The first week after the book is finished. Horrible. Finishing a book feels a bit like having a broken spring. A cartoon clock where the springs go SPROING out the back, twisting like Little Orphan Annie’s ringlets.
Post-book dementia has been ignored by the scientific community. Yet it’s a known syndrome, leaving the writer desperate.
Symptoms? Apathy. Refusal to read headlines. Compulsive retreat into mysteries from the sixties—John MacDonald. Helen MacInnes. Waking at three a.m. and staring into darkness, lost without a plot tangle to unravel. Executive function area of brain on unauthorized vacation.
Cures? None known. One wise practitioner advises Tincture of Time. Thyme? What did he say?
Hard runs, uphill both ways. Try to beat your own best thyme. Time?
Locate small child. Ask child about book plot for witch and wizard story, using “Yes And!” for action sequence.
Eat only favorite foods.
Lug contractor-weight trash bag into house; dispose of all but evidentiary (i.e., proof of copyright) drafts of Book. Mild rejoicing at lowered weight of paper in house.
Wait. If mainspring still waving SPROING from shoulder blades, and if finished with Travis McGee, shift to Dick Francis or Ngaio Marsh (Colin Dexter too dark for present frame of mind).
When people ask, “Oh, great! Have you got a plot for the next one?” do not bite or snap. Tincture of time. Thyme?
Stare blankly at clean writing perch, silent laptop. Feel dim sense of obligation but no remorse, no impetus.
Day fourteen. Hmm. Note lack of interest in umpteenth mystery by sixties author. Put it down unfinished.
Wake at four with image of character, raising binoculars to see edge of pasture… What’s moving? Yes, what is moving, there in the grass?\ Feel shiver of suspense. Does character realize she’s in danger? Character now sees, just visible in the trees at the edge of the pasture, a pale face, immobile? no, sun glinting off rifle? no, a man wearing camo? no? no, camo. Instead, two men carrying a…wait, no, it’s a…
Feel sub-sonic wave disturb cranial lethargy. Wonder if brain has silently begun constructing options.
Make coffee, turn to laptop.
Helen Currie Foster is the author of the Alice MacDonald Greer mystery series. THE GHOST NEXT DOOR, fifth in the series, was released September 22, 2018.
“Then I got to thinking. In a different Hardscrabble Homecoming book, a character (and I do mean character) has a pet chicken (which integral to the story). I’d heard stories of a writer who did, indeed, diaper her chicken and keep it inside as a house pet. So what the heck. I looked up “Diapered Chickens.”
Wildlife photographer SJ Brown writes about hiking the Appalachian Trail.
“Guided by a series of white hash marks we wandered into the woods and left civilization behind and began to enjoy the tranquility of the trail. This leg of our journey had the most elevation and would be the most challenging for both of us. As the rain subsided we longed to reach our first peak and the well deserved rest we had promised ourselves. We had heard stories of snakes and bears along the trail but encountered neither. We did get a glimpse of a coyote and maybe a fox.”
Cher’ley Grogg discusses reasons for blogging. Squirrels and alligators might or might not be among them.
“It is hard to get the first blog out, but over time it gets much easier. My reason for blogging and for creating Writing Wrangler and Warriors was mostly geared toward number 8. We average 18 bloggers, so if each blogger reads, comments and shares each blog just think of the coverage we get.”
Stevie Turner writes about bonds formed around a chess board.
“It was my lot in life to raise a hyperactive son. Luckily my trials and tribulations are all over now as Leon is 36, but when he was a boy I tried to help him focus his mind and concentrate by engaging him in a game that my father had taught me. This game is excellent for getting small boys to sit still…”
“A few nights ago, I was walking my wire fox terrier, Arty (Full name: Slarty Barkfast, for all you Douglas Adams fans). I was thinking of the deadlines looming this month and the next, and fretting a little. Can I meet them? And if so, will I arrive with my sanity intact?”
Neva Bodin looks for a way to hold on to ideas without running the car into a mailbox.
“Does anyone else have a mind that jumps from one story possibility to another? Or to suddenly knowing what should be added to or done with a scene while in the midst of another task or driving the car? It is very frustrating for me, because the brilliant insight/thought is gone by the time I have a notebook and pen.”
Joshua S. Robinson discusses the links between running, writing, and building community.
“I wanted them all to succeed. I hoped the ones trying to make certain times would do so, and that the ones just trying to finish would cross the line proudly. Every runner out there was participating as an individual, with his or her own goals and motivations. Yet there was still a sense of community, of camaraderie. Even among strangers, they all understood one another.”
Renee Kimball offers a look at three novellas by prolific writer Stephen King
“Full Dark contains a common theme of each novella, a theme that explores the darker human psyche, retribution, revenge, and a sense of twisted justice. Redemption is not found, but retribution appears in each. Even evil acts can result in a twisted kind of justice–a black and damaging kind of justice, but justice nonetheless.
Noreen Cedeño discusses how she creates characters outside her own experience.
“Part of my job in writing fiction is to create fully formed, believable characters that people can recognize, identify with, or at least be able to envision as a functional being. The more types of people I can imagine, the wider will be my casts of characters. So how do I improve and increase my casts of characters? I have to improve my knowledge of humanity as a whole by increasing my knowledge of the unique individuals whose quirks and personality extremes exemplify the wide variations in human behavior. I have to read.”
Mike Staton watches Hurricane Florence through the eyes of friends living in its path.
