Interview with Alan M. Clark, By Cheryl Owen-Wilson

Cover_ApologiesToTheCatsMeatMan_The Cat’s Meat Man” Copyright © 2017 Alan M. Clark

I’m delighted to be interviewing Alan Clark on ShadowSpinners today. I’ve had the distinct pleasure of knowing this talented author and artist for several years and have even taken a few of his painting classes. His very brief bio below, mentions the house full of bones where he grew up. Well dear reader, I have personally been in Mr. Clark’s current home, and I can attest that bones remain a prominent feature in his life, and in the macabre décor of his studio. Those of you who have followed my blog know of my own penchant for all things dark and twisted, so I naturally took an instant liking to Mr. Clark!

I’ve just finished his latest book and immediately gave it the five stars it deserved on Amazon. The book is Apologies to the Cat’s Meat Man: A Novel of Annie Chapman, the Second Victim of Jack the Ripper (Jack the Ripper Victims Series). My interview will focus mainly on the book, while also touching on the series and Mr. Clark’s artwork.

Alan M. Clark grew up in Tennessee in a house full of bones and old medical books. As a writer and illustrator, he is the author of sixteen published books, including 11 novels, a lavishly illustrated novella, four collections of fiction, and a nonfiction full-color book of his artwork. He has illustrated books and stories by authors as diverse as Jack Ketchum, Poppy Z Brite, Stephen King, Joe R Lansdale and Ray Bradbury. Awards for his work include the World Fantasy Award and four Chesley Awards.

 

Alan, what first drew you to write historical fiction?

Thanks for the nice introduction. 

I’ve always liked history. Many years ago, in the early ‘80s, one of my first jobs was as a museum guide at Fort Nashborough, a partial replica of the first non-native-American settlement of Nashville, TN. I was in a position of having to bring to life for the visitors what existence was like for those who first settled the area. Using my imagination, I found I could sort of travel back in time to help the visitors get a glimpse of a time when the area was surrounded by wilderness, as well as hostile Indians who held those lands as sacred hunting and burial grounds.

What inspired you to write about the victims of Jack the Ripper, while so exclusively leaving the man out of the stories as well as any speculation as to who he might have been? 

I read the police reports of the killings, the transcripts from the inquests, and other material that gave a sense of who the victims were, what their lives were like. Knowing something of history in the nitty gritty of life, beyond significant dates, locations, and standout events, I became fascinated with what it took for the women to survived in London’s East End of the period. I found a parallel with the homeless of our time. We have the tech revolution marginalizing the less fortunate among us, and Victorian England had the same thing with the Industrial Revolution, the suffering at its worst in London, the richest and most technologically advanced city in the world at the time. Survival in that time and place was a tale worth telling. The more I learned about the women and their environment, the less interested I became in the endless, and often ridiculous speculation about the murderer. Because we don’t know who JTR was, the killer is mostly defined by his victims and what he did to them, while the women should not be defined by the circumstances of their deaths since we have some information about them and their lives. 

What do you feel are the ethics of writing historical fiction?

There are four novels in the Jack the Ripper Victims Series at present: Of Thimble and Threat, Say Anything but Your Prayers, A Brutal Chill in August, and Apologies to that Cat’s Meat Man. I state in the front of each novel that they are fiction and that is meant to tell people that I’ve made up much the story, the dialogue, and the motivations of the characters. I try to create characters that ring true in the imagination as human beings. They are necessarily flawed. I try to stick to what is known of their lives, their motivations, their feelings, but clearly I have to invent.

Popular notions about the victims would have us believe that they were prostitutes of little value. Unfortunately that is because that’s the way they were seen in their time. Those killed on the street, the first four, were casual prostitutes, meaning that they engaged in solicitation when they had to in order get by. The going rate for a casual prostitute at the time was four pence (pennies). If my calculations are correct, adjusted for inflation, that would be about almost 2 £ British currency today, or about $2.70 cents USD. The rest of the time, they eked out a meager existence doing what work they could find, mostly hard and tedious labor for little pay. Those four women had all lost their husbands and were destitute. There were so many poor, so many partner less women living in the East End of London, and so many of them were alcoholics, often struggling to get from one meal to the next, one drink to the next, that they were considered a nuisance by most people of the higher classes, and of very little worth. Yes, there was a rigid class system in place at the time.

Yet those women had lives, families, friends, emotional gains and losses, the controversies and dramas to be found in any life. My opinion is that giving a sense of life in that time and place to people of our time, and to those of the future, is a worthy endeavor. If people are so fascinated by the idea of an inhuman killer that they are drawn to material about the violence, why not use that to draw attention to something intensely human.

