Murder With Sprinkles On Top

by Christina Lay

I’ve always loved reading and watching cozy mysteries, but not until recently have I tried my hand at writing them. As with many things, you don’t really understand the complexity of a task until you try to do it yourself.

As well-versed in the ins-and-outs of the genre as any avid fan, I dove in quickly and with relish. But soon, one important and fairly obvious question occurred to me: how, exactly, does one make murder, the most heinous of crimes, cozy? How do you create a world in which murder happens (and maybe regularly, if you’re writing a series) that the reader or viewer nevertheless finds comforting? A place where half the population ends up dead but still seems like a very nice place to visit?

Clearly one of the anchors of the cozy mystery is a cozy setting. A majority of these stories take place in small towns, and not just your run of the mill small town, but one that is quaint, meaning it’s preserved its historic charm. These towns have lovely architecture, lots of twisting alleys, probably a waterfront of some sort, nearby woods for the disposing of bodies, and a VERY PROMINENT CHURCH.  Quaint shops abound, and our sleuth might even be the sole proprietor of one (maybe the bakery, which is a very popular setting for cozy book series, with cute names like Til Death do Us Tart and Survival of the Fritters. Baking fancy cakes and crime solving seem to complement each other. Here’s a link to a list of them http://cozy-mysteries-unlimited.com/bakery-dessert-list.

Any cozy worth its imported sea salt will feature a tea shop and an antique store—bare minimum. Sometimes the town is larger, like Oxford, but within the larger town are cozy communities, like an elite college, in which everyone knows everyone else’s business, which always proves to be a very important element in helping our sleuth solve the crime.

Which brings us to the other most important key to a cozy, the sleuth. Mostly this will be an amateur, but private detectives like Hercule Poirot and rumpled Detective Inspectors like Tom Barnaby also qualify. The more professional the sleuth however, the less cozy the murders tend to become. The sleuth is nearly always an outsider, no matter what their profession. Even a detective inside the police department will be the odd one out, the one who uses brain over brawn, who always doubts the obvious first clues and champions whatever poor soul is arrested first. Often the amateur sleuth/slash pastry chef is conveniently married to, dating, best friends with or otherwise connected to a professional in the biz, like a police detective, coroner or forensic expert, which is quite handy. But in the end, the sleuth relies on their powers of observation, keen intuition and wits to solve the crime. Which they always do.

The likability and relatability of the sleuth are key to creating a memorable and enduring cozy mystery series. They must, like all good protagonists, be flawed, but in a lovable way. And usually, whatever their deep wound is, it helps them understand the criminal mind and have compassion for the underdogs. First and foremost, they must be unusually smart, even if not everyone thinks so.

Other factors to ensure your murder is entertaining rather than disturbing include:

A victim who was a no good so-and-so. Lots of people wanted them dead, and no one is overly sorry to have them gone. Anyone who is, probably did it.  Also, their death, though possibly elaborate, is swift and unseen. Usually, the murder happens before the book even starts, or off-the-page. It might happen after the world famous detective arrives and the murderer foolishly decides to go through with their plan anyway. Or after all the guests are assembled at the manor house, or when the train leaves the station. Isolating the group of suspects is a great trick for upping the tension. There’s a murderer amongst us!

Limit the bloodshed. This is an element that seems to be ignored more and more in the television version of mysteries, usually the result of what I call “the slaughter of the innocents”.  This is when, once the murderer commits the initial crime, they then feel compelled to kill off several innocent bystanders to cover it up, which of course is what usually tips their hand. I have to admit to being disappointed when what is touted as a cozy mystery ends up with a high body count, among them unfortunate girl guides and birdwatching old ladies who were in the wrong place at the worst time. Besides being depressing, these acts of senseless violence are usually stupid, which diminishes the fun of solving the crime. I shouldn’t even have to say this, but NEVER KILL THE DOG.

No sex. Wait, what? Well, I’ve wondered about this, but it appears to be true. While amateur sleuths are often romantically pining over the local detective, or visa versa, the most they will ever do is share a pint at the quaint local pub and match wits.  I believe this is because sex is really just a distraction from what readers of cozies care about most, which is solving a mystery. No one wants to see rumpled whosit and the dowdy baker get down. It’s just not where the appeal lies. Romance, a hint of it, is just fine, as long as it doesn’t pull our heroine/hero away from what they’re there to do. And naturally, the suspects will be fornicating up a storm, only not on the page.

Cats are king.  Throw in a smart cat, or perhaps a reasonably intelligent dog. Readers of cozies love sleuths who love pets. If the cat helps solve the crime, well, that’s a subgenre unto itself. http://cozy-mysteries-unlimited.com/cat-list  If you can combine cooking and cats, all the better.

Provide a wide array of colorful, likable characters to consult, kill or arrest. Sometimes even the murderer is likable. The sleuth will have an extensive network of interesting acquaintances to contact regarding the case. If, for example, a body is washed up near the quaint lighthouse, the sleuth’s uncle will be the local captain of the coast guard. There will always be busybodies, town gossips, town drunks, and loose but large-hearted women who know the town’s secrets and our sleuth will be friends with them, or have some way of convincing these people to talk. Think tea and cookies instead of truth serum and truncheons.