“I’m writing this Friday morning in Henderson, Nevada where I live. Five years ago I lived in Wilmington, North Carolina and worked as a weekly newspaper reporter at the Duplin Times in Duplin County’s courthouse city, Kenansville. I sat down at my laptop and took a look Facebook, and what I saw shocked me.”
Abbie Johnson Taylor discusses how she creates real characters and real life in her writing.
“How about belching? I’m going to be vain one more time and give you an example from a short story I wrote several years ago that hasn’t yet been published. It’s called “Living Vicariously,” and it’s about a Catholic family dealing with issues related to religion. In one scene, a teen-aged girl who has lied about attending confirmation classes, is eating dinner with her father in a pizza joint. She’s drinking Dr. Pepper, and she says she doesn’t want to be a nun because she doesn’t want to give up the beverage. Then, she belches for emphasis. Again, I’m showing you her character.”
Sometimes my descriptions of a scene, idea, character, etc. can use a little pictorial help. For me, I find Pinterest can be a great resource to help me get the picture in my mind “just right”. Other times, I’ve used it to store ideas for future writing, motivate me when I need a new idea, and in a few cases, to prove a theory of a book I’m working on.
I have a couple of manuscripts in the drawer (that’s a writer’s way of talking about finished manuscripts that you haven’t sent out to any agents or editors YET}. Two of them are fun little murder mysteries that take place in a small Illinois town called Hardscrabble. The title on my Pinterest account for this series is Hardscrabble Homecoming. I have a Pinterest board for each of my series: “Chicago Cubs” supports my 2016 novel, Three Days at Wrigley Field. “Preachers Murders” has scenes, jokes, ideas from my Pastor Matt Hayden Mystery Series. There are boards for future book ideas as well. “Ada’s Story” is where I keep all my visual material on the book I’m writing about a reformed Hitler youth who has devoted her life to making sure the world never sees another Hitler. Only she doesn’t get it quite right. I’ve also got a Board that supports my “Writing Whimsies”—little nuggets about writing. Some make me smile. Some make me think. Some just get me back in the chair.
Since I was at the dentist this week, it reminded me that I had a dentist in one of my Hardscrabble Homecoming books. I decided to check out a few graphs of the procedure done in the book. Then I got to thinking. In a different Hardscrabble Homecoming book, a character (and I do mean character) has a pet chicken (which integral to the story). I’d heard stories of a writer who did, indeed, diaper her chicken and keep it inside as a house pet. So what the heck. I looked up “Diapered Chickens”. Today I actually put these photos up on my board.
First, I needed to know what a chicken diaper was. Then I needed to prove to myself (and my readers) this wasn’t a half-cocked idea. (Sorry.) Some chickens are considered house pets and wear diapers.
I really do enjoy researching stuff for my books. The more creative, the better. If chuckles ensue, that’s the best. Thank you, Pinterest for helping me research my books! If you’re interested in checking out my Pinterest boards, here’s the link.
K.P. Gresham, author of the Pastor Matt Hayden Mystery series and Three Days at Wrigley Field, moved to Texas as quick as she could. Born Chicagoan, K.P. and her husband moved to Texas, fell in love with not shoveling snow and are 30+ year Lone Star State residents. She finds that her dual country citizenship, the Midwest and Texas, provide deep fodder for her award-winning novels. Her varied careers as a media librarian and technical director, middle school literature teacher and theatre playwright and director add humor and truth to her stories. A graduate of Houston’s Rice University Novels Writing Colloquium, K.P. now resides in Austin, Texas, where life with her tolerant but supportive husband and narcissistic Chihuahua is acceptably weird.
Written by MK Waller[ This post originally began with a rant. I have since removed it. I was frustrated to the max when I posted–because after I finished the post, more slings and arrows of outrageous fortune came flying at me. However, I’ve calmed down to a simmer and so no longer need to share the rant. I will note that the post is one long block of text because my paragraphs got lost. Twice. But I’ve calmed down.[Oh! Look! The paragraphs are back!]
I accidentally posted a test post.
I wrote a test post because WordPress is introducing a new method of posting–they say it’s “modern”–and I was trying to figure out how to perform a certain function for a friend who asked me because she couldn’t figure it out.
I didn’t choose to use the “modern” way. I used it because when I tried to use the Old Fashioned, Sensible way, the “modern” way popped up. I didn’t ask to use it, I didn’t ask to test it, I just GOT it.
I thought I had figured out how to do what I wanted to do, but obviously I hadn’t, because I clicked something I thought I understood, and there it was–posted for all to see.
One really neat aspect of this “modern” way of posting–in case you’re not sure, the continued use of quotation marks stands for I am being sarcastic because if I don’t, I will weep, explode, and/or type words that would cause WordPress to delete my blog because I have it registered as friendly to families*.
As I was saying before I digressed, one really neat feature is that most commands are hidden behind one little plus sign way up in the left corner. No more comprehensive toolbar (or it might be a task bar) at the top like the original WP Admin has, no more abbreviated toolbar at the top (like the second generation “improved posting experience” has), just a *#&!(^ plus sign in an out-of-the-way place where it won’t attract attention, especially the attention of bloggers who want to know where all the stuff on the old toolbar has disappeared to.
Another neat feature–when you’ve pre-scheduled a post and then want to go back in and edit the pre-scheduled post, it takes three clicks to get to the draft format so you can make changes. It used to take no clicks at all.
If I’m wrong about the three clicks, I will admit my error. When I tried it, it took three clicks.
