I don’t write fanfiction anymore (no time; too many original projects requiring my writing attention these days–I have FOUR stories in progress right now, three that I’m actively working on and one that’s on hold, and so, so many more just waiting for their turn), but I do still find myself imagining fanfic-type stories just for fun, stories that won’t ever get written down. I was daydreaming this morning about an Emma sequel focusing on Emma’s daughter, and I automatically pegged her as a calm, sensible type, who starts out the story quite content with doing what everyone expects of her, and then her life gets stirred up and turned inside out when romance and excitement come her way without her ever wanting them.
Then I realized, wow, do I have a penchant for writing that sort of character or what? Going through my published books, we have:
Maia Whitney: So practical and sensible I had to rewrite her character several times to keep her from being utterly boring, and is in fact frequently dismissed by her family and even some of her friends as dull.
Pauline Gray: Practical and calm, solves murders because of her strong sense of justice but does not enjoy the excitement of them at all, in fact wishes she could hide away in a library somewhere researching something dull and safe.
Riss Waldon: Falls into a space opera, is immediately determined to enjoy it because what’s the point of an adventure if you spend your whole time panicking and trying to get out of it, continues to act sensibly through the entire thing because she can’t stand irrational behavior.
Going back through my old LMM fanfics, for original characters I have:
Meggie Blythe: starts out as a practical 10yo with a touch of dreaminess, ends as a young wife and mother who is still both practical and dreamy. (I loved Meggie with all my heart, but I can admit that she didn’t really get all that much character growth throughout that series of stories, nor did she have much in the way of flaws.)
Gwen Blake: impulsive and clumsy, but definitely grows throughout her stories into someone more practical and sensible, and always more on the common sense side of personality traits than the dreamy, romantic side. Much more Elinor than Marianne, basically.
Not to mention that the non-OCs I’ve written about are Jane Stuart, Shirley Blythe, and Diana Blythe, all canonically practical and down-to-earth.
Even looking at the short stories I’ve written, they tend heavily toward “ordinary, sensible person gets sucked from a boring, everyday life into adventure and then has to be the only level-headed person when everyone around him/her is mad.”
Which has led me to wonder if I can write a madcap adventurer. But, my creativity rises up in protest, I like sensible people getting dragged against their will into adventure! I don’t want to write about people who want adventure, that’s boring!
Ah well. Maybe someday the pendulum will swing about in the other direction. For now, practical characters it is!
Yesterday was Agatha Christie’s 130th birthday. I wanted to write a tribute to her, but I was already late for the Self-Published Fantasy book recommendation post, and I didn’t want to push it back yet again. So I’m writing my tribute today!
When it comes to fiction authors, there are two who top my personal list for “writing stories that shaped me.” Not necessarily stories that I love the best, though these two are always on that list as well, but stories that have played the largest role in shaping who I am and how I view the world: Lloyd Alexander and Agatha Christie.
They might seem an odd combination, a writer of children’s fantasy stories and a writer of murder mysteries, yet their stories share certain important traits. A passion for truth. The constant struggle to find the appropriate balance between justice and mercy. The need for integrity in every aspect of one’s life. The importance of humility, and what happens when humans lose that.
As well, they share a warm, wry tone, a way of slicing through the deceptions we humans surround ourselves with, seeing the very heart of a person, and then displaying it with love. They both seem to say throughout all their works, “Look at how funny we humans are!”
It is one thing to be able to incisively see humanity without rose-colored glasses; it is one thing again to be able to warmly embrace and love our fellow humans. It is far rarer to be able to see humans as we are, and to recognize the same follies and flaws in one’s own self, to show it without falling into either satire on one side or gush on the other, and to include oneself in that portrayal. Mrs Oliver and Fflewddur Fflam alike are some of the only authorial inserts into a story that really work, and that’s because their creators are as unsparing of their own flaws as they are of others, and as warmly amused by them.
The first Christie book I ever read was The A.B.C. Murders, and it is still one of my all-time favorites. So much so that my husband bought me the gorgeous new hardcover edition for our last Christmas in England, and I adore it.
