let alone developed the revolting mold allergy that later drove me away from grubbing in the soil or concocting smelly brews for feeding rose bushes. . . back once upon a time, I stumbled across the books of an English writer named Beverley Nichols and discovered his passion for flowers and horticulture. His writing on gardens is lyrical and enchanting. He can wax poetic about the star-shaped blooms of winter jasmine or whip up a wickedly funny caricature of his neighbor and rival gardener, the terrifying Mrs. M.
Charmed by the accounts of his wonderful gardens, and already wild about growing roses, lilacs, and just about anything that bloomed, I devoured his garden writings, gathered inspiration, and redoubled efforts to create my own small plot of paradise here on the prairie. (Yes, this was the era when I was braiding the green leaves of spent daffodils and dreaming of the day when I would be able to afford a small dovecot and tidy paths paved in Connecticut bluestone.)
But the prairie is cruel to cottage gardens, and time has brought the brutal rose virus that today makes me hesitate to prune my surviving bushes lest I spread the blight and bring them all down. I now own raised beds and in-ground sprinklers, yet my landscaping has never looked worse. Neglect, relentless winds, bagworms, and dog excavations make my winter garden a sorry sight indeed. I know that it isn’t money that makes a pretty garden. Love and regular care are what’s needed most.
Yet I don’t much love what I have–so many awkwardly sited plants in such a poor composition–and I no longer provide the nurturing my struggling plants need. Plans for redoing the front bed coagulate in my mind, and then I sigh and let those fine intentions dissipate among the excuses: no time, no funds to spare on paving stones, too hard to dig and move established plants, later after the writing deadline is met, later after the semester is finished, later . . . ah, too late.
However, just before Christmas I stumbled upon a copy of Nichols’s DOWN THE GARDEN PATH and bought it for old times’ sake. I thought I had read it, and perhaps I have, but when I sat down with it this week–after reading several mediocre mysteries–I found nothing familiar except the author’s adroit turn of phrase and his keen wit. The old charm was still there. I laughed aloud at the author’s confrontations with Mrs. M and his scathing attack on garden ornaments, especially cement cupids.
An ember of the old joy rekindled into a tiny blaze. So compelling is Nichols’s prose that I almost grabbed the pruning loppers and set outside to do battle with bramble and thorny twig.
The opening paragraph of this book, where he recounts how he read a newspaper obituary while traveling and immediately cabled an offer to buy the deceased’s country property, caught my attention at once. Because the day before I started reading DOWN THE GARDEN PATH, one of my favorite Internet sites had sent me notice of a Greek revival house for sale in Alabama. Built in 1875 and remodeled in 1892, the house–shown in a few meager pictures–set me ablaze with excitement. This, I thought, is my dream house! I have found it at last after a lifetime of yearning and hoping.
Alas, however affordable the house is, it is also at least a two-day drive away, which renders commuting to work impossible. Still, I felt the vines of temptation entwine around my brain and I let myself dream a little of chucking job, friends, community, and sanity and taking on a ramshackle, moldering house in another state where I know exactly one person. Furthermore, the house shows every evidence of lacking central heat and air. Heaven knows what the plumbing is like–if there is any. But my dream remains. Here, on the prairie, settled by wagon and land run, we have no houses built in 1875. So if I want Greek revival or Italianate architecture, I must go east.
And then I picked up Nichols’s book, where on impulse, whim, and reckless fancy, he sent a purchase offer by telegraph and bought his country cottage and garden far beyond where he lived in London. The timing of my temptation and his story seemed like serendipity at work. It seemed like a sign.
Here, I thought, is someone who did what he wanted to do. He dared act on his dream. He leaped.
So, perhaps, should I. Yet despite my artistic temperament, I don’t always let it have its way. And while I usually regret allowing my practical good sense to check me, I still go on indulging practicality perhaps more than I should.
Instead of phoning the realtor, I instead consoled myself in vicariously sharing Nichols’s experience in having the opportunity and freedom to buy his getaway and develop his first garden as he wished. If I must immerse some of my dreams into the adventures of others, then so be it. But oh how I yearn to live as published writers could in 1930s Britain, when selling a few articles earned enough to purchase a country house. At least in the book’s pages, I could smile at the frivolity of putting umbrellas over foxgloves to protect the petals from being ruined by too much rain. And that sort of anecdote succeeded in distracting me from wild thoughts of should I call and buy the house sight unseen? Dare I ask the realtor to send more pictures?