Do you feel you owe anything to the all too real victims in your books? In particular Annie Chapman the second victim of Jack the Ripper upon whom “Apologies to the Cats Meat Man” is based?

I owe her compassion as a fellow human being, and believe I have written something that depicts a character going by her name and having similar circumstances in a way that makes her more than a two-dimensional alcoholic Victorian-era whore. Hopefully, the story inspires others to imagine those times and circumstances and engenders compassion for the least of that time, and, by extension, the least of our time.

In preparation for this interview I delved more deeply into why your book resonated with me, even weeks after I’d read it. I realized it was because of what you touched on in the last sentence of your response above—inspires others to imagine those times and circumstances and engenders compassion for the least of that time, and, by extension, the least of our time. You see I had a daughter who—slept rough—the term used in the 19th century to describe having to sleep on the streets at night. My daughter was also an addict. Through her I learned of the lives of many of those considered—least of our time—those who slept rough, right along side her. When she died those same marginalized people were the ones who shared stories about my daughter’s compassion toward them. So thank you for humanizing those who are all too often invisible.

That is hard. You have my sympathy.

Compassion is in short supply in a world so full of people and dwindling resources. That was true in Victorian London, just as it is true today. In 1888, the Whitechapel district in London’s East End, where most of the Ripper killings occurred, had an average of 800 people living per acre.

There will always be those who stereotype the unfortunate individual as a loser. It’s easy and can be a comfortable way to temporarily pump up a deflated sense of self. But all of us make mistakes and suffer for it, and, at times, suffer through no fault of our own. Writing drama is all about the decisions characters make, the consequences of those decisions, and how they deal with adversity. If done well and the character’s motivations ring true, a story becomes an effective reflection of human life, a mirror we value because it gives us glimpses that help us understand ourselves and others.

What was the hardest, and in turn the easiest part of writing this book? 

What made it hard is that there is little information about Annie Chapman’s life, really just a bare-bones outline. The lives of each of the victims is most clear closest to their deaths because of the inquests. Those are investigations to determine the manner of death, much like a trial, with witnesses testifying as to their relationships, knowledge, and recent interactions with the deceased.

Because there was so little information about Annie Chapman, I had to pick up even the thinnest emotional threads and try work with them. I found a letter written by Chapman’s sister that gave some truly wonderful emotional context concerning love and loss and even violent suicide in the family—that was very helpful. The lack of information made it hard, but also gave me room to invent. The trick is to invent in a way that remains true to the environment, the circumstances of the characters, ones that seem consistent with what we do know from history.

You did an excellent job of making me feel the hardships, squalor and violence in the life of a working class woman in 19th century London. Were there specific reference books used to accomplish this?  

Thank you. Most of my research for the series has been done online. There are great resources for this, maps, documents, fiction, nonfiction, and government studies from the time period. Google books has a seemingly endless selection of material referencing the Victorian era, generated by authors, journalists, and social scientists of the period. The ability to search online for images using key words was also of great benefit.

For those unfamiliar—I was one of those and had to look it up—please explain what a “cats meat man” is.

A cat’s meat man is a street vendor who makes rounds of neighborhoods that have people with pets, selling meat to those who have dogs and cats. It was usually horsemeat not fit for human consumption, dyed green or blue to indicate that and stabbed onto thin wooden skewers. A cat’s meat man would have regular customers and and a beat so as not to compete with others in the same trade. Wearing a big, bright neckerchief, he’d wheel a barrow that held his merchandise in containers of brine. To draw attention, he’d sing a song or shout “Beep, beep,” as he proceeded to. They were often organized through someone who had access to the cast offs of a local slaughterhouse.

TheCatsMeatMan

“The Cat’s Meat Man” Copyright © 2017 Alan M. Clark

What is the one most important thing people think they “know” about the Jack the Ripper victims that’s a fallacy?

Many assume that the killer was a top-hatted gentleman slumming in the East End. I’ve seen depictions of JTR wielding a knife with a jeweled handle. All that is unlikely. The murderer would probably have been someone who could blend in, and that would have been someone of modest to meager means. Even your accent, your manner of speech, and vernacular placed you within that society.

I have shared in this blog how my own painting and writing both assist and hinder one another. Other than the creation of the art for your book covers, does your art inform your writing in any way? 

I have done numerous illustrations for the series. I approach the material as I would with any illustration job—the images are in response to what I’m writing. With the artwork, I try to add to the experience audiences have of the stories, while pinning things down as little as possible. Audiences respond better when they are given room to use imagination. In many of the illustrations, instead of depicting the character’s facial features, I concentrated on their hands, thus allowing the audience to put their own stamp on the characters.