My mystery reading up to that point had been mostly Hardy Boys and Encyclopedia Brown (I was twelve); I’d been wanting to try Christie for a while but my mom was concerned I might get nightmares. I don’t remember exactly why she decided I was ready, but I remember getting so drawn in, despite the creepiness of the cover (this one), that I couldn’t put it down, and promptly went on to read all the Christies Mom owned, and then pillaged the library for more. The only book I refused to read for years and years was Curtain, because I couldn’t bear to read Poirot’s last case (now I think it’s one of the most brilliant books she wrote).
At twelve, I loved Poirot the most, for his cleverness. In my late teens and early twenties, it was Tommy and Tuppence, for their zest for life and clever banter (more on that in a moment). At this point in my life, I adore Miss Marple, for her keen wits and gentle ruthlessness. I probably identify most with Mrs Oliver, though!
In my mid-twenties, I struggled with finding joy in my writing (that has happened more than once since then; this was the first time, however, such a thing had happened to me). I had written a bog-standard epic fantasy that was, in retrospect, dreadful; I had written a light romance that was also dreadful; I was having fun with LM Montgomery and CS Lewis fanfiction but really wanting to write something of my own, yet not having any sort of ideas or characters. I had one idea, of an eldest sister in a fantasy world turning out to be the one to save the day rather than the traditional fairy tale convention of the eldest sister being the bad one, but I couldn’t gain any traction on it, and then I read Howl’s Moving Castle, and clearly there was no point in me trying that story when Diana Wynne Jones had already perfected it.
Then I picked up a Tommy and Tuppence story to re-read for fun, and slowly, ever so slowly, a few glimmers of light came to me. What if Tommy and Tuppence were in a 1920s England … with magic? Solving magical crimes? Working for a magical intelligence agency? What if I swapped their personalities, so that the Tommy character was the one who worked off impulse and instinct, and the Tuppence character was calm, stolid, and practical?
The mostly-abandoned eldest sister project came back to me at that point and the story started to fill out. What if the practical Tuppence character had two younger sisters? What if her parents were fairly useless and her sisters given to drama and the entire family leaned on her to keep them going? What if she was bored, fed, up, frustrated with being the responsible one, and looking for adventure? What if she suddenly discovered she had the use of magic, and got thrown into this new magical world that existed underneath the real world, and had to partner with this exasperating magical intelligence agent to solve a crime and save the day? What if underneath his flippant exterior the exasperating intelligence agent was kind, thoughtful, and really tired of always having to put on a mask for everyone, and he delighted in the elder sister’s wits? What if they became friends and partners?
I started writing. There were a few false starts, and plenty of difficulties along the way, but eventually all those “what ifs” turned into Magic Most Deadly, a book I chose to self-publish because it was so different from anything else out there at the time I thought no publishing house would look at it. It was my debut novel, and while looking at it now I can see all its rough spots and places where I would now write it differently, I’m still proud and fond of it, as well as of Maia and Len, my two detectives.
I don’t know that I’ll ever achieve a Christie-like insight into human nature, or her ability to turn those insights into characters that live and breathe and sparkle through her stories, but she has given me something to strive for in my own writing, not to mention principles that have stayed with me through all the ups and downs of my own life: the importance and beauty of truth; the need for justice balanced with mercy; the value of humility; the necessity of a good sense of humor no matter what life throws at you.
Thank you, Dame Agatha. May your legacy continue for years and years to come.
A few years back, I had finished a re-read of North and South, by Elizabeth Gaskell, and was pondering on what an unusual protagonist Margaret Hale was. Someone who was quiet and reserved, yet passionate for justice and a fiercely loyal friend. It was her quietness that stood out the most to me. How often do we see a protagonist who is deeply reserved, quiet, and yet never a pushover and rarely passive?
I had already, at that point, been mulling over the possibility of writing a straight-up detective story, no fantastic elements involved at all, and one set in my home town, or at least the region around where I grew up.
My ever-present love for Dorothy L Sayers’ scholarly-minded and ruthlessly honest Harriet Vane combined with my appreciation for Margaret Hale, and behold, I had the start of a new character for a new series: Pauline Gray.
Set in my hometown of Canton, NY, in the 1930s, the series begins with Candles in the Dark. In it, we meet Pauline Gray, a young woman and scholar who graduated from St. Lawrence University with honors and has struggled to find work she considers meaningful ever since. She writes a regular column for a local newspaper and secretly supplements her income by writing cheap adventure novels, something which she is ashamed of, as she considers it an affront to her dreams of writing something that matters.
