Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Merry Christmas

When I was little, my mom made me write thank-you notes for any birthday, Christmas, or graduation gifts I received. I hated it at the time, but now I understand that it's one of those niceties that makes the world go around.

This post is a thank-you to everyone who has read the blog this year. To everyone who has commented, thank you. To everyone who lurks, thank you.

I hope you have a chance to reconnect with friends and family over the next few days. (Writers: even if they drive you bonkers, this is valuable material. Keep a notebook handy.)  I've got some cool things planned for 2014 that will help all of us become better writers, better readers, and hopefully, better people. I'd love to have you along for the journey.

If, like my husband, you're about to be dragged through a family circus that isn't what you really want to be doing, remember: your attendance and your smile is a gift to the person who brought you. As Bill and Ted said, "Be excellent to each other."

May your eggnog be spiked...with love or whiskey, whichever you prefer.  

Merry Christmas from Jenni Wiltz

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Book Review: Inferno by Dan Brown

Inferno by Dan Brown
Inferno by Dan Brown.
It's ablaze, all right, but with what?
That's up for debate.
Note: This post is being sponsored by Grammarly. I used Grammarly's plagiarism detector because I wanted to watch it have a conniption fit over Inferno's purple prose.

I'm not normally at a loss for words when it comes to talking about books. But Dan Brown's Inferno might have gotten the best of me.

I just can't think of anything to say.

It's a book.

It's not good.

Can we just call it a night?


Damn it. I should have known you'd expect more of me, dear readers. Inferno is not a good book. It's also not hate-worthy in the manner of some of the other books I've blogged about here. It doesn't inspire vitriol. It doesn't inspire anything at all. Perhaps that's the whole problem.

Confession Bear: I Liked the DaVinci Code
Confession Bear says, "Don't be a book snob."
Great Expectations
Let me start by saying I loved The DaVinci Code. Yes, the insults hurled at the book by book snobs are probably mostly true. But applying literary fiction's criteria to Dan Brown is like cursing at an apple because it isn't round and orange and you can't remove the peel in one of those nifty spirals. If you didn't know that going in, you're either blind or humorless or both.

Being a page-turner is an accomplishment. Books that make you stay up late at night to find out what happens next are, by definition, good books. You have another option--going to sleep at a normal hour, like a sane person--but you choose the book. If you have another option but you choose the book, the book is doing something right. For me, The DaVinci Code was crack...or whichever potato chips have the slogan, "Bet you can't eat just one."  I couldn't read just one page. I couldn't turn out the light.

TL;DR: It's a good fucking book.

Dante's Pique
Inferno is not a good fucking book. It's even worse than a bad book. It's a boring book.

It's like when you're in college and your professor is talking, and you try to listen, but he's off on a tangent about some facet of his grad school research that matters only to him. It's 2:15 in the afternoon and his voice drones on like that guy who says, "Bueller?" You listen for an hour, but your watch says it's only 2:18. You start fidgeting to try and not fall asleep. But that gets boring, too. And then you get a little angry. You're paying for this class, after all. By the time 3:00 actually rolls around, you're not glad to be alive. You're pissed at the professor (for wasting everyone's time) and the university (for throwing away the student evaluations that say how boring he is). You would rather have been in the library doing research for your Victorian Lit paper. At least you'd have checked something off your to-do list that way.

That's Inferno in a nutshell. This Twitter account would have been a better use of your time:

Dan Vinci's Nunferno Twitter account

10 Things I Hate about You +1, for a Grand Total of 11...Because I'm Feeling Bitchy that Way
When I started reading, I took notes on things I thought I'd blog about...but I stopped caring about 150 pages in. Then I started counting the number of times I fell asleep while reading it and got close to double digits. In order not to waste the time I spent making the list, here's a few of the things that ticked me off before page 150:
  • Adverbs
    • "Langdon battled the sedatives and awkwardly hoisted himself upright in his bed."
    • Because when I've been shot in the head and wake up groggy with amnesia, it really needs to be specified that my first movement is an awkward one. 
  • Exclamation point
    • "A ray of hope cut through Langdon's grogginess.  'That's good news! Maybe this person knows what happened to me!'" 
    • Because when I've been shot in the head and wake up groggy with amnesia, the first thing I do is make nothing but excited declarative statements. 
  • Statements of things that make no sense
    • "Who are you!? he called out in silence." 
    • If only someone had invented a word that meant having words go through your head without speaking them. Someone get the call-out-in-silence tank on the phone and ask them about it. 
  • Repetition for no point whatsoever
    • "...every operative on board sensed there was some kind of high-stakes operation going on. The stakes are inconceivably high, and Vayentha had better get it right this time.
    • I don't know about you, but I never believe the stakes are high unless I'm told twice in rapid succession using a variety of typefaces. 
  • Way too many uses of "?!"     
    • "I beg your pardon!?" 
    • Using this redundant form of punctuation makes it look like Brown doesn't know the difference between a statement and a question. I'm at a loss here, folks. I have never seen so many uses of "?!" in my life. I'm convinced Dan Brown has a "thou shalt not edit me" clause in his contract. This had me tearing out my hair, and with a 500 page book, that's a lot of hair. I'm bald now, actually. Thanks, Dan Brown. Thanks a lot.
  • Moments where the characters say really dumb things
    • "Langdon teetered on the brink of consciousness. Someone is trying to kill me?"
    • No shit, Sherlock. That's probably a reasonable conclusion when someone comes into your hospital wing, shoots your doctor right in front of you, and then takes aim. This is a character with a PhD who has been through this drill in three prior books. Is it really such a big surprise when it happens again? 
  • Moments where the characters do really dumb things
    • In the book, while on the run from people trying to kill him, Langdon checks his Harvard email. I literally screamed at the book: "You stupid fuck! You've been on three adventures where people are hunting you the way fat kids hunt cake, where your survival hinges on hiding your location. You STILL haven't learned what an IP address is?"
  • A disturbing lack of useful history and symbology
    • They play so much less of a role in this book than in The DaVinci Code. There's one moderately intriguing art world mystery raised (cerca trova), but it's not solved or referred to again after it points the characters toward the villain's plot. Never mind the rest of us who find the historical mystery more intriguing.   
  • Dante seems integral to the story, but he's not
    • He's a set piece. At its heart, nothing about the main conflict has a damn thing to do with Dante. The main conflict could have happened in any country, with any author who ever wrote a poem about death. It could have easily been T.S. Eliot, with The Waste Land standing in for the Inferno. Dante's just a red herring, a fancy set piece. Malthus is doing the heavy lifting here, but no one gives a crap about Malthus, so they needed Dante to bring sexy back.  
  • The main conflict isn't even resolved, despite nearly 500 pages
    • The book ends with a huge problem looming. We, the reader, knew what the problem was from the very beginning. We just had to wait for the characters to catch up. And then they do. And then nothing else happens. Seeing that the crisis looming is a big one, this seems either like a sequel setup (please, no) or a writer who's too bored with his own story to wrap it up. SPOILER ALERT: the looming problem is that humanity will be destroyed within a couple generations by a secret virus. What are the good people of the world doing about it? We don't know. The book's over. Have a nice day.
  • Everything is boring
    • The chase scenes are so long-winded you forget who and what the characters are running from. There's no historical mystery that you'd bite your own fingers off to solve. It's all about some stupid modern-day plague. The suspense is supposed to be in whether Langdon can stop it. But didn't they already do this in Mission Impossible 2? With better actors? I'll take Tom Cruise over Tom Hanks any day.
If I tried, I could probably come up with a few more things to say. But what's the point?