I pre-scheduled the test post so I could experiment with the commands–those I could find–and then, I thought, unscheduled it. But oh, silly me, I guess I didn’t unschedule it, because when I went back in to confirm that I knew how it worked–whoosh–there went the post, out into cyperspace, where it will live forever. I guess I didn’t know how it worked.
A third invaluable feature–under the little plus, there’s a pilcrow–the symbol that means start a new paragraph. About that, I will say no more.
Back when WP introduced the “improved posting experience,” there was a place users could tell WP what they thought. We were invited to tell them. A whole bunch of us did. Some people thought it was peachy keen. Others thought it was wretched and said so.
I remember saying I thought they were rolling out a new version just because they could. I’d never said that to anyone, but having already said so many things they didn’t take seriously, I figured I might as well insult them as not. They responded that I surely knew my accusation wasn’t true.
I didn’t bother to be ashamed of my outburst because other people burst worse than I did.
To all of us rabblerousers, WP said we were stodgy and set in our ways and didn’t want to learn something new. As far as I’m concerned, WP should have apologized for that.
Some of us threatened to move our blogs to Blogger or another service.
After a while, WP stopped responding to our remarks. The roused rabble continued remarking. One in particular noted several times that WP had stopped responding.
There may be a place for users to tell WP what they think of the “modern” way of posting, but so far I haven’t found it.** I suspect they learned their lesson the first time.
I don’t know if our input was responsible, but WP kept the original posting “experience” as an alternative to the “improved” one. The original page has more words and therefore is more flexible than the newer experiences. It also has more links to other functions, so fewer clicks are needed to navigate the site.
Some of the rabble suggested WP created the “improved” (second) version to make it easier for new users. To that I say–LET THEM READ THE ******* SCREEN. Like READ the WORDS.
Oh oh oh! Look look look! When I previewed this post, it appeared as one long paragraph. Just one more thing. So I opened a second screen and copied and pasted the post into it. And what should appear but the message,
It’s the classic WordPress editor and it’s a block! Drop the editor right in.
I see no advantage to the blocks.
(And I would like to drop the editor right in.)
In addition, the toolbar appeared at the top. When you click the little plus, one of the choices is Classic. Maybe this means WP Admin will remain. As in, They learned their lesson.
I guess the Classic was there the first time I clicked the plus. I guess I should have read all the box. If I hadn’t been jangled by the little plus, I might have.
Just so you’ll know: I’ve used the “improved experience.” It’s okay, if you want just the basics. If you want to do anything more, or to find out something you don’t know, you’ll have to take a circuitous route.
I also appreciate that WordPress offers this service free of charge. I pay for extra features, and that’s fine with me. However, I would like basic features to work.
Let me be clear: WordPress malfunctions, large or small, are not important.
As many scientists observe, global warming is important.
As Spencer Tracy observed, plumbing is important.
But right now, WordPress’ messing with my posting “experience” has brought me to the verge of apoplexy.
The “modern” experience, by the way, is called Gutenberg, a most inappropriate name.
Because believe me, folks, if Johann Gutenberg has invented this, we would still be using scrolls.
*I don’t know a lot of those words, but I will use the ones I know, and if I need more, I’ll find more on the Internet. The Internet is not family friendly. I learned most of the words I know by studying Chaucer.
**But I’m going to keep looking.
“From the start . . . I felt that the best fiction was both propulsive and assaultive. It gets in your face. Sometimes it shouts in your face. I have no quarrel with literary fiction, which usually concerns itself with extraordinary people in ordinary situations, but as both a reader and a writer, I’m much more interested by ordinary people in extraordinary situations. I want to provoke an emotional, even visceral, reaction in my readers. Making them think as they read is not my deal.” (Full Dark, No Stars. p.365).
There are some who avoid works by Stephen King. Literary elitists have shown disdain towards King for years arguing his writing is story-telling for the masses. This review isn’t about the literary merits of King’s works, or his overwhelming success, or even about the monumental effect King’s life-long dedication to writing has had on the horror genre. This brief review is a discussion of four novellas which are found in Full Dark, No Stars, released in 2010.
Short stories and novellas are not a new format for King. King has published very successful short stories and multiple novellas over his 35-year long career. He has clearly succeeded yet again, with Full Dark, No Stars. Full Dark contains a common theme of each novella, a theme that explores the darker human psyche, retribution, revenge, and a sense of twisted justice. Redemption is not found, but retribution appears in each. Even evil acts can result in a twisted kind of justice–a black and damaging kind of justice, but justice nonetheless.
1922: NOVELLA ONE
The first novella, 1922, is set in Depression era Nebraska. The story involves a barely solvable working family farm, a life of constant work, brutally harsh and unrelenting. The wife and mother, Arlette, is a bitter and manipulative character who constantly harps to her husband to sell the farm and a plot of 100 acres that Arlette inherited from her father. Arlette’s dream is to leave the country life and start again in the city of Omaha.
The husband, Wilfred “Wilf,” verbally dominated and hen-pecked, is the browbeaten beleaguered husband whose only desire is to stay on his land. Wilf tells Henry, their only child, of Arlette’s plan. Wilf then convinces Henry to help him murder Arlette. Wilf intones that if Henry does not help with this, then they will be forced to leave the farm, and Henry will never see his girlfriend, who lives on a close by, ever again. Henry, a meek and obedient boy, resists but finally agrees to help with the murder of his mother.
