I said to my critique partner this morning, The whole project is stinky it stinks it’s fatally flawed just nothing no hope.
She said, But Chapter 13 is so good so funny Molly is so funny it’s not stinky.
I said, Yes, the first part of chapter 13 and the last part of chapter 13 are funny and very very good but there’s still no middle of chapter 13 and what there is stinks and anyway the other 47,000 words stink except for a few hundred here and there.
And she said, But the middle could be revised and edited it has promise.
I said, But it won’t work because I have written myself into a hole and can’t get out so I have to trash that part and anyway the whole concept stinks.
And she said, NO you can fix it just keep going because I like Molly she’s so funny.
And that is why I go to critique group every blessed week.
Writing is a solitary activity, but most of writing isn’t writing. It’s rewriting, rewriting, and rewriting. And then it’s revising and revising. And editing editing editing. And rewriting again. And . . .
Sometimes it’s whingeing and complaining and eating peanut butter out of the jar with a spoon and buying larger clothes and telling Molly she’s a heartless ***** who doesn’t deserve one paragraph of her own, much less a whole book.
And it’s feeling like a fraud when you tell people you’re a writer and deciding you’d be happier if you gave up and dedicated yourself to French cookery or tatting or riding a unicycle.
But if you’re lucky, it’s also going to critique group and then going home and writing and writing and writing and . . .
Here’s the way Austin Mystery Writers work: We email first drafts, revised drafts, or final (almost) drafts, depending on where we are in the process.
We read all the week’s submissions, then sit around a table–or on one side of a table in front of a monitor displaying partners in little Zoom squares–and talk about what each member has written.
Criticism here doesn’t mean trashing. It means that each member points out what the writer has done well and what she might have done better. Sometimes we suggest examples of better–the “experts” say that’s not proper, but it works for us–and sometimes we simply say what we think doesn’t work so well without elaborating. Sometimes we disagree; one person doesn’t like a word or sentence or paragraph, while another thinks it’s fine. Sometimes we all chime in and discuss ideas.
Then we say, “Thank you.”
Because we’ve become friends during our association, we can say what we think and appreciate what the others say.
We encourage one another.
We also laugh a lot.
Because of AMW, I’ve published short stories and co-written one novella.
Because of AMW, I’ve become a better writer.
I posted “Why I Go to Critique Group” (one time I titled it “Why I Go to Critique Group and Can’t Afford Not To”) on my personal blog on July 9, 2010, when Gale Albright and I were members of the two-person Just for the Hell of It Writers, which was soon swallowed up by Austin Mystery Writers (a consummation devoutly to be wished).
I periodically pull the piece out and repost it.
Because it’s important.
Has anyone noticed that the em dash (—) in my posts looks like an en dash (–)? I can’t help it. Sometimes I find an em dash on a grammar website (like now) and copy and paste into my post, but right now I’m just not in the mood. But I’d like picky readers, like myself, to know that I’m aware of the error and wish the platform would correct it,
Kathy Waller posts on her personal blog, Telling the Truth, Mainly, http://kathywaller1.com. She’s published the works pictured above, the first three with Wildside Press, the last, co-written with Manning Wolfe, by Starpath. She has finally decided the ancient pre-published book is not stinky and has hopes of finishing it one day. If her critique partners agree.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote 60 mystery stories featuring the man who quickly became the favorite fictional super-detective of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Sherlock Holmes, but in his years as a medical student, Doyle’s first efforts were short stories.
The Mystery of Sasassa Valley was an adventure of two young men and a reported ghost that scares off the natives in South Africa.
In TheAmerican’s Tale, A quarrel between an Englishman, and a ‘Yankee’ in a bar, results in Jefferson Adams, an American in England, telling a strange story set in Montana involving Joe “Alabama” Hawkins, who’d “been captured and killed by a giant Venus flytrap in the gulch.” One might view these as early prequels to the mysteries fomenting in Doyle’s mind.
While most readers have read at least one or two of Doyle’s creations, it is in the first two that we get a real sense of both Holmes and Watson, beginning with A Study in Scarlet. Written in 1887, Doyle was a practicing doctor and botanist, which provided him with in-depth knowledge of plant poisons, anatomy, and physiology.
The story begins with the narrator, Dr. John Watson, an ex-military man returning to London from the British war in Afghanistan, suffering from war wounds and in ill health. Unable to afford the hotel rates, he expresses his hope of finding rooms at a reasonable rate to a casual acquaintance known to the reader as Stanford. The latter then introduces him to Holmes, but first warns Watson that this gentleman, Holmes, also seeking a roommate to share expenses, is somewhat difficult.
The reader meets Holmes for the first time along with Watson, and appropriately, in a laboratory. The two men hit it off immediately and become roommates at 221B Baker Street, where they must accommodate one another’s needs, quirks, and habits.
Holmes’s peculiarities begin to disturb Watson. At first, the doctor is merely curious about some of Holmes’s idiosyncrasies. As he gets to know the crime solver, he’s appalled at Holmes’s ignorance of so many areas of education, politics, the arts, and other subjects in which gentlemen should be educated. Watson is shocked by Holmes’s rationale for why it wasn’t essential. Further, Holmes’s expertise in crimes and criminals is all-consuming, which Watson finds bizarre. Holmes’s peculiarities begin to disturb Watson. At first, the doctor is merely curious about some of Holmes’s characteristics. As he gets to know the crime solver, he’s shocked at Holmes’s ignorance in so many areas of education, politics, the arts, and other subjects in which gentlemen should be educated. Furthermore, Holmes’s expertise in crimes and criminals is all-consuming, which Watson finds bizarre.
The good doctor is frustrated by what he thinks must be trickery for Holmes’s uncanny ability to guess so accurately. It is when Holmes is asked by detectives Lestrade and Gregson to help with a mysterious case, and Watson is invited to go along, that the doctor’s opinions change.
In the Lauriston Garden Mystery, a man is found dead in an empty house. The deceased has no wounds, yet there is a message in blood scrawled on the wall. In time, Holmes dubs this case A Study in Scarlet, reflecting “the scarlet thread of murder running through the colorless skein of life…” Holmes unravels the case, and with each deduction, Watson develops a grudging admiration that evolves into genuine esteem and respect for the detective’s extraordinary powers of observation.