Comeuppance will be got. In a cozy, the murderer is always flushed out. They might escape the long arm of the law, but they will lose everything they were willing to kill for. If you can think of an exception in the cozy mystery field, feel free to enlighten me.  One exception might be the Serial Adversary, a Moriarty of sorts, but since those chaps tend to be serial killers, their evil antics don’t qualify as cozy.

To sum up, the key to a cozy murder is the fun of watching a character we love solve a baffling riddle by their wits (and possibly their cat’s) alone. So naturally, you’ll need a riddle worthy of their and the reader’s attention. Anything over the top, like graphic violence, graphic sex, grit, torture, profanity, end of the world scenarios or gratuitous explosions, you can pretty much leave at the door. Raymond Chandler claimed that readers of cozies, especially the English variety, “like their murders scented with magnolia blossoms and do not care to be reminded that murder is an act of infinite cruelty”.  For some, I’m sure that’s true, but I don’t think readers are drawn to mysteries just so they can ignore the murder at the heart of it; rather, they prefer to focus on the solving, rather than the commission, of the crime. And just because a setting is cozy, or the sleuth an old English spinster, doesn’t mean we can relax. As Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple says “One does see so much evil in a village”.

Reconciling Fiction Techniques in Memoir

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Reconciling Fiction Techniques in Memoir, by Eric Witchey

Something new for my blog this time. Instead of waxing dreary on some topic of my own choosing, I’m answering a question from a person who took a class from me at the Write on the Sound Conference in Edmonds, Washington. The last time I was there, I taught a class that included a brief discussion of a concept I first presented in an article for The Writer Magazine in October of 2011. The concept is the Irreconcilable Self (I.S.).

The writer, a memoirist, dropped me a line last week. The question has two parts. The first part is whether the I.S. the writer is working with is precise enough. The second question is more of a presupposition about whether the I.S. tool can be used in memoire. Also, note that the writer used Wallace Stegner’s book, Angle of Repose, as a reference point. It has been a long time since I read it, so my examples from memory may or may not fit the experience of people who have read it more recently. I did not go back and check the book to verify my memory, which is a swiss cheese muddle of too many stories that often blend together.

The Question:

I’m presuming that the I.S. can apply to a memoir ‘character’ since I’m treating myself as the character? Good. So then, my opposing conflicts of ideals are — ideal notions of country/”smaller” living and (true) community not a neighborhood VERSUS ‘freedom’ of city life and anonymity.

My questions — is that SPECIFIC enough?? Or is it too linked to place and time? Do I need more soul-searching to really get at stronger conflicting notions here? I am conflicted in the idolization of country living vs the reality and want to expose that a little more via my experience, but also have notions and real experiences of longing for that country living.

The Answer:

Hi, again, Writer X:

First, I’ll be teaching an 8 hour seminar on this subject in Eugene, OR in May. I have a couple of memoirists already signed up. You don’t have to sign up for all six classes. You can just take this one alone, but I would recommend this one and the one in June for a full sense of how I.S. works in conjunction with other story elements. The people at WordCrafters can help with accommodations. The classes are set up so people can drive or fly in on Saturday and drive or fly out on Sunday. Anyway, here’s the link.

https://wordcraftersineugene.org/fiction-fluency-2018/ff-seminars/

Second, I always welcome “one-off” emails, but I can’t always answer them. Also, I’ll only answer one or two before I send you a contract to set up a formal relationship as a sort of piano teacher of words. Too many people think of me as a private encyclopedia of writing techniques if I let them, and I do have to fulfill my own obligations in life.

So, no worries. I’m especially happy to hear from people who have read my stories and taken one or more of my classes.

Interesting that you mention The Angle of Repose. Not many writers who contact me have read it. Stegner is brilliant. Before I talk about that, I’ll talk a bit about Irreconcilable Self.

When I teach I.S., especially in a short form venue like a conference (60 to 90 minutes, total), I teach it as a binary form to get the idea across. It can be more complex. The form I teach has two parts and relies on “I believe” statements in juxtaposition—something like this:

“I believe Romantic idealism is the only truth in this world.” Vs. “I believe deeply in personal honor and family honor and pride.”

This would be Romeo.

Notice that I have already put in more than one thing in the second “I believe” statement. The juxtaposition of these deeply held, untested beliefs is what’s important. The beliefs are deep and often, but not always, unconscious. They are, however, untested. The only way the character is able to believe both things at the same time is that the beliefs have not been tested in his or her life.

That’s the short version of I.S.

Now, Stegner. Keep in mind that Stegner is telling several stories. Lyman is narrating. He’s telling both his story and the story of Susan. Susan’s story includes the story of Oliver and Frank. Each of these major characters has an I.S. that generally functions beneath their consciousness and either drives or allows them to act in the ways they do. Each character has their beliefs tested. Lyman’s is tested by the telling of the story and the revelations that come because of that. His I.S. is something like, “I believe I am a good man from good stock” vs. “I believe the world and my family owe me for their betrayals.” His I.S. is tested by revelations and experience. He abandons the second belief, modifies the first one, and reconciles his experience into, “My choices create the love around me.”