StillInItsHidingPlace

“Still in Its Hiding Place” copyright © 2014 Alan M. Clark

I am anxiously awaiting a book on final victim, Mary Jane Kelly. Is it in my near future? 

Yes, next year—have begun it. Using some of the illustrations, I did an animated film less than 2 minutes in length to help promote it and the rest of the JTR Victims Series. Just finished the film and haven’t released it yet.

Other than the book mentioned above, what do your plans for future projects include?

As I’ve done in the past—not just with the JTR Victims Series, but also with The Door that Faced West, about America’s earliest serial killers, and A Parliamnet of Crows, about 19th century American Murderesses, the Wardlaw sisters—I’ll be looking for something in history that leaves me disturbed and wondering. All my historical fiction starts that way. I call it Historical Terror: Horror that Happened. Something in the past stands out to me because I have to wonder how those involved in the event found what they did reasonable. Writing the tales helps me provide answers. The novels are about crimes, the victims of crimes, or both.

Thanks for interviewing me on ShadowSpinners.

Thank you, and I look forward to many more great reads as you explore my new catch phrase—Historical Terror.

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Interview – Author Bonnie Stufflebeam

 

 

Bonnie

In this month’s interview, I’m delighted to introduce you to Bonnie Stufflebeam.  I met Bonnie in a writing group, and have followed her writing and projects since then.  Her work is often moving, poignant, and thought-provoking.

Bonnie’s fiction and poetry have appeared in over 40 magazines such as Clarkesworld, Hobart, and Lightspeed. She has been a finalist for the Nebula Award and Selected Shorts’ Stella Kupferberg Memorial Prize. Her audio fiction-jazz collaborative album Strange Monsters was released from Easy Brew Studio in April 2016, and she is also the founder of Art and Words, a collaboration of art and fiction.  Her most recent online publication is “Secret Keeper” in Nightmare, which is a tribute to Phantom of the Opera set in a high school theater

Bonnie, would you tell us about your writing?

I write fiction of a fabulist/fantastical variety, anything from what Scott Andrews of Beneath Ceaseless Skies calls literary adventure fantasy to dark fantasy to science fiction to stories with a more literary sensibility that still have some sort of fantastical element. I love re-working myths and fairy tales especially. I also love playing with all the elements of fiction.

Like a lot of writers, I’ve been telling stories since I was a kid. I used to write and illustrate books about my cat April’s adventures (she got lost, coughed up a hairball, rescued an alien stuck in a tree, usual cat stuff). Angsty poetry is the only way I survived middle school. I got serious about fiction in college—that’s when I developed a routine and started reading like a writer—and started publishing in 2012, while I was getting my MFA.

I’m very self-driven. I want to be a writer and have always wanted to be a writer, so I work hard to be a writer (and some days are more difficult than others, of course). I also have lofty dreams that are really outside of my control when it comes to reaching them, and those dreams can be motivational but also distracting. I try to keep a good balance of hopefulness and practicality when it comes to motivation.

What kind of stories have special meaning for you?

I’ve always loved stories for that sense of connection with another person I get when reading them. My favorite stories are those that make me realize something about the world or about myself or the ones that remind me that I’m not the only one who feels a certain way or has had a particular experience. I write because stories have been so important to me, and I want people to connect to my stories the way I’ve connected to stories.

I write a lot about family. My family is a huge force in my life, so I tend to gravitate toward stories about the complicated nature of familial relationships. I write a lot of metaphors for alcoholism and addiction and depression. I write a lot about queerness and sexuality in general. I grew up bisexual in a smaller Texas town. Those formative experiences feature in a lot of my writing.

 What is the hardest thing you have ever written? 

One of the first novels I wrote and then revised, which didn’t end up selling. It was difficult, as a short story writer, to not only sustain a narrative over such a large length but then to revise that narrative. Revision has always been one of my weaknesses. I’m still learning from novel-writing, as I’m still trying and am still in the dark about so much of it. But I’m starting to understand certain things about plotting and follow-through in such a large work.

In addition to your fiction, you have done some fascinating projects and collaborations with art and writing.  Can you tell us about your annual Art and Words Show-Art on the Boulevard? 

The Art & Words Show started as a project during my MFA program at Stonecoast. For one of my assignments, I decided to put on a show that would combine literature and art. I researched various collaborations between writers and artists throughout history. For the show itself, I put out an open call for submissions. I accepted 11 visual artists and 11 writers based on the work they sent me and took one work from each of them. Then I had each writer choose a piece of the visual art I’d accepted to use as inspiration for a poem or story. The visual artists then chose a poem or story from the work I’d accepted and used it as inspiration for a work of visual art. This resulted in 22 pairings of art and words, hence the name of the show.