At the end of part one, the murder is solved, but the tale isn’t over. Doyle takes the reader to The United States for the backstory, explaining the details of the case, and why it ends in London.
In the second novel, The Sign of Four, Holmes and his sidekick, Watson, who has become Holmes’s internal voice to the reader, are drawn into a new mystery.
Miss Mary Morstan arrives at Baker Street to ask for Holmes’s help in solving the mystery of her missing father and a mysterious annual and anonymous gift of pearls. But now, she has received a letter asking to meet an unknown person that evening and is afraid to go alone. Holmes, of course, takes the case, and the adventure is on.
In The Sign of Four, the reader can discern many of Doyle’s personal experiences in the military as told through Watson’s narrative, as the detective tracks a hidden treasure and a murderer. In this story, the reader understands John Watson’s life and desires, and Holmes’s drug use is addressed directly.
Doyle wrote two volumes worth of stories about Holmes and Watson, and it’s interesting to know that he often felt he was slogging through the work of continuing the character he’d created. In 1891, he threatened to kill off the now-famous Sherlock Holmes, but his mother, the woman who inspired his imagination, was furious. And, of course, Conan Doyle did no such thing. Instead, he pressed the financial success of his books, urging publishers to pay more for his Holmes stories, which they did.
In his biography, Doyle admits the influence of his mother in his early childhood, “as far as I can remember anything at all, the vivid stories she would tell me stand out so clearly that they obscure the real facts of my life.” And the facts were not happy ones.
Though well respected in the art world, Doyle’s father was an alcoholic with little impact on his son. At the age of nine, Arthur was shipped off to boarding school in England to Hodder Place, then Stonyhurst, a Jesuit prep school, where he was bullied and ridiculed by his peers and feared ruthless corporal punishment by the Jesuits. It was his ability to hide in his fantasies that got him through.
After graduating from Stonyhurst College in 1876, Doyle pursued a medical degree at the University of Edinburgh. There, he met his mentor Dr. Joseph Bell, whose very keen powers of observation inspired the Holmes character.
While struggling to make his name as a writer, he married Louisa Hawkins, with whom he had a son and a daughter. In 1893, Louisa was diagnosed with TB, and after her death, Doyle married Jean Leckie, with whom he had two more sons and another daughter.
In addition to his medical practice, which he gave up when the writing became successful, Conan Doyle took it upon himself to visit South Africa after the Boar war to investigate and defend his nation against charges of war crimes. He wrote a “pamphlet” of 60,000 words entitled The War in South Africa, Its Causes and Conduct, which the Crown found enlightening. In 1902 and 1903, Arthur Conan Doyle was knighted—twice for his service to the Crown.
However, through his adult years, there was the thread of spiritualism, and he believed it was “the most important thing in the world.” Later in his life, he was diagnosed with a heart condition, but that didn’t stop him from making a spiritualism tour through the Netherlands. When he returned home, his chest pains were so severe that he was almost completely bedridden until he died in 1930.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle collapsed and died in his garden, clutching his heart with one hand and holding a flower in the other. Although his life ended on that July day, his stories have survived and continue to thrill readers with adventures in the world of criminology and crime-solving. Reading his beliefs, remarkable life, and brilliant writings, it is easy to conclude that Doyle, Holmes, and Watson were three dimensions of the same man.
I knew so much in college. So much! I was after a solid liberal arts education. I knew biology—I’d dissected the largest dead cat ever delivered to a biology lab, possibly large enough to require a human-size body bag. I scrutinized bones and organs, ears, whatever. Articulated the brute’s vertebrae, sort of. But now…?
And geology! Of course I knew the earth had igneous and volcanic and sedimentary rocks and a solid molten core consisting mostly of iron. Didn’t we all? I was confident I could find north by following two stars in the Big Dipper down to Polaris, in the Little Dipper. But now…?
Human history? We all knew North Americans arrived via a land bridge from Asia around 10,000 years ago, based on dating the Clovis point. But now…?
These Facts of Life, as we understood them…turn out to be wrong. Out the window. Over. So what should a mystery writer do about this?
Biology? Human history? Clovis points? So much we “knew” is out of date or just plain wrong. We’d heard of the double helix, but didn’t know the human genome could be replicated, leading to amazing genetic discoveries. While many of us hoped we’d inherited a gene from some favored forebear in family history, now we know we’re related to practically everyone, including villains and scoundrels. Bracing news. Ongoing analysis of ancient DNA now suggests humans were in North America by at least 16,000 -20,000years ago. So Clovis points were…much later. Think what this suggests about early peoples—all the languages, all the cultures, all the implications. A fabulous update on these debates: Origin, A Genetic History of the Americas, by anthropological geneticist Dr. Jennifer Raff. https://www.amazon.com/Origin-Genetic-Americas-Jennifer-Raff-ebook/dp/B08B6F2YFX/ref=sr_1_2?crid=2I6NFU5M8KMC2&keywords=jennifer+raff&qid=1645458138&sprefix=jennifer+raff%2Caps%2C190&sr=8-2
Based on exciting research at the Gault Site we Central Texans got a head start on this news. Those immigrating forebears got here as soon as they could. https://www.gaultschool.org/
But wait, there’s more. Explorers dismissed tales from indigenous people about a huge tsunami in the 1700s along our northwest coast. Now we’ve heard of—and school districts are planning against–dangers posed by the Cascadian Subduction Zone off that coast. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/07/20/the-really-big-one
And that reliably solid molten core of our Earth? We now hear that “the inner core of the Earth is not a normal solid but is composed of a solid iron sublattice and liquid-like light elements, which is known as a superionic state,” and that this intermediate state between solid and liquid “widely exists in the interior of planets.” https://scitechdaily.com/scientists-reveal-superionic-secrets-of-earths-inner-core/
Does any of this matter to the mystery genre? Yes, of course. Many mystery lovers take refuge from current shocks in historical mysteries, enjoying Rhys Bowen’s period pieces set in London; Susan Elia MacNeal, with her World War II Maggie Hope series; Laurie King’s Russell & Holmes series, set in 1920’s England; and the late Anna Castle’s Francis Bacon mysteries. Arthur Conan Doyle’s characters Sherlock Holmes and Professor Moriarty have inspired writers to try follow-on mysteries. Authors of historical mysteries have an advantage: they know the “known facts” of the epoch they’ve chosen. They know Mary Russell was unaware of penicillin—and so does the reader.