Okay, I’m making this up on the fly, so don’t expect “correct” summary descriptions of a novel I read a long time ago. I’m just trying to give an example that might be useful for you.

Frank can’t reconcile his beliefs. He kills himself. That’s, more-or-less, the definition of tragedy. I’d say his belief was something like, “I believe I’m a good and loyal friend” vs. “I believe I love Susan beyond life itself.” Yeah, that doesn’t work out for him. If memory serves, he kills himself.

Oliver is something like, “I believe I’m an honorable, educated, man worthy of love and loyalty” vs. “I believe one more shovel full of dirt and I’ll strike it rich and save everyone around me.” Or, maybe, “I believe I’m a good husband and hard worker” vs. “I believe my worth is determined by the success of my next project.” I’d have to go back and reread it to do better.

Now, Susan, who is probably the most interesting character in the whole nested story mess, appears to be dragged through events, but she really isn’t. She’s just more subtle. Her I.S. is something like, “I believe in the trendy, romantic idealization of love and the West” vs. “I believe in family values and am a good wife and mother.”

The end position for a character who has resolved their I.S. (transformed) is one of the following:

  1. Experiences force the character to reject both beliefs and die (Frank). I might also argue that Oliver ends up in this position, but he dies emotionally and spiritually.
  2. Experiences force the character to reject both beliefs, but they find a new belief on which to base life choices and actions (Lyman).
  3. Experiences force the character to reject one belief and embrace the other (Susan).
  4. Experiences force the character to find a way to reconcile the two beliefs and live on in harmony with both (Nobody in that story).

Okay, on to memoir.

The chief problem I see when memoirists approach the use of fiction techniques in telling their stories is that they have difficulty stepping back to examine themselves for the underlying psychological, philosophical, and sociological understanding that fiction writers apply when working with made up characters. Finding your own I.S. is like trying to grab your shoelaces and lift yourself up so you can reach a book on the highest shelf. Even if you succeed in violating the laws of physics, you can’t let go of your shoelaces to reach for the book.

The various successful memoirists I have worked with have had to do extensive work in separating themselves from the character who represents them in the story. It’s much harder than making someone up from scratch, but the techniques are the same. For Memoirists, the trick is to do a lot of work figuring out what the core significance of the experience was both for the writer and for the reader. Sometimes, a very clear statement of the experiencing character’s main transformation will allow you to work backward into the land of unconsidered beliefs. Sometimes, deciding to assign an I.S. and then attempting to cause the story to conform to that I.S. will result in either success or failures that provide insights into what was really going on deeper down during the experience.

Regardless, one of the tasks the memoirist must always remember is that no matter what they think the experience meant to them, the end result is only useful if the reading experience means something to the reader. Those two positions are not in any way connected except through craft. Sometimes, they are two completely different meaning results.

I haven’t read your story, and I don’t know enough about it to name the I.S. for you. Frankly, that’s probably a bad idea anyway. However, I can say that once you know it, it is only one of three core control structures I teach. The other two are “arc” and “premise.”

That said, here’s how you described your I.S.: “opposing conflicts of ideals are — ideal notions of country/”smaller” living and (true) community not a neighborhood VERSUS ‘freedom’ of city life and anonymity

The description you provided could be translated into I.S. form like this:

I.S.: “I believe I will only be whole if I am a known, respected member of a small, rural community.” Vs. “I believe only the anonymity of city life will let me fully express who I am.”

Do keep in mind that at story open the character rarely knows they believe both things. Given the above I.S., I can certainly see how a story that demonstrates this conflict of values and transformation of a person could be told. I can’t, however, really speak to how your character and your character context will manifest these belief systems on the dialectic, tactical, conflict set, scene, sequence, or movement dramatic levels. I think that’s where you’re getting stuck. You have an I.S., but the translation of it into increments of stress and change caused by experience isn’t taking your story “from-to” in a way that feels both true and satisfying to you on the I.S. level. For that kind of analysis, I’d also need the premise, arc, and a synoptic outline that captures emotional change resulting from the conflict for each dramatic scene.

I don’t have time or space to do a full exposition of these ideas here, but I can say that by using the control concepts of arc, premise, and I.S., it is possible to analyze the story along the conceptual boundaries readers use to internalize emotions while reading. Subconsciously, readers look for moments of emotional change. In fact, physiologically, they respond to those moments before they have time to think about them. The speed of emotional response overriding the speed of cognitive response is one of the things that keeps readers in the story. Being able to name the I.S., being able to see how each moment of the story either stresses the character’s belief system or confirms it (which is another kind of stress since things will get worse because of confirmations), being able to incrementally move the stress levels toward a personal, emotional/psychological crisis in which the character experiences one of the reconciliation results described above, and being able to deliver the emotional power of that moment of transformation to the reader in a context that allows the reader to FEEL its value to them is, at core, what all story telling is about.