As Arlette’s demands to sell increase, Wilf and Henry determine it is the time for murder. It is a clumsy and brutal murder; both father and son are deeply shaken afterwards. Arlette’s murder becomes the prelude to the story that evolves into a twisted tale of backwoods justice and supernatural interference. Their deed results into the ultimate destruction of both father and son. The darker psyche of Wilf bobs and weaves throughout the tale, and in the end, destruction follows. (Spoiler: If you have a phobia against rats, you may not want to read this dark tale).
BIG DRIVER: NOVELLA TWO
Big Driver is the second story in the collection. The main character, Tess, is a resourceful and successful mystery writer. She is the author of a “cozy” mysteries series and well known for her work in that type of genre. To ensure a little extra for retirement, Tess travels and gives readings of her books. She receives an invitation to read in a small-town library not too far from her home, and readily accepts. After reading, she takes a shortcut home on the advice of her hostess, the local librarian.
Things become dangerous when she has a flat tire in an isolated and abandoned area. When a seemingly well-intentioned good Samaritan stops to change her tire, instead of helping her, Tess is beaten and raped. Left for dead, Tess awakes to find herself in a culvert along with several decomposing female bodies. Pulling herself together, she leaves the area on foot and begins walking towards her home. She reaches her home and begins to plans her revenge.
Tess shows both sharp intelligence and quiet bravery, and no one portrays a woman’s strength better than King. Tess is a force who leaves the reader applauding her quiet inner strength and problem solving skills. When she meets up with her rapist/ would be killer, Tess achieves her revenge on a much larger scale than she imagined.
FAIR EXTENSION: NOVELLA THREE
While King’s Tess is resourceful and brave, the third novella, Fair Extension, is written from the perspective of a male, Streeter, who is a bitter and unlikable character.
Streeter, suffers from incurable cancer secretly blames his bad health, career, marriage, and lack of income, on the twisted idea that if he had not promoted and helped his best friend, Tom Goodhugh, through high school, Streeter would have had all the successes that Tom enjoys –money and success and a perfect family. Streeter believes that Tom should suffer the trials and tribulations Streeter has endured, after all, it is only fair.
Late on evening on his way home, Streeter takes an unplanned detour to a kind of roadside market. He had seen a sign reading “FAIR EXTENSION,” and became curious. A lone man named George Elvid, sits at the table with the sign. When Street asks what kind of “extensions” Elvid offers, Elvid responds all kinds but the type of extension depends upon the requestor. All extensions are tailored made and could be anything–credit extensions, love potions, to corrective eyesight. A Faustian trade ensues, and Streeter exchanges the extension of his life for the life of his best friend, Tom.
The Streeter story is a black tale of harbored grudges and selfishness. As Tom experiences horrific setbacks and death, he is slowly physically and mentally broken. As this is happening to Tom, Streeter becomes healthy and rich. In the end, Streeter remains unrepentant by his part in Tom’s tragic decline. FAIR EXTENSION fails to arouse the reader’s sympathy, and there is no retribution, rather, it is a tale of cruelty and Jealousy.
A GOOD MARRIAGE: NOVELLA FOUR
The fourth and last story, A Good Marriage, is thought-provoking and believable. The main character is a stay-at-home wife, Darcy, whose children have gone to college and left to start their lives. Darcy has been married to the same man, Bob Anderson, (who she believes she knows well), for over 25 years. She thinks she is living the American dream, or a semblance there of – not perfect, but predictable. Then, by sheer accident, she trips over a misaligned carton in the garage. Darcy then realizes that the man that she believes she knows as well as herself, has a double life and is a serial killer.
Once Darcy does her research and confirms her suspicions, she realizes that there has not been a killing for 16 years. She attempts to come to grips with what she knows for certain. Her husband, Bob, intuits that she knows about his secret life realizing that the carton has been moved. Bob confronts Darcy, and manages to convince her that it is all up to her what happens. But that as long as she keeps quiet, he will suppress his killing urges, he then promises he won’t kill again.
Bob explains Darcy is the reason he took a break from killing, being with her has allowed him to suppress and ignore his need to kill. Bob also says that it can all start up again if she doesn’t keep quiet and if she turns him in, then the children’s lives will be ruined and Darcy will suffer the consequences and will be ostracized by the very people she believes to be her friends.
Several years go by with both partners ignoring their shared secret and no killings. But Darcy, never feels at ease and in limbo. Darcy is ashamed and feels responsible because she knows she is the only one that can reveal the truth and bring Bob to justice.
Finally, Darcy stages and then succeeds in killing Bob. When a bit too tipsy from an evening celebration, Darcy manages to push Bob down a flight of stairs. Darcy is cleared of any foul play, but she knows there will be someone knocking on the door sooner or later who knows she staged Bob’s murder. And the day did come, and someone came knocking, but it wasn’t who she expected.
There is retribution in the end, and a good dose of twisted justice, but you have to read the book.
You will enjoy this collection; it is something that will make you think, even if that is not King’s aim, and may even surprise you. One can never really know what they might do if pushed to the absolute edge.
Happy Reading . . .
From the Afterword:
I have tried my best in Full Dark, No Stars to record what people might do, and how they might behave, under certain dire circumstances. The people in these stories are not without hope, but they acknowledge that even our fondest hopes (and our fondest wishes for our fellowmen and the society in which we live) may sometimes be vain. Often, even. But I think they also say that nobility most fully resides not in success but in trying to do the right thing…and that when we fail to do that, or willfully turn away from the challenge, hell follows.” (Stephen King).
“Stephen King has proven himself to be one of the finest chroniclers of the dark side of the human psyche over the 35 years of his successful career. While literary snobs sometimes cock a snoot at his mainstream appeal, there is no doubt that on his day he can spin as compelling a yarn as anyone . . . These tense tales delve into the dark heart of a knitting society and a serial killer’s last stand.” Doug Johnstone. Independent. November 14, 2010.