Into this imperfect but well-ordered life comes a mystery which she feels compelled to solve, because no one else cares or has the ability to pursue it. Even though her instinct is to stay as far away from anything so sordid as murder and anonymous letters as possible, her sense of justice won’t let her indulge such fastidiousness.
In Diamonds to Dust, the second novella, Pauline is a little more ready to jump into a mystery when asked to help, though she still struggles with the ugliness of it all. She has found she takes both intellectual satisfaction as well as moral satisfaction from solving troubles no one else can or will. She would still prefer not to have to write her adventure stories, but so far no better work has turned up. (It might take her a while to get her priorities straight and figure out the true nature of meaningful work.)
I’ve thoroughly enjoyed getting to know Pauline, as well as her friends and neighbors, through these first two novellas. This series combines two wonderful things for me as a writer: a character I find challenging and satisfying to draw, and a setting that reflects an area I know and love well.
I am already working on the next novella in the series, and I have tentative outlines for three more after that. After that, who knows?
“Think how exciting it would be,” went on Tuppence, “if we heard a wild rapping at the door and went to open it and in staggered a dead man.”
“If he was dead he couldn’t stagger,” said Tommy critically.
-Partners in Crime, Agatha Christie.
If you’ve read Glamours and Gunshots, the above passage might ring a faint bell. I open G&G with:
Merry birdsong filled the air on that bright April morning when the dead man stumbled into Aunt Amelia’s front hall.
Technically, he was dying, not dead, else he couldn’t have stumbled anywhere; corpses in general being no longer animate.
Glamours and Gunshots, E.L. Bates
I try not to do too many obvious “Easter Eggs” in my books, since it can be irritating to a reader when an author goes overboard with clever allusions (or allusions that attempt to be clever) to other works. This one, I hoped would be subtle enough to pass without annoyance to anyone, and I had to include a tip of the hat to Tommy and Tuppence–Maia and Len wouldn’t even exist without them.
I’ve shared this before, but it’s been a while–the idea for the story that eventually became Magic Most Deadly sprang from having recently finished reading Patricia C Wrede and Caroline Stevermer’s The Enchanted Chocolate Pot immediately after having read a Tommy and Tuppence book, and wistfully wishing someone would write a Tommy-and-Tuppence-with-magic story.
Being a writer, my very next thought was, “well, if no one else has written it, I guess I’d better,” and voila, the seed took root.
I swapped the personalities around so that Tommy’s steady and cautious nature became Maia’s, while Len had Tuppence’s craving for excitement as well as tendency to act on impulse. As the characters came to life their personalities grew more rounded and took on characteristics of their own, but the initial forming remained at their core.
Today is three weeks since I published Glamours and Gunshots; three more days marks Magic Most Deadly’s fifth birthday. This world and these stories have come a long way from that initial seed, but my appreciation for Tommy and Tuppence has not abated. My opening sentence of G&G was a small, private way for me to show that appreciation.
(PS: there’s also a subtle nod to Dorothy L Sayers in the book–did you spot it? Hint: it’s NOT the conversation Maia and Len have regarding detective stories.)
A brief reminder that reviews for Glamours and Gunshots are most appreciated! So far it has one on Amazon and one on Goodreads, but it needs more than that in order for it to fit into their algorithms and help other readers find it. 50 or more reviews is ideal! I’d settle for making it into double digits.
Have a wonderful weekend, friends! We are one week and one day away from leaving for England, which means my next post will be written on the other side of the pond!
I follow Susan Cooper’s fan page on FB, and when I saw a couple weeks back that she was going to be doing a book signing/reading/talk in Cambridge, MA, I gasped in delight and immediately told my husband we needed to go. After a bit of comic misunderstanding of him thinking I meant “our” Cambridge, Cambridge, England, and trying gently to remind me we didn’t have money or time for unexpected trips across the channel, and me trying to figure out why he thought we needed to plan so far in advance for a town less than an hour’s drive from us, we got it straightened out and scheduled it in our calendars.