What about mystery science fiction? There, a writer can pick and choose which “facts” of 2022 to carry forward, and which to abandon. The writer can define new “facts” for the setting, without the fear of making a mistake.
But what a conundrum for mystery writers who choose the “present” as setting.
First and foremost, mystery writers cannot forget that mystery lovers relish learning about specific settings. Alexander McCall Smith told the Texas Book Festival that he “starts with the place.” Place is key. That’s one reason mystery reader rejoice when they find an appealing new mystery series, because it deepens our grasp of a setting—distinctive food, landscape, characters. The setting’s part of the experience. I certainly want readers to feel immersed in the Texas Hill Country in my Alice MacDonald Greer Mystery series books, including book 7, Ghost Daughter. https://www.amazon.com/Ghost-Daughter-Alice-MacDonald-Mysteries/dp/1732722919?asin=1732722919&revisionId=&format=4&depth=1
Often mystery writers keep the mystery’s timeframe somewhat vague, omitting overreliance on specific recent events. Mystery lovers are looking for a mystery. That doesn’t mean, of course, that authors won’t deal with tough contemporary issues. They can and do. But readers decidedly want a puzzle, want to use their own minds and life experience with the world and human nature to solve a mystery, involving motive, method and opportunity. Don’t we consider good mysteries “classics” when they can be read and re-read in subsequent decades?
The writer may take a middle road, addressing one or more contemporary issues. In her Guido Brunetti series set in Venice, Donna Leon does not dodge the impacts of climate change (rising sea levels), pollution, and the desperate plight of African and Eastern European immigrants. But her Inspector Brunetti comforts us by his fierce adherence to traditional Venetian values (and cuisine).
But still, all this new knowledge (genomes! Fourth dimension! Cascadian subduction!) is exciting stuff. Now, perhaps a mystery about archeologists disputing whether or not that rock shard is a knife…or just a rock shard?
Helen Currie Foster writes the Alice MacDonald Greer Mystery Series north of Dripping Springs, Texas, supervised by three burros. She’s drawn to the compelling landscape of the Texas Hill Country, and the quirky characters who live there. She’s deeply curious about human prehistory and why, uninvited, the past keeps crashing the party. She’s active with Austin Shakespeare and the Heart of Texas chapter of Sisters in Crime.
The definition of reading readiness is the point
at which a child goes from not reading, to reading.
~ Sight and Sound Reading
But, Gwammy, I can’t wead.*
~ Jenny, five years old, after one week in kindergarten
When I was five, my Great-aunt Ethel gave me an ancient primer. She had found it in an old school building, abandoned when consolidation sent children in my hometown to a school two miles away, and then used only as a polling place. The primer had also been abandoned, and Aunt Ethel, election judge, liberated it and gave it to the youngest member of the family (youngest by about forty years; it was an old town).
My parents read to me almost from day one. The story goes that, as a toddler, I met my father at the door every evening when he got home from work, saying, “‘Ead a book, Daddy.” (Unlike Jenny, I had no pwoblem pwonouncing my ahs; I just dropped them.)
We didn’t have a library nearby, but I plenty of books: a Bumper Book, Little Golden Books, Grimms’ Fairy Tales, Andersen’s Fairy Tales, which I didn’t like, in part because they were dark (“The Little Match Girl”), but mostly because the end papers sported a hairy black thing with an ugly humanish face and enough long, winding legs to qualify it as a spider. Grimms’ tales were more pleasant.
When I received the primer, I already knew the alphabet. In fact, a year before, I’d written my name in red adhesive tape–the gooiest, stickiest adhesive I’ve ever come across–on the inside of the kitchen door. It stayed there for years.
Anyway, armed with the primer–a school book, for reading–I set about teaching myself. While my mother did housework, I trailed behind, spelling out words.
I don’t think I taught myself to read. But the next year, when I entered first grade–no kindergarten back then–I was ready. I took right off on the underwhelming adventures of Dick, Jane, and Sally (siblings who never had a decent disagreement) plus Spot and Puff, who came and ran a lot.
In second grade, I got a Little Big Book—Gunsmoke–that had one hundred pages. I read it on Saturday and reported the accomplishment in our Class News at school on Monday. Later I got a literary Little Big Book, Huckleberry Finn.One sentence confused me: a dead man’s leg was stuck out at a strange angel. I was about thirty when I realized angel was really angle. I was also surprised when, in high school, I learned that the Little Big Book had been severely abridged.
Then I discovered comic books. They were more educational than most people think. From Scrooge McDuck, I learned that emeralds come from South America. Unfamiliar with physics, I pronounced Atom Cat as A-Tomcat. Seemed reasonable.
The next year, thanks to a Christmas present from my grandmother, I discovered Nancy Drew. Nancy had a blue convertible and drove around wherever she wanted, and her father never grounded her. I envied Nancy her freedom. I didn’t like her, though; she had a tomboy friend, George, who said, “Hypers, you slay me,” which was fine, but her other friend, Bess, was plump, and Nancy often referred to how much Bess ate. I presume in later editions, Nancy behaved better. But her treatment of Bess didn’t stop me from reading about her. I wrote letters to Joske’s Department Store in San Antonio: “Please send me one copy of The Hidden Staircase and one copy of The Clue in the Jewel Box. Please charge my account.” They each cost two dollars. My mother kindly signed the letters. It was her account.
I soon outgrew Nancy, but, like many other mystery readers and writers, I credit her for getting me hooked. I read a couple of Trixie Beldens–Trixie was sickeningly enthusiastic when her mother made her dust the living room before going out to solve mysteries, but she did manage to sneak out at night. I read some Kathy Martins. Kathy, a nurse, often suspected her (nice guy) brother for whatever (minor) crime had been committed, which I thought strange, but she was more mature and more realistic than other characters. No convertible, no sneaking.
But enough about me. The point is that reading was, and is, important to me.