King, Stephen. FULL DARK, NO STARS, 2010. Simon & Schuster, New York., New York.
Image of semi double truck licensed via Wikipedia under CC0 Image of wedding rings via Pixabay under CC0 Image of rat via Pixabay under CC0
A former paralegal, Renee Kimball has a master’s degree in criminal justice. Among her interests are reading and writing. She is an active Animal Advocate, fosters and rescues both dogs and cats from shelters, and works with various organizations to find them forever homes.
Okay, I’m addicted to John Le Carré. I’ve repeatedly re-read his “Smiley Trilogy.” As you may know (but no spoilers), the seminal Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy tells us how George Smiley unmasked a mole in the British secret service (the “Circus”). Remember Alec Guinness as Smiley? Wonderful, but not as short and tubby as we imagine Smiley to be. When Smiley’s People was reissued, Le Carré wrote a preface referring to his completion of a trilogy: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1974); The Honourable Schoolboy (1977), and Smiley’s People (1979). Was he done, then? We’d hear no more about finding the Circus mole and foiling the Russian mastermind Karla? Could Smiley retire to study German poetry, maybe retrieve his beautiful unfaithful Ann?
John Le Carré will be 87 on October 19. In 2017, with A Legacy of Spies, Le Carré reaches back before Tinker, Tailor into The Spy Who Came in from The Cold (1963), where Alec Leamas (Richard Burton starred in the movie), is killed at the Berlin Wall. Indeed, Le Carré goes back to his 1961 debut, Call for the Dead, where we first meet Smiley, his subordinate Peter Guillam, and the German assassin Hans-Dieter Mundt.
Part of Le Carré’s genius is his use of point of view. Legacy is all told, first person, by Peter Guillam—described as “tall, tough and charming” in The Honourable Schoolboy, but always just a supporting character, never at the seat of power. In Legacy, the aging Guillam (white hair, hearing aids) is called back to a hostile Circus from his Brittany home. and informed he’s a defendant in a lawsuit concerning Leamas’s death. In Legacy Guillam is protagonist, not just narrator. He’s thrown into painful memories of the Leamas (apparent) debacle as, at the instruction of the current unlovable Circus bureaucrats, he slogs through years of records, some of which he wrote himself, including the one he wrote about the loss of his beloved—never mind. No spoilers.
In contrast, Tinker, Tailor builds the story with three points of view: first, that of George Smiley himself, forced to retire from the Circus by the nefarious Russian “Witchcraft” plot, and currently abandoned by his beautiful and unfaithful wife; second, that of Bill Roach, a “new boy” with “no friends” at the horrid Thursgood school where the wounded spy Jim Prideaux now teaches French; and third, that of Peter Guillam, another “Witchcraft” victim now banished to a dead-end Circus assignment in Brixton.
Roach’s observations of the new teacher, Prideaux, show us both Prideaux’s strength and charm, and the daily pain and fear left by his capture and torture. Prideaux names Roach a “watcher,” the “best watcher.” Roach worries himself sick, watching, fearing for Prideaux, and he’s the one who tells Prideaux that his peaceful isolation at this school has ended. Strangers are asking about Prideaux in the village. With sinking stomach Roach watches through the rainy window of Prideaux’s trailer as Prideaux reassembles his gun.
Guillam’s narration, as he helps Smiley undertake the search for the Circus’s Russian mole, tells us how he lies for Smiley and, heart thumping, sweat pouring down his back, steals records from the Circus that Smiley asks him to get. Guillam shares thoughts about Smiley that Smiley himself could never convey—his brilliance, his invincible calm in interrogation, his vulnerable invulnerability. We see Guillam as a romantic, still attached to the Circus by idealism and the drive for adventure that (we suspect) also characterize the author.
All three points of view build purpose and suspense. Without Roach, we could not share Roach’s acute terror about Prideaux’s situation. Without Roach we would not have seen Prideaux try to level his trailer in the rain, drink vodka to dull the pain of the bullet in his back, teach perfect French to his students, engage them in wildly wonderful play. Roach has made us care about Prideaux.
Smiley sees himself as a fat balding spy, cuckolded by his beautiful wife. Without Smiley’s point of view we would not feel his guilt as he opens bills reflecting his wife’s unfaithfulness, feel his irritation with the pompous ambition of the not particularly competent men running the Circus, feel his terror at waiting, feel his satisfaction as pieces fall into place, feel his conflicted but unshakable determination to find the mole.
Without Guillam’s point of view, we might not understand that he so admires Smiley that at Smiley’s instruction he’ll attempt the perilous theft of records about the Witchcraft plot, and coolly lie about his presence in the building (sweat running down his back) while he’s interrogated by superiors. With Guillam we feel a field man’s terror and joy in completing a successful field operation, but also his puzzlement about the multiple layers of the plot.
Back to the first-person narrative Le Carré uses in Legacy. One character, the reliable but somehow removed Peter Guillam, suddenly bears the emotional weight of decades of deception. We like him. Perhaps we feel he’s one of us: a field man, not a cerebral strategist like Smiley; still human, still romantic, but longing for rest. In Legacy we, with Guillam, come face to face with the secret he has suppressed for so long. We so want him to find rest. No spoilers., though.
John Le Carré! I’m drinking a toast to you tonight. Happy almost birthday!
