Three Lessons in Writing from a Blind Dog

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Three Lessons in Writing from a Blind Dog

Eric Witchey

Today, I give thanks for the lessons of a blind dog named Bud.

For eleven years of my life, I was lucky enough to be the companion of a blind golden retriever named Bud. He was a smart dog—a really smart dog. One of the reasons I picked him out of the litter was that I watched him develop. The dogs were boarded where I was living, so I knew him from birth. He was the first to figure out how to get out of the birthing kennel on his own. He was the first to figure out how to get back in to get a free meal from his mother when all the pups were out romping. He was the first of the pups to learn to come when called by name.

We became inseperable.

When he went blind from progressive retinal atrophy at about two years old, I was devestated. I thought my little buddy, Bud, was going to have to be put down. The breeder recommended it. My vet recommended it. My friends told me he would be too hard to care for.

I couldn’t do it. I kept him.

Thank God.

Bud taught me a lot about writing. He wasn’t much of a writer himself, but he was wise in the ways of creativity.

For example, he figured out that if he wanted to go for a run, he didn’t have to wait for me to take him on a harness. He walked around the back yard until he found the fence corner, walked some more until he found another fence corner, and slowly but very methodically triangulated on the center of the yard. Once he had found center, he began to walk in a circle around that center point.

I know. This sounds quite unbelievable, and I have to say that the first time I saw him do it, I was shocked. In fact, I thought maybe something else was wrong with him. He walked in a circle for a little bit. Then, he expanded the circle and broke into a trot. Finally, he expanded it a little more and ran full-tilt-boogy around and around and around the yard. He ran full out like he was wearing his napkin, carrying a knife and fork, and chasing a road runner.

This blind race would go on for a while, and with each lap around his running circle, the center of the cirlce would shift ever so slightly. Little-by-little, the center would shift until Bud the Blind Dog ran at full speed into the fence that bounded the yard. After he hit the fence, he stopped running, rested a bit, found his corners, went to the center of the yard, and started again.

Usually, he’d hit the fence a glancing blow and stop immediately running. Occassionally, he’d hit nearly head-on. Once, he ended up with a bloody nose and a cut on his cheek.

My friends suggested I tether him. My vet still thought I should put him down. Still a bit worried he was maybe a bit sick in the brain, I watched for a while to see what the hell he was about.

I decided he was fine when I realized that Bud the Blind Dog did this every day that we lived in that house with that yard.

I learned my first writing lesson from watching him run. Even though he couldn’t see where he was going, he could still run like the wind. When you he hit the fence, he returned to the center and started again. I also noticed that even when he was running in circles, he was actually covering different ground with each lap.

At another house we lived in, I came home one day and discovered that my helpless blind dog had climbed the willow tree in the back yard.

Yes, really.

He didn’t climb high or far, but he was up past the second split and out on a foot-thick horizontal limb nearly five feet off the ground. There, he stood, nose high, sniffing the breeze. There, he stayed for some time. Initially, I thought I should go save him, but some impulse held me back. Again, I watched. He did not seem to be distressed at all. In fact, his tail was high and wagging. Eventually, he carefully and slowly backed up along the limb and tried to back down past the place where the branch joined the trunk and down to the first split of the trunk. The effect was less than graceful. I ran to help, but before I got there, he slid, scrabbled, and fell to the yard below. He jumped up, wagged his tail, and trotted off across the yard.

I remember thinking that he had gotten up there accidentally and it wouldn’t happen again, but it did. A few days later, I watched him nose around the base of the tree, move back a bit, and bolt up to the first split and right on up past it to the second. He had a little trouble getting around and onto the limb he seemed to like, but he managed it like he had done it a hundred times.

Watching him, I realized had indeed practiced this bit of doggy gymnastics. It wasn’t accidental. It wasn’t random. He knew exactly what he was doing, and he knew why.

I did not, but I decided I didn’t need to know his reasons. He seemed very happy up on that limb. My best guess is that he could get his nose into the breeze better from that position, and he liked to smell the world beyond the yard. Mind you, I’m just guessing.