Thanks to the Internet, which didn’t exist when I first read some of Nichols’s books, I have discovered that his writing career began with the publication of his first book PRELUDE in 1920. From then until his final book in 1982, he wrote over 60 books and plays, including the half-dozen or so garden books I knew about. There are mysteries and children’s books and travel books and biographies. Maybe I will sample and savor; maybe I will stick with the garden ones that are his best-known works. But if you would rather read about lovely gardens than break your back hoeing and weeding them, and if you want to enjoy prose in that lovely, graceful style that used to be so quintessentially English, and is now fading from newer publications, then give Nichols a try.
January 23, 2017
Recently I was out and about at a sale when I spied a slim book bound in fake blue leather. The title on the spine said The Golden Rendezvous. My heart leapt. I reached and took down the book. I opened it. Yes, indeed, it was written by Alistair MacLean. My favorite story among all his works. No mustiness. No damage. It even had a sewn-in ribbon to mark the place.
I bought it and carried it home with a small warm glow of accomplishment. Because at his best, nobody wrote action thrillers or spy books better than MacLean.
I discovered him in 1973, my attention caught by a book called The Way to Dusty Death. I read it and was hooked immediately. Little did I know that this novel marked the beginning of MacLean’s literary decline. It was just good enough to grab me, and I quickly busied myself in digging his earlier, better works out of the library. How I enjoyed his crisp, lean style, his flawless pacing, his relentless brand of action that pushed cynical protagonists to the edge of their endurance.
MacLean wrote from 1955 to 1986. At his best, he was superb. At his worst, he was both sad and truly awful, his efforts hindered by bouts of alcoholism. The last book of his that I read was a pathetic shambles of a story, published near the very end of his career, and I did not return to him until now.
So ignore the books published in the 1970s and 1980s. Hunt down his earlier stuff. It is terrific, whether his characters are struggling survivors of a plane crash in the Artic or a poignant spy assisting defectors over the Berlin wall during the Cold War. Altogether he wrote 28 novels, many of them NY Times bestsellers, along with a collection of short stories and three nonfiction books. For a time he fell completely out of print in the USA, but when I checked Amazon this evening, I found that some of his better-known titles were reissued in 2015.
Earlier this week, I remembered I’d bought The Golden Rendezvous and picked it up to see if the old magic would still work on me. I hadn’t read this novel since I was a teenager. But I remembered the plot twist and the danger the characters went through. I remembered that I once loved it.
Other than knowing what’s coming, it’s like reading the story for the first time. MacLean takes his time establishing the characters and the ship they’re on. I’m reminded of Alfred Hitchcock’s pacing. Introducing all the elements and players slowly, taking the time to firmly settle readers into the plot situation before BAM! trouble hits in a big way.
I’d forgotten MacLean’s style. It is as lean and precise as Dick Francis–only better. Man, I wish I could write that well. And to think, English was MacLean’s second language after Gaelic.
A Scotsman, MacLean served as a torpedo operator in the Royal Navy during World War II. His first novel, HMS Ulysses, was a hit and he is world-famous for The Guns of Navarone, which was made into a successful film.
If you like action-adventure or spy thrillers, give him a try. Just make sure the books were written before 1971. Then hang on to your seat!
January 20, 2017
For the past few years, a black rectangular box has occupied a shelf in my home office. A small, inexpensive Canon inkjet printer that I bought in a hurry at a local Walmart center, and of all the inkjets I’ve purchased over the years it has served me best and longest.
These printers are considered disposable. Generally, inkjets aren’t expected to last long. And of course, they offset their cheap upfront cost by the staggering expense of the ink they run on. Over the years, I’ve occasionally walked into my office to find that the printer has died silently and alone in the night. Without even a warning whimper. No drama to it. Just simple expiration.
In contrast, my previous laser printer was all about the drama. It valiantly spat out 100,000-word manuscripts and innumerable rough drafts for years, and after a lot of wear began to signal warning signs of its demise. It developed a squeak in its rubber page-feed rollers. Then one of its dual paper trays stopped working. Then it began to make a BAD NOISE like its guts were being twisted by some torturous device. I nursed it, babied it, crooned and cooed to it, and kept it working. If that critter folded, I would never find another printer able to talk to my then out-of-date computer. And so I went down to the wire, trying to print out a manuscript to meet deadline (in the days before we emailed our submissions). Running out of toner. Hearing that lame gear grind and squeal and moan with every page. Stopping between chapters to pull out the toner cartridge, shake it to loosen a few more flecks of ink powder, and slamming it back in place. Begging the printer to please keep going. And it did. It wheezed the final ten pages and fell in the traces like an abused Victorian cart horse hauling coal uphill. I mailed that manuscript on time and heaved the printer into the trash. At least I’d wrung every possible drop of use from it.