Helen Currie Foster is the author of the Alice MacDonald Greer mystery series: GHOST CAVE, GHOST LETTER, GHOST DOG, and GHOST DAGGER. She works as a lawyer in Austin. Married with two children, she lives north of Dripping Springs, Texas, supervised by three burros.
“With educated people, I suppose, punctuation is a matter of rule; with me it is a matter of feeling. But I must say I have a great respect for the semi-colon; it’s a useful little chap.”
― Abraham Lincoln
“Here is a lesson in creative writing. First rule: Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college.”
―Kurt Vonnegut,A Man Without a Country
Semicolons . . . signal, rather than shout, a relationship. . . . A semicolon is a compliment from the writer to the reader. It says: “I don’t have to draw you a picture; a hint will do.” — George Will
I love semicolons.
My master’s thesis was rife with them.
But my critique group says I mustn’t use them any more. They say I should follow Kurt Vonnegut’s rule.
Mr. Vonnegut is wrong. The semicolon is not a transvestite hermaphrodite, representing absolutely nothing.
It is a compliment from the writer to the reader.
It is a wooden bench, where you can sit for a moment, catching your breath.
It’s a useful little chap.
When Mr. Vonnegut called the semicolon a transvestite hermaphrodite–well, bless his heart, he must have gotten up on the wrong side of the bed.
This post originally appeared at Telling the Truth, Mainly, under the title “Abraham Lincoln, Lewis Thomas, George Will, & Me: Great Minds Think Alike; or, Kurt Vonnegut, Go Fly a Kite.”
Accents! Putting the accent on the right Sy-LLA-ble.
Okay, it was a dream trip–to the Edinburgh Fringe, 400 venues and a thousand dance/song/stand-up/improv/drama acts, each compressed into fifty minutes or an hour. Cabaret–Aussie powerhouses Ali McGregor, Stewart D’Arrietta. Drama I can’t forget: Midsummer, Underground Railroad Game, An Elephant in the Garden. We dashed from one improvised venue to the next (in lecture halls at the medical school, in churches, in large shipping containers). Then we queued, waiting for the doors to open. In every queue, we talked to those in line. “What’s the best thing you’ve seen yet?” In those queues, reserved Brits, silent Scots—they all talked. Shared their favorite shows. Asked, “Where are you from?” So did we, until a tee-shirted organizer gave the signal and we trekked in to find seats
Then—we suspended disbelief.
And reveled in accents.
Especially for the two-woman comedy teams, we reveled, rolled, rollicked in accents. One second: two competitive English upper-class matrons desperately competing for assurance that their volunteer activities had indeed left a beneficent mark on their village. The next second, two competing grandmothers with a new baby that only likes one of the two. Then suddenly, two Sloane Ranger types talking over each other about how they cahn’t stand a third friend’s constant DRAHma. Indeed, Fringe productions offer accents from men, women, Brownie scouts, manics, depressives, all ages and classes, trades and professions, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Yorkshire, Midlands, and London in all its accentual richness. The accents help tell the story: location, backgrounds, expectations. Add in the mobile faces, the roving eyes, the leers, the tight lips, the suggestive eyebrows, and the audience instantly “gets it.”
I was jealous. Jealous! In thirty seconds two women could create an entire scene with a ridiculous plot and leave an audience convulsed with laughter.
Contrast the lonely writer at her kitchen counter. No eyes, lips, voices, accents to help her out. Instead, a blank page. A blank screen. Letters of the alphabet. Prose.
Accents on the page can distract. In Five Red Herrings Sayers could pick just a few expressions for Scottish flavor. “Aye, weel.” But too much written “accent” can drive readers nuts. Instead, writers search for particular word patterns, particular locutions. I’ve tried mining written comments on foreign websites to find a helpful phrase. For example, in one website with comments on UK metal detectorists, I found, repeatedly, “If I’m honest, I’d say…” I used it for my Scots pub owner.
No question, America has its own accents. The flat delivery and broad a’s of Massachusetts. Garrison Keillor’s earnest Minnesota delivery with its heavily voiced vowels; the South, rich in variety; Texas, offering accents from East Texas, West Texas, Spanglish, the distinctive nasal Houston-born UT coed accent, and more. But how to use them?
We mystery writers take refuge in consistent diction. We listen to the people around us so we can assign our characters a verbal “tell.” Our protagonist speaks like this, thinks like this, but his best friend has different and unique habits of speech. So does the antagonist. Maybe we use some regional expressions, though not every reader will “get” them. When I had a character say he was “horsed off,” a non-Texan was nonplussed. “I didn’t recognize that expression.” Well, your loss, and now your verbal life is enriched.
Thinking again of improv: like those comedy pairs, we also assign our characters a physical “tell,” a repeated gesture, a posture. A way of hoisting the shoulders, fiddling with fingers, compressing the lips, messing with their hair. We assign clothing. Shoes. Car choices. Tidiness, or untidiness. Age. Eye movement. Yes, we writers have ways to create distinct characters. We do it on the printed page.
Still, it’s hard not to envy the richness of improv, which offers instant recognition of accents, of the implications of the actor’s roving eye, and the interaction between actor and audience. The actor builds the scene by playing off the audience’s reaction.
Lots to enjoy there. Plenty for writers to learn. And besides, it’s great material.
If Fate smiles, if ever you get a chance—take yourself to the Fringe!
Having grown up in Texas surrounded by books and storytelling, she taught high school English and later became a prize-winning feature writer for a small Michigan weekly. Following a career of more than thirty years as an environmental lawyer, the character Alice and her stories suddenly appeared in Foster’s life. In her writing, Foster explores the interaction between history and the present and the reasons we tell the stories we do.