It was rich. It honestly would have been worth flying to Cambridge, England to experience it (plus, you know, Cambridge. You wouldn’t have to twist my arm to get me back there; I’ve missed it every day since we returned from our visit last year). She was so full of warmth and wisdom, joy and humor. I couldn’t even think of any questions to ask during the Q&A session; I just wanted to sit and soak in whatever she had to say, from children’s instinctive aligning with the land and nature versus the adult idea of progress, to her anecdote of CS Lewis and Tolkien teaching them at Oxford to believe in dragons, to her advice for helping reluctant writers.
One thing she said that really struck me was when she spoke of how much her writing is all rooted in a sense of place. The best writing, it’s always seemed to me, does have a rootedness in something beyond the immediate story or theme. For Tolkien, it was language (and myth, and Story, and … look, he had a lot going for him). For Lewis, it was the notion of Truth beyond religious packaging. For someone like Lloyd Alexander, I believe it was joy. Madeleine L’Engle’s work was rooted in the idea of names and naming.
What, I mused on the way home, and that night, and the next day, and on into the next week, is my writing rooted in?
Oh, there’s lots of themes that wind their way through my writing. Joy is a big one (there’s a reason LA is my favorite author of all time). The notion of Story is another, most especially Truth as Story. Finding one’s own place is something else that comes in to most of my stories, whether overtly (as in From the Shadows, where it’s pretty much the whole plot), or more subtly (Magic Most Deadly isn’t quite as blatant, nor is Candles in the Dark, but the idea is there with both of them). Still none of those felt quite like the answer.
The answer in fact came to me just a couple days ago, as we were walking through the nearby bird sanctuary. The setting sun shone a golden, warm light on the fields and trees as we made our way back out of the woods, and I found myself stopping to take pictures, just like I always do, despite the fact that I have dozens if not hundreds of photographs of different qualities of light already.
And that’s when it hit me. Light. That’s what my stories are all rooted in. The idea of light. That’s why I write, to be a light. That’s what I most deeply resonate with. This is what my self is rooted in, so of course it is what my writing springs up out of.
Sometimes it’s a warm light. Sometimes it might be a harsher one, even blinding. Sometimes it’s the sun on the water, sometimes a candle in a window. Whatever the type, that’s where my stories are born.
It seems rather fitting that this revelation should be inspired by the woman who wrote an entire series based around the struggle between the Dark and the Light. Even more fitting that one of the books she signed for me was The Dark is Rising, the first book in that series I ever read.
I am grateful.
(Also on that same day we went to hear Susan Cooper speak I got in the mail the edition of FrostFire Worlds containing my short story “A Spot of Orange”! It is available to purchase at the Alban Lake Shop, if anyone is interested in a copy of their own. It was a really good day.)
Today is the last day to get Candles in the Dark for free! It’s had a fantastic opening weekend, THANK YOU to everyone who has bought a copy and/or spread the word. It means so much to me.
The seed for this story was planted last September–I had finished a reread of Elizabeth Gaskell’s “North & South” and was thinking how rare characters like Margaret Hale are in fiction: quiet, strong-willed, filled with integrity, passionate about justice, willing to acknowledge when she’s made a mistake, fiercely loyal, yet still, and I repeat myself here because this is the rarest bit, quiet.
That mixed in with thinking about how fun it would be to read a mystery set in the Adirondacks with a scholarly protagonist along the lines of Harriet Vane. I grew up “in the foothills of the Adirondacks,” as we always described ourselves in Canton and Potsdam, two towns about ten miles apart with four colleges between them. So many mysteries–or indeed, stories in general–set in small towns focus only on the quirkiness of them, a la Gilmore Girls; or else portray the people in them as small as the towns themselves, narrow-minded and blindly prejudiced.
I wanted my story to show my small town as I knew it–warm, welcoming, open, accepting, full of hard-working, real people. I wanted my protagonist to have that same integrity and passion for justice that Margaret Hale had, with the scholarly mind and desire for honesty Harriet Vane shows. I wanted my story to show the real struggles of a rural, northern farming community during the Depression, which were very different from rural farming communities in the south and midwest. Above all, I wanted it to be a story where justice and truth prevailed and light shone in the darkness.