This year, with a reception on October 7 at Art on the Boulevard in Fort Worth, will be Art & Words’ 6th year. I’ve slowly improved upon the show in small, practical ways. For example, at first I had no word limit for the stories. But some of them were so long that no one had time to read them at the show. Now I try to keep them to one page-length. And then there’s a few things I wish we could still do that we did in those first years; I ran a Kickstarter for the first year, so we had some money for set-up and could also pay musicians to play. We don’t have the budget to do that anymore. Otherwise, I’d say that every year I get more and more submissions, which means that I’m able to feature more people who haven’t done the show before, which is great.  You can find more about it HERE

ArtShow

Can you tell us about Strange Monsters, your project involving music and fiction?

Strange Monsters was a collaboration I did with my partner, Peter Brewer. Peter’s a jazz musician, composer, and recording engineer, and we wanted to do something creative together. We hired local actors to read some of my flash fiction, then he wrote jazz compositions for each story. We hired local musicians to record the music, which Peter then mixed with the words. We released the whole thing as an album. All the stories dealt with women making their own way, eschewing other people’s expectations of what they should do or how they should act.

Yes, I particularly enjoyed “Stink of Horses” in this collection. Listening to it was a surprisingly visceral experience. 

Thanks.  The most fun part of this project was getting to work with so many awesome creative people. It’s always surprising to hear someone else’s interpretation of my writing, and I got to hear it translated into music. I’ve always been a huge music lover, so that was really rewarding.

So, music and art are strong influences in your work.

Yes, I’m inspired by other art forms. I’m totally absorbed by music and art, and a lot of my story ideas come from my experiences with both. I would say that my writing has gained depth from my interactions with other art forms. As one person with a limited set of experiences, I can pull from those experiences to write.

 Has your writing changed as a result of the work you have done with other artists?

For the first few years of writing seriously, I wrote autobiographical stories. By opening myself up to the work of other artists, letting their experiences in, I’ve gained a lot of empathy for other people’s experiences, and that empathy has allowed me to better put myself in the shoes of characters who may share some of my qualities but who have lived different lives.

How do you see collaboration between artists contributing to the ongoing conversations about pressing social issues?

When people create together, they’re communicating with another person on a pretty personal level, which can lead to an increase in empathy toward that other person and an increased ability to empathize in general. A lot of artists—not all, of course, but a lot—are open-minded people. I love it when open-minded people get together and share ideas in order to make new things. I think more of that can only be helpful when confronting communication barriers and organizing against the bullshit of our current world.

But of course it takes more than communicating to get things done, so I’m definitely not advocating artistic collaboration as a one-stop strategy to bolster consciousness and conversation about social issues. It’s important to do whatever else each person can do: march against intolerance and injustice, vote with your dollar and on Election Day, write letters, make calls, and offer support. But art can be therapeutic, as well, as can social interaction, and I say if you want to make some collaborative art as a part of your resistance, why the hell wouldn’t you?

So true!  Bonnie, what are you working on now?

I’m working on a novel. Once that’s finished, I’d love to write some more short stories, as I haven’t been able to work on those lately. They’re my first love, and I miss them.

Thank you for your time, Bonnie.  Best of luck to you in your ventures.  

Find Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam: Website or on Twitter

Strange Monsters: a Music & Words Collaboration, out now | Preview the tracks here

Grist for the Mill

By Elizabeth Engstrom

How many times have you been told, when going through a rough patch in life, “Well, it’s grist for the mill.” That phrase never helps me when someone else says it. Only when I say it.

For those who don’t know, grist is grain that has been separated from the chaff (outer husk), leaving the kernels ready to be ground into flour.

Today I use my Vitamix to grind wheat berries into flour, but in the old days, oxen walked around and around a big stone where people threw their wheat, to be ground into flour by another enormous round stone. Later, windmills powered the grinding stones to make flour. Wind powering a mill. Windmill.

windmill

For an author, the real milling happens internally. Authors are quirky people, very interesting to talk to (if you can get them alone and not in a crowd) because they live lives of grand events, they feel passionately, and grind their experiences into a fine powder and then play it out on the page.

Very few people have a book published prior to acquiring a few gray hairs. This is because we have to live life, we have to experience a vast landscape of people, events, relationships, emotions; we need grist that we can ponder, from which we extract the kernel that will become fiction worth reading.

My friend, romance writer Susan Wiggs says the hardest scene ever to write is that of a woman crying. She’s right. Most authors cheat and say something like “tears ran down her cheeks.” Well, that’s just not right. It’s passive, it’s likely from the wrong point of view, it tells the reader NOTHING. It is only those of us who have experienced gut-blasting, heart-exploding grief, where it feels like a heart attack, it feels like asphyxiation, the kind of grief where we’re certain we’re going to die–who can write a scene that a reader will get on the emotional level that we intend. On a human level. Not every woman crying scene deserves all of that, but it deserves a corner of it.

