Thursday, March 31, 2016

Fiction and the Need for Hope and Magic

I'm currently reading two short story collections -- Skin by Roald Dahl and Nocturnes by Kazuo Ishiguro -- and the stark contrast between the two has got me thinking about my love-hate (mostly hate) relationship with so-called "literary" fiction.

It's not that I don't want to like literary fiction. It's that so much of it just feels humdrum, hopeless, and depressing. I tell myself I'll give the genre another try. I spend the months afterward in a speculative fiction miasma trying to get the taste out of my mouth.

Anyway, the two collections differ in one major way: Dahl's stories, though grim and sometimes unsettling, have a levity to their prose, a hint of magic in the world even when dealing with perfectly ordinary people and situations. The opening stories all deal in some way with crime and passion, but they never feel like over-the-top sensationalism. Dahl has a way of making even the ordinary seem extraordinary without telling us he's doing it.

Ishiguro's stories, on the other hand, are steeped in a kind of melancholic nostalgia that differs from the nostalgia that permeates Ray Bradbury's work (and for those of you who know me, you know I love Bradbury). In Bradbury, the fairies from your childhood might be a bit more human now than you realized, but in Ishiguro, the fairies never were magical at all. There's no hope in the world of these stories, no magic (even in the narrator's voice). All the wonderful things we remember have no sparkle. And that doesn't sit well with me, even as someone who has had to say of things I grew up loving, "That's not nearly as good as I remember" and "That scene/joke is a lot more awkward/painful/not funny than I always thought." Even if you discover there wasn't as much magic as you thought in the world, there should still be some left over. We can be melancholy for a time, but let's not spend the entire story there. Give a little hope, show a little magic. Because if there's no hope in the world, it's a much darker place than anyone wants to be in.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Beautiful People March Edition (Link-Up with Further Up and Further In and Paper Fury)

It's time for another Beautiful People. This month I'm going to focus on Mortimer, one of the three narrators of my Albion/Merlin Quartet (or baker;s trilogy as my writing group calls it), because his prequel story is giving me grief and refusing to be written and I need to finish some edits on the first book.

1. What first inspired this character? Is there a person/actor you based them off?
I needed a Djinni in the book, and I liked the name Mortimer (which comes in this case from the movie Arsenic and Old Lace). There wasn't a particular person or actor in my mind when I created him.

2. Describe their daily routine.
Mortimer's not much of a routine person, but his typical day involves school and hanging out with his friends and working on whatever new puzzle has been presented to them.

3. If they joined your local high school, what clique would they fit into?
As a Djinni, Mortimer would be a candidate for class clown; based on his physique, he'd be an athlete or jock; and based on his personality and inquisitiveness he'd be most likely to end up in the geek/nerd crowd.

4. Write a list of things they merely tolerate. Ex: certain people, foods, circumstances in their lives...

Brutus, one of the younger Djinn at school

5. How do they react in awkward silences?

Mortimer handles all silences the same: if he has something to say, he says it. Otherwise, he'll let it lie.

6. Can they swim? If so, how did they learn? 

I doubt it. There's very little need for Djinn to learn swimming (although this gives me a fantastic idea for something later in the series).

7. What is one major event that helped shape who they are?

That's exactly what I'm trying to work out in this prequel story. The thing about Djinn and their names in this world is that they don't receive names at birth; they choose names when a human asks them for one. Since Mortimer already has his name when the first book starts, I'm looking into what exactly made him choose that name (and most likely why he's such an atypical Djinni).

8. What things do they value most in life?

Mortimer values his friends above almost all else. His faith and his pride in being a Djinni are also very important; he believes the Djinn have become less than they were meant to be, and he's determined to see them restored.

9. Do they believe in giving other people second chances? Do they have any trust issues?

I'd say Mortimer believes in second chances, but he also believes in taking people's actions at face value. He may give you a second chance if you've mistreated him, but it won't be without some reservations. He doesn't trust the Elders in general or the people who follow them, but otherwise he can be very trusting (but also shrewd).

10. Your character is having a rough day...what things do they do to make them happy again? Is there anyone they talk/interact with to get in a better mood?

Playing a trick on someone or working out a problem; interacting with friends, particularly Merlin and Bryn. He'll do his best to get out of an unhappy place as soon as possible.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Beautiful People Valentine's Edition: Radley and Clarice (Link-Up with Paper Fury and Further Up and Further In)

For this edition of Beautiful People, I'm going to focus on Radley and Clarice, two characters from my unfinished novel Shadowmen. They're the couple that I think of when I think of couples in my books, and they have been clamoring for the book to be written very loudly lately, so this might satisfy them (a bit).

1. How did they first meet?
Radley met Clarice when she joined the school (which still needs a snazzy name).

2. What were their first impressions of each other?
He thought she was going to be trouble since he's Catholic and she's the daughter of a Protestant preacher. She thought he would try to ask her out within a week because he had this "bad boy" vibe that she interpreted as overconfidence in the romance department.