And that this week I’ve been reading A Velocity of Being: Letters to Young Readers, edited by Maria Popova & Claudia Bedrick. The editors compiled 121 letters from “scientists, musicians, artists, philosophers, composers, poets, actors, a 98-year-old Holocaust survivor, Italy’s first woman in space, and many more remarkable humans whose splendor of spirit cannot be contained in the shorthand descriptors we often use to condense a person’s character and cultural contributions.” Each letter is paired with an illustration to “bring it to life visually.”
Many letters describe books as portals to the universe, to other worlds, to adventure, to curiosity and questions, to dreams, to logic and imagination; they’re boats and planes and magic carpets. Contributors write about hating book reports, and being hellions when they were little and refused to listen to Goodnight Moon at bedtime because they wanted dinosaurs, and being called antisocial when they preferred to read instead of play with friends.
But other contributors take the subject to a deeper level:
Author Alain deBotton writes, We wouldn’t need books quite so much if everyone around us understood us well. But they don’t. Even those who love us get us wrong. They claim to know what we need, but forget to ask us properly first. They can’t understand what we feel . . . That’s the moment to turn to books They are friends waiting for us, and they will always speak honestly to us. They are the perfect cure for loneliness. They can be our very closest friends.
Screenwriter Shonda Rhimessays, Reading saved me. When I was twelve, I spent most of my day trying to be invisible. The year before I’d been the new girl in school, and I’d spent a lot of time trying to be accepted. . . . The very desire to bend and twist to fit in–assures your rejection They did not like me. They hated me.
I spent a lot of time alone. I rode the bus alone. I spent weekends alone, I ate lunch alone. Except I was never alone. I always had a book in my hand. If you have a book, you don’t need to bend and twist to fit–you’re there. You are in. . . .
If you have a book in your hand, you can stop being invisible. Because you’re a little more invincible.
Venture capitalist Chris Sacca says that books are dangerous: If you keep reading, you might learn so much that you can take over for the adults and then you kids will be in charge! You all could be the journalists, entrepreneurs, artists, professors, authors, doctors, explorers, scientists, and even the leaders of our countries! Then what would the grown-ups do? Live in a world run by brilliant, interesting, innovative, and compassionate young people. Ugh. No, thank you.
So please stop reading before you become really smart, successful, and happy.
But seriously, books are dangerous. Holocaust survivor Helen Fagin writes about life in the World War II Polish ghetto, where being caught reading by the Nazis meant anything from hard labor to death. But books were smuggled in, read by each person for only one night, and then, for the sake of safety, passed on. She stayed up all one night reading Gone with the Wind. Then she decided the children she secretly taught needed not dry information, but stories. And for one hour each night, she told them the story of Scarlett and Melanie, Rhett and Ashley; and for that hour they “escaped a world of murder.” Then “a knock at the door shattered our dream world.” Years later, she met one of only four of the students who survived. The woman called her “the source of my hopes and my dreams in times of total deprivation and dehumanization.”
Composer Mohammad Fairouz shares a story that I cherish from my upbringing; . . . 1400 years ago in the deserts of Arabia, a meditative prophet named Mohammad had a vision of the Angel Gabriel who came to him with a message: “Read” . . . This was the first word of the Quran.
In the years following the prophet’s death, his followers built an empire where they contributed to every branch of knowledge, from algebra to optics and medicine to music. Countless things we have today would not exist without their contributions: that includes space stations, glasses, aspirin, your iPad.
They were able to do this because they were inspired to seek out the power that comes with being to read. You deserve the same power . . .
Years ago, I knew a young man who had never learned to read. I don’t know why; he just hadn’t. As an adult, he took a literacy class. He said that when he traveled for his work, he was always scared, because he couldn’t read road signs, and he was afraid he would get lost. At the most basic level, reading is power.
And consider: At one time in the American South, it was illegal to teach slaves to read. If they were literate, they might be able to read signs that would help them escape. They might also read some inconvenient truths: “. . . that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness . . .” Inconvenient for their owners, that is.
“So the research shows that perhaps reading fiction does make people behave better. Certainly some institutions consider the effects of reading to be so significant that they now include modules on literature. At the University of California Irvine, for example, Johanna Shapiro from the Department of Family Medicine firmly believes that reading fiction results in better doctors and has led the establishment of a humanities programme to train medical students.
“It sounds as though it’s time to lose the stereotype of the shy bookworm whose nose is always in a book because they find it difficult to deal with real people. In fact, these bookworms might be better than everyone else at understanding human beings.”
Philosopher and professor Martha Nussbaum gives an example: The great African-American novelist Ralph Ellison said that a novel like his Invisible Man could be “a raft of hope, perception, and entertainment” on which America could “negotiate the snags and whirlpools” that stand between us and the democratic ideal. He’s referring here to Huck Finn and Jim, who got to know one another as full human beings, rather than just as a white man and a black man, when they traveled down the river on a raft together. On the raft, they had to look at one another, listen to one another’s stories. In our divided society, such encounters happen all too seldom in real life, and are fraught with mistrust when they do. Reading can create such encounters in the head, so that the ones that happen in the world are a little less crude, a little less deformed by fear and anger.
Huckleberry Finn has for years made the American Library Association’s list of most often challenged, banned, or restricted books–a novel that can teach us to be better people.
Design writer and educator Steven Heller extends the idea that reading is power and issues a challenge: Books are weapons in humankind’s battle against ignorance. I don’t mean like lasers and drones. I mean that knowledge is strength and the kind of knowledge you get from books is not the same as the quick fix that Googling gets you. What’s more, books can’t be hacked. But they can he censored, which means blocked or forbidden from being published. And this is why they are so valuable to us all. Often in fighting ignorance, the ignorant take books prisoner. If you don’t read books, then those that have been censored over the ages will be lost and forgotten. So kids, don’t let them down. Read them, savor them protect them. Don’t let others make books irrelevant.
*Jenny soon learned to wead. And to pwonounce her ahs.
I’ve gone on too long. If you’re still with me, thanks for sticking. And one more thing: Despite the title, A Velocity of Being isn’t just for young readers. It’s also for adults who need to be reminded to make reading part of their children’s lives.