I’m sorry I can’t provide more insight than this. The woods are lovely, dark, and deep and…

Best of luck and skill to you.

Eric

 

Deadline Heaven and Life Management Skills Hell

heaven-or-hellBy Lisa Alber

Our fantastic webmistress of the ShadowSpinners world, Christina, sent me a nice email just now pointing out that yesterday makes twice in a row that I’ve missed a blogging deadline. The funny thing about deadlines is that I’m quite good at making them.

So, what’s my excuse this time? Why am I preoccupied enough that this blog has slipped my mind?

The answer is—deadlines! Yep. Coupled with a tendency to be chaotic. In December, I spaced out about this blog because I was feverishly finishing up my Labyrinth of Souls (yay!) novel for a December 31st deadline. So excited about it—can’t wait to tell you more. That and holiday stuff and regular work deadlines were enough to put me under.

And this month? A Feb 1st deadline for a short story that will appear in an anthology in about a year. You’d think a short story wouldn’t be that big a deal, but they are for me since I don’t write them that often. That coupled with my usual seasonal affective disorder and even more regular work deadlines was enough for this month.

However, since I have a new day planner for 2018, I’m going to write down a standing reminder for the first of each month: Check Shadowspinners blog posting deadline. Doing it now … Did it!

Despite not being up on everything in my life—for example, my garage door broke over a month ago; just got it fixed yesterday—I’ve been in heaven with these deadlines. I have a sense of purpose in life anyhow, but deadlines give the purpose a nice ooomph. I like that, especially when I’m having so much fun with the writing projects. Both the LoS novel and the short story were a blast to write because they were outside my usual voice and story space.

Now I’ll be returning to my regularly scheduled writing project: the next mystery, a standalone set in California in a genre I’m calling “California gothic.” I can relax a bit with this one, but the truth is that there’s always something to cause static, isn’t there? This month it will include money stuff because my wee dog Fawnie needs double knee surgery (poor thing!) and that’s expensive. So I’ll be working more than ever.

<shrug, that’s life>

One of my goals for 2018 is to minimize static and chaos. That sense of not being able to keep up, of having life itself feel too complicated and rushed all the time. It’s an ongoing process of improvement, for sure. Here are my top four strategies, for the moment, subject to change:

  1. Less social media. Social media increases static, wastes times, and distracts. Enough said.
  2. Write things down. Said day planner – yes, actually use it in a proactive way. Chunk out sub-tasks so things don’t feel so big. At the end of the day, give it a look to see where I am and plan for the next day. This it time management 101 stuff, but I’ve always gone by the seat of my pants and kept things in my head—which increases static big time. Writing it down releases it.
  3. Embrace a few routines and rituals. I’m not into routines or rituals—I tend to free-wheel it through life. I get bored and restless. I need variety and to change it up. That said, a few small routines could help streamline my life. For example, readying the coffee, food, clothes, etcetera, for the next day before I go to bed. That way, I’m not muttering around in daze when I could be getting straight to the writing.
  4. If it’s a little task, like sending an email, just get it done then.

You’d think I haven’t been functioning well as an adult for eh-hem number of years. I have to accept the fact that I’m getting older and can’t keep everything in my head anymore, plus life is that much more complicated these days. What’s “normal” is ever a-changing!

What strategies do you employ to lessen static and chaos in your life?

The Art of Creative Frittering (and Creative Napping too)

By Lisa Alber

On July 1st, I began writing a brand-spanking hold-your-horses new first draft, and it was a little painful, to be honest. Wait, what, I need to use my right brain now? But I want to analyze my idea to death into foooorever … It takes me awhile to disengage from the left brain and just start. It’s like wandering off a cliff; we’d all resist that, wouldn’t we?

Luckily, I’ve walked off this cliff enough to know that I float rather than fall. Or maybe I fall a little, but I never do the Wiley Coyote kersplat. Writing first drafts ends up being a wild ride, that’s for sure, but I always survive.

I have to give myself a hard start date, whether I feel ready or not. Hence, July 1st. I’m calling the draft “The Shadow Maiden.” My goal is 1,000 words (about four pages) per day for July, and then I’ll pause to engage my left brain in a little analysis: Does the story have chops? What have I learned about the story, characters, their motivations, and so on? What adjustments should I make now so I can continue in a better-thought-out direction?

That will be fun, but right now, I’m Little Miss Right Brain with my brainstorming novel notebook and Kaizen creativity tiny steps and pints o’ beer to help lube the wheels. (Not every day, but, yes, sometimes.) I’ll revise the shit out of anything, and I’ll do it with focus for hours, but first-draft writing? Some days it goes smoothly; other days I spend all day to get my 1,000 words.

ALL DAY. I’m not sure why this is. To an outside observer, I probably look addled. Walking around. Sitting down at the laptop again to tap out a hundred words. Unloading half the dishwasher and wandering away. Staring into space while scratching my dog’s tummy. Spacey. Distracted. It’s not relaxing, per se, because I can feel my brain inside my head (like, literally, man), heavy with unconscious processing.