Go read a good book instead.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Happy Thanksgiving, Y'all: Here's the Story of My Ancestor Who Was Hung as a Witch

Puritan: LOL, a bird. Must be witchcraft.
My 10th great-grandmother was hung as a witch in Connecticut. You've probably heard of the Salem Witch Trials, which took place in the early 1690s. Well, my homegirl beat them to it by getting herself hung in 1663.

As we're eating turkey and giving thanks for how awesome things are in our country and our lives, don't forget that the path to all-American awesomeness is strewn with bodies: Native Americans, mostly, but also some white people other white people didn't like very much.

We're not really sure what her maiden name was, but her first name was Rebecca. (My middle name, in case you were wondering.) She married a man named Abraham Elson, and had a daughter named Sarah who is my 9th great-grandmother. Abraham died, and Rebecca married a man named Jarvis Mudge. He died, too, and she married a third time to a man named Nathaniel Greensmith. Rebecca Greensmith is the name she died with.

She and Nathaniel lived in Hartford, Connecticut. They were not liked. Nathaniel had been in trouble with the law at least three times, once for stealing wheat, once for stealing a hoe, and once for battery. A local reverend, John Whiting, called Rebecca "a lewd, ignorant and considerably aged woman." Because everyone knows being an "aged woman" is some intolerable shit for Puritans.  

People had been on the lookout for witches for awhile--the very first suspected witch in the colonies was hung in Hartford in 1647. But now, in 1662, shit really hit the fan. It started, as it did in Salem, with the accusations of a girl. Before she died, John Kelley's 8-year-old daughter Elizabeth cried out in her delirium that her neighbor, Goodwife Ayres, was "tormenting her."

Witchcraft starter kit: cute kitty in a fake cauldon
Not long afterward, John Cole's daughter, Anne, freaked the fuck out. She started having "fits" and said Satan's minions were messing with her. She named Elizabeth Seager as a witch, and someone (it might have been Anne) said Rebecca was a witch, too. Nathaniel and Rebecca were already disliked within the community, so it's not hard to see how they fell under suspicion. Rebecca was arrested in late 1662.

Hard-ass Puritan ministers took control of the situation, interrogating the accused. Reverend Samuel Stone, Reverend Joseph Haynes, and Reverend Samuel Hooker played bad cop/worse cop/abysmal cop, and Rebecca admitted that under Haynes's questioning, she could have "torn him in pieces." Satanic strength notwithstanding, Haynes survived unscathed.

Under interrogation, Rebecca confessed to witchcraft. She said she and some other folks used to meet out in the fields at night to booze it up. One of the women present said she would do bad things to the town marshal if she could. That's all the evidence they needed back in the day. Empty field + night time + booze + (heaven forbid) dancing = a genuine goddamn coven. Increase Mather took Rebecca's confession as definitive proof that witches were real.

Anxious for all the dirty details, her interrogators asked her whether she made a covenant with the devil. She said no, but that she had promised to go with him when he called. He was supposed to be back on Christmas, and that's when the covenant would be signed. She said the devil first appeared to her as a deer, and other times as a crow. Lord knows you can't trust animals. Not even once.

On December 30, 1662, both Rebecca and Nathaniel were indicted on charges of witchcraft.

Witchcraft Inigo Montoya meme
On January 8, 1663, Rebecca said that although he hadn't confessed, she had doubts about Nathaniel's innocence. She said he was pretty old and weak, but that he somehow did lots of chores and outdoor work. Plus, it was pretty damn suspicious that he was friendly with some foxes and other woodland creatures.

The jury found them both guilty.

On January 25, 1662, Nathaniel and Rebecca were hung on "Gallows Hill," the present site of Trinity College.

"Witches" were also hung in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Virginia. Their names have all since been legally cleared, not helpful at all to the victims but somewhat helpful for the families and descendants. Not so in Connecticut. All of these folks are still officially on record as being guilty.

Even if the genealogical research that seems to link me to this woman proves to be faulty (as so much of it is), I'll always remember her story...and the dark side of what we celebrate every Thanksgiving.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Why I Won't Watch The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

Meme: Am I the Only One that Hates the Hunger Games?
I hated the first Hunger Games movie. Like, hated it. It was one of the worst movies I've ever seen. My husband walked out (well, walked out of our living room, where I'd paid $1 to Redbox it). I used the fast-forward button to get through the last 20-30 minutes of the movie because I couldn't take it anymore.  Hate me, flame me, put vitriolic in the comments, but I just don't see what the big deal is with this franchise.

Bear with me, because I'm trying to remember exactly why I disliked this movie so much based on a single viewing of almost a year ago. Here's the list, as best I can reconstruct it, in no particular order:

1. I expected more in the romance department. The Hunger Games is often touted as a superior alternative to Twilight, which is nothing but romance (creepy romance, supernatural romance, high school romance, call it what you will, but it's a romance). I failed to find a smidgen of comparable romance in this movie.  Was there any shadow of real human emotion between any of the three characters supposedly involved in this love triangle?  Can it even be called a triangle when one of the participants (played by Liam Hemsworth) was in the movie for all of five minutes?  That's not a triangle. It's a straight line with a wart on it.

That leaves us with Peeta and Katniss, a couple with the worst on-screen chemistry since Sarah Jessica Parker and Hugh Grant in that horrible witness protection program movie, or Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman in Australia.  He passes out in a cave, and she loves him?  Or pretends to love him for the cameras?  I'm not sure and I don't care.  The concept of someone faking a relationship for publicity's sake was beaten to death during Kim Kardashian's first marriage. Better actors don't improve the storyline for me. 

Peeta + Katniss = Peenis
2. The names. I'm not even going to talk about how ridiculous I feel typing the word "Peeta."  It's like "Pee," but it just keeps going.  Names are important.  I do not care for these. Give me Benjen Stark or Darth Maul or Gandalf the Grey. Peeta does not merit further discussion. Katniss sounds like tarted-up catnip. Everdeen is a line of non-stick cookware sold by Paula Deen.

3. I don't care about the main character.  Like, at all.  Katniss is more than flat--she's borderline dislikable for me.  Sure, she's meant to be introspective and self-reliant and brave, all admirable qualities, but also boring to watch. Most of the time, we're staring at J Law's blank face.  I hoped she'd get angry. Get upset. Reveal something. Do something interesting. I got bored by how capable she was at keeping her emotions under wraps. No one wants to watch Michelangelo paint an apartment wall white.  

For comparison's sake, I thought about a prickly-loner character that I did care about:  Rambo. Similar setup--a person alone, manipulated by governments and superiors into situations that risk life and limb. He doesn't talk much, doesn't like people, and yet I root for the guy. I want to watch him triumph.  I want him to get the pat on the back that no one else has ever given him.  He wants something good, and everything bad that he does is in service of his goal. I get that Katniss volunteered to save her sister. It was noble, and it should have had the same effect on me as Rambo's sacrifices, but it just didn't. I also hate kids.  