And yet, we can’t write that while it’s raw. We have to grind it. We have to absorb it into our personalities, make it part of our total human experience. We have to portion it out in this scene and in that scene, knowing that the depth of our personal experience is so vast that we can draw on those experiences for the rest of our lifetimes.

Sometimes, of course, we have to write it raw. Sometimes that’s the only way to survive. But that writing is not for publication. That is merely the record of the grist entering the mill. The finished story or novel is the finished, baked bread. As you know, good bread needs leavening. That takes time.

So when you go through something terrifying, horrible, or devastating, and someone else, knowing you’re a writer, tosses it off by saying, “it’s just grist for the mill,” realize that they’re trying to comfort you. They don’t mean to invite a slap across the chops. They know you’re a writer, someone who feels everything intensely, and that someday you will indeed use this unexpected windfall of wild grain in your mill to bake a loaf of something delicious that they will enjoy.

What’s a “MacGuffin” Anyhow? A Little Investigation of my Own

By Lisa Alber

Since the last time I wrote here, my third novel, PATH INTO DARKNESS launched. Woohoo! It’s always a fun thing, the culmination of at least two years of hard work. Along with the launch, come the reviews, which I try not to notice all that much … (yeah, right).

But then, last week, I got a nice surprise: my local alternative paper, the Willamette Week—bastion of Portland, OR, hipness and snark—featured a review of the novel. Color me shocked, to be honest. I’d never seen an actual full book review in the newspaper. Maybe it was a slow news week in the land of hip, I don’t know. I was hesitant to read the review. Snark doesn’t tend to be magnanimous, and, indeed, the reviewer had a nice way of coating what might considered a positive aspect of the novel with the glow of ambiguity.

But, it’s all good. I was thrilled to see the review and picked up about ten copies of the print version. 🙂

One sentence sticks out near the beginning of the review: “…the murder is just the MacGuffin, a hedge mower clearing the underbrush to look at the gross stuff underneath.”

Using the term “MacGuffin” in a book review interests me. That’s a writing craft kind of word, the kind of concept that the average reader won’t understand or care about it.

First thought: Really? Thanks for letting me know.

Second thought: What’s a MacGuffin again?

Third thought: Is that a bad thing?

I get what the reviewer is saying, maybe: The murder of Elder Joe at the beginning of the book is the least of the events and mysteries to sort out. One thing leads to another, and before you know it there’s a whole ‘nother thing going down that could be related to Elder Joe’s death, but maybe it’s not, and maybe there’s some more bad stuff brewing.

What can I say, this is the world of dark crime fiction — shit (or maybe “shite” since the story’s set in Ireland) happens. When you’re writing mystery, that’s pretty much the point!

I’m not sure the reviewer used the term “MacGuffin” correctly, so bear with me as I investigate. Review aside, I am interested in the MacGuffin concept anyhow.

Here’s what I know to start with: MacGuffins are plot devices. Too bad the term “plot device” always seems to come along with a sneer, like it’s a bad thing, like if you’re a writer using a plot device, then you’re basically a hack — so-called “literary” writers don’t use plot devices, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.

We could mine that topic until the next eclipse …  To continue, looking around the Internet, I see that “MacGuffin” is typically defined as the object (person, place, thing) around which a plot revolves, and said object may or may not be all that important. The Maltese Falcon statuette, the Holy Grail, a lost manuscript, the lost city of Atlantis, and so on.

If you want to get all technical about it, I guess you could say that a dead body is an object around which a mystery plot revolves, therefore, a MacGuffin. But that seems silly. Might as well say that the love interest the heroine meets at the beginning of a romance novel is a MacGuffin.

On WikiPedia, the definition includes, “Other more abstract types [of MacGuffins] include victory, glory, survival, power, love, or some unexplained driving force.”

Well, huh. Every story, I mean every story ever written, has a MacGuffin then, which renders the term pretty useless. If a story doesn’t revolve around something, then what’s the point of it? So I reject that wider definition. I’ll remain a purist on the topic, which is more the Hitchcockian way of thinking of MacGuffins.

I have a go-to writing book that I dip into now and then for inspiration and reminders: Elizabeth George’s WRITE AWAY. Since she writes crime fiction, I’m curious what she has to say about MacGuffins within our genre. She considers MacGuffins a craft element that you can use to increase suspense. She says, “… it’s the race itself — the race to possess the MacGuffin in advance of the other characters — that creates the suspense.”

OK, yeah, that makes sense — a lot of sense.