I call this creative frittering, and it has a different feel from generalized putzing or procrastinating or being lazy.

Summer is my best season for writing first drafts because gardening provides a perfect outlet on creative frittering days. In fact, I’m proud to say that Manolo, the man who helps me out a few hours a month (big yard), always comments on how good the yard looks, especially the weeds — or lack of them, I should say. Yep, that’s me on creative frittering days, doing his job for him. But the garden does look pretty darned good, if I do say so.

Is there an art to creative frittering? I think so. It’s waking with the intention to write that day, but then, oddly, giving yourself the time and space to “be” without striving for the end outcome. Most of us don’t have much time to spare, and that’s true for me too. Yet, my creative process orders me to allow space for creative frittering anyhow. Mind you, it’s not every day. Maybe once a week at most. Maybe my brain needs to fill up its well, I don’t know. And sometimes, nothing works, and I don’t get my 1,000 words in, and I have to be OK with that because I’m only human.

The art of creative frittering also includes the art of creative napping. Straight up, no joke, scout’s honor. TRUTH. Here’s a great example: Last Saturday, I was particularly restless, not knowing what to do with the current scene or with myself in my body. Even gardening didn’t work. Then I realized I might as well do the exact opposite, lie down. Weird realization: The reason I couldn’t sit still to write or do much of anything was because I actually did need to rest awhile. I was so relaxed on the couch with Fawn, my eight-pound little nugget pup, nestled against me, picturing the characters in the scene, dozing off … And then, A-HA! followed by a mad dash to find my novel notebook before I lost my brilliant idea.

See? Napping, the next best thing to frittering.

I hope you enjoy these pictures of my garden, the end result of last year’s creative frittering while writing PATH INTO DARKNESS (out in a month!) and this year’s.

What say you to creative frittering, or just frittering? Do you get impatient with yourself or go with the flow?

Burn the Scarecrow to Keep the Reader Awake All Night

scarecrow on fire(image source sanniely istockphoto)

Burn the Scarecrow to Keep the Reader Awake All Night

by Eric Witchey

I write fiction, and I teach fiction writers. In fact, I teach a lot. One of the recurring frustrations I have is that students talk about their long-form manuscripts under development in terms of chapters.

“Well, Chapter 7 is about how she stands up to the bully in her gym class…”

As a teacher, I have two problems with statements like this. First, it is an event-driven description of the story content. That’s a topic for another time. Second, and this is the point today, the student is describing their story in terms of chapters rather than dramatics.

Chapters aren’t really part of the development of a story. They are part of the final polish, and a sharp writer will use them for pacing by placing the chapter breaks carefully at spots that will force the reader to keep reading.

Given the student’s desire to improve by discussing their story and the above statement, the frustrated teacher me must start asking a long string of questions about character, premise, psychology, sociology, emotional arcs, intermediate emotional states, opposition of will, and on and on and on in order to figure out what dramatic story elements are in play at the moment under discussion.

So, this essay is a bit of self-defense. While it doesn’t describe the myriad issues implied or named above, it does take a look at just exactly what chapter breaks do.

Writers who write enough come to realize that the dramatic scene is the building block of all stories. I’m not going to go into all the variants and exceptions here because that’s not what this essay is about. Rather, I’m going to talk about how story questions and chapter placement influence the reader’s immersion and need to keep reading.

Before I go there, I want to define what I said above. A classic, dramatic scene transforms character emotion through conflict. The Point of View Character (POVC) or Main Character (MC) enter the scene carrying an emotional state and a personal agenda of some kind. Note that I said “or.” The POVC may or may not also be the MC. That’s a topic for another day, but think in terms of the narrative difference between Hunger Games and Sherlock Holmes. Hunger Games is in first person, present tense from the POV of Katniss. She is both POVC and MC. Sherlock Holmes is Watson telling the stories of Homes. Watson is the POVC. Holmes is the MC.

Where was I? Oh, yes. Ignoring the POVC vs. MC difference for now, the POVC enters the scene with an emotional state and an agenda. They then proceed to encounter opposition to their agenda. Like any normal human being, the have an emotional shift because of opposition.

Think about what it’s like to be having a good day on vacation until you try to pay for lunch and discover that your debit card has been cancelled because the bank thinks your lunch in another state is unusual activity. Emotional response to opposition of your agenda, yes?

Okay, so the POVC goes through a few attempts to get what they want. They try some different tactics. Their emotions change. They might succeed. They might fail. However, they leave the scene with a new emotional state (or the same emotional state for different reasons).

All good. However, a scene is not a chapter. A scene is just a dramatic unit in which character change is caused. Sometimes, a scene is a whole story. Sometimes 70 scenes make up the whole story. That’s one of the differences between flash fiction and a novel.

So, why is it that most of the time the first scene of a novel is not able to stand alone as a short story? Emotion happened. Conflict happened. Change happened. New emotion came out of it.