And of course, after a while, I was paid for the book. Then I bought a new laser printer and a new computer–one that’s now so ancient I call it Grampy. Yes, by a few months Grampy is even older than Ole Faithful, but Grampy still purrs smoothly in its out-of-date Windows XP program. It has never been connected to the Internet, never known the evil kiss of a virus, never fended off cookies, never experienced the jolt of updates. Firing it up to work on a manuscript is like taking your grandmother’s 1976 Cadillac Coupe de Ville out for a spin. Too long to park, guzzling gas like it’s still 72 cents a gallon, and a smooth surge of V-8 power under that l-o-n-g chrome-embellished hood. Oh, baby!
Ole Faithful, on the other hand, has withstood Internet updates that crash it, the invention of the Cloud that confuses and crashes it, the creation of Google Chrome that garbles its poor old brains and crashes it, and the indignity of wearing virus protection like a corset. Buffeted by cookies and threats and electrical brownouts and power surges, Ole Faithful falters and swoons but still manages to stagger onward, game to the last rattle. And Ole Faithful has cozied up to an Epson printer, a Brother printer, an uppity HP that blew ink everywhere but where it should, and for quite a while now a small black Canon. The little printer that could.
Li’l Blackie has held on, held up, done its job, and kept going for–as I’ve already said–longer than any of its other inkjet predecessors. Long enough for me to occasionally think, “How long will this thing last?”
And then, in December, it sent out a cry for help. An error message announced that its ink absorber was nearly full.
I went and talked to an equipment guy. I learned that all inkjets–even the monster machines that print banners and blueprints–have a tray with gauze pads to catch the ink that’s not squirted on the paper during a printing session. (I guess that’s what the sputtering HP printer lacked. It just threw the unused ink underneath itself and made such a mess I kept it sitting on a tray lined with aluminum foil.)
And I learned that–as I already suspected–a replacement ink absorber costs more than a replacement printer.
So I kept Li’l Blackie going, ignoring its quiet little error message, until recently it stopped printing. The machine is still viable, still fine, but it will no longer squirt ink to paper. No words come from it at all. Li’l Blackie sits, silenced.
I disconnected its power cord and USB cable. I removed it from the shelf. It rests now on the floor in a corner, awaiting trash day. All because of a $34 part. (Plus shipping.)
And I went and bought another Canon inkjet. I know they’re not economical–inkwise. I know there are $200 inkjets that will run for a year or more off a $12 bottle of ink. And maybe I’ll investigate one of those later. After all, a few purchases of Li’l Blackie’s ink cartridges would easily pay for the pricier–yet more economical–machine. Meanwhile, I needed something now. Another $30 printer came home with me last week.
The new one is white instead of black. Its shelf footprint is about the same. Its paper tray is different. It came without a USB cable, so thank goodness the old one fit it. And when I fire it up to print it makes a worrisome little noise like it’s straining a cheap plastic gear that probably won’t last long.
But, golly, I like it. The built-in copier feature works easily. It prints much faster. It doesn’t sit and make all sorts of silly little noises before it starts like Li’l Blackie always did. Whitey just gets on with the job.
That’s all I want. Unlike Li’l Blackie, Whitey’s heads are in perfect alignment. And best of all, Whitey’s installation did not crash Ole Faithful.
For the moment, life is good.
Now, if I can just bring myself to toss Li’l Blackie in the trash.
January 17, 2017
Okay, yeah. I admit I’m old-fashioned. I’m traditional. I’m a writing technician in that I’ve spent my entire career studying how stories and plots are constructed for best dramatic effect. So today I’m going to address a writing issue that has been troubling me for quite a while.
There’s a current trend cycling through commercial fiction that is reflective of a larger societal trend: call it deconstruction.
I’m not even sure it’s an actual word. I looked up “deconstruct” in my Webster’s Collegiate edition, and it wasn’t there. I didn’t bother to search for it in my unabridged dictionary because I’m beginning to suspect that deconstruct is one of those trendy let’s-use-a-word-contrary-to-its-correct-usage verbal hijinks so popular now. (E.g. the hot fashion for turning nouns into verbs, as in “Let’s movie” or “We summered in Bermuda” or “You have disrespected me” or “I gifted a book to my friend,” or “Chef Daniel intends to deconstruct an omelet and serve it with a fig reduction.”
Dictionary.com says that “to deconstruct” (verb) is a back formation of the noun “deconstruction.”
Aha! A modern corruption of a perfectly good word.
To deconstruct means the opposite of construct or build. Therefore, to deconstruct means to destroy, to tear apart. So why can’t we say destroy these days if that’s what we mean? Methinks the word might be too harsh for politically correct/sensitive ears. But I don’t like wrapping meanings in phony words and euphemisms.