My conclusion? I have a more purist definition of “MacGuffin,” so I don’t think a murder at the beginning of a mystery counts as one, even when said murder ends up not being the point of the story. (Like the Maltese Falcon statue itself not really being the point of the story.)

Did the reviewer misuse the term? Meh. Not sure. Kind of. You can argue either way. It’s just not fully apt, in my opinion. In my literary jargon, Elder Joe’s death is the inciting incident — the event that gets the plot rolling so that I can, as the reviewer so descriptively put it, examine deeper and darker territory.

What’s your take on the MacGuffin? Do you define it more in the Hitchcockian way? Or include abstractions in your definition? Do you even care?

Immersed In Voices

by Christina Lay

Today’s post is dedicated to a gentleman I met at a writing conference who proudly told me that he doesn’t read because he doesn’t want his voice to be influenced by other writers.

I’ll let that sink in for a moment.

If you are alive and moving through society, you are influenced by writers, whether you read or not. You’re influenced by the stories you heard as a child, by the television and movies you’ve watched, by songs on the radio, speeches you’ve listened to, graffiti glimpsed through a train window, poetry carved on tombstones and conversations overheard. Voices are everywhere. They creep into our mental milieu and join the babble, for good or ill. You can’t stop it. To try is just silly. Nor should you want to. It’s a little bit like a visual artist deciding to walk around with their eyes closed because they don’t want their vision to be influenced by what they see. While you might be intent on being a total original, shutting out the world, especially the art form in which you seek to express yourself, is a way to grow stifled and dull, not fresh and exciting.

I was thinking about this because I recently found myself strongly influenced by the voice of a writer I was reading. Before you get the wrong idea, no, this was not a case of stunningly artistic and meaningful prose that shook me to my core and made resolve to write nothing but lofty and truthy literature from this point forward. No, the book in question was a snarky fantasy involving a hornless gay unicorn and a sexually aggressive dragon (The Lightning Struck Heart by TJ Klune). It influenced me because it made me laugh and yes, I did suddenly find my characters wanting to be so much more witty and unrestrained. I paused and wondered if I was guilty of copying the writer I’d enjoyed. He certainly influenced the tone of what I was doing, but I think the main effect was more akin to a barrier broken, a buried voice uncovered, a repressed impulse given permission to unfold.

I remember when I first read Tom Robbins’ Jitterbug Perfume. I thought I’d been handed the key out of writer hell. At last I discovered that yes, you can be both silly and good. You can let your inner crazy out and people like it. You don’t have to be serious, emulate Hemingway (when you’re trying to conform to the accepted ideal, it’s emulate, not copy, btw), squash playfulness and grimly grind out perfectly diagrammed, perfectly original sentences in order to be a respectable Author with a capital A.

So after reading this writer, characters started gabbing away in my head, saying whatever came to mind, and instead of deciding that it was all too silly and shall we say, risky, I hurried to my desk and wrote down whatever they had to say. I didn’t censor them, much. I found a character who seemed like a long lost friend and two weeks later, I have an 18K novella out of it.

In this case, I believe what I found in another writer was a deeply felt need to play at the keyboard again. Odds are, you don’t know what you need, so filtering out possible influences is simply self-defeating. This doesn’t apply to writing only, but to any place where people are expressing themselves. It might be a song or an essay, or it might be, God help us, a Facebook status update. Because that’s where a lot of people without any other platform are expressing themselves. Don’t hide from it. Even the words and opinions we don’t like are informative, maybe especially so.

Other voices inspire us. They inform us. They show us what we didn’t know was possible, or remind us about what we’ve forgotten. The more “other” the better, in my opinion. The purpose of writing is communication, but communication is a two-way street. How can we hope to reach an audience, any audience, if we’re not willing to listen?

 

 

From Games to Fiction

by Matthew Lowes

The history of fiction inspired by games goes back at least to the 1970s when the first Dungeons & Dragons inspired novels were released. If we count gladiatorial games we might push this back to the Roman era. And if we count the “game of life” we can push it back to dawn of humanity and the very origins of story telling. In any case, there are enough examples, both good and bad, to discuss some of the issues involved with writing a story inspired by a game.

When I first designed the first Dungeon Solitaire card game, I couldn’t have foreseen the success we would have with the expanded Labyrinth of Souls game. And when that game launched, I couldn’t have foreseen that there would soon be a series of Labyrinth of Souls novels. When that opportunity arose, thanks largely to writer Elizabeth Engstrom and writer & publisher Christina Lay, I felt strongly that there were some game-inspired fiction pitfalls that we should avoid.