There are a number of reasons a first scene probably doesn’t stand alone. I won’t address them all here. Here, I’ll say that the first scene of a novel includes material that causes the reader to feel a sense of curiosity or urgency about what will come in the next and subsequence scenes. The text installs “dramatic story questions” in the heart/mind of the reader.

For the sake of brevity, I’ll define dramatic story questions types as 1, 2, and 3. They are, respectively, 1) short-term, 2) mid-term, and 3) long-term.

Long-term story questions are questions installed in the heart/mind of the reader very early in the story. They will not be answered until the end of the story. “Will Dorothy ever get home from Oz?”

Mid-term story questions are questions installed in the heart/mind of the reader in any scene in the story. They will be answered in some subsequent scene. “Will Dorothy make it from the Munchkin village to the Emerald City?”

Short-term story questions are questions installed in the heart/mind of the reader in a scene. They will be answered in that same scene. “Will the Cowardly Lion eat Toto?”

The scene is the dramatic building block. It changes character emotionally and psychologically.

The story questions keep the reader reading (assuming many other things have also been done well).

Assuming the POVC and MC are the same character, as they quite often are, their path through the story is scene-to-scene. Each scene generates questions. The first questions generated will be very short-term. “Why is Dorothy worried for Toto when she gets home?”

Before that question is answered, a mid-term question is launched. “Why are there storm clouds on the horizon?”

Before or at the moment the short-term question gets answered, a new one is launched. Before or at the moment the mid-term question is answered, a new one gets launched.

Now, here is the very important bit. If at any time all the short-term and mid-term questions have been answered at once, the reader will leave the story. Mind you, they might come back and pick it up to see how the long-term question comes out. However, that’s not a good bet.

Here’s where the chapter problem arises. Writers who talk about their books in terms of chapters tend to place their chapter breaks at the moments where several short-term and at least one mid-term story question have just been answered. It’s like they are placing their chapter breaks in the best possible way to release the reader from the story.

Placing the chapter breaks after the story is completely finished allows the writer to choose the moments just after a new story question has been launched. In other words, the writer will set the Scarecrow on fire and end the chapter.

Consider a reader who is in bed reading and has decided, “Well, I’m up too late. I’ll just read another three pages—just to the end of the chapter.” In the last page of the chapter, the Scarecrow is set on fire. Chapter ends. New chapter opens with the battle to put out the fire. Essentially, the chapter ended right smack in the middle of a scene. It ended right after a powerful story question was installed in the heart/mind of the reader. However, the climax of the scene is only a page away.

The reader justifies: “One. Little. Page. More.”

By the time that fire is out, a mid-term question has been launched. “Can Dorothy and her friends overcome and malice of the Wicked Witch of the West?”

The reader turns another page and decides that they will just read to the end of this chapter. It’s only seven more pages.

Okay, the example I used here is a classic sort of cliff-hanger, but the concept is not at all limited to cliff-hanging. Social and psychological story questions are often more compelling than such action-oriented, life-threatening story questions. It’s just easier and more fun to set the Scarecrow on fire in this essay than it would be to describe the deeper identity dissonance of a character’s realizations about themselves and whether they will take responsibility for damage to the fragile psychology of a child under their care.

Chapter breaks are pacing tools. They are not dramatic units.

-End-

Fiction and Viktor Frankl, by Eric Witchey

Label_Developed(image source: Alan M. Clark, cover artist)

Fiction and Viktor Frankl, by Eric Witchey

In my small way, I try to continually expand my awareness of the experiences of others. I do this because I’m curious by nature and because to do so improves my ability to tell a story. Because I have been working on a fantasy story to support the marketing efforts of Dungeon Solitaire, I found myself researching death rites and rituals from various parts of the world. I also decided to reread Viktor E. Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning.

For any human being capable of compassion, reading Viktor Frankl is always a heady experience. However, my immersion in death rites and rituals somehow brought me to a moment where I was struck by how fully universal to the human experience his accounts of life and core integrity are. Perhaps I should have felt this before, and I certainly understood it before, but this time it hit me more deeply in both the heart and mind.

In my travels in the writing life, I have met some pretty rabid Zionists, a few really terrifying Palestinian poets, escaped hostages from the Palestinian hostage crisis, survivors of Guatemalan genocide, Serbs, Iranian ex-pats, righteous American ex-pats, escaped cold war Ukrainians, Holocaust survivors, Turkish intellectual Muslims, a Greek freedom fighter (against the Germans and carrying huge hatred of all Germans and Turks), a Catholic monk who fought on the German side in WWI and the American side in WWII, and all manner of extreme Christians who, more than the others, scared the hell out of me personally. That last one included a mercenary I met on his way to South Africa to fight for the Christian white-right to bring Apartheid back. I won’t add more to this list. It’s already long enough to make my point.

During my interactions with various people who held aggressive/defensive positions that made me nervous, I have tried to keep my fear in check and truly listen to their (sometimes insane and irrational) personal positions in order to seek some understanding of what motivates actions I cannot understand from the context of my white-boy, Midwestern, multi-religion upbringing.