It took him a month.

3. How long have they been a couple?
By the time of the novel, a year or two.

4. How committed/loyal are they to each other? Would they break up over a secret or a disagreement? Could stress drive them apart? Would they die for each other?
They are very committed. They have to be loyal because everyone in the school has some sort of power or oddness about them; Radley is a werewolf and Clarice is a mirror master. If those secrets were exposed it could cause all manner of mayhem in their lives. It would take a very big and disturbing secret to drive them apart, but I think they would cling to each other despite most of the circumstances life could throw at them. Radley would most certainly die for Clarice, but Clarice wouldn't let him. Radley sometimes lets his power/oddness/curse drive him away from Clarice, but she usually pulls him back.

5. List 5 “food quirks” they know about each other. (Ex: how they take their coffee, if they’re allergic to something, etc….and feel free to mention other non-food quirks!)
Radley has an aversion to meat because the wolf craves rare and raw meat and the idea of eating that disgusts him. Clarice doesn't like her food to touch on her plate.

6. Does anyone disapprove of their relationship?
Their headmistress has concerns about them, but hopes they'll be able to support each other.

7. What would be an ideal date?
One in which they didn't have to worry about Radley's condition, preferably with a nice dinner somewhere new.

8. What are their personality dynamics? Similar? Contrasting? Do they fight a lot or mesh perfectly?
They fight, usually over whether Radley should go out and see people, make friends, etc. Not because Radley's an introvert, but because he lets fear of the wolf rule him too much.

9. What have been their best and worst moments together as a couple?
Best: when they work together to keep their friends safe from each other and the outside forces who want to destroy them.

Worst: when Radley finally lets his guard down and the wolf comes out.

10. Where do they see themselves and their relationship in the next few years?
Graduated, preferably alive and with a cure for Radley.

Myth and Deep Magic

When it comes to Christmas specials featuring Santa Claus, Rankin/Bass' Santa Claus is Comin' to Town is probably the most well-known, and with good reason. It's classic and the years have been kind to it, much like they have to A Charlie Brown Christmas. But for many years, Comin' to Town was not my favorite version of the Santa myth. That honor went to the lesser-known Life and Adventures of Santa Claus, also produced by Rankin/Bass and based on L. Frank Baum's book of the same name. Although I hadn't seen it for many years, I would still tell people that this was my favorite version of Santa's origin story. This last year, I was finally able to sit down and watch the special again, and I found myself comparing it to Comin' to Town  as I had before, but now the scales of my favor were tipping decidedly toward the earlier special.

I've been mulling over why that is, and I've come to the simple conclusion that it's all about myth and Deep Magic.

For those of you who haven't read the Chronicles of Narnia, Deep Magic (and the Deeper Magic) is what Lewis uses to refer to the binding laws of the universe (and thus God's will and theological truth). So when I say that I'm talking about myth and Deep Magic, I mean I'm digging into the heart of the story and what lies within and behind that heart -- the worldview that shapes what's happening on the screen.

You see, there's a very big difference in the way the two specials present Santa Claus. For Life and Adventures, Santa is human and was raised by nymphs and sprites and other mythical beings in the enchanted Forest of Burzee. He longs to spread cheer to the human race like the happiness he's known among the fairies. In Comin' to Town, Santa was raised by so-called elves in a mountain valley in Eastern Europe. He longs to share the toys these elves make with the children of the nearest town (and later the world) because it will make everyone happy. Fairly similar, yes? Here's where the difference comes in: the first Santa's story is completely divorced from the Christmas story. There is never a mention of Christ or the Nativity or any reason why Christmas is so special (not even a winter solstice to fit the grand pagan nature of its mythos). But for Santa in Comin' to Town, the entire reason for Christmas being the day gifts are given is because of Christ. He even chooses to marry Mrs. Claus (who doesn't exist in Baum's version) on Christmas Eve for the same reason.

While it's a seemingly small difference, it is an important one.

When I was younger, I loved the myth and fantasy of Life and Adventures more. It had more fun with the story, I thought. It connected Santa to a larger story about the world and introduced figures who obviously had bigger stories of their own (like the Great Auk and the others of the council of immortals). As an adult, the story seems to have lost some of that. It lacks a deeper magic that makes Comin' to Town resound in the chambers of my heart.

Because Comin' to Town, by connecting Santa's story to Christ's (as the historical St. Nicholas' was), achieves what I thought Life and Adventures had done. Santa's becomes one story within the larger Story, a supporting hero of The Hero. I still love the mythic scope of Life and Adventures, but it feels shallow in a way that Comin' to Town hasn't seemed in years.

Are there stories that you've changed your opinion of over the years? What caused that change?