This week I lost a very good friend and an incredible mentor. Anna Castle wrote historical mysteries including two internationally successful series: The Francis Bacon Mysteries and the Professor and Mrs. Moriarity. Her books can be found on her website at https://www.annacastle.com/books/
Writing a series of any kind requires a great deal of research. Triple that for historical mysteries. The writer has to learn the dialects, the clothes, the food, the politics, the religions, the caste systems, the locations—the list goes on. It takes a special person to get all of that right, and for Anna to do it in two series is off the charts. And while getting all of the “facts” right, Anna also had the task of creating characters that needed to be loved, laughed at, hated, suspected, intriguing, whatever was needed to propel the plot forward. The character must be seen, understood, memorable—well, you get the drift.
And in reading a series, the characters must be people that intrigue the readers so much, they are not just willing to buy the next book in the series, but the writer must create a story where the readers will wait for that next book, hope for it, buy it in advance. The reader becomes bonded to the characters. I as a reader find myself worried about them, excited for them, scared for them, and yes, hate them and love them. To me, they were real people.
And now, Anna’s characters will never live again. The next book won’t happen. There will be no more intrigue for them, romance for them, fear for them. Life for them.
As I write this, I am devastated as I mourn Anna’s passing. No more lunches with her. No more emails. No more hugs. No more bragging or complaining or learning or all those things that dear, dear friends do together.
But also, I will deeply mourn the passage of the characters she put in my head and in my heart.
Unlike sequels, which are straightforward continuations of possibilities that may happen after a novel ends, the prequel tries to imagine and show what happened before the novel’s story began.
A prequel attempts to provide the reader with information about what came first, what impacted the characters’ development, places where the stories occurred, the times in which they happened, and a host of other matters upon which a novel may be built not necessarily included in the story.
It may surprise many that even among classics, there are prequels. While The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a sequel to Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer, in 2017, author John Clinch released Finn, a prequel to both of Twain’s masterpiece novels. Finn is about Huck Finn’s father and the dysfunctional family relations that came before the adventures of Huck Finn began. It immerses the characters in the chaotic, murky waters of antebellum America with all its complexities, the shame of slavery, and racial attitudes of the time that almost destroyed the nation.
In Porto Bello Gold, Arthur D. Howden Smith imagines a pirate story with Captain Flint and Murray stealing treasure and burying it as the Prequel to Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island.
Then we have Mario Puzo’s contemporary classic, The Godfather, a gripping story of the 1940s underworld in America and Italy. Author Ed Falco wrote a prequel entitled The Family Corleone. In The Family Corleone, Mr. Falco gives us background on many of the characters before Vito Corleone became a Don. Shortening it by at least a third would not have damaged the storyline. If a reader is very familiar with Puzo’s characters, there are few, if any, surprises or new information. Much of what came before was included in Puzo’s novel. In this prequel, the only new information was about Sonny, Don Vito’s first-born son. He’d witnessed his father’s criminal activities early on and decided to follow in his father’s footsteps. This is hardly surprising given how Puzo portrayed Sonny in the original novel. Perhaps a more interesting avenue would have been a fuller portrait of Michael, whose younger years do not prepare the reader for his change of heart after the Don is almost murdered. For more insights and reviews of prequels written by authors other than the creators of the original stories, see the source materials below.
So, where did the interest in prequels start and why? It should come as no surprise that the new mania started when Hollywood became obsessed in the 1970s and 80s after the 1969 success of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. By 1979, Hollywood released Butch and Sundance, the Early Years, as a prequel. Another Hollywood success, Star Wars, was released in 1977, and its succession of successful movies sparked Star Wars prequels. Still, there are mixed reviews of the values for each of the abovementioned prequels and others, which may make one ask if it’s worth reading them at all.
Before writing a story, most authors have a sense of the characters’ backgrounds, times they live in, and other essential building blocks. As the novel unfolds, critical information is included to advance the plot. However, some characters or events may be more compelling. Who were these characters before the story began? What happened to them? What factors influenced their development into their current selves? These questions create fertile ground for a prequel and give way to the next question. Should prequel materials precede a stand-alone novel or become book one in a series?
Prequels can flesh out backgrounds, locations, personalities, and what came before. The danger is that offering new angles for consideration may also ruin the impact intended because the reader may not come at the story with the same sense of anticipation, feel the intended shocks or enjoy the sense of surprise. Reading a prequel first, even for blockbuster books such as The Godfather, can also turn a reader off. If I’d read The FamilyCorleone, first, I might have passed on Puzo’s masterpiece.
Prequels then should be published judiciously. They did not create interest in a particular story. It is the story that made the prequel possible.
In the Dordogne, in southern France, I heard the echo of the iron cover banging into place to close the entrance to the Pech Merle cave to prevent damage from outside air. Down the clanging iron stairs we went, along chilly stone tunnels, and then—the horses! Oh, the spotted horses, so real you could almost hear them breathe. They’ve been carbon-dated to 25,000 BCE. I’ve waited in line to see the famous Font de Gaume at Les Eyzies, also in the Dordogne, and hiked, shivering, to see the pictures deep in the Pyrenees cave at Niaux. I long to visit them all. Sometimes my companions balk.
Confronted by such artistry, such deft depictions, simultaneously spare and rich, like Chinese scroll landscapes or Picasso’s early drawings, haven’t you wondered about the artists? Why were they so deep in these dark, perilous caves? What was their life—or death—outside?
Today, with climatic violence the new normal, and new discoveries daily about human prehistory (including 23 and Me’s calculation of our personal percentages of Neanderthal ancestry), I’m more and more curious every day about our long-ago ancestors. The real question, of course: what is it to be human?
Welcome to “The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity,” a tome by two Brits—David Graeber, the late professor of anthropology at London School of Economics, and David Wengrow, professor at the Institute of Archaeology, University College London. “The Dawn of Everything”? Sounds ferociously ambitious—overarching, maybe overreaching. But my best friend from high school—Dr. Megan Biesele, distinguished anthropologist—said “let’s read and discuss.” Easy for her to say: the tome is 526 pages long, with 83 pages of notes and a 62-page bibliography. https://www.amazon.com/Dawn-Everything-New-History-Humanity/dp/0374157359
Graeber and Wengrow boldly challenge our “received understanding” of an original state of innocence and equality, followed by the invention of agriculture and higher population levels and creation of cities leading inevitably to the rise of hierarchy and inequality. They employ often hilarious section headings. Example: “How the conventional narrative of human history is not only wrong, but quite needlessly dull.” (At 21.) (For a shorter version, see their Fall 202 article: https://www.laphamsquarterly.org/democracy/hiding-plain-sight.)