Dick Francis wrote over 40 international best-selling mystery thrillers touching the world of horse racing. He won celebrity status as a British jockey, even serving as the Queen Mother’s jockey. In World War II he served in the RAF, flying Spitfires and hurricanes.
Many fans will recognize that he often uses a particular formula. The formula includes a young male protagonist with an offbeat background and some sort of hole in his soul, who winds up solving a murder. Let’s take just three examples: foreign service officer Peter Darwin in Comeback, movie director Thomas Lyon in Wild Horses, and architect/restorer of old buildings Lee Morris in Decider.
Each book uses first-person narrative.
Each man worries about something missing in his life. The young diplomat longs for love. The movie director fears he lacks the courage to take risks and make a movie his way. The architect fears his marriage no longer contains love, but knows he can’t leave his six children.
Francis uses his own jockey experience for horse racing features in each book, though these three protagonists do not race professionally. The foreign service officer, finding himself back in the small English racing village where he grew up, draws on childhood memories of the personalities and scandals of the village’s trainers and owners to find a murderer. The movie director, who grew too tall to race professionally, races real jockeys in his film to convince them he knows what he’s doing, and to persuade the producer to let him create the “wild horses” scene that caps the movie. The architect still owns shares in a decrepit racetrack owned by his vindictive father, who horribly abused the architect’s dead mother, and a cast of cruel and dysfunctional relatives who mistrust the architect. After an uphill fight the architect rebuilds both his family connections and the falling-down racetrack.
Each book depends on meticulous research on arcane subjects. Francis knows how to feed us this information without making us drink from a fire hose. With the diplomat, we try to determine who had both opportunity and skill to kill horses in a vet clinic without being caught—upholstery needles hidden in horse feed, the wrong anesthetic, the wrong blood plasma electrolytes during surgery. With the director, we see his cinematographic skill as he develops the climactic scene he has imagined, a scene revealing the solution to the long-ago death of a horse-trainer’s wife. We stand with him on the beach, filming as Norse horses led by one woman on horseback, her veils streaming, race along the dunes at dawn. With the architect, we determine who blew up the old racetrack stadium, why the proposed plans for a new stadium are bogus, and how to save the racing season with circus tents.
Of course, along the way, we worry with each protagonist. Will the diplomat find love with the bishop’s daughter? Will the director gain confidence enough to make the movie he believes in? Will the architect repair not only the racetrack, but his marriage? Plus, tension builds because in each book the protagonist’s determination to solve a murder imperils himself and/or those he cherishes.
In addition—and it reflects Francis’s genius in character development—Francis aficionados will recognize a recurrent scene in which the protagonist, viciously attacked, turns the other cheek (figuratively) instead of fighting back. This can perplex and frustrate the reader, who longs for revenge and the hero’s vindication. Francis makes us wait. The diplomat, slugged by a vicious horse trainer, backs off and drives away, seemingly cowed. The architect, beaten up by his own estranged family members, doesn’t retaliate. The movie director, after a first knife attack intended to scare him off the movie set, dons a home-made knife-proof vest and keeps filming, knowing he’s inviting further attack.
I think Francis ultimately uses these episodes for two reasons. First, he contrasts the villains’ nefarious motives with the protagonist’s disciplined determination to finish the job, to find the murderer. But the episodes are structural as well: the reader finally understands the protagonist must refuse to fight back specifically so he can maintain his disguise, conceal his knowledge, and succeed in solving the murder. These books aren’t police procedurals. The amateur sleuth protagonists can’t rely on police authority to win. These cheek-turning scenes demonstrate discipline and—ultimately—a gritty desire to win. The thriller component comes as the protagonist’s desire to win also imperils him or his family.
By the time we’re identifying with the off-beat character (our first-person narrator), wallowing in the wealth of meticulous arcane research around the subplots, and turning pages rapidly to see the narrator safely escape peril—we’re pretty sure this formula works.
Having grown up in Texas surrounded by books and storytelling, she taught high school English and later became a prize-winning feature writer for a small Michigan weekly. Following a career of more than thirty years as an environmental lawyer, the character Alice and her stories suddenly appeared in Foster’s life. In her writing, Foster explores the interaction between history and the present and the reasons we tell the stories we do.
I fell asleep in my chair and when I awoke, I was right clicking on Ernest the Cat’s soft underbelly.
Such is my life: cats, computers, and clicking. It’s past time for a new project.
Thirty-three years ago this month, I received a master’s degree in English. I’d spent the previous year digging myself into and then out of research that resulted in a thesis: The Writing of Helen Hunt Jackson’s Ramona. I followed my usual writing process: modified chaos. If my adviserhad known how I worked, he’d have booted me out of his office the first day.
At the outset, he gave me some excellent advice:
Modify your aspirations. When I said I’d like to write about Emily Dickinson, he asked if I wanted to spend all my time reading what everyone else had written about her. I didn’t. He said I would be expected to add to the body or organized knowledge, and suggested I read Helen Hunt Jackson’s nineteenth-century American novel Ramona and see if I found anything worthy of research. I did, and I did.
You’ll get six semester hours’ credit for the thesis. Don’t do more than six hours’ work. One hundred pages, cover to cover. It came in at 185.
Don’t get tangled up in words.I got tangled up in words, but that’s my process.