Those extreme souls I met who had a sense of history, even if only from their own agenda-driven point of view or other-interpreted oral traditions, had one thing in common. They deeply felt, and were sometimes motivated solely by, their fear for their families and their futures. Often, that fear was grounded in their sense of history, and their sense of history was based entirely on which side of the experiences they were on.

Here’s an example. I was in a village in central Mexico, and the man I was staying with casually described how he really liked the new mayor because she was not corrupt. I asked how he knew she was not corrupt, and he said, “Because the cartel has tried to kill her twice.”

Well, that caught my attention.

I asked about the cartel and whether we were safe. He laughed and told me that of course we were safe. He said, “If you were in one of your cities, there would places you knew not to go at night, right?” I nodded. “Us, too,” he said. “We just don’t go to the wrong places at the wrong times.”

The casual conversation moved on, and he eventually described to me how the cartels weren’t really a problem to the people of the village. From his perspective, the American gun dealers were the real problem.

I kept listening. He kept talking. From his perspective, the cartels were like the weather, but the Americans sold death. From his perspective, the cartels were God-fearing people doing the best they could in terrible economic circumstances. They brought products in from the South, moved the products through the area, and passed them on across the border to the North. However, it was the Godless, money-hungry Americans who created the market for the drugs and who fueled the destruction of families by selling guns to both the government and the cartels.

The above is a very short description of an off-and-on conversation that went on for more than a week, but I hope you get the idea. Everything he said was true for him and his family in their lives in their world.

The flip-side of that story is also equally true. The DEA agent I met in Pima, Arizona who had lost two members of her family, one to addiction and one to gunfire, hated the Mexican government and the Mexican people for allowing the cartels, for trafficking across the border, and for making poison available on the streets in a way that killed her brother. She believed that the Pope at that time supported the trafficking and that Catholic confession was part of the reason the smugglers could do what they did without remorse. She was also correct from within her context.

Both people were deeply moved because of their connection to family history, family safety, and possible futures. Both essentially hated the other for what they considered to be good reasons. Both supported their positions from a combination of personal experience, family history, speculation, and verifiable fact.

An aside: Personally, the more I learned about the illegal gun trade and the multi-billion dollar flow of firearms from the U.S. to Mexico, the more disgusted I got with the whole situation. So, I wrote a story, “The Tequila Volcano.” It appeared in a literary journal last year, Timberline Review. It’s very short, and I recommend both the story and the journal.

When Viktor Frankl described both the deterioration of prisoners, whom one would expect to be supportive of one another, into brutal behavior toward one another and concentration camp guards, whom one would expect to be brutal but a few of whom engaged in acts of compassion and kindness, I was struck once more with the sad truth that no group has a lock on reality.

No person or group is entitled to perfect righteousness.

Frankl broke both the prisoners and the guards of the concentration camps into two essential groups: those who have core decency and those who do not. Neither guards nor prisoners were a homogenous front of virtue or brutality.

My life has exposed me to people from many traditions, to multiple holy texts, to people who have survived race and religion-motivated traumas, and to amazing acts of kindness and human decency from all regions, races, and holy traditions.

I do my very best to support the growth of the human heart. I do my best to find the commonality of experience and to avoid becoming bogged down in the destructive, isolating interpretations of ideology that are often used to fuel fear and justify destructive behavior. I cannot ever truly understand the devastation that is part of some family histories and historical identities. I can only do my best to dampen and block the perpetuation of fear and hatred in all its forms. I hope that my fiction explores mutual understanding, expands the development of compassion, and creates some sense of common ground in the human condition.

I believe that stories can help to heal the world. They lead the way to new thoughts, to expanded awareness, to a smaller sense of “I” and a greater sense of “we.”

So, I tell another story.

Our Stories Can Save Us, by Eric Witchey

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Our Stories Can Save Us, by Eric Witchey

Human survival depends on how we manage our relationship with four, fundamental variables. The variables aren’t really in dispute, but the amount of time we have in which to change our relationship to them is. Simply put, the four variables are as follows:

  1. We live in a fragile, closed system, a little blue marble called Earth.
  2. Earth has finite resources: biodiversity, air, water, minerals, fossil fuels, etc.
  3. We have unchecked population growth.
  4. We rely on growth-based economies.

Yes, yes… I know. Solar radiation enters the system. There’s some hope there. However, we aren’t making new materials. We aren’t adding iron ore to our planet. We aren’t increasing the amount of natural gas and oil in the ground. We aren’t somehow magically manufacturing more water to add to the poisoned water and water ecosystems in a way that will fundamentally change the direction of the deterioration arrow.

The four variables stand, but we argue endlessly about what we should do to lengthen the time we have before those four variables result in an extinction level crash.

Note that I say extinction level crash and not the end of the world. As my astute Physicist brother once told me, “Human beings aren’t going to end the world. We will only end ourselves. The planet was here long before we were, and it will be here long after we are gone.”

And now you’re wondering how the four variables relate to writing.

