Awash in dangerous nostalgia

When an author’s novels are set in the world of his childhood, the nostalgia of those old days might come out of the woodwork and turn his writing into melodrama. That’s the last thing I want.

St.-John Perse

One of my favorite poets, St.-John Perse, wrote in “To Celebrate a Childhood,” (which most of today’s critics would consider overly dramatic), “Other than childhood, what is there in those days that is not here today?”

Wikipedia Graphic

Depending on how you see the question, the answer can be either “everything” or “very little.” I have this paradoxical view of my own childhood in the Florida Panhandle. Every once in a while, somebody posts a photograph of an old appliance on Facebook and asks “who knows what this is?” My generation knows; younger people seldom know.

Pork Chop Gang

The same is true with the news that was common during my childhood years: themes and practices, and people that I often reference in my books such as “Wop Salad” and Florida’s notorious “Pork Chop Gang.” (I feel no nostalgia for these two things, by the way.)

My nostalgia arises when I think of Boy Scout camping trips, all the hours spent sailing, scuba diving, and water skiing down at the coast, delivering telegrams and newspapers, and exploring the panhandle’s backroads–many not paved–in my old car. And, too, I recall old friends, many of whom taught me how to love the panhandle–something I thought I would never do. (As a California native, I was always considered an outsider.)


If I learned anything scary in those days (except during the Cuban missile crisis), it was to fear the KKK because they were everywhere, and I wonder now–as I did then–how many family friends and acquaintances were members.  I’m surprised we never had a cross burnt in our front yard because my folks were liberal, we went to a liberal church, and people we knew well had experienced the wrath of the Klan. (No nostalgia here, by the way.)

My novel Mountain Song and my trilogy of novels in the Florida Folk Magic series have scenes set in the Florida Panhandle. Since these novels overlap the world of my childhood, I worked hard to keep the melodrama out of them. It’s often a fight because memories ofter bring back times when one was hurt or frightened or disrespected.

Keeping melodramatic personal memories out of the stories is part of an author’s work. That’s not always easy to do because, as I think of them, I’m as pissed off now as I was then. (The Campbell motto is “Forget Not.”) But I think we have to draw a line between our personal histories and our stories when we write novels. If we don’t, the novels can easily turn into rants rather than compelling fiction.

If you write, and if you set your stories and novels into the past you experienced, do you have trouble keeping your personal feelings out of it?


Eye strain tends to bring writing to an abrupt halt

Oh no, eye strain again

Several times a year, I end up with eye strain. This time it happened because I’ve been staring at the doc file for Dark Arrows, my novel in progress, for days as I work my way through it again and again.

When this happens, my eyes feel the way they would if I were riding a motorcycle with no helmet or goggles and had wind blowing into them for days; in other ways, it’s a bit like being on the verge of snowblindness. I find that some eye drops named Soothe really help with this.

Hunting arrow from the Bear Archery catalogue of 1954. The novel has an archer who never misses a shot.

Dark Arrows

Like all of my novels, Dark Arrows (set in early 1955) didn’t turn out like I thought it would. For one thing, I never know how my novels will turn out because I don’t outline or plan ahead. The first surprise was that Eulalie, Willie, Lena, and others from my Florida Folk Magic Series of three novels showed up in the story. (Saying “shoo, shoo”) didn’t work. And, the story turned out to be more of a mystery because there are not only bad guys and good guys, but the major characters all have secrets.

For months, I had problems getting the plot, style, and point of view to work properly. But now that I think I have all that ironed out, I’m excited about finishing the novel and sending it to Thomas-Jacob Publishing–as soon as the eye strain clears up and I can see it on the screen.


Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of the Florida Folk Magic trilogy that includes Conjure Woman’s Cat, Eulalie and Washerwoman, and Lena. You can save money on the Kindle version with the three-in-one set shown here.

Out, out damn trope

“A literary trope is the use of figurative language, via word, phrase or an image, for artistic effect such as using a figure of speech. The word trope has also come to be used for describing commonly recurring literary and rhetorical devices, motifs or clichés in creative works.” – Wikipedia

Siskel and Ebert

On Siskel and Ebert’s long-ago TV show of movie reviews, whenever they showed a clip of a movie with a car chase along narrow streets in an Asian city, they would often shout “FRUIT CART” when (inevitably) one or both cars would plough into a vendor’s cart or tent, sending chickens, fruits and vegetables and everything else sky high. This is a trope, often used (variations of it probably show up in the Bond films) and always a lame groaner.