“The Dawn” asserts that the ideas of individual liberty and political equality we cherish today weren’t an outgrowth of the European enlightenment, but inspired by Native American critiques of their European invaders. The relevant heading: “In which we consider what the inhabitants of New France made of their European invaders, especially in matters of generosity, sociability, material wealth, crime, punishment and liberty.” (At 37.) One French evangelist sent to the Algonkian Mi’kmaq wrote, “They consider themselves better than the French: ‘For,’ they say, ‘you are always fighting and quarrelling among yourselves; we live peaceably. You are envious and are all the time slandering each other; you are thieves and deceivers; you are covetous, and are neither generous nor kind; as for us, if we have a morsel of bread we share it with our neighbour.” This missionary was irritated that the Mi’kmaq would constantly assert they were richer than the French, who had more possessions, because they themselves had “ease, comfort and time.” Such records by missionary priests were compiled in 71 volumes of Jesuit Relations (1633-1673).
I’d never heard of the Wendat tribe’s philosopher statesman Kandiaronk, reportedly a highly skillful debater, who during the 1690’s was invited to participate in a sort of salon, where he shared his devastating moral and intellectual critique of European society. Kandiaronk sounds amazing: one priest described him as “always animated, full of wit, and generally unanswerable.” His arguments were included in Dialogues (1703), publishedby an impoverished French aristocrat named Louis-Armand de Lom d’Arce. Kandiaronk held that European-style punitive law, like the religious doctrine of eternal damnation, wasn’t required by innate human corruption but by a society that encouraged selfish and acquisitive behavior. Nor had I heard that Kandiaronk’s critiques were adopted by French Enlightenment figures during the 1700’s. I hadn’t realized that substantial origins of the French “enlightenment” were…North American.
“The Dawn” discusses the Huron concept called Ondinnonk, a secret desire of the soul manifested by a dream: “Hurons believe that our souls have other desires, which are, as it were, inborn and concealed…They believe that our soul makes these natural desires known by means of dreams…Accordingly when these desires are accomplished, it is satisfied; but, on the contrary, if it be not granted what it desires, it becomes angry, and not only does not give its body the good and the happiness that it wished to procure for it, but often it also revolts against the body, causing various diseases, and even death…” Apparently tribe members spent time communally trying to decipher the meaning of others’ dreams and, sometimes, trying to help each other realize their dreams. (At 23-4, 454-5, 486, 608 n74.)
After this startling introduction to an unknown genius (I mean, I’d have loved to learn about Kandiaronk back in 10th grade…or any grade, really—and apparently his ideas can be found: https://books.google.com/books/about/Native_American_Speakers_of_the_Eastern.html?id=Fu1yAAAAMAAJ), Graeber and Wengrow provide extensive examples of our incorrect assumptions. They argue that the notion that humans inevitably moved from hunting and foraging to static agricultural lives (with inevitable hierarchy and inequality) isn’t borne out by current archeology. They point to many cultures which rejected “big ag,” opting instead to keep hunting and foraging, making occasional gardens, and spending winters in river lowlands, moving to highlands in the summer with their flocks. (This made me think of the French Pyrenees, where the “transhumance” –taking livestock to the hills—still happens.) They argue that cities weren’t inevitably hierarchical, and that many arose with populations that—even if they had kings—made their decisions collectively, not hierarchically.
“The Dawn” is unsettling. Are we “stuck” today in ideas that are not in fact “inevitable” aspects of human social organizations? Are we less creative, socially speaking, than our forebears? Well, I’ve only made it to page 486. I’ll let you know how this turns out. If I’m intellectually “stuck,” I hope not to stay that way.
But back to the caves and the art on those seeping limestone walls. My strong impression is that we frequently underestimate those who traveled before us. We assume that the ways of today’s world manifests “progress” over our past. Surely that’s true: we did manage at least temporarily to get rid of smallpox…one small victory. But apparently there’s a great deal we’ve lost, forgotten, or never known…I mean, what is the meaning of the White Shaman picture? Did the artists ride the spotted horses painted in Pech Merle? Or just admire the herds from a distance?
“The Dawn of Everything” offers fodder for that most delightful and enduring attribute of our species: curiosity. I’m still chewing on these ideas. One topic is the surprising variety of ways that societies treat—or eschew—wealth. Another that nags at me is the Wendat condemnation of our punitive habits. Dialogues reported that rather than punish culprits, “the Wendat insisted the culprit’s entire lineage or clan pay compensation. This made it everyone’s responsibility to keep their kindred under control.” Wow. Just one of the things I’ll be thinking about…
I found Braiding Sweetgrass so touching, especially the chapter called Allegiance to Gratitude, describing the children in the Onondaga Nation school reciting the traditional Haudenosaunee “Thanksgiving Address,” the Words That Come Before All Else. Most sections of this Address end, “Now our minds are one.” Maybe this is a living example of a communal tradition that molds a society. I recommend this book.
Helen Currie Foster lives and writes the Alice MacDonald Greer Mystery series north of Dripping Springs, supervised by three burros. She remains fascinated by human prehistory and how, uninvited, our pasts keep crashing the party. Her latest is Book 7, Ghost Daughter. “An appealing sleuth headlines a solid thriller with panache” —Kirkus Reviews
George Woodstock received the peculiar phone call on his sixty-sixth birthday. . . He let the phone ring twice, then answered, “Woodstock Machine Shop.”
It was Helen’s voice. “Clara called, George.”
“Where is she?”
“Your sister. She’s out at Woodstock where she always is. Your papa has escaped from the nursing home.” . . .
“What in the hell does escaped mean? Did you ask any questions? . . . Have they put up a fence for patients to climb over? Or did he tunnel out? Did he wound any guards? I thought Papa was in a nursing facility.”
“Please don’t be snotty, George. I’m only telling you what Clara said. I said you’d call back.”
