Parents aren’t supposed to like one of their children more than the others

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Southwest Airlines used to raise eyebrows during the flight attendant’s monologue about the plane’s safety features when s/he said, “If the masks are lowered during a flight put yours on first and then put the next mask on the child most likely to support you in old age.” Or, “The child you like best.”

I thought of this when a friend asked several days ago which of my novels I liked best while acknowledging that that might be impossible to do. I can pick one even though that doesn’t mean I’m discounting all the others. I told her it’s Conjure Woman’s Cat.

Here’s why.

  • It represented a change of focus for me in that I finally decided to address a hot-button issue for me: racism, Jim Crow, and the KKK as it was in Florida during my childhood.
  • After focussing on contemporary fantasy and one satire, I embraced magical realism with a story that would give rise to two sequels (soon to be three) while exploring the folk magic that was all around me in the Florida Panhandle.
  • While two earlier novels, The Sun Singer and Sarabande, focused on the somewhat esoteric themes behind the hero’s journey and the heroine’s journey, Conjure Woman’s Cat focused on backyard magic with a lot of folklore and a lot of ingredients close at hand.
  • I had a chance to do something unique and that was using a cat as the narrator. Why did I do this? Because, after having one or more cats in our household at all times for thirty-five years, I thought it more likely I could accurately write from a cat’s perspective than that of an African American woman who was (as she puts it) “older than dirt.”
  • My publisher, Thomas-Jacob, and I were lucky in that we found a wonderful and highly talented narrator in Wanda J. Dixon for the audio edition. She’s gotten rave reader reviews on Audible and a coveted Earphones Award Winner review from AudioFile Magazine. (“Most distinctive is Eulalie’s recurring sigh, which conveys her frustration with Florida in the 1950s, when Jim Crow laws and ‘Colored Only’ signs were routine.”)

Long-time readers of this blog know that I’m partial to Virginia Woolf’s statement in her novel Orlando: “In short, every secret of a writer’s soul, every experience of his life, every quality of his mind is written large in his works.” I think that’s a given if an author is true to himself/herself. Yes, parts of me–my experiences and approach to life–live on in all my novels. But they loom the largest in Conjure Woman’s Cat.

The novel takes on more significance in my thoughts as riots and racism are looming large in the national consciousness–and major cities’ streets.

Malcolm

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.

Malcolm

 

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.

–Malcolm

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

You better not hurt that kitty

When I began writing Conjure Woman’s Cat, I didn’t know how it would end, much less that it would lead to the sequel Eulalie and Washerwoman. When I started writing the sequel, I didn’t know how it would end, much less that it would lead to a third book named Lena which–of course–I had no clue what the ending was.

I did know one thing for sure: Eulalie, the conjure woman, and Lena, her cat, weren’t going to get killed no matter what else happened.

So, each time I told people I had started a new book in the series, I began getting comments like, “You better not hurt that kitty,” “Promise me I don’t need to look at the ending first to make sure nobody (you know who I mean) is dead,” and “If anything happens to that kitty, don’t think you can fix it with a bunch of that rainbow bridge stuff and that will make everything okay.”

It was fun hearing that a lot of people had connected with the main characters and were concerned about their welfare. After all, things were always touch-and-go in these books, what with bad cops and noxious KKK thugs. One person said she really liked the Pollyanna character who appeared in Lena and was happy to see she made it to the end of the book without dying.

Then she added, I want to see a Pollyanna book and she better be alive when I get to the last page. Okay, okay, I’m writing the Pollyanna book right now and she doesn’t get killed.  (I hope you’re happy, Linda, knowing you can read the book without worrying about the main character.)

Previously, while I was writing my contemporary fantasy Sarabande, the sequel to The Sun Singer, people started saying “You better not kill off that black horse.” (I didn’t.) You see the pattern here, right? People don’t trust me, assume I’m hard-hearted and cold enough to kill off magical critters. My mama didn’t raise me that way.