From his tree climbing, I learned that things that are supposed to be impossible are sometimes the best things to do because they let us find new perspectives. Even if doing them is a little painful when we have to back down or move forward, they can still be worth doing because they expand the edges of the world we live in. I also learned that practicing technique eventually leads to the ability to climb trees we can’t even see.

The third lesson, but certainly not the last, I learned from my blind dog was actually a lesson I learned from two dogs. The group of friends I hung out with during that time included a whole pack of various dogs. One was a young yellow lab named Corey. Corey and Bud were good friends. When the whole crew got together, we would put all the dogs out in the fenced yard to play. At supper time, we would call them all in through the back garage door. However, the rule was that no dog got fed until all the other dogs were in and sitting in their places.

Normally, this would be fine. However, Bud the Blind Dog had a little trouble finding the back door. The other dogs all came in and lined up, but they had to wait for Bud to fumble his way to the garage wall and nose his way along to the open door.

Now, I don’t know if Corey was naturally kind and helpful or just hungry and impatient, but I have good reason to believe the former rather than the latter. Anyway, Corey figured out that if she went and found Bud, gently took his ear or his scruff in her mouth, and tugged at him, he would follow her.

We would call the dogs. Corey, normally very obedient, wouldn’t come. Instead, she’d go find Bud, grab his scruff, and tug him to door, through, and up to his place next to the food bowl. Then, all the dogs could eat.

Bud seemed truley grareful, and the two dogs developed a lot of trust and acceptance of one another. Corey was the first self-trained dog’s seeing eye dog I ever met. She helped Bud find food, helped him find water, ran in circles with him sometimes, and even blocked his impact on the fence. She helped him hike with us, and she made sure she always knew where he was when we were in the woods.

From Bud and Corey I learned that sometimes, we need someone we trust to bite us on the neck and pull us through doors we can’t see if we want to succeed.

Looking back over the years, these three lessons have served me well. I have learned to run fast and hard even when I can’t see where I’m going. I’ve learned that when I hit the fences of life, I only need to rest a few minutes before finding my center and starting again. I have learned that doing what other people think is impossible lets me rise high enough above normal to experience new smells, smells that help me live life more fully. The new perspectives have been worth the bumps and scrapes and practice it took to perfect the techniques needed to climb. Perhaps most important of all and most difficult for me, I have learned the importance of trusting a few other dogs to see well and to help me find and move through doors I need but cannot see.

-End-

The Magic of Motivation

I teach a Tarot Class on Thursday nights, and in the last class we focused on the Magician.  This is a card that shows us how to be creative, and get things done-it is all about beginning, concentration and will.  In fact, there is a saying that his main magic consists of what he can do just by wanting to do it.   Do you know what you want?

Tarot Keys 1-29-06 002 The Magician #1.jpg

As a writer, I know what I want–to write good, compelling works that will touch the heart and mind of my readers.  But like many writers, I run into snags that get in the way of sitting down and writing on a daily basis.  The magician reminded me that wanting something is only the beginning of the process. While desire is the energy that fuels creation, and is the root of motivation, ongoing motivation is the key to success.

Motivation is defined as:

  1. The general desire or willingness of someone to do something
  2. The condition of being eager to act or work
  3. A force or influence that causes someone to do something.

I love the idea of being eager to act or work.  I want to capture that sense of eagerness and urgency that will drive me to the keyboard, even after I have spent all day working at a computer, even if I am tired, even if I am afraid.

Gretchen Rubin has written an interesting book on the topic of motivation and expectation.  In her book, The Four Tendencies, she describes four motivation profiles.  She suggests that once a person understands how they meet expectations (or not), they are better able to develop strategies that will work for them around motivation and getting things done.  The four tendencies are illustrated here:

four tendencies

If you would like to find out more about the model, and find out what tendency you are, you can take the quiz here.

If you discover that you have the tendency of an Obliger, and are more likely to meet expectations of others than of yourself, then a creativity coach, or a writers group with expectations may work well to motivate you to meet writing goals.