Well, it’s like this. Telling stories is an ancient tradition that goes all the way back to the beginnings of language use. We erect monkeys have always told stories. We tell them to ourselves to justify stealing bananas from one another. We tell them to our friends and family to create bonding in social systems. We tell them to one another to make sure mistakes aren’t repeated and to ensure that our tribe thrives. One of the most common themes in the stories we have told throughout time is the theme of our village being better than their village. Every hero has a nemesis.

Want to see that theme playing out in a modern social context in America? Go to any Friday or Saturday night high school football game in the country. Observe the cheering, the colors, and the parking lot fights.

Harmless, right? Maybe. The value of team sports debate isn’t what this little blog is about. The point is that the “us vs. them” story is there to see. You can even observe the symbolic battle over land resources playing out on the field.

Don’t get me wrong, here. I love a good game. That’s really not the point. The purpose and value of story is the point.

Story telling is the easiest thing we do. It is also the most complex thing we do as human beings. Putting together a solid narrative, especially on paper, has more in common with interacting wave forms on the surface of the Pacific Ocean than it does with the linear, deceptive advice given to creative writing students. We put the little black squiggles in a row, and that creates an illusion of linear activity; however, the squiggles are just the medium of transfer for the story. The story in one mind is transferred through the little black squiggles into the mind of another person. Minds, unfortunately, are not so linear. They are messy places. They are endless impulses layered and ever changing, arranging, and rearranging into patterns that somehow magically become mind—thought, personality, memory, dreams, hopes, beliefs, learning, and maybe even soul.

Okay, I’m not all that sure about the last one. I have some opinions on what soul is, but I won’t go there in this blog entry. Maybe another time.

Story is, however, the human mind generating a dream-like experience based on sensory input. No two people read the same story quite the same way. No two people write a story quite the same way. Let’s just set aside the fact that no two people have the same life experiences. That, by itself, is enough to prove the last point. However, the endless shifts in levels of neurotransmitters, the organization of dendritic networks, the infinitesimal distances between axons and dendrites, the hormonal and electrical potentials, and the endless layering of all of these things and many more means that it is impossible for each of us to experience what any other person is experiencing when we hear or read a story.

Yes, we all tell stories. We all know that stories are essential to our survival. We all know that we are alive today because someone, somewhere way back in the dim past figured out how to tell a story that included the idea that a sharp stick held at the dull end can keep you alive a little longer than no stick at all.

We told stories to keep our families alive. We told stories to keep our tribes alive. We told stories to make sure everyone in our tribe knew how to behave to ensure that we would thrive. We told stories to explain things that made us uncomfortable because worrying too much about the bright lights in the sky meant we weren’t planting and reaping and breeding. We told stories to make sure that members of our tribe didn’t kill other members of our tribe, but it was totally okay to kill members of any other tribe trying to kill our mammoths.

These stories are part of who we are. They must change if we want to survive.

Every person on Earth lives in a closed system with finite resources, unchecked population growth, and growth-based economies. Any decision, personal or political, that does not mitigate or eliminate one or more of those four variables is a tacit agreement to genocide.

Sadly, we still tell ourselves stories that reinforce tribal behaviors like breeding means healthy tribes, acquisition of resources means more for us, control of territory means we are strong, and us vs. them.

Yet, as there has always been, there is some hope because of story tellers, shamans of the written word, wizards of the wave form and the mind.

If a corporation, government, or individual is telling a story that supports the use of growth-based economy in an ever-shrinking world, they are telling a story that asks millions of people to sacrifice their futures for short-term profit. If any organization tells a tale of policy that will increase population growth without providing compensating increases in resources for the new human beings, they are telling a tale of death for others. If we see a story on the news or on our feeds and it talks of the terrible crimes of protestors attempting to stop pollution, then we are seeing mercenary story-tellers attempt to shorten the time of humanity on this little rock.

For those of us who tell stories for entertainment and edification, fiction writers, we have an obligation to create stories that become viral in a way that suggests new modes of survival.

Heroism has at times been described as the successful search for the grail, and the grail has always been associated with healing and abundance. The stories of today, no less than the stick-holding stories of ten thousand years ago, are about creating visions for survival of the tribe. The only real difference is that the tribe is larger and more complex than it has ever been. We are one tribe that spans the entire Earth.

Story telling and story receiving are more complex than the interaction of wave forms on the surface of the Pacific Ocean. However, human beings have always been built to do this amazing thing—to share tales that will help us all survive. Those of us who tell the tales must step up and tell the stories that lead the imaginations of the members of our tribe to an understanding that holding the blunt end of the new pointy stick means having the ability to embrace people who don’t, and physiologically should never be expected to, think the way we do. We must tell the tales that show that every drop of water on this planet is sacred, that every hole we dig hurts us, that every child we force into the world must be fed, and that taking in order to have more means hurting people who will, by direct causal effect, have less.

Look carefully at every story produced and presented. Find the four variables in each tale. Does that story help slow population growth? Does that story reduce our dependence on the market growth that drives economies? Does that story slow the rate of use of nonrenewable resources? Does that story open the world to distant horizons so that our system, and the minds within it, are no longer closed?

-End-