When we deconstruct a recipe, we tear it down, tear it apart, destroy it, alter it into a different form.
When we deconstruct a fairy tale, we’re doing the same thing.
When we deconstruct classic plot structure, we’re destroying it.
Very au courant, as the French would say. So current, so cool, so trendy, so fashionable to take story design and pull it apart as a sadistic child pulls the back legs off a grasshopper. What’s left? A feeble, mutilated creature that can no longer properly function.
Ah, but I’m assured by those who claim to be in the publishing know that linear plot is “out,” and nonlinear storylines are “in.” So what does that mean?
As I said, I’ve been puzzling over it for quite some time–ever since a haughty young editor rejected one of my book manuscripts for being too linear. And while I quickly figured out what she meant, I have been shaking my head ever since as I watch writers and editors scurrying ever farther down the road to plot anarchy.
I’m told that youngsters these days are not linear thinkers. They are web thinkers. That sounded almost impressive at first, until I realized that someone who cannot think logically cannot think well. So when someone grabs a bit of information here and there in no particular order and synthesizes it into a conclusion–or assumption–hey, presto! Isn’t the modern brain so clever?
Well . . . maybe.
However, I believe the cleverness is perhaps bogus and this whole movement of new storytelling is but a rather fiendish mask for the same old phony ineptitude whereby clumsy writers fail to present plot skillfully to an audience.
Let me give you specific examples.
Over the weekend, my local PBS station aired two programs back to back. One was an episode of the popular hit Sherlock, and the other was a historical drama, Victoria.
Sherlock has grabbed and intrigued audiences by deconstructing Arthur Conan Doyle’s original stories and spinning bits and pieces of them into a frenetic, wildly over-the-top version that is seldom fully comprehensible. When this series first began, I thought it clever in how it adapted the old storylines to modern-day settings, using text messaging instead of telegrams, etc., but it quickly spun out of control and has pushed the boundaries of plausibility ever since.
This particular evening, the show was as webbish and nonlinear as it’s possible to be. It zigzagged among hallucinations, memories, present, past, future, oops, no that was a dream, and whirled from fragment to fragment like a dervish.
I have come to realize that it’s not really necessary to sit down and watch such programs with my full attention because they aren’t designed for that. Instead, the swirling bits and pieces of nearly random scenes and fragmental character encounters are intended for distracted audiences to grab like catching fluffy bits of cottonwood fuzz floating on the summer breezes.
And ever since I stopped even trying to follow a Sherlock episode closely, stopped suspending disbelief, stopped caring deeply or empathizing with the characters, it has made no significant difference in my comprehension. I find there’s no reward to sitting down and concentrating hard or watching the same episode about three times to finally “get” what it is all about. And I needn’t worry about coming in ten minutes late because I can always gain the gist of it on the fly. (The gist being next to nothing at all.)
Perhaps that is the “genius” of this style of writing, this construction of story montage. Perhaps its anarchy and madness perfectly fit the needs of audiences with scant time or short attention spans.
When Sherlock ended, I then watched a segment of Victoria. I had no high expectations for it, but I intended to garner some meager appreciation of the sets and costumes.
To my astonishment, the episode was linear, logical, plotted along classic, archetypal plot patterns, and dramatically sound. I was surprised, then pleased, then delighted. I relaxed into the mood of the show, enjoyed the sets, empathized with the beleaguered young queen, and immersed myself thoroughly in this story world. I didn’t have to strain to be clever. I didn’t have to blink in confusion. I was never lost.
I don’t know who wrote it, but my hat is off to that individual or writing team.
Because–huzzah!–someone out there still knows how to construct a story that’s plausible and pleasurable to watch.
So I made up my mind that I’m no longer going to give way to this editorial nonsense, let alone cater to it. Good story is linear. It doesn’t have to be destroyed to be clever. It can be rendered less predictable by strategic ordering of scenes, jumping forward and folding back, judicious flashbacks, and viewpoint changes, but it doesn’t have to be a hot mess whipped into a mind-blowing froth.
I would far, far better read–or watch–a story that’s so skillful I forget I’m separate. I want a story that flows so logically, so effortlessly that I can lose myself inside the story world. I want a story that touches me emotionally. That is why I read. That is why I watch films.
Not to think, how clever this is. Or, look at that special effect! How was that done? But instead to become the central character, to live through the moment, to vicariously be a part of the unfolding drama.
Chaos in fiction is a lie. It is hooey. It is a cheat to its audience, no matter how trendy it might be. I will continue to build stories, not destroy their proven structure for a fad.