Games with a narrative element, like Dungeon Solitaire, lend themselves to fiction because the game itself is designed to generate narratives. Once involved with the game, the mind is already spinning stories. However, game narratives and fiction narratives have some key differences. And as a writer of fiction engaging with game-related material, one should be clear about this.

Game narratives are generated through game-play. They are generally open ended, often meandering, and sometimes surprisingly random or short. Dungeon Solitaire is a good example. The game is a kind of hero’s journey, and can generate some classically structured narratives. But it is also possible to die on the first turn, or to lose the dragon-battle or get lost forever, right where the classic story would end in victory. In a game, that’s all part of the fun. What’s going to happen is really unknown, and like life, there is an element of randomness to the outcomes.

Good fiction, on the other hand, is always a kind of optimized or archetypal narrative. Take thousands of games played, or thousands of lives lived, and artfully choose from them the most satisfying and illuminating narrative structures and elements. That’s what fiction does. It is a kind of distillation of the game or life narrative into its most essential and moving forms. No book randomly ends after the first chapter. And no good book sets up one ending and then delivers a completely different one. The archetypal narrative forms, like the gods, must somehow be appeased for the beauty of fiction to flourish.

   

With all this in mind, I wanted the Labyrinth of Souls novels to be good fiction first and foremost. We had a lineup of incredibly talented fiction writers and they had to be free to do what they do best. The idea of the Labyrinth was broad enough to encompass a broad range of stories, without limiting authors to any predetermined setting or time period. And that’s one of the things I find so exciting about the novels so far. Although they all involve a journey into an underworld labyrinth of some sort, each one is entirely unique.

In creating something inspired by something else, we are still creating something new. So when writing fiction inspired by a game, it is primarily important to fulfill all the requirements of good fiction. Evoking the game in some way is necessary, of course, but only of secondary importance. Any constraining requirements should be kept to a minimum. For inspiration reaches its greatest potential when it happens with the greatest liberty to explore one’s own ideas.


You can learn more about Dungeon Solitaire: Labyrinth of Souls and download the free PDF of Dungeon Solitaire: Tomb of Four Kings at matthewlowes.com. Discover Labyrinth of Souls fiction titles and follow new releases at shadowspinnerspress.com.

The Because-Because of Character Desire, by Eric Witchey

Tennis PlayerThe Because-Because of Character Desire, by Eric Witchey

The four-day 2017 Willamette Writers Conference was last weekend.

Don’t worry. This isn’t a conference recap essay. It’s a craft essay.

Still, I experienced a lot of things in a very short period of time, so it influences my thinking on craft today. Two things I experienced are worthy of note in this little essay. First is my time with the Young Willamette Writers. Larry Brooks and I spent a lunch with the up-and-coming kids nurtured by Teresa Klepinger and the Young Willamette Writers’ crew of kind mentors. The kids’ ages ranged from 9 to 15 or so, and they are pure hearts made of equal parts imagination and sponge. Second is the sad death of the dolphin Rinaldo that was part of the discoveries we made during the Write a Story Now group brainstorm and story development class I taught on Sunday.

Yes, these things are related.

Here’s how. In both situations I found myself on the verge of describing a little considered but terribly important aspect of story craft—characterization in particular. I call it the because-because technique. In both cases, time ran out. I walked away from the sessions feeling like I cheated my clients.

Many fiction writers, and certainly most selling writers, know that every character on stage at a given moment has an agenda they are trying to execute. How they execute their agenda “shows” the reader who they are. This is at the heart and soul of the vague and nearly useless writer instruction to “show, don’t tell.” God, I wish I had a dime for every emotionally empty adjective and concrete detail an aspiring writer put on the page and made me read.

Example:

She sat on the hot, beige vinyl of her twenty-year old, silver Toyota Camry. Squirming to keep her cheek sweat from staining her white tennis shorts and sticking her to the seat, she slipped the key into the ignition and twisted. The starter clicked twice then pretended it hadn’t noticed her effort to start the car.

The old adage (show, don’t tell) biases the aspirant in favor of describing the perspirant, her seats, her shorts, her car, etc. She does have an agenda. Here, she wants to start the car. That’s her scene agenda, and that’s what I’m writing about in this essay.

In both the class and the meeting with the kids, we talked about agendas. We talked about how they bring character to life by creating opportunity for the character to demonstrate who they are by taking action on their own behalf. We talked about how opposition of environment (the heat and the starter) can force the character to demonstrate resourcefulness, experience, and a level of desire. Opposition by another character does the same and adds another agenda and personality to the mix. Opposition by internal moral and psychological forces also places the character in a position where they must demonstrate who they are. In the Story Now class, we even talked a little bit about how changes in tactics can allow the reader to feel and internalize character personality.

What we didn’t talk about is how every character on stage has a because-because.