According to Best Mystery Novels, mysteries must meet certain criteria: there must be a puzzle; a detective or protagonist who sets out to solve the puzzle; suspects; clues; red herrings; hidden evidence; gaps in information; and suspense.
The Heirs of Franklin Woodstock isn’t classed as a mystery. It’s “general fiction.” Literary fiction. It isn’t shelved in bookstores and libraries amongst the Christies and the Hammetts and the Chandlers.
Author Benjamin Capps is famous for his award-winning historical fiction, realistic novels set in an Old West lacking the romance of pulp fiction. He didn’t write mysteries.
But based on the criteria laid out above, The Heirs of Franklin Woodstock is a mystery. On page one, the puzzle is laid out: ninety-one-year-old rancher Franklin Woodstock has “escaped” from the nursing home and is missing. And protagonist George Woodstock sets out on the three-hour drive from Fort Worth, northwest to the town of Woodstock, near his father’s seven-thousand-acre ranch, to find out what’s going on. (Clara, the sister who called, is known in the family as “a dingbat.”)
George’s investigation begins in chaos. The sheriff says they don’t usually find missing persons, just bodies they then identify by going through the files. He has two deputies out looking and will call in more searchers–George offers to help with expenses if necessary–but that’s about all his office can do.
At the Goodhaven Nursing Home, George asks the nurse at the front desk if she has a clue as to what his father might have been thinking in the days before he disappeared. She has a ready, and vehement, non-answer:
“I’m trying to bring the charts up for the next shift,” she said. ” . . . Now, sir, I would like to tell you what is charted again and again about Mr. Franklin Woodstock: Stubborn! Will not eat boiled and mashed carrots. Stubborn! Will not accept bath. Stubborn! Will not let aides assist in toilet. Stubborn! Tries to pinch aide or nurse. Stubborn! Will not lay as asked in bed. Stubborn! Pulls out feeding tube. Stubborn! Broke injection needle. Stubborn! Will not swallow boiled and mashed vegetables. Stubborn! Spits out pills.”
Asked the same question, the ward nurse sticks out a hand: “See that thumb? That knuckle! That’s where a patient bit me. Just bit me on purpose. . . . She’s only got about seven teeth and she sunk every of them into my thumb.”
The Director of Nursing speaks more formally, but her only specific reference to George’s father is that a nurse was fired because she was discovered bringing him food from home–ground broiled steak mixed with mushroom soup and thermoses of cold beer.
At the Woodstock ranch, George finds a haven in the person of Izzy, housekeeper, cook, compulsive gardener, canner, egg gatherer and churner of butter, and mother to everyone, although she’s probably no older than George. Izzy’s son Juan, who’s always gone by the name of Johnny Woodstock, is, as always, doing the practical–heading out on horseback with tenant-cowhands Buck and Slim to search for their employer. Johnny knows the ranch nearly as well as Franklin does.
Then the phone calls begin, and the six-hour round-trips to the airport in Fort Worth to pick up siblings and to try to keep his small machine shop afloat.
So the suspects gather. With plans. And motives.
Walter, a New York businessman with a degree from Harvard Business School, sees an opportunity to subdivide five thousand acres for an exclusive community, “no low-class people.” With his experience, of course, he’ll head up the project. That Chicano Johnny is good enough for punching cows but using a computer and managing a huge enterprise? Maybe he graduated from high school. Walter has also hired a private detective to find Papa, no matter how far he has to go or how much it costs.
Irma and her evangelist son Wilbur propose a different idea: The ranch will become Noah’s Ark, a combination religious retreat that will attract famous preachers, and a place of safety where every resident will be armed, a thousand rounds of ammo for each rifle, seeds, chainsaws, experts who can fix windmills and water pumps, animals two by two . . . because Russia, or somebody, is preparing to drop the Bomb. They’ve thought it out to the nth degree. Papa was a Born Again Christian and would have approved. Wilbur will probably be the first president, receiving a modest salary of $60,000. Irma had suggested $100,000.
Clara seems to want only to spoil her grandchildren, and Clarence, with a Ph.D. in literature and teaching in California, seems only to want to sit up all night with George, sharing several six-packs and talking old times. But Frank, his geologist son, believes the ranch sits on deep oil wells that could be profitable.
During George’s long drives between Fort Worth and the ranch, we learn a lot about Franklin Woodstock. He hasn’t always been “stubborn” or “Born Again.” He’s been a hard worker and a shrewd manager, starting with nothing and acquiring land and cattle, building “the Old Place” and later a large house, adding stock tanks and windmills, working alongside his hands in every endeavor. He has raised a family and sent his children to any school they wanted. When Clara’s grandson, Homer, who is “different,” is expelled from third grade for arguing unintelligibly with the teacher because he doesn’t want to sit down, and then (it is assumed) keeps breaking into the school library and stealing books (which are always returned), Franklin somehow smooths things over and starts building a library in his own home; the break-ins cease. Homer can’t read but seems to think if he could , he would understand what everyone else does.
Franklin Woodstock is the best man George has ever known.
We learn a lot about George, too: a surveyor with the CCC, a navigator who flew forty missions over the Pacific in World War II, an assistant engineer with the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers, a machinist and tool-and-die maker. He’s a man with a high school education who wants to work with his hands, and he’s good at it. His father respects that and has promised him $100,000 to expand his business–a loan, not a gift. But with nothing on paper, and no witnesses to the promise, George doesn’t know whether he’ll get the money. And he feels guilty for even thinking about it.
He’s also worried that his siblings are behaving as if Papa is already dead. Walter says they can have him declared so. Walter is determined. Who knows what the others will agree to?
Although the active characters are the heirs of Franklin Woodstock, the old man holds the novel together. He’s missing. Is he dead or alive? Will they ever know?
What happened to Franklin Woodstock? There’s the mystery.
There are, of course, clues, red herrings, hidden evidence, gaps in information, suspense–all of the other basic criteria. But it would be a shame to share too much here.
As they say in fourth-grade book reports, if you want to know what happens, you’ll have to read the book.
A word about the author:
Benjamin Capps was born in 1922 in Dundee, Archer County, Texas.