Another Stallone comparison springs to mind: his lone-wolf rock climber in Cliffhanger. Stallone is either much better than J-Law at using his face to reveal enough emotion to make you care, or his director gives him more leeway to do so. His features can fall, perk up, or reveal anger with no words written into the script.  Does he look cheesy doing so? Sure. But it's entertaining. If J-Law can do these things, the director needs to start asking her to.  She has an Oscar now. Forced heavy breathing and a blank-faced stare are no longer sufficient. 

If you say, "Sure, but Stallone is ridiculous and Jennifer Lawrence is an actress with a capital A," I say, "Stallone is ridiculous to the tune of $1,861,069,518 box office dollars and counting. Plus, he's Rocky." And don't tell me this movie is afraid of ridiculous. It has Woody Harrelson as a role model. 

4. The suspense was flat. Obviously, Katniss isn't going to die.  There are more books, which means there are more movies. Seeing her in a life-and-death situation is only going to end one way.  So what else am I supposed to give a crap about? I want to see her tested or changed or humbled.  None of those things happened.  She climbed some trees and shot some things.  Great.  Thanks for the memories.

5. Those stupid dog-like things chasing them at the end. The interwebs tell me they are called "muttations," which is another name that makes me want to listen to nails on a chalkboard. The interwebs also tell me that the creatures were used differently in the movie than in the book. The movie is my only reference here, and as far as the creepy-creature-chasing-the-hero concept goes, I've been there, done that...they're called hell-hounds, and they're in Supernatural. Want to see that stuff done right? Check out season 5, episode 10 ("Abandon All Hope...") where Jo and Ellen buy the farm to give Sam and Dean a snowball's chance of stopping Lucifer from launching the apocalypse.  I cry every time. More suspense, better tragedy, better character development, better everything.

6. I felt nothing while watching it. Except a profound longing for it to end. Yeah, it was sad when Rue died. But one tender moment didn't redeem the movie as a whole. I get the feeling I was supposed to be frightened, sad, horrified, excited, worried, and a whole bunch of other things that never crossed my mind. But everything was strangely antiseptic. I can't be worried for a character who is part of a trilogy. Everyone in the city is a dick. Half of the other kids in the games were dicks. I don't care about the downtrodden losers Katniss left behind. Want to see real suffering? Read about Russians during the first half of World War II. 

7. I did not like the world-building. I just didn't buy that part of the U.S. looks like an Andrew Wyeth painting circa 1940, while the other part looked like humans impersonating Muppets among the sets from Death Race. I couldn't believe that this is what happened to our country, that the world we live in now became the world I saw on that screen. And if I couldn't believe that, I couldn't believe anything else that happened, either.  Maybe more of this is explained in the book, which I have NOT read, but it was NOT explained in the film.  Let me attempt to summarize what I saw:  part of the U.S. rebelled against some future government, things went horribly awry, the place is now called Panem, and parts of it got sent back to the stone age.  What happened to electronics?  Where are things like power poles? And cars? And paved roads? Did every piece of technology invented after WWII just vanish from particular areas? Did fashion revert to the 1940s, too? I'm confused. 

8.  A dress that's on fire? You have to be kidding me.  The Golden Gate Bridge couldn't suspend my disbelief that far. Also, where are the jet packs and the holodeck? Why do they have flaming dresses but no jet packs? I'm confused.

I have never read the books.  I'm not planning on reading the books. The first movie made me want to run screaming in the other direction from the entire franchise. This is not meant to be a critique of the book(s), since it's entirely possible all my objections are addressed there. This is a critique of the film itself, for someone who came to it without the background (or the suspension of disbelief) provided by the books. It failed. These people think so, too:

#hungergames #catchingfire 

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Strong Female Characters Are a Cop-Out

What Makes a Strong Female Character?
Witness the awesomeness
of my photo editing skills.
About two months ago, there was a lot of chatter about this article on NewStatesman.com--an essay on why the author hates the label "strong female character."

Here's the gist: "strong" has become another label that female characters now need to fit into. Princesses who know kung-fu, smart female characters who need to beat up a man for the audience to buy them as a bad-ass...it's become a trend, which devalues the whole idea.

The One with the Chinese Food
I hate the phrase "strong female character." It implies most women aren't strong, that there are so few strong ones we have to designate them with signs, like an endangered species. We call Chinese food Chinese food because it's different, not normal. In China, as the old joke on Friends goes, they just call it food.

It's hard to keep this discussion from devolving into semantics, the way it would in a grad school lit class ("Who defines 'strong'? Isn't 'strong' just another construct created by the existing power structure?"). I hate those kinds of discussions because they ignore what's real and here and now. It doesn't matter who defined it if the thing is what it is, and the "is" is what we all have to deal with.

Amelia Earhart
Is she a strong female?
Or does she need nunchaku?
Dealing with the "Is"
Let's get back to the idea of a "strong female character."  What the hell does that even mean? Who is this bastion of female badassery?  Does she have physical prowess, a la Lara Croft? Is she scheming, like Cersei Lannister? Or does she have a spirit of adventure, like Amelia Earhart? If a character has all of these, she's too good to be true. If a character only has one, does it mean she's 2/3 weak? Which of these traits most conveys strength? Is it even possible to decide?

The recent flurry over "strong" female characters focuses on physical strength and mastery of the male characters. That's fine. I have no problem with that. If that's the tale those writers want to tell, they should arm their characters, male and female, with the resources needed to survive in that world. They'd be dead otherwise, and being dead would suck.

I do have a problem when female characters who don't know kung-fu or how to fire a 12-gauge aren't deemed strong. What if they can't do a single pull-up? What if they've lost every race they've ever run? It doesn't mean they can't fuck your shit up. It doesn't mean they're not strong within the world that author has created.

Examples, You Ask?
Let's look at two Disney villains. Would anyone say Maleficent is NOT a strong female character? I doubt it. She's intuitive. She's manipulative. She's regal. She delegates. She remembers shit. She can get her hands dirty when the situation calls for it. But she performs no special feats of strength. She has magic and minions to do her dirty work. Does that mean she isn't strong? Of course not. She's fearsome.

Ursula is a similar character of undeniable strength. She rules her under-the-sea kingdom with an iron fist. She's also intuitive and manipulative. She delegates . She remembers shit, too. But she's not going to do any pull-ups. She's not going to fire a gun. She does not know kung-fu. She's powered by rage, if anything. Does it mean she's not strong? I don't think so. She's a pretty powerful enemy.

So are these "strong female characters"? Or are they just characters?