Dark and Stormy Night

“It was a dark and stormy night” is a cliche, one used so often that it’s often pointed at with laugher and derision whenever it shows up. Stormy nights are often included in a series of tropes that used to appear in old movies:

  • A young woman is alone in a rambling mansion on a dark and stormy night, sitting at a dressing table with an open window behind her.
  • The musical program on the radio is interrupted with the breaking news that two dangerous men have just escaped from a nearby prison or asylum.
  • The power goes out. She finds a candle (which will blow out numerous times) and uses it to go through the house shutting windows where curtains are flying up toward the ceiling creating eerie shadows.
  • She hears a crash somewhere off in the house and wonders whether an old tree has fallen through the glass doors that lead to the garden or the escapees have broken into the house.
  • There’s a gun in the house and, while searching for it, she will open a closet door out of which an ironing board will fall (scaring her and the audience), make her way down into the seldom-used basement where we know a gruesome murder once occurred, or up into the attic where mannikins and other objects that look like ghosts or deranged people are stored.

Each of these tropes increases the audience’s fear, not only because they’ve seen them before, but because something in our human conditioning or nature makes us fearful of such moments.

Don’t Use The Damn Tropes

Stay away from such tropes unless you’re writing a comedy or satire that pokes fun at hackneyed set pieces. You can play on the readers’ knowledge of such tropes by coming close to using them, but then veering away, or by constructing a scene that’s the exact opposite, e.g., rather than a dark and stormy night, use a bright, sunny afternoon. Instead of sitting at a vanity, the woman alone can be cooking, vacuuming the floor, or using the Internet to do office work at home.

If you go to websites that list novel and film tropes, you’ll probably be surprised at how many there are. Gosh, there’s a lot of stuff out there a good writer has to avoid.



A daughter’s questions

My daughter was born in 1976, is married, and lives with her husband and two children in Maryland. My wife and I planned to visit them this spring, but the pandemic nixed our travel plans.

On Father’s Day, she sent me a Facebook message with a series of “Questions for Dads” that read as follows:

  1. Can you tell me about your best friend when you were a kid and one of your adventures?
  2. What is the oldest story you know about our ancestors?
  3. Can you describe a favorite memory of a family member? Do you have a favorite snack, song, television show, recipe, comedy?
  4. What is your first memory?
  5. Did you ever get in trouble as a kid? What happened?
  6. If there were a biography of you, how would you want to be described?
  7. What is the best advice you remember from your father?
  8. Is there anything you wish you had said to someone but didn’t have a chance?
  9. What do you wish you had spent less time worrying about?
  10. What is the best part of your day?
  11. What is the last thing you changed your mind about?
  12. What things helped you get through a difficult time in your life?
  13. What trip or place is most special to you and why?
  14. What would you like to re-experience again because you did not appreciate it the first time?
  15. Can you tell me something about yourself that I don’t know that you think would surprise me?
  16. What habits served you the most through life?
  17. What is the best mistake you made and why?

Typically, when asked questions like these, I respond with flippant answers. But, as I told my wife, I didn’t want to do that because these questions were a gift that–if I answered truthfully–would bring us closer together. So, I poured a glass of red wine and started typing.

I did the best I could. I suspect most of my answers were things she didn’t know. When I printed them out, they became four single-spaced pages that I mailed to her via the USPS this morning.

When I was in college, my father sent me a series of letters about his life during high school and college. It was the kind of stuff that didn’t come up in conversations around the dinner table. I was happy to get it because it shed new light on just who my father was. I hope my daughter will feel the same way.

Most of my life is a mystery to my daughter because it happened before she was born, and even before I met her mother. I don’t know where she found the questions, but it made my day to see them. Will my answers surprise her? Yes, I think they will.



Pet phrases ultimately distract readers.

I’m reading a bestselling novel that uses one word and one phrase multiple times, and my first thought is: “Why didn’t the author or the publisher’s editor catch this?” When I write, I sometimes think up a cool bit of dialogue or an apt bit of description. Funny thing is, the first few times I use them, these bits and pieces of language seem fresh and new.

But then my intuition starts nagging at me: “Malcolm, you’ve seen these words before.” There are probably fancy applications that will ferret out suspected words and phrases that have been overused. I have no idea what they are, so I use the “find” feature in Word.

If I think I might have used a word or phrase too often, I type in a phrase such as “passel of popes.” Sometimes I’m shocked at how often I used it. The repetition of phrases, especially slang or a character’s often-used cliché can help define that character and make him/her different from the others in the cast. This fails when multiple characters are using the same cliché

That’s not only unlikely but kills the differentiation between characters the author was trying to achieve. One phrase that’s been overused in the novel I’m reading is “If you say so, Sir.”