Upholders meet expectations, schedules, and deadlines imposed by themselves or others, and may need to learn to relax a bit to enjoy the process more.

Questioners need to find ways to motivate themselves that make sense to them.  might tell themselves, “Just try it, it’s an experiment.” in order to test a writing schedule, or motivation to write at certain times. One person I know bought a Playmobile Advent calendar, and for every 2000 words written, she allowed herself to open a door.  What a great idea!   That would motivate me, but I might invest in this whiskey advent calendar instead.

Rebels do anything they want to do, but resist any kind of expectations, both from themselves and others, and might have to “trick” themselves into doing what they want to do.  They need flexibility to set their own schedules and habits.  Rebels want to express values through actions, so tying a habit to an important identity (such as successful author) can help.

Perhaps you are a person who already has good writing habits, always meets deadlines, and knows how to motivate yourself and keep yourself motivated.  I would love to hear what works for you when you hit a slump or a tough place that threatened to keep you from meeting your writing goals.

 

Writing a Labyrinth of Souls Novel

By Lisa Alber

You may have noticed that every once in awhile one of us ShadowSpinners will mention “Labyrinth of Souls” (LoS), which is a Tarot-inspired solitaire card game with a role-playing aspect to it, created by our own Matthew Lowes. “Labyrinth of Souls” also refers to the companion novels that most of us are writing or have written already. I signed on during the summer, and I’m nearing the end of my first draft—it’s been a blast. And highly educational for me to step out of my usual genre.

I chose a bad-ass beauty, the Queen of Wands, as my inspiration/theme. My novel will be called “The Bog Queen,” and is also inspired by Celtic/Irish lore–and bog bodies!

I write crime fiction. Dark fantasy is new, new, new to me. I find it liberating to write in a world that doesn’t need to be grounded in reality, a world that includes mythological creatures and adventures that can defy the basic laws of nature. The sky can be permanently reddish. My hero can accidentally pollute a stream because of his very humanity. Ravens can turn into a triad goddess. My imagination crackles along in the most fun fashion.

Recently, a bunch of us LoS-ers spent a writer’s retreat weekend on the Oregon coast. For me, part of the purpose was also to ground myself in fantasy—i.e. to ask for advice. I was reminded that in terms of storytelling, these stories are pretty straightforward. I don’t have to worry about planting clues and red herrings, as I would with a mystery. My hero’s on a journey, and the outer journey through the labyrinth reflects his inner journey toward some kind of change. This isn’t so different from any story, but with mystery you have an extra-added whodunnit? puzzle layer.

Instead of the mystery layer, I’m wrestling with the world-building layer. Wow. Just wow. I’ve always admired the imagination that fantasy writers wield, but now I truly get it. Halfway through writing my first draft, I realized that I’d have compartmentalize the world-building writing aspect since I’m coming at this skill as a newbie. So the first draft is all about figuring out the world and the challenges it poses to the hero along the way. This is the plot, essentially.

I normally start with character, so starting with the plot is an interesting twist in my usual writing process all by itself. For my second draft, I’ll return to character and deepen the internal plot line, add more description in some places, and so on.

Questing Beast makes an appearance in “The Bog Queen.”

It feels strange not to have mystery elements to fall back on as the scaffold for the story. Instead, I have the equivalent of a ticking clock. My hero will be annihilated if he doesn’t figure out his shit and defeat the challenges the labyrinth places in his way. It’s a thriller, basically, another type of story I’ve never written before.

I’ve now read the LoS novels that have already been published, and what I love about the project is how different our versions of the labyrinth are and how different our stories are. Check out the other Labyrinth of Souls novels here.

A Creative Career Path

by Matthew Lowes

I was recently asked to speak to a high school freshman careers class about my work as a writer and independent game designer. This was at the school where I work, so many student were surprised that I had this other life writing fiction and games. I talked a little about my creative work, about The Labyrinth of Souls tarot card game, and about my novel, The End of All Things, which just came out. Then I answered a series of questions they had put together, which I’ll reproduce here. If there are any young people out there interested in pursuing creative work, here’s an inside look at how that’s unfolded for me … and few tidbits of advice.