As to how well I succeeded in all those goals, only you, the reader, can tell. Pick up your copy of Candles in the Dark today, for free, and let me know what you think in a review!
The old Grist Mill I based Wharton’s Mill on, situated on the beautiful Grasse River.
This photo essay shows a little bit more of the Canton I know and love as it is today. It is indeed a beautiful little village!
I recently finished a re-read of Andrea K Höst’s Touchstone series (I almost wrote trilogy, but since she’s added two books to the original three I think it’s definitely a series now), and am currently reading Melissa McShane’s “The Summoned Mage,” which is a fantasy written in journal format (I’m about halfway through and enjoying it so far), and both are reminding me of the experience of writing From the Shadows.
I don’t generally write even in first person, so writing FTS was a new experience for me in a lot of ways–first person, journal format, and oh yeah, my first time writing science fiction. It was also the first time I wrote a novella and then stretched it out into a novel (a short novel, but a novel nonetheless).
Journal format is interesting, because it lets you inhabit your main POV character in a way even first person doesn’t. It feels very real, and I know FTS felt far more personal to me when it was finished than Magic Most Deadly or any of my other (non-published) novels. Even though Riss wasn’t me (yes, we have a lot in common, but this was not a thinly-disguised autobiography), by the end I had almost become her, so to speak. Which sounds a whole lot creepier than I intended.
It’s also a challenge to write in journal format without making it sound too tedious or ridiculous–nobody actually writes in a diary or journal the way we have to do it in a novel, reporting conversations in dialogue and giving background information and the like. So the author either has to ignore that and hope the readers can suspend disbelief enough to enjoy the story, or else give a reason for why everything is written the way it is. I went the route of “someday this might become historical record and I might become the official recorder for this journey so I’m going to start organizing my entries that way now,” and I think it worked pretty well, though there obviously still has to be some suspension of disbelief on the part of the reader. However, since FTS started with time travel and involved aliens, faster-than-light travel on spaceships, and a future earth where humans live in harmony with nature, the story format was not likely going to be the thing a reader got hung up on (though I will say I did MOUNDS of research so as to make all those things, if not believable, at least as easy-to-accept-and-move-on as possible. It involved a lot of conversations about physics with my engineer husband, also, weirdly enough, conversations about infrastructure).
The biggest difficulty for me with using the journal format for FTS is thinking about replicating it in any possible sequels (not that there’s been a great call for sequels, as the book has a pretty small readership as of this point, but you never know). For Riss, her journal was her safe place to express her feelings. By the end of the book (this is spoiler-ish but only in terms of character development, so I think it’s safe to continue even if you haven’t read the book) she had gotten to the place where she doesn’t need to rely on it anymore. So why would she pick it back up? Another historical record-type thing? (Like in the Cecy & Kate books?) Because she decides she likes the act of writing down her experiences, even though she doesn’t need it in the same way? I don’t want her to go backward in character development, that’s one thing I loathe in a series, where each book starts with the main character somehow back to where he or she had been at the start of the previous book, and all that character development in said book is wiped out (or in TV shows, where that sort of thing is all too common).
Or would it be possible to write any future books in straight first person, not as a journal? Or even in third person? I’ve written a few short stories* set in the FTS world, and in all of them, including the Riss-centric ones, I use third person. Which works for a short story, but I’m not sure if it would be too jarring in a novel. Megan Whalen Turner might be able to get away with switching POV characters and bouncing from first to third POV (and back again), but hoo boy, I don’t know if I’ll ever reach her level of prose mastery.
So I don’t know–I don’t know that I’ll ever write another story in the FTS world, or if I’ll ever write another story in journal format. I am, however, deeply grateful for the experience of having done it once, and reading the stories that I am right now are making me smile as I remember the experience. I loved that world, and those characters (I think I might have to do another post sometime soon on how the story and the characters developed), and I know working on it made me a better writer overall, no matter if I never use that style again. I can’t give much higher praise than that.
*I have written six short stories revolving around the FTS characters at different points in their lives, but I haven’t yet figured out what to do with them. Offer them up as freebies here on the blog? Publish them together as a FTS short story collection? Release a second edition of FTS with one or two of the stories included at the end? I’m still undecided, but once I’ve made up my mind, I’ll let you all know.