Example:

She wants to start her car because she wants to get away from the tennis pro because she loves her husband and doesn’t want any rumors even though she hasn’t done anything wrong.

The purpose of the because-because is expanding the frame of reference for personal agenda two levels in order to allow for more complex and plausible execution of agenda in scene. It also allows the writer to connect character to risks, stakes, and consequences in the mind of the reader by making behavior specific in ways that imply psychological underpinning motivations that may or may not be explicitly stated.

And every character has a because-because. Even the ball boy has a because-because.

Example:

The tennis pro wants to bed the first character because he is running a blackmail/web porn site because he wants a new tattoo that will mark him as a captain in the Russian mafia on American soil.

The groundskeeper wants to reorganize his shed because he believes that having everything in order helps him care for his golf course because he believes a true groundskeeper’s soul is connected to the land he cares for.

The club manager wants to get a reporter off his property because he wants to keep the respect of his corrupt, high-end clients because he is skimming a percentage of dues into offshore accounts he’ll use to be rid of those assholes once and for all when he disappears at the end of the year.

The reporter wants to interview the club manager for a puff piece in the Sunday Supplement because she wants to investigate the club members for corruption because she wants a breakthrough story that will place her name prominently in the history of journalism.

You get the idea, I hope.

Now, a byproduct of because-because agendas is that the writer can tweak them around to make them increasingly about the psychology and sociology of the character. Here’s a rewrite in that direction for The Ball Boy:

The ball boy wants to give her a new can of club logo complimentary balls because he wants his boss’s respect and a raise because he wants to shake off the stigma of his family history by looking worthy to be on a date with the first character’s teenage daughter.

The more the because-because is grounded in character psyche, the more powerful the interactions between the characters becomes. Here’s a rewrite of our first character’s because-because:

She wants to start her car because she wants to escape the tawdry advances of the tennis pro because she loves her husband and protects his reputation from rumors because she wants him to have a model wife for his developing political career.

Now, she has three becauses and is getting more interesting because we want her to escape because we want her to develop a spine and aspire to be more than a mere political symbol.

Each because, if it is connected to character psychology, also connects to reader interest.

Given all these becauses, the “showing” of the first paragraph and subsequent paragraphs change radically because behavior becomes more important and adjectives and concrete details only have value relative to character behavior and motivations.

Squirming on the Camry’s hot vinyl to keep her cheek sweat from staining her white tennis shorts or sticking her to the seat, she ducked low to hide under the dash, slipped the key into the ignition, and twisted. The starter clicked twice then pretended it hadn’t noticed the key. She let go of the key and pumped the accelerator with her hand.

A metallic tap on her window startled her. She ducked lower and twisted again. Two clicks.

Tap. Tap. Tap.

Trapped, she sat up and reflexively composed herself by checking her melting makeup in the rear-view before powering down her window. Of course, the window works. She sighed and turned to face her captor while already planning to use the broken car and calls to mechanics to keep him at bay.

The face at her window confused her. The hard angles and piercing gray eyes she expected had been replaced by the full, youthful cheeks and soft green eyes of the ball boy, Dennis.

She searched the parking lot for Valentine, her lascivious tennis instructor. The only other people in the lot were Staniss Cavendish, the club manager, and a pert, bouncy redhead millennial who seemed to be in his face about something. Stan with a girl half his age didn’t surprise her. It should have, but it didn’t.

“For you, Ma’am.” Dennis held up a clear plastic can of tennis balls.

Confused, she focused on his earnest, freckled face and dimples. He was such a cute boy. Hard working and cute. If she had been twenty years younger…

Well, that was not a thought to finish. He was what? Seventeen, maybe. A year older than Laurel? That was just the kind of thing she was trying to avoid. She smiled and said, “…”

I suppose I could write the scene for you, but I’d really rather you write the scene in order to test the concept. All the players are available. Four are on stage. They all have their agendas. They all have at least a because-because.

If I’m not mistaken, you are already visualizing the scene that will play out. If you do write the scene, drop me a line and let me know how the exercise goes.

Hopefully, I have now made up for having failed my students at the conference.

Here’s one last thought about the nature of because-because. It doesn’t stay the same. It just gives depth to the scene. Once the scene climaxes, new becauses may or may not come into being. To get the full power of because-because thinking, the writer will need to connect the becauses to the stress the scene causes on the character’s Irreconcilable Self. Sadly, that’s another essay.

I’ll be teaching this technique and many others in a four-week Saturday novel seminar in September. The class is offered by WordCrafters in Eugene. Here’s the link to registration.

http://wordcraftersineugene.org/classes/fiction-fluency-seminars-with-eric-witchey/

Luck and skill to all who write and send.

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