1. How did you discover your love/passion for this activity or line of work? Is your career different than what you wanted to do when you were in high school?

I played with writing stories at a pretty young age, so that was there from early on. I read a lot of comic books when I was little. I also tried to tackle things way beyond me at the time. Actually my failure to read and comprehend The Iliad at around the age of ten may have turned me off from reading for a while. Nevertheless, at some point, everybody who loves books finds a book that really resonates with them at that moment in their life, and for me that was The Mosquito Coast by Paul Theroux, which I read in the summer between my sophomore and junior years of high school.

My junior and senior year high school English teacher really helped solidify my interest in writing and literature. He was very demanding and a hard grader. He would never accept work even so much as an hour late and had the expectation that we would produce publishable quality writing. This really impressed upon me the importance of editing and always meeting your deadlines, which is incredibly important for a professional writer. But it was his love for literature and writing that helped me realize my own passion for the work I do now.

As far as games, that goes back a long ways too. When I was around nine years old my brother and I started playing Dungeon & Dragons, and I played a lot of roleplaying games right up until around middle school. A few years ago I got interested in games again, and since I spent the last twenty years or so working on writing, it wasn’t long before I was writing my own games. Games combine everything I love about fiction and narratives with math and logic. It’s a wonderful balance between creative and the analytical elements of thought.

2. How long did you consider turning your passion into an income before you went for it?

I wanted to be a writer, and really started writing with that in mind, when I was a freshman in college. I tried submitting a few stories almost right away, but got more serious about it a few years after I graduated from college.

3. What kind of schooling/training/qualifications is required in order to do your job?

There are no official requirements, but the unofficial requirements are vast. One must have passion, determination, and perhaps most importantly, vision. What I mean by vision is you have to have something to say, not in the sense that you have an opinion or a belief or a point of view, but more like you have an image of something you want to create.

I have a bachelor’s degree in English Literature and a Master degree in teaching, but school is only a starting place for learning. A formal education and teacher can take you only so far. If you wish to excel, you must take it upon yourself to educate yourself about every aspect of what you’re doing. You must take complete responsibility for your knowledge and skills.

4. How long did it take to go through the training to do your job?

My whole life.

5. Is this career what you expected it to be?

Nothing is ever what you expect it to be. That’s what makes life so interesting. Everything you think you know about life and living now comes from a particular point of view that is shaped by the situations you find yourself in. Those situations and that point of view will change continuously throughout your life. Perhaps one day you will come to a place where you have no point of view whatsoever. But that is another conversation.

6. What do you enjoy most about your career? What is the best part of your job?

I enjoy pursuing my creative impulses. I enjoy taking an idea or vision and turning it into something concrete that others might find enjoyable, interesting, or inspiring.

7. What adventures/memorable moments have you had?

There is a wonderful satisfaction in finishing a large project you have invested a lot of time and energy into. I spent some twelve years writing a trilogy of fantasy novels, with a total of around 300,000 words, or some 1000 pages. When I finally got to the last sentence of the last paragraph of the last chapter of the last book, there was an indescribable feeling of triumph. I hope everybody can experience something like that in their life. Those books are actually not yet published yet, but when they are that will be another memorable moment. Every project I complete, whether a short story, a game, or a novel, is like that to some degree.

8. What is the most challenging part of your career? If you could change one thing about your job what would it be?

One must be prepared to work long hours, months, and years, potentially without any encouragement, validation, praise, or income. That has been a challenge. There was a long period in my life where I would have given anything to have the time and resources to devote myself full time to my creative work. But eventually you see that every aspect of your life is part of your creative work, is fueling it, and so there is no point in changing anything. In any case, things are constantly changing anyway. So one day I may yet have that luxury.