I’ll give the author some slack by suggesting that phrase might have been popular in the 1950s where the novel is set. In today’s usage, that phrase is considered sarcastically cutting, meaning, “I think that’s really stupid but you’re entitled to your opinion”–not something I’d want to say to an officer who outranks me. The phase fails to have any impact when dozens of characters are saying it. The publisher should have caught this.

The word the author used over and over is “precious,” in this case, referring to something hard to find and yet essential, as in “The soldiers found a supply depot filled with precious rations.”  Or precious fuel. Or precious ammo. Maybe the author sees this as a stylistic device. I don’t.

I wish he’d used a different word about 95% of the time. It’s easy to miss overused words and phrases in our own work. A good beta reader and/or a good editor might catch most of them. Otherwise, if you think you said “passel of popes” too often, let Word tell you how often that was. —Malcolm

Hiding your main character’s thoughts from the reader

The first question might be: why would I want to hide my protagonist’s thoughts from the reader? This usually happens when the protagonist knows something that would spoil the climax of the book if it were divulged too soon.

Let’s say your protagonist is a police detective (Joe) who’s the lead investigator in the department’s attempts to discover and stop a serial killer. If you’re writing from the detective’s point of view, let’s say, third-person limited, then the reader knows only what Joe knows, sees, experiences, thinks about, or learns through conversations with other characters.

If the reader thinks your writing process looks like this, s/he might not finish the book.

However, the author of this story has a surprising climax in store for readers when it’s divulged in the last chapter of the novel: the detective is, in fact, the killer, and one aspect of Joe’s warped motive is the “fun” of misleading fellow police officers (Bob, Sam, and Bill) without appearing to do so.

So you see the problems here?

First, how do we account for the Joe’s time when he’s killing somebody and getting rid of the evidence. One way to try and do that is to tell the story through multiple points of view, say–one per chapter. We have a Joe chapter, followed by a Bob chapter, followed by a Sam chapter, etc. If, none of the killings takes place during a “Joe chapter,” does that solve our problem of hiding what Joe is doing?

No, because when we do come to a Joe chapter–whether it depicts Joe and others searching a crime scene and/or Joe talking about the evidence and the suspects–it’s unrealistic (I say impossible) for Joe to do any of these things without thinking about the fact he committed the crimes and, perhaps, even wondering whether he hid the evidence or the bodies well enough.

The minute he does the natural thing and thinks about any of that, the big surprising ending has been spoiled. If he never thinks about it (and doesn’t have a split personality), the readers are going to feel cheated when they finally learn Joe’s the killer.

I’ve been thinking about this lately because one of the main characters in my novel in progress has some secrets I don’t want the reader to know until late in the book. My solution is to avoid writing from that character’s point of view.  Will it work? I don’t yet know. Suffice it to say, it was obvious to me from the beginning that I couldn’t let the reader know directly what this character was thinking.

Maybe you can think of other ways of hiding the main character’s thoughts from the reader. My solution might crash and burn. It’s hard to know how these kinds of things will turn out.



Writers: How to know when you’ve got your groove back

Some manuscripts have a meh quality to them. That’s not good. If you’re bored with it, the publisher will also be bored along with prospective readers. Take two aspirin or a double Scotch and go back to it in a few days. If it’s still meh, get rid of it, at least let it set for a while and go on to something else.

But some manuscripts sing. That’s the first clue about getting your groove back. Then more stuff begins to happen:

  • You’re reading a compelling novel like Cormac McCarthy’s Cities of the Plain and here come your characters right in the middle of it, talking the dialogue right out of the book (You got a girl? Shit no. You sound like you’ve had some bad experiences. Who aint? You fool with them and that’s the kind you’ll have.)
  • You’re watching one of the final episodes of “How to Get Away with Murder” and after Annalise Keating says, “Prayers are for the weak–I’ll stick to beating your ass in court,” one of your characters blurts out “Say which?” and you find yourself writing dialogue for your book while people on the show are getting away with murder.
  • Taylor Swift is singing “The Man” and you get it mixed up with Burl Ives’ “The Big Rock Candy Mountain because your story is pushing on your hand like the dog that’s not getting petted.
  • You’re ready for a good night’s sleep, turn out the lights, the cat snuggles in close and purs outs a lullaby, and ten minutes later you realize your seeing scenes from your story rolling through your mind’s eye like big trucks on a long-haul highway.”
  • Your spouse and/or significant other says, “Do you want sex,” and you say, “No, I’m busy, but thanks for asking.”

Storywise, you got it bad and that ain’t good because you won’t have your life back until you finish your book. The groove’s got you.


Car Shopping for My Characters

Cars are often one indicator of a character in a novel. Black ops characters usually drive something with many tactical advantages in a fight; other characters are often described by their sports cars or family cars, most of which cost more than the readers of the novels make in a year.