What about Examples from Actual Books?
A Chuck Norris meme.
You had to know this was coming.
When I think of strong female characters I've admired, they were all off-kilter in a way:
  • Turtle, from The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin. A 12-year old who packed her cavities with bourbon-soaked cotton balls. Who learned to play the stock market to try and win old man Westing's fortune. Who kicked the shin of anyone who messed with her. But was she physically strong? No. She was a girl.
  • Princess Eilonwy, from Lloyd Alexander's Prydain Chronicles. She was kind of a tomboy, preferring pants to petticoats. She wanted to go on adventures with the boys. She wanted to rough people up when they pissed her off, but wanting didn't always match her abilities. She talked a tough game, but it was just a game. She wasn't actually going to take on the Cauldron-Born herself. She couldn't.
  • Amelia Peabody, from Elizabeth Peters's series of mysteries. Ah, Amelia. She also wasn't physically strong, no more than an average woman who gets out of the house and is active, hence her need for an iron-shafted parasol to bonk people on the head. But she was smart, funny, crafty, daring, and ferociously protective of the people she loved. She explored pyramids in an age when most women got winded dusting an endtable.
  • Honor Harris, from The King's General by Daphne du Maurier. Holy crap. This woman survived a revolution using her wits alone. She was paralyzed from the waist down, which means she couldn't even move under her own power. There is nothing physical she could do to defeat an enemy. Yet she survived when lots of the other characters didn't. 
  • Arya Stark, from Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin and whoever writes all the TV show episodes. True, her character wants to learn to fight and wield a sword. But she kind of sucks at it. She's disarmed pretty much every time she tries to take someone on with her sword. But she's still alive when a hell of a lot of her family isn't. She's crafty. She's smart. She listens. She sticks up for her friends, at great peril to herself. She isn't afraid to say what she thinks, especially when she insists The Hound should die for killing her friend, a low-born butcher's boy. Any of the sword-wielding male characters could off her with a single stroke just to shut her up. But they don't. Does that mean she isn't strong? (Full disclosure: I've watched the show. I have not read the books yet.)
I want to see more characters like these. They're not perfect. They're not brilliant Harvard-educated astrophysicists who also look like Eastern European supermodels and who also have black belt kung-fu skills and who also like to wear black leather and get freaky in the bedroom. Too often, writers mistake "perfect" for "strong." At least until these "perfect" "strong" women have to be rescued by the hero. Then all that perfection just goes to waste.

That's right.
The queen's a badass.
Hell, Turtle Wexler doesn't even have basic oral hygiene down. But she won a fortune and beat out an apartment building full of adults, all theoretically older, wiser, and more experienced in the ways of the world. NO guns. NO kung-fu. NO physical skill of any kind. Honor Harris doesn't even have the use of her legs, and she cares for her lover when he's wounded in the English Civil War.

Strong is not muscle. Strong is not weapons. I am so tired of these two things being conflated with "strong" when it comes to discussing female characters. Can Joss Whedon write a strong female character without giving her strength or weapons?

"Strong" can't be taken out of the context of the work in which those female characters appear. It ruins everything to take a fictional character and hold her up to the same sunlight that illuminates my crows-feet. She's not next to me. She doesn't even exist. It can't and shouldn't be done.

She can only be judged on her strength in the world she lives in. How does she fare, mentally and physically, against other women and men? If she's only stronger than other women, how strong is that, really? If she's strong than some men and some women, she's doing slightly better than average. If she has the guts and smarts to beat out men and women and be the top dog in her book's world, she's a strong female character. Even if she can only do two push-ups, has never fired a gun, and flames don't shoot out of her eyes.

Monday, September 30, 2013

Why Having a Day Job Is Good for the Creativity

Ruth Brown Snyder
Ruth Brown Snyder. In the electric chair.
If this doesn't creep you out,
I don't know what will.
Have you ever seen a photo of a woman being executed in the electric chair? You have now. But what do this woman, a day job, and the life of a working writer have in common?

I'll tell you.

I work full time, with an hour commute each way. All told, my time is not my own from 6:40 a.m. until 6:00 p.m. 

That's a lot of time that I can't control or do anything with. 

So when I start complaining, it's almost always about not having enough time to write new books and market existing books. I'm deeply, deeply jealous of writer friends who don't work and can spend all day toiling over marketing plans and promoting their books. I can't. And while this feels like a huge disadvantage most days, I'm trying to look on the bright side. 

So I found three ways my day job makes me a better writer.

1. Money. As Dean Koontz wrote in How to Write Best Selling Fiction, "Money is freedom; money is time; money is fame; money is respect; money is a yardstick of many things, but most of all, money is money." I have bills. Lots of them. So devoting 11+ hours a day to being able to pay them is not only necessary, but it helps my mental state remain unstressed and clear for writing. 

If all I'm doing is worrying about the electricity getting shut off or the car repossessed, I'm not going to give a crap about made-up people or worlds. In that respect, having a day job makes my non-office time all about what I want to do. I'm not looking for a job, stressing out, or drifting between friends, hoping someone will feed me for free. Every minute off the clock is spent planning, dreaming, or doing. Yes, you could argue that a true writer writes no matter what. But even true writers really need to eat. Plus, getting foreclosed would make it really hard to charge my laptop. 

Most Interesting man in the World
2. SEO and social media knowledge. I'm a writer. But I also know a bit about SEO. And a bit about social media. I read most of the big SEO blogs and have two monitors at work, where the good folks of Google+ scroll by all day long, presenting helpful insider tips for me on marketing, social media, writing, self-publishing, and of course, life insurance. I file all that knowledge away in my brain (and, if my brain fails, Evernote) for the day when I have the time to unleash it. 

I wouldn't have been forced to learn as much about social media as I have without this job. I resisted it pretty heavily until my paycheck became partly dependent on it. I still resist it in part...I refuse to get a smartphone (no Instagram for me, folks). At the same time, I have license to check every network there is, absorb as much knowledge as I can, and learn as much as I can to deploy on command and for my own benefit (after hours, of course). I have more weapons at my disposal than I did before I had this job. In this world, marketing is everything. And I'm so much better at it now than I was before, when I thought marketing was posting a new book on this blog.

3. The occasional stranger-than-fiction story that falls in my lap. I write about life insurance, all day every day. To make sure I have something new to say, I have to dig into some pretty weird stories. One weird story involves the woman in the picture, Ruth Brown Snyder. I was writing a blog post about the movie Double Indemnity, where life insurance fraud is a plot point. Come to find out, the movie is based on a novella by James M. Cain, who based the story on a real-life insurance fraud case.

Check this shit out. 

Ruth Brown Snyder was married to Albert Snyder, but having an affair with Henry Judd Gray. She told Gray that she wanted to convince her husband to get a life insurance policy and then kill him. Getting the husband to get a policy worked just fine. But she made seven (count 'em!) unsuccessful attempts to kill Albert before she and Gray decided to try something different. They garrotted Albert and made it look like a home invasion robbery. 

But there's some backstory you also need to know before we proceed. Why did Ruth want to kill Albert? It might have been because he made no secret of his real love, a woman named Jessie Guishard who died before she and Albert could be married. He loved her for years, which, you know, probably made Ruth feel awesome about herself. This guy talked about Jessie, kept her portrait on the wall, named his boat after her, and referred to her as "the finest woman I have ever met." I kinda feel for Ruth on this one. 

Anyway, so the cops are investigating this supposed home invasion gone wrong. They think it's kind of weird that nothing actually went missing. When they found a paper with "J.G." on it, they asked Ruth who "J.G." was. Ruth asks them what Judd Gray (her lover) has to do with anything. But the cops weren't referring to Gray. They were referring to one of Albert's papers with "J.G." on it--Jesse Guishard. So Ruth just handed them her lover's name. (Way to go, Ruth.) Once the cops started looking at the name Ruth dropped, they put two and two together.