9. Are there any dangers in your job?

The biggest dangers for people doing creative work are psychological. We don’t live in a society that makes pursuing any kind of art particularly easy. So there is a danger of becoming frustrated, jealous, depressed, self-loathing, or bitter. I suppose there is also the danger of simply not being able to pay your bills, but that’s a part of the whole package.

10. How much stress is connected to your career?

Stress is all in the mind. Some situations are typically more stress inducing than others, but it is our response that creates the stress, not the situation itself. Whatever you do in life, you will encounter stress, but if you keep this in mind, it will be a lot easier to deal with.

11. What are your typical weekly hours?

I work four days a week at the school. For my creative projects, often I will work about two hours at night, and twelve to twenty hours or so over the weekend. It varies depending what projects I’m working on and where they’re at.

12. Is family time restricted due to job duties?

Yes. Because I essential work two jobs, a lot of my would-be free time or social time is taken up working on creative projects.

13. What is the expected income for an entry level position? How often do you get paid?

For someone doing independent creative work there is no expected entry-level income. It all depends on what you do and if people buy it.

14. Salary or hourly position? Do you make enough money to be comfortable?

I support myself through my job at the school. As an independent writer/game-designer, my income has increased over the years, but I don’t make enough money to support myself doing only that. That job has no salary and no hourly wage. I make something, and if people buy it I get a percentage royalty after production and distribution costs.

15. What benefits are offered with your job?

My job at the school has good benefits, like health care, holidays, sick leave, and so on. My job as a writer and game designer has no such benefits. If you take a path like this, you have to find a way to sort out life’s logistical details, so you can continue to do your creative work.

16. What is retirement age?

What is retirement? What is age? There’s plenty of time to think about these things later in life. Focus on what’s happening now and you can never go wrong. For someone in a creative field, there is no end to creative possibilities.

17. Is there possibility for promotion/movement within the career?

There are always possibilities. Opportunities are abundant, to take good actions, to better yourself, to learn and expand your sphere of influence. These opportunities appear every day for everyone. You need only notice and embrace them.

18. Are you happy with your career choice?

I am very happy with the course my life and my career has taken. Sometimes things in life choose you, but if you embrace whatever happens, you will find happiness.

19. What advice would you give this class as they start their career search and preparation?

Here’s some strange advice, but it might work well for the right person.

Pick something obscure and learn absolutely everything about it, become the best at it. For example, if you want to play in an orchestra, don’t become a violin player, unless you can’t help it because that’s what you love or you just have extraordinary talent for that. Instead, if you become the best bassoon player in the world and you will always have an interesting job.

A while ago, I was doing some research on mummies for a story I was writing. It turned out there was one guy who was the world’s most renown expert on mummies. He knew everything there was to know about it. He had a mummy-related job and whenever something mummy related came up, he would be consulted. That’s the kind of possibility I’m talking about.

Beyond this interesting idea, I would say take responsibility for your own education. Read widely. Learn everything. Follow your interests, but don’t forget to take care of practical matters.

Finally, stop complaining, and simply take good actions.

20. What would you have done differently in high school?

This is a strange question, since I could not have done anything differently than I did. I was who I was at the time, and I am who I am now. But if you’re asking me what I think you should do while you’re in high school, I would say you should take advantage of the great opportunity to learn and better yourself and your situation. Study hard, learn as much as possible, but don’t worry too much about the future, other than to consider it and make some appropriate plans for what you will do after high school.

If you feel overwhelmed or depressed, ask for help. You’re not alone and people care about your well-being. Finally, don’t do anything foolish, like taking up drugs or drinking alcohol. Your brain and your body are still developing. Don’t risk messing yourself up for life. Maybe some of you are already doing these things and are thinking that it won’t mess you up, but you could be terribly wrong. You don’t even really know what messed up is, because you don’t really know where you’re at or what your true potential is.

Try to find out what your true potential is. It’s way bigger than you can even imagine.