Starting out, I knew nothing about Helen Hunt Jackson. I knew Ramona was a propaganda novel the author hoped would gain sympathy for the Native Americans as Uncle Tom’s Cabin had for the slaves. The book was commonly described as sentimental romance. Combine sentimentalromance with propaganda, and add that it was written by a woman, and you come out with a pretty bad book. Nineteenth-century chick lit.
After I read the novel and the standard biography of Helen Hunt Jackson, I held a different opinion. I thought it was a pretty good book. And I saw parallels between Jackson’s life and that of her main character. In other words, I had the foundation of a thesis.
I was surprised no one had already tackled the topic. But Jackson was like the newly discovered Emily Dickinson*–her life was so interesting that critics focused on her and ignored her writing. In fact, there were times when I thought critics hadn’t read Ramona at all; the few references I found contained one error after another. That worked to my advantage, of course: where they got it wrong, I would get it right.
It also worked to my disadvantage. My words, even if they were never traditionally published, would be bound in hard cover and sit on a library shelf, available to the world. The book might travel through the interlibrary loan program. People I didn’t know might read it. Future scholars might refer to it in their theses. They might feel free to point out my errors.
That realization hit hard. It kept me from saying things like, “John Smith writes that Ramona’s husband’s name is Felipe, while in reality his name is Alessandro; this egregious error on the part of Smith suggests he is not only a poor scholar but also that he is an illiterate knothead. And I’m right, so nyah, nyah, nyah.” It didn’t keep me from wanting to say such things, but on paper it kept me humble.
I spent over a year immersed in all things Ramona–the history of the Franciscan missions and the Mission Indians of Southern California, U. S. government policy toward Native Americans, Helen Hunt Jackson’s life as a writer and as an activist in support of Native Americans, and social and literary commentary on the novel. It made for fascinating reading.
It made for fascinating writing, too. I would suffer for a while, then turn in a chapter; my adviser would say, “Keep going”; I would go home, barricade myself in the spare bedroom, play the Mario Lanza LP nonstop (Ooooooooverhead the moon is beeeeeeeaming, whiiiiiiiiiiiite as blossoms on the boughhhhhhhhhhhh), eat peanut butter, and ponder how to say what I meant.
I’ve heard that if you can’t write what you mean, you don’t know what you mean, but that’s not true. I knew exactly what I meant; I always know exactly what I mean. The challenge is to pull the correct words out of that vague, amorphous dust cloud looming above my head and string them together in the right order. Each time I finished a chapter, I was amazed at what I knew.
With a maximum of moaning, I finally completed the task to everyone’s satisfaction. I delivered the manuscript to the university library; the university returned it as bound copies. I was tempted to borrow a stroller and wheel the thing around town. People who have babies show them off that way, and that book was my baby.
When I delivered the manuscript to my adviser for his signature, he made several more memorable statements:
It’s publishable. He said I should contact Twayne and see if they were interested in a book. I didn’t. Quite frankly, I didn’t know how, I was too intimidated (and shy) to ask questions, and within a few months life threw up a roadblock that I didn’t have the energy to work around.
You’re the Texas expert.Hearing that pleased me. I didn’t know there was much advantage to being the Texas expert on Ramona, since no one else would know I was the expert–I couldn’t go around telling people, and most would have said, “Ramona Who?”–but it was comforting to think I knew something the rest of the state (and several illiterate knotheads in other states) didn’t.
I didn’t think you could do this. I thought the book was too flimsy. In other words, he told me to read Ramona and see if I could find something worth writing about and all the while he was thinking I would find nothing nothing NOTHING. I have never come so close to knocking a professor out of his chair as I did that day.
Anyway, that’s the story of the writing of The Writing of Helen Hunt Jackson’s Ramona. One bound copy sits in the library at Texas State University, another bound copy sits in the vault there (at least, I was told a copy would be hidden away), and a third sits at the bottom of a stack of books in my house.**
Since 1985, my copy has gathered dust, but I recently pulled it out and skimmed through it and thought back on the days when I was a lot smarter than I am now. And I decided it was time people knew that, although I’m probably not still the Texas expert, in 1985, I held the title.
So I’m putting it online. Unfortunately, since I can’t find the manuscript, I have to type the whole thing, including pages and pages of citations. Fortunately, I’ll be able to add illustrations.
The new site is currently private. I intended to make it public when the entire thesis is online. But after considering how slowly I type, I’ve decided to open the site chapter by chapter. As soon as I’ve proofed the introduction, I’ll go public. No one will want to read it in one sitting anyway. (I’m not saying it’s dry; I’m saying if I were writing it today, sentences would be shorter and semicolons would be few.)
I don’t expect hordes of readers to descend and jam all of WordPress’ ports, but maybe someone out there will be interested in reading about Helen Hunt Jackson and an American classic.
In case you’re wondering–Ramona is a half-Native American, half-Scottish girl reared by a wealthy Mexican widow who doesn’t love her because of her heritage. It’s unspoken but true that no Mexican of her adoptive mother’s class will marry her. But when Ramona falls in love with young Native American sheep shearer, her mother forbids the relationship. Southern California, where they live, is now under rule of the United States. Problems ensue.
I’ll add this, too–Doris McCraw, formerly full-time, now occasional Writing Wranglers and Warriors blogger, is an everywhere expert on Helen Hunt Jackson. Her Facebook page, Helen Hunt Jackson Live, can be found here.
*Helen Maria Fiske [Hunt Jackson] and Emily Dickinson were born a few months apart in Amherst, Massachusetts and were lifelong friends.
**I have a couple of other copies stored at some indeterminate location.