Ruth and Gray were arrested, tried, and found guilty of murder. Both were sentenced to death via the electric chair. Of course, all photography of the execution was forbidden. But reporter Tom Howard was from Chicago (not New York) and knew he wouldn't be recognized as a reporter on the scene. He rigged up a weird leg camera that would take pictures without anyone knowing. He snapped his shot, and it was plastered all over the front page of newspapers the next day. The photo was described as one of the most famous images of the 1920s. The camera Howard used to take the shot is now in the Smithsonian.

James M. Cain was a reporter at the time of this trial. He wasn't covering it, but it was big news at the time. (Who did cover it? Mary Roberts Rinehart, D.W. Griffith, and Damon Runyan). When he wrote his novella, Double Indemnity, he interviewed some insurance agents in L.A. One told him,  "All the big crime mysteries in this country are locked up in insurance company files, and the writer that gets wise to that...is going to make himself rich."

Money: Y U No Grow on Trees
Guess I'll keep the day job.
Until the whole money tree thing happens.
So, not only did I find this incredible quote and this wacked-out story, I now have an idea for a short story of my own. And I got it because of my day job. 

Serendipitous, yes? 

The lesson here is that no matter how unrelated your day job seems, if you're a writer, it's feeding your brain. It's feeding your bank account. It's putting ideas and experiences in front of you that you might not have otherwise. Process them, and then use them in the work you want to do.

Monday, September 2, 2013

5 Lessons Writers Can Learn from Pancho and Lefty

5 Lessons Writers Can Learn from Pancho and Lefty
I grew up on country music. This was the late '70s and early '80s, so we're talking real country. Outlaw country.

Country that would duct-tape Taylor Swift's mouth shut, take away all Brantley Gilbert's jewelry, and tell Keith Urban that rehab is for quitters.

One of my all-time favorite songs is "Pancho and Lefty," made famous by Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard. It's a story song, written by Townes Van Zandt. I still hang on every word like there's a secret nugget of truth waiting to be discovered.

How is there so much embedded in one sub-five-minute song? Have a listen and we'll find out.

Now, how can writers learn to tell a story so simply, with so much depth? Let's take a look.

1. A first-person narrator telling a story about someone else can be really effective.

No less a writer than Jonathan Franzen tells us that we should write in third person. This is one of those "establishment" rules for serious literary works. The reasoning? Third person is more remote (read: mysterious), which makes the reader work harder. It's also less limiting if you want to explore multiple characters. Plus, you get to create both the narrator's persona and your main character's (note: these are NOT the same thing).

"Pancho and Lefty" doesn't follow the third-person rule. It has a first-person narrator; however, the narrator isn't the subject of the song. This accomplishes two things:
Merle Haggard Has More Country in One Butt Cheek than Brantley, Luke, Tim, and Jason Put Together
True story.
(1) it creates immediacy with the use of the "I" voice, which is why many writers use first-person voice
(2) it generates mystery since the "I" voice isn't the subject of the song.

Our narrator probably knows Pancho and Lefty, and might have witnessed the events in the song. But we don't know. (Mystery? Check.) Our narrator says, "Livin' on the road, my friend, is gonna keep you free and clean." Who is the "friend"? Is it the generic use of "friend" that he's using to tell a campfire story? Or is he singing to an actual friend, maybe Lefty himself, after the events of the song? The narrator holds himself back from us, not making this clear. (Remote? Check.)

2. The right similes can set a tone without a single adjective.

In the first verse, we get two similes in a one-two punch: "Now you wear your skin like iron / Your breath as hard as kerosene."

Think about that. What does it mean to wear skin like iron? It means you think you're invincible. You think you can take a licking and keep on ticking. Or it means you've hardened yourself to the outside world so it can't reach you, no matter how hard it tries. (Unless you rust...that would suck.)  Each of these meanings make the simile richer. And here's the kicker: who is the singer talking to? Who wears his skin like iron? A man listening to the story? Lefty? Is he talking about himself in some weird reflective way? We don't know. But we do know this song is going to be about a mysterious bad-ass. This simile sets a mood, which is what all good storytellers must do.

And what the hell does it mean to have breath as hard as kerosene? Kerosene's a liquid. Liquid, by definition, isn't hard. Or is he referring to its scent, its noxious fumes? Those things are gases, which also by definition, are not hard. We're taking a trip through the three stages of matter here, just working on an interpretation of a single simile. Using "hard" to describe something that isn't hard works well here, especially following on the heels of the "skin like iron" simile. Skin is not like iron, and breath is not hard. But isn't that so much more effective than saying, "This is a song about some hardened criminals?"

3. Using action as a form of characterization works really well.

Also a true story.
It's pretty boring when someone says, "John was a good man" or "John was a bad man." What does "good" or "bad" mean? These aren't absolutes, especially in fiction. It's far more effective to say, "John rescued the cat in the tree because it belonged to the little girl down the block" or "John skinned the neighbor's cat in retribution for the loud party three nights back." This lets the reader place John appropriately on the scale of goodness and badness.

That's what our narrator is doing in this song. Pancho "wore his gun outside his pants / For all the honest world to feel."  I think "feel" should be "fear" here, but that's just me. In any case, the narrator isn't saying, "Pancho was really good at shooting people" or "Pancho had a death wish." No. He's telling us something about Pancho that's revealed through his action. What does it mean to wear a gun outside one's pants? Several things: Pancho means business. Pancho isn't afraid of conflict. Pancho is confident in his abilities. Pancho wants you to stay the fuck out of his way. So simple, yet so effective.

Lefty gets the same kind of characterization in the beginning of the next verse. "Lefty he can't sing the blues / all night long like he used to / The dust that Pancho bit down south / ended up in Lefty's mouth."

That's a powerful way of saying, "Lefty feels like shit for the role he played in Pancho's death." Instead of using the most obvious word on the planet ("guilt"), the narrator ties Lefty to Pancho's death using setting and figurative language. Lefty doesn't have a literal mouthful of dirt. But he's carrying a crap-ton of baggage that has to do with Pancho's death, so much baggage that he can't even sing anymore. We're left to wonder...is that how Lefty earns a living? Is he so broken up over his buddy's death that can't earn a living? This image conveys emotion and suggests conflict in a few simple words. Damn.

4. Be specific with names and places.

There's a beautiful juxtaposition in this song between the vagueness of the story itself and the concrete setting. We don't know who the narrator is. We don't know if he's talking to Lefty or about him. We don't know for sure what went down between Pancho and Lefty (although we can guess). But we do know Pancho died in Mexico. And we know Lefty "split for Ohio." Later, we get more detail: Cleveland's cold. Even here, we have layers. No shit, Cleveland is cold. The average temperature in January is about 28 degrees Fahrenheit. But is it also cold because Lefty lacks Pancho's companionship?

What I love here is the specificity of "Cleveland." Lefty didn't go "out west" or "down south." There's something so much more pathetic about him shacking up in Cleveland, a non-glamorous city that's stuck between the midwest and the east. With all apologies to Cleveland, perhaps the idea here is Lefty's in nowheresville. But rather than say it, the narrator uses a specific place that plants that idea in our heads.