Buying Craft at Conferences, by Eric Witchey

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Buying Craft at Conferences, by Eric Witchey

First, the gratuitous ad. The new book is available. It won’t launch until the World Fantasy Convention, but it is available on Amazon in hard and e-book forms. Please buy, read, and review. Here’s the link:

https://www.amazon.com/Littlest-Death-Labyrinth-Souls-Novel/dp/0999098934/ref=sr_1_cc_1?s=aps&ie=UTF8&qid=1506958090&sr=1-1-catcorr&keywords=Eric+Witchey

 

On to the blogging.

When a writer goes to a conference and pays for a fifteen-minute, private professional critique session with one of the presenters, what are they really trying to buy?

Some are trying to buy recognition.

Some are trying to buy discovery.

Most are trying to buy improvement.

Generally, the conference presenter who has agreed to read and do story analysis has little influence over the misguided motivations of the first two desires. The third can rarely be done in fifteen minutes. Sure, the conference presenter can offer one or two ideas. They may even offer an idea that lets the hopeful writer turn a corner in craft. However, those are rare moments.

As part of my commitment to the Write on the Sound Writers Conference where I’ll be teaching this weekend, I am reading and analyzing 10 manuscripts and providing a sit-down, one-on-one development session to each author. Having read all ten, I’m now working on my write-ups.

I don’t have to do written analysis for my conference clients. It’s not part of the contract. All I have to do is read then sit down with them for fifteen minutes and chat about their writing. So why write up my responses at all?

The first reason is to respect their work. The second reason is to show them their hope is valid. The third reason is that I can and should. It’s the right thing to do, and I have found methods of making it efficient and helpful.

For example, of the ten manuscripts I’ll be addressing this weekend, eight show no indication of understanding standard manuscript format. For some, that may be a result of rather vague instructions given by conference coordinators. For others, maybe not. For the two who obviously do understand manuscript format, there was clearly just no choice but to deliver pages in standard manuscript format.

Now, I’m not going to explain standard manuscript format here. I’m just using it as an example. In fifteen minutes of discussion at the conference, I might be able to get across the fundamentals of manuscript format and why it is important. Maybe. Fifteen minutes isn’t much time for show-and-tell. Certainly, it’s not enough time to help a client develop a couple of MS Word Template files that automatically provide layout and styles definitions that support manuscript format.

However, I can describe the problem, the reasons the problem is a problem, and the solutions to the problem in a short white paper that I can then include as part of the packet response for the eight clients who need it.

Over time, I’ve recognized that certain patterns of success and patterns of failure recur in conference manuscripts. In fact, they appear in slush I have read, in college classes I have taught, and in seminars I have led. I can easily list the most often seen issues in manuscripts written by developing writers.

Mind you, not all the manuscripts I read for this conference had these problems. In fact, one was clearly professional. However, experience reading in many venues has brought me to realize that this list of development issues is pervasive enough that I have developed white papers for each item and quite literally hundreds more. By handing each client a short, written analysis of their text and augmenting that analysis with supporting white papers, I can give the client a lot to think about and material they can come back to later. When they do come back later, they will discover a much more detailed exposition of the issues and methods for solving that issue. After all, aren’t executable solutions what they really paid for?

Here’s a simplified list of the most common weaknesses I see in conference manuscripts:

  • Absence of dramatic conflict or the belief that dramatic conflict means combat.
  • Failure to understand character transformation.
  • Failure to understand the relationship between character transformation and incremental emotional change in scenes.
  • Failure to understand character depth and how to demonstrate character psychology and change in dialog and narrative.
  • Failure to understand the difference between authorial voice, narrative voice, character voice(s), and the reader’s internal voice.
  • Failure to grasp core thematic(s) and how a story demonstrates it/them.
  • Failure to fully develop the psychological and sociological nature of the opposition.

The list could go on, but these are the things I see missing most often. I don’t have time here to develop descriptions of each of these, nor would I since I’m not being paid. However, some of the readers of this blog might be going to conferences in the future. Before you pay for an analysis of your manuscript, check it for the above. Before you pay for a sit-down session, see if you can find out whether you are buying a chat or a solution.

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.

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?