At fifteen, he entered Texas Technological College in Lubbock but left after a year to work in the Civilian Conservation Corps and then as a surveyor in the U. S. Department of Engineering. As a navigator, he flew forty missions over the Pacific in World War II. He received two degrees in English and journalism from the University of Texas and taught at Northeastern State College in Oklahoma. But teaching didn’t allow him time to write and drained his creativity. He became a machinist and tool-and-die maker before becoming a full-time writer. He lived in Grand Prairie, Texas.
According to Capps, his writing’s aim is to be authentic and “to probe the human nature and human motives” involved in his stories. His works are painstakingly researched for historical accuracy and generally explore lesser known facets of the American frontier.
Three of his books won Spur Awards from the Western Writers of America. One novel and one work of nonfiction received a Wrangler Award from the Cowboy Hall of Fame and Western Heritage Center. He was the recipient of numerous other awards.
Dundee, Capps’ birthplace, is nineteen miles from Archer City, where Larry McMurtry was born eleven years later. Capps never achieved McMurtry’s fame (or notoriety).
But he’s been counted among writers such as Walter Van Tilburg Clark and Conrad Richter for writing about the Old West with “compelling authenticity.”
James W. Lee, Director, Center for Texas Studies, University of North Texas, calls his Woman of the People “the finest novel ever to come out of Texas.” (Note: Lee is right.)
He also says “Ben Capps is the Texas author whose work will still be read a hundred years from now.”
First off, the best job I ever had (short of writing mysteries) was teaching. And yes, I taught Middle Schoolers, which most people think is the worst possible teaching job you can have. Not me. I loved the students, and I loved my fellow teachers and staff. The kids were sponges. As long as you weren’t a jerk to them, they weren’t a jerk to you. And when they succeeded, both teacher and student won. The same could be said for all of us school employees who came to work every day to help those students become educated, excellent citizens.
What does that have to do with Sisters in Crime? Well, this time I’M the student, and my fellow chapter members and I are the sponges, learning as much as we possibly can to be better writers, readers and business people.
Sisters in Crime (SinC), both on the national level and the chapter levels, provides the teaching. The organization is based solely on helping readers and writers, women and men to learn their craft and sell their books.
SinC is the premier crime writing association focused on equity and inclusion in our community and in publishing. The association, founded in 1986, has 4500+ members who enjoy access to tools to help them learn, grow, improve, thrive, reinvent if necessary, and to share the lessons they’ve learned during their mystery writing experience.
4500+ members? That’s a whole lot of folks to learn from!
SinC National offers many resources to mystery readers and writers. They support a large international network of local chapter with grants, webinars, a central bank of crime-writing research, etc. They support local libraries and independent bookstores. National also provides a monthly newsletter called inSinC which is sent to every member.
Local chapters are where the meatiest teaching takes place. In the last year, our Heart of Texas Chapter centered in Austin, Texas, hosted a plethora of programs spanning the mystery writing need-to-know list. NY Times Bestselling author L.R. Ryan shared her secrets to plotting the blockbuster novel. Cathy DeYoung, a former LAPD CSI fingerprint analyst (and the inspiration for the character of Abby on the TV show, NCIS) walked us through the steps of exploring a crime scene. Mike Kowis, a mild-mannered tax attorney for a Fortune 500 company AND a fellow author, taught us the ins and out of the tax code for authors and other legal matters. Oh, and we were graced with a frank Q & A with the U.S. District Judge of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas.
Honestly. Why would a writer not want to learn from these experts?? And these incredible lessons all were brought together through the Sisters in Crime organizations.
Once you get past the realization that we kill people for a living (on the page, of course), crime writers and readers are a very supportive, very giving group of people. And Sisters in Crime is the best way to get to know them.
PBS television presented a new musical production by Grammy, Emmy, and Tony Award winner John Mauceri: The Nutcracker and the Mouse King, written in 1816. Mauceri conducts the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, with Tony Award- winning Alan Cumming narrating this original tale in three parts.
The story written by E.T.A. Hoffman, is about a young girl who saves a prince, contrary to Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, and Snow White, where the prince rescues the girl. Perhaps Hoffman’s inspiration for this particular flight of fancy was the popularity of embellished nutcrackers, which appeared in Germany in the early 1800s.
The Nutcracker’s story began with a young boy who had to stay at home alone every day while his parents went to work. The little boy was lonely and afraid, so his father carved him a special toy, a nutcracker in the form of a soldier with big sharp teeth and fierce-looking eyes and told him that this unique nutcracker would protect him while his parents were gone. It did the trick. The boy loved and enjoyed that nutcracker and felt secure by its presence, so his father continued to carve new ones for him. When the boy grew up, he married and had a son to whom he gave all the nutcrackers made by his father.
Over time in early 19th century Germany, the lure of decorative nutcrackers grew and so did a legend. They came to represent power, strength, and the protection of families from danger and evil spirits. Nutcrackers were given as gifts and keepsakes to bring good luck.
E.T.A. Hoffman was a prolific writer of gothic tales, fantasy, and the supernatural – most of them dark including segments of his Nutcracker and the Mouse King. It was Alexander Dumas, the 19th-century French author who translated Hoffman’s work in 1845, propelling it beyond the written word. Mauceri explains that Dumas, the grandson of the French aristocrat and African Haitian slave, was drawn to the story because Hoffman concluded the tale with the girl growing up to become the queen of a land of tolerance and imagination. It was the Dumas version that Peter Illich Tchaikovsky adopted in 1892, when he composed the score.
While this production does not target children, it is appropriate for those youngsters who can sit still for a narrative without pictures or characters to hold their interest. Cumming reads the narrative with emotion and even injects moments of humor without straying from the story.
The orchestra gives a stirring performance. Bold and rousing where appropriate, mysterious, sensual, and nerve-wracking also when appropriate. In addition to the lush Tchaikovsky score, compositions from Tchaikovsky’s tone poems and orchestral suites, are included in this score.
Mauceri’s reimagined Nutcracker and the Mouse King fill the mind’s eye with characters, places, and emotions generated by the performances of artists of the highest caliber. If you didn’t experience this fantastic flight of fancy and imagination, you could see it by accessing https://www.pbs.org/video/the-nutcracker-and-the-mouse-king-meabwt/
And now, in the true spirit of the season, love, kindness, respect, and caring, I wish all a Merry Christmas.