5. Leave a little (or a lot) to the reader's imagination.

Ryan Gosling meme: Hey Girl, I'm Starting to Like Country Music
Probably not a true story.
One of the best parts of this song is its mystery. The narrator doesn't tell us exactly what happened. How did the Federales finally get Pancho? Why did Lefty split on the day he died, with a mysterious sum of money? Did Lefty sell Pancho out? Probably. Why did Lefty do it? We have no idea. A secret dream of making it big as a singer someday? The need to get out of a life of crime? Why didn't he have the balls to say, "Hey, Pancho, I'm gonna hang up the old gun belt now and start singing showtunes for tips. You're cool with that, right?" Is it really a commentary on friendship, on weakness of character, or misguided loyalty? Or all these things? Or none of them?

We don't know, and that's the way it should be. That's why this song needs a narrator who isn't Pancho or Lefty. That's why it's so much more powerful when we hear about Lefty's inability to sing anymore. That's why it's still moving at the end of the song, when not only Lefty but the Federales are old and gray. Everyone involved still remembers, still feels bad, still has some regrets. It's that important to them. And now it's that important to me, because I've just written 1,500 damn words about an old-ass country song.  

Sunday, July 28, 2013

10 Round Gothic Novel Smackdown: Susanna Kearsley vs. Barbara Michaels

10 Round Gothic Novel Smackdown: Susanna Kearsley vs. Barbara Michaels
I love Gothics. I can't help it.

Literary types will wrinkle their noses, but they fulfill a vital purpose in a young girl's reading life: wish fulfillment and escapism. I might not be young anymore, but my head can still be turned by a book description with words like "windswept shores," "unsolved mystery," and "buried secrets."

That's why I snapped up Susanna Kearsley's The Shadowy Horses when Amazon offered the Kindle version for $1.99. But instead of describing all the ways Kearsley's book missed its mark, I decided to compare it to a book called The Sea King's Daughter by an author who has the Gothic style mastered: Barbara Michaels.

Let's take a look at the ways each book delivered or failed to deliver on the promises that are implicit in a good Gothic novel. We have Kearsley in blue trunks and the Michaels in red trunks.

Round 1: Young, pretty, usually naive heroine.

The Shadowy Horses by Susanna KearsleyKearsley: Check (mostly). Verity Grey is an archaeologist who works for the British Museum. She has academic and professional chops, yet still comes across as younger and less experienced than the other archaeologists in the novel. Most, if not all, of the male characters reference how pretty she is, including a ghost and a small boy. This actually gets kind of irritating after awhile.

Bonus: Does the heroine's name have special significance? Yes. "Verity" means "truth." Verity's employer refers to this when asking Verity for her opinion, saying he'd believe her over other less-than-truthful characters.

The Sea King's Daughter by Barbara Michaels
Michaels: Check. Sandy Bishop is a college student who, although she's a great swimmer and diver, isn't a professional treasure hunter. She and her stepfather discovered a Spanish galleon sunk off the Florida coast, but the conditions were such that amateur divers could make the discovery without specialized equipment. Now, her estranged archaeologist father has asked her to come help search for Minoan treasure in Greece. Her naivety comes without question; Sandy is going to college to become a PE teacher, for heaven's sake.

Bonus: Does the heroine's name have special significance? Yes. The very first line of the book is, "Don't call me Ariadne. That's not my name anymore." Sandy's real name is that of a Minoan princess who betrayed her father, Minos, to escape with Theseus after he kills the Minotaur. Unfortunately for Ariadne, Theseus ditches her not long after this. During the course of the book, Sandy finds disturbing similarities between herself and the mythological Ariadne.

Why does this matter in a Gothic novel? Part of the fun of reading a Gothic is seeing how the character fails to see the warning signs of a dangerous situation unfolding around her. She needs to be trusting so she can fall for a dashing but dangerous love interest (see point 3 below). Also, she needs to have somewhere to go in terms of character development. We have to see her getting smarter and being changed by her experiences as the book develops.

Who wins the round?  It's a tie. Verity has special knowledge, while Sandy has a special skill. Verity has made bad relationship choices, Sandy makes some bad choices period. Both heroines are likable, but Sandy stands up for herself a bit more convincingly. Overall, though, there's not a clear edge for either author.

Round 2:  Interesting location in which the heroine feels out of place.

Kearsley: Check. Verity travels to Eyemouth, Scotland, a cold and dreary place that's a far cry from the London hustle and bustle she's used to. She can barely understand the thick Scottish accent, and is constantly having to look words up in a Scots dictionary. It's easy for the reader to picture the generic kind of windswept moors described in so many Gothic novels, but Kearsley adds a great deal of description to help you get a more accurate mental picture of local geography, festivals, and traditions. There are points, however, where the book feels like a travelogue as much as a narrative.

Eyemouth, Scotland.
Image by Flickr user David Farrer.
Used with Creative Commons license.

Bonus: Do you experience a local festival? Yes. Verity and her love interest, Davy Fortune, attend the crowning of the Herring Queen. The problem with this is that nothing really happens except the festival. I kept waiting for some dangerous incident to occur, but all they did was wander around and remark on how they couldn't wait to make out later. The festival itself wasn't integral to anything that was said or done during that scene. This is bad. Writers: if you're going to indulge in local color, it MUST tie into the plot.

Michaels: Check. Sandy travels to Thera, a Greek volcanic island that was once a stronghold of the Minoans. There's a far more serious language barrier here since Sandy doesn't speak, write, or read Greek. You get a lot of description in this novel, too, but it doesn't weigh down the story like Kearsley's does. The landscape also clearly pertains to the plot since Sandy is helping her archaeologist father look for the remains of Minoan treasure in the island's volcanic caldera.
Thera, Greece.
Image by Flickr user The Philly Lambs.
Used with Creative Commons license. 

Bonus: Do you experience a local festival? Yes. Sandy witnesses a ritual in which the women of the village carry a saint's image around the town to bless the houses and fields. Michaels does it right by showing the village women making way for one other mysterious woman who comes down from her cliffside villa to attend the festival. Obviously important and held apart from the local peasant women, we take note because the other characters do, too. As Sandy's father joins her, he catches sight of the mysterious woman...and promptly freaks out, fleeing the scene. This WTF moment helps break open the subplot that has to do with the goings-on of the previous generation.

Why does this matter in a Gothic novel?  Part of the fun of a Gothic is escapism combined with wish fulfillment. If you're a bored housewife in Lincoln, Nebraska or a lonely single girl in Bakersfield, California, you'd probably rather read about moors or desert sands or even Asiatic steppes than, say, Chicago. Both Greece and Scotland qualify as exotic locales that pique my interest. Also, Gothics need to take place in an isolated location so the characters have a hard time leaving or running away when the scary shit starts to go down.

Who wins the round? It's another tie. Both books feature an archaeological mystery that's intricately tied to their settings. Both are described so that you feel you're there. Kearsley's descriptions pall after awhile, but they're more lush in general than Michaels, so there's no clear winner.

Round 3: Dashing but dangerous love interest.

Kearsley: In this corner, we have David (Davy) Fortune. That name is so awesome I'm jealous I didn't think of it first. In terms of description, David is tall, broad-shouldered, handsome, dark-haired...a veritable Scottish Heathcliff who actually wears a kilt in one scene. Visually, Kearsley is on track for the win.