In my novel Lena, (set in 1954) I introduced a new character to the Florida Folk Magic Series named Pollyanna. The name made her sound like a spoiled brat who lived at the estate of wealthy parents. In fact, she grew up at a fish camp and knew her way around the business and everything that went with it. She needed a practical vehicle:

This is a 1949 Ford F-1, 1/2-ton Silvertone Grey pickup truck. It was the lowest of the line of Ford F-series trucks made between 1947 and 1952. Perfect for a fish camp, though Pollyanna would have gotten a 3/4-ton F-3 if she could have afforded it. Pollyanna always had a 1935 Smith & Wesson model 27 .357 magnum revolver in the glove box or in a thigh holster.

Since she lives near a small town, everyone recognizes her truck. This  isn’t helpful when she’s spying on bad guys. So, along with a blonde wig, different clothes, etc., she drives the family’s seldom used Blue 1949 Dodge Wayfarer coupe:

oldcaradvetising photo

When I visualize a character, I try to see what kind of car fits who they are. The town storekeeper drives a 1949 2R clover green Studebaker pickup. The Sanctified Church uses a Buick Roadmaster hearse. The fuel hauling company drives an Autocar surplus tanker truck. The police drive Chevrolet Bel Air squads.

Finding the right car for each character is sometimes a thrilling treasure hunt and sometimes an exasperating search when years and models seem to be missing from the Internet.

For me, tracking down cars is a heck of a lot more fun than trying to figure out what kinds of clothes my female characters would be wearing years ago.


The Kindle edition of Malcolm R. Campbell’s contemporary fantasy novel The Sun Singer is FREE on Amazon.
















The NSA probably thinks I’m a women’s clothing designer

When I was a child, I was told that women wore dresses, skirts, and various kinds of things that I called trousers but that women called by magical names depending on the styles and fabrics. From snippets of conversation, I learned that dresses and skirts are not generic, that they had names/uses/purposes, that they came from different designers, factories, stores, were either last year’s fashion (no longer in use) or current fashion (in use).

The bottom line is this: I know that the women in my novels have to wear something, but I don’t know what it is. That is, I can’t just say, “Alice wore a dress.” If it’s a high-scale dress, then I’ll need to know a designer. I’ll need to know what kind of dress it is and under what circumstances it’s worn. I always assume that the kind of dress suitable for a PTA meeting isn’t suitable for a New Year’s Eve party aboard a royal yacht.

The NSA comes into play because not knowing anything about anything, dress-wise, I’m online a lot. Multiple clothing searches. The plot thickens, dress-wise, when I’m working on a novel (as I am now) set in the 1950s. Unless some kind of a retro fad is going on, dresses from the 1950s aren’t being worn today, even to a PTA meeting.

The good thing about searching on, say, women’s clothing of the 1950s, you not only come across articles discussing how fabrics/styles changed from the war years (if you’re young, I should tell you World War II on the homefront meant utilitarian clothes, rationing, etc.) to the 1950s. (For example, the Vintage Dancer site was a nice place to start. So was Fashion History Timeline.)

This gives me a general picture–including what the clothing was called. Moving on, I can then search on the names of the clothing, finding vintage ads, catalogue pictures, and even Etsy shops that specialize in retro clothing from certain eras. So, while Brad Thor, James Patterson, Tom Clancy, and other black ops novels are keeping up with weapons and tactics, I’m desperately trying to find out what my characters should wear and when.

People always ask why research takes longer than writing. It all comes down to the fact that I learned only the difference between a dress and a skirt, but none of the thousand styles or accessories. It was, I suppose, a lapse in my education and/or upbringing.


P. S. –  My older woman character named Sparrow wears a Kitty Foyle dress that was popular in the 1940s. If you’re not sure what the dress looks like, you can watch Ginger Rogers in the film “Kitty Foyle.” Rogers won an academy award and the dress she wore in the film endured.



Author’s error: violating your point of view choice

Very few authors these days use an omniscient point of view, so I find it quite jarring when an author writing in third person restricted suddenly tacks an omniscient sentence onto the end of a scene or chapter as a cheap way of creating suspense.

If the reader thinks your writing process looks like this, s/he might not finish the book.

When you’re writing in third person restricted, the reader only knows what the character knows. That said, it’s a foul to have the main character step out of a house, get in his car and drive off, and then follow that with Bob didn’t see the man in the woods across from his house taking pictures.

If Bob didn’t see it, it can’t be in the book.

I’m reading a black ops book by a name author who writes a lot of these novels, and he’s been cheating on his point of view with these kinds of sloppy POV deviations  throughout the book. I’m used to them, but I don’t like them. And I wonder why the line editor at his publishing house let them get into the published copy.