However, poor Davy comes up short in the "dangerous" category.  Every good Gothic heroine needs to think that her handsome, stalwart man might also be the bad guy who's trying to scare her away from her goal. Otherwise, where's the fun in that? The relationship needs challenges. In a romance novel, those challenges are usually communication issues or personality flaws in the hero and heroine.  In a Gothic, those challenges need to be based on danger and uncertainty.  The hero needs to walk that fine line between smokin' hot and holy-crap-this-guy-might-be-trying-to-kill-me. Unfortunately, the relationship between Verity and Davy had no challenges whatsoever. It also had very little heat.  A fifth-grader could read this book without getting any untoward ideas.

Michaels: In this corner, we have Jim Sanchez. He's also tall and broad and handsome, with a healthy tan from working outdoors. He doesn't always button his shirt all the way, which is good for Sandy, but also fits with his character. It's hot as hell in Greece in the summer and he's an archaeologist. Plus, this book was written in 1975, when Burt Reynolds and Tom Selleck did this sort of shit all the time.

The "danger" category is also a little light for Jim. However, on a strict one-to-one comparison with David Fortune, Jim takes the cake. At one point, he tells Sandy he'll do anything he can to stop her from diving and looking for Minoan treasure. Of course, he camouflages any nefarious intent by claiming it's for her own safety, but the reader understands there's potential menace there. Also, Jim offers to go swimming with Sandy every day, ditching work to do so. This comes off not as chivalrous, but as creepy. He just wants to be there if and when she discovers something.  This adds to Jim's vague sense of menace. Again, it's not much, but it's more than Davy Fortune gets.

Why does this matter in a Gothic novel? It all goes back to escapism. Women readers want to meet a man they'd fall in love with on the page. That love needs to be tested.  So if they think that handsome devil might actually be a devil, it makes it all the more delicious when the heroine (and the reader) still can't resist his charm and good looks.

Who wins the round?  Michaels.  If it were based on name choice alone, it'd be Kearsley by a landslide. But David Fortune is never menacing in the way a good Gothic hero needs to be.

Round 4: A nurturing father figure.

Kearsley:  Check. It's eccentric millionaire and maligned archaeologist Peter Quinnell, who has spent most of his life looking for the lost Ninth Roman Legion, which disappeared somewhere near Eyemouth. Quinnell is handsome and charming, but most of his colleagues think he's also batshit crazy. Verity starts out thinking he might be nuts, but realizes he misses very little and actually is one of the sharpest guys around.  He's kind to Verity, puts her up in his mansion, really likes cats, and is free with his liquor. I like the guy already.

Michaels:  We have several candidates here.  You could argue that this figure is:
  • Frederick, Sandy's abrasive professor father. He's rude and self-centered, he is teaching her about archaeology and gets really surly when she and Jim are together.  
  • Sir Christopher, an archaeologist digging on the other side of the island. He's antagonistic toward Frederick and takes an interest in Sandy, offering her money so she can get the hell out of Dodge, as well as a job next summer.  
  • Jurgen, a mysterious German colonel who figures heavily in the second half of the novel. At several key points, he seems to be warning Sandy and protecting her against the machinations of his own lover, Kore.  
Why does this matter in a Gothic novel?  For some reason, Gothics usually have nurturing father figures and menacing mother figures. It's all a part of isolating the heroine. You can't give the heroine a dependable best friend or an older female mentor, because then they could help her see past her own naivete. Uh-uh. Not in a Gothic. She can have a kindly older male caretaker or mentor, but when it comes to matters of the heart, this person has to remain clueless.  This is why an older, grandfather-type plays well in these kinds of stories.

Who wins the round?  It's a tie. None of Michaels's characters fit the bill as well as Peter Quinnell does for the Kearsley book, but at the same time, the Michaels story is richer because each of these characters brings a piece of the "father figure" mythology.  

Round 5: A mysterious and menacing older female figure.

Mrs. Danvers from Rebecca is the OG
when it comes to the menacing older
female character in Gothic novels.
Kearsley: There's a menacing and vaguely mysterious female figure, all right, but she's younger instead of older. Her name is Fabia, and she's Peter's granddaughter. She's not a professional archaeologist like Verity--she's just lending a hand for her grandfather. She stays out late, dislikes Verity, and has it out for Peter because she feels Peter loved archaeology more than Fabia's father (Peter's son). Verity never quite trusts her, which is smart. However, Fabia doesn't do any of the traditional menacing things, like tell the heroine, "You need to leave for your own good or bad things will happen to you."  Although Fabia does pose a danger late in the novel, by then, it's really hard to give a crap.

Michaels: We've already mentioned Kore, the strangely alluring older woman who comes to the village festival and freaks everyone out. She's actually the mistress of a mysterious German colonel who lives in a fancy villa up on a cliff above the village. She is not German, however; she is Greek. This brings up a lot of loyalty issues for the older village folk, for whom World War II wasn't that long ago. As the book goes on, Kore gets more and more mysterious. At one point, she walks straight up to Sandy and warns her to get lost. What does she know that Sandy doesn't? Later in the book, Kore takes care of Sandy after an accident. She chants, goes into trances, watches Sandy while she's sleeping, and lets weird guests into the villa during the middle of the night. Yes, this qualifies as menacing and mysterious.

Why does this matter in a Gothic novel?  The menacing female is very important. You have to fight fair, and as a writer, it's a little unfair to pit a big, strong man against a tiny, seemingly defenseless female. It's fine to hint that the big, strong man is out to get her, but usually, the villain or villain's assistant is a woman. This way, it's a fair fight when the heroine gets to take her down. Plus, it's very traumatizing for a woman to read about a woman being victimized by another woman. We're used to reading about glass ceilings or horrible male bosses or terrorists/kidnappers who are male. But when our heroine is put down or led astray by a fellow woman? That's disturbing on so many levels.  After all, as Madeline Albright said,
"There is a special place in hell for women who don't help other women."

Who wins the round? Michaels. Fabia, Kearsley's antagonistic character, never really gets up to much menace until it's too late to care. Kore gets kind of annoying toward the end of the Michaels book, but I'd take annoying and mysterious over Fabia's annoying and...just annoying.

Round 6: Incidents of danger that warn the heroine away from her current course of action.

Kearsley: Nope. Not even close. There's no actual villain, violence, or conflict for most of the novel. (Note to Kearsley: Are you kidding me?) This is what irritated me most about the book.  A couple times, objects sort of move around, presumably at the hand of a ghost.  But although the Sentinel is creepy, this ghostly Roman soldier never harms anyone. Most of the characters never even interact with him.

In addition, there are no accidents sabotaging the dig, no one warning the archaeologists to stop looking for the Ninth Legion or else, nothing remotely sinister. No one wants to steal the treasure, stop the excavation, or harm any of the participants. Mostly it just rains and people stop work to go inside, pet cats, and get drunk. Not a single character's physical safety is endangered until the final chapter, when the ridiculous climax and denouement occur. This makes for a pretty boring read, especially in a book that seems to hew so closely to many other Gothic tropes. One character, whose fey son can see and talk to the ghost, tells Verity to stop using the boy to communicate with the ghost, but there's no hint of the "or else" that every good Gothic needs. Writers, you can't build a strong plot without conflict and an antagonist. I can't believe the Kearsley book was such an epic fail on this account.

Michaels: Check. We've got spies, rockslides, booby traps, errant gunshots, a kidnapping disguised as a rescue, drugging, and more. There are a buttload of reasons why Sandy needs to say sayonara to her father's dig, but in traditional Gothic fashion, she stays.

Why does this matter in a Gothic novel? The stakes have got to increase as the book goes on. Verbal warnings can only go so far. The villain needs to do things that make the heroine fear for her life. This not only makes it more interesting for the reader, but it also gives the heroine a chance to show her mettle.  Unless she's tested, how will she develop as a character?

Who wins the round? Michaels. No contest.

Round 7: Events that seem to be supernatural.

Kearsley: This started out well. There's a ghostly Roman soldier haunting the dig site. He's called the Sentinel, and seems vaguely menacing. The only person who can see him or hear him is a little boy, Robbie, the son of Peter Quinnell's housekeeper.  Robbie is a little disturbed by some of the encounters with the ghost, and there's one creepy scene where Verity feels the ghost near her in her office. But for the most part, the ghost is benign. In fact, the ghost's true intentions are revealed a little too early, if you ask me. Overall, the supernatural peters out without providing much more than a bit of atmosphere and a hint of conflict for the ghost whispering boy's father, who thinks he and his son are being used by the uppity archaeologists.

Michaels: This started out well, too. Sandy, who has never been to Greece, starts having weird living daydreams where she knows she's been to some of these places before. She sees an artifact in a Greek museum and knows its purpose, sees herself using it in the past. There's some mysterious connection between Sandy, her father, the legends of Atlantis, and the destruction of Crete. There's also a local female-based cult that mixes elements of Christianity with earlier pagan beliefs, including the idea of ritual sacrifice. Although all of these elements seem like they should be tied together, they don't really coalesce in the end. In the first part of the novel, Sandy's seeming past-life experiences play a large role. They don't in the second, and the novel ends with a weak return to them that doesn't really explain anything. Writers, if you can't explain something that seems supernatural, don't include it. Tie it to your plot, provide hard details of how it's happening, or forget about it.

Why does this matter in a Gothic novel? It makes shit interesting. Again, it's all about upping the ante and giving the heroine more than she can handle. Not only does she need to sort out her feelings for the hero and deal with the antagonistic female in her life, but now she's supposed to deal with ghosts? Jesus, our heroine says. Give a girl a break.  But we can't, because that's how books work.

Who wins the round? It's kind of a fail-tie. Both authors introduce supernatural elements that aren't really explained and tied to the on-the-ground events well enough.

Now, there are a few characteristics of both books that aren't necessarily de rigeur for Gothics, but that merit additional comparison:

Round 8: An archaeological mystery.
19/365+1 What did the Romans ever do for us?
Plaque on the spot where the Ninth
fled Boudicca's army in 61 AD.
Image by Flickr user Dave Crosby.
Used with Creative Commons license.

Kearsley: Check. The Ninth Roman Legion marched deep into the north of England to subdue the warlike border tribes. They vanished sometime between 108 AD, when they rebuilt the fortress at York, and about 150 AD. They were never heard from again. It's a damn good premise, and made me seek out more information about the historical mystery. The book doesn't really solve the mystery one way or another, which is to be expected based on the set-up. Because the mystery still exists, Peter Quinnell can hardly claim to have found conclusive proof that the Ninth was massacred on the Scottish border (although that's what the book hints at).

Minoan palace at Knossos, Crete
Ruins of the Minoan
palace at Knossos, Crete.
Image by Flickr
user inis22mara.
Used with Creative
Commons license.
Michaels: Legend says that the lost city of Atlantis fell into the sea, somewhere in the Atlantic. But what if Atlantis were really in the Mediterranean? What if the mystical city were really a garbled representation of the fate of the Minoan civilization? A cataclysmic volcanic eruption in about 1500 BC destroyed the Minoan civilization on Crete and Thera, a thousand years before Plato described Atlantis in his writings. Frederick and Sandy are looking for artifacts that might be buried under the water, proving that a magnificent city did fall into the ocean, and that Atlantis can and should be identified with the Minoans.

Who wins the round? Tie. These are both awesome archaeological mysteries to explore. Both authors provide information about the mystery's set-up as well as tidbits that have been uncovered to support or detract from the characters' theories.

Round 9: Nightmares of the heroine.

Kearsley: Verity dreams that she hears horses' hooves pounding the ground outside her window. But no one else hears the horses, and when she finally mentions it, everyone confirms that there are no horses on the grounds that could possibly have made the noises she heard. Ghost horses! Cool, right? Unfortunately, the nightmares don't lead her to any conclusions, and don't really represent anything. Are they supposed to be the ghosts of Roman horses? Do they mean the Ninth is really there, at Eyemouth? Verity doesn't come to either of these conclusions. It's a huge missed opportunity for Kearsley. Plus, it's also the title of the damn book, so you'd think it would mean a little more.

Michaels: Sandy dreams that she's in the Labyrinth with the Minotaur. She watches Theseus follow Ariadne's ball of string to the center of the maze, where he'll face off against the nightmarish creature (half-bull half-man). The dreams are extremely vivid, pretty well done, and creep Sandy out. They cause her to identify with her real name, Ariadne, and make her see the connection between Ariadne and herself: will she betray her father for Jim the way Ariadne betrayed her father, Minos, to run away with Theseus?

Who wins the round? Michaels. The dreams actually tie into the symbolism of her name and the mythology behind it.

Round 10: The sins of the fathers. 

Kearsley: Yes, the doings of the previous generation come back to bite the heroine's generation in the butt. I won't say how, in case you want to read the Kearsley. But there is a secret that leaks, and it leads to the only real incident of physical danger for anyone in the whole book. Still, that being said, the secret isn't really that big deal, and the reveal feels minimal and lame and rushed. Plus, neither the secret nor the reveal has a damn thing to do with the archaeological mystery or the ghost. It's just crap the characters have to sort through.

Michaels: Yes, the doings of the previous generation come back to bite the heroine's generation in the butt. In fact, there's an entire subplot involving Frederick, Sir Christopher, Jim's uncle (a cohort of Frederick and Sir Christopher's), Kore, and Jurgen. Because this book takes place in 1975, the previous generation's escapades took place during World War II and involve the resistance movement against the Nazis on Crete. There's something hinky between Frederick and Kore, and we find out that someone betrayed someone else  to the Nazis all those years ago. Yeah, that's pretty kick-ass.

Who wins the round? Michaels. Come on. Weak drawing room intrigue or a World War II resistance movement?

Okay, after 10 rounds, it's time to crown a winner!

Rounds tied: 5
Rounds to Kearsley: 0
Rounds to Michaels: 5

Now, this isn't to say the Michaels book is perfect. It's not. It has some pretty big flaws in the second half of the book. However, it kicks the crap out of Kearsley's limp, dreary, soggy tale. The winner is Barbara Michaels.

10 Round Gothic Novel Smackdown: Barbara Michaels, Winner