I’m tempted to write a novel where all the main characters die on the first page of the book. That will prove I’m not some wimpy author who’s controlled by his readers and doesn’t have any artistic integrity. Perhaps it will begin, “Everybody is dead.” Then, the next chapter will be called SIX MONTHS EARLIER and we’ll see how it happened.

Naah, I don’t think I’ll do that. But I might. I might drink some bad whisky and go over to the dark side at any moment.

Malcolm

 

 

Ad Hoc Writing Research

If I were writing historical novels, I would probably do a lot of research before I even committed to writing each book. My novels are written without an ourline or any idea how they will end up. This means I do the research for each scene when I get to it. While the novel in progress is set in 1955, the fact that I was an elementary school kid in that year doesn’t mean I know a lot about the time period.

So, it’s time to Google everything.

  • The last scene took place at a grocery store. Okay, when somebody entered the store, what kinds of posters, die-cut signs, and hand-written specials did they see on the window sill or window? I found a great Noxzema suburn cream sign, a nice Planters Peanuts poster, and a list of the meat prices per pound.
  • The current scene takes place in the backyard of some well-to-do people. While we had cheap pre-Weber metal barbecue, the fru fru people often had barbecue grills made of brick, 44 inches wide are larger.
  • What are they having to eat? I knew part of this already, but did a bit of online checking. The menu: porterhouse steak, corn, collards with ham hocks, baked potatoes, corn bread, and macaroni salad. The men are drinking either Jax Beer or Old Overholt Rye whiskey. I would enjoy all of this except for the Rye which I never liked.
  • The family wanted music. So, after verifying that long playing records were, in fact, available in 1955 AND that RCA had a three-in-one (78, 45, and 33 and 1/3 rpm) record player, I needed to make sure they had something to listen to. Since the men in the family are KKK members, they won’t be listening to jazz, blues, or gospel. Glenn Miller seemed like a safe choice.
  • Now, if I can, I’d like to find out how long each of the tracks is so I can time the action with which song would be playing at five minutes into the dinner and ten minutes into the dinner, etc.  (I did this once before when I timed the cuts on a Scott Joplin CD with a ride between Tallahassee and St. Marks, Florida. Probably nobody checks these things, but I wanted to know what song would be playing as Emily and her father (in Widely Scattered Ghosts) reached various landmarks along the way. Heck, I even check the weather reports for the dates and cities where my novels are set to make the weather in the novel the same as it was in “real life.”

Okay, I only have one more thing to check. What happens if somebody gets shot in the arm with a target arrow? There’s so little history taught in med school, that doctors can’t tell me what they would have done in 1955. I was e-mailing back and forth with a medical museum curator who admitted that doctors seem to believe that their speciality “rose like a Phoenix out of the ashes of ignorance” just before they got out of medical school. So, on treatment, I need to skirt around the specifics I don’t know. I’m not happy about that, but as Vonnegut always said, “so it goes.”

Malcolm

 

 

Breaking point-of-view rules

Several days ago, I posted this comment on my Facebook profile and, as it turned out from the comments, I’m not the only one who thought the author was breaking point-of-view rules:

I’m reading an interesting mystery, filled with misdirection and clues that may or may not be true.

I won’t tell you what it is because I’m not here to bash the author but to mention point-of-view errors that mar the book. Like many novels, this one is told in alternating chapters about the major characters, each in a third-person restricted point of view.

This means that if the character doesn’t see it, hear it, think it, or intuit it, it (whatever) can’t be there.

What mars these chapters is the intrusion of the suddenly omniscient author who says things like:

“Bob did not see the man hiding in the shadows behind the steps.”

“Sally turned off the TV set just before a major story from her hometown aired. Had she seen it, she would have done things differently.”

You can do this if you’re writing from a consistently omniscient viewpoint. If you’re writing from inside a character’s head in first or third person, you’re playing games with the reader.

Most of those commenting thought the writer as sloppy and/or that the book needed a better editor. One person mentioned the distinction between “close” and “distant” third person. As Writer’s Digest puts it, “The advantage of middle-distance and far-distance third person is that instead of hearing the opinions and reactions of one person, the POV character, the reader can now hear those of two people: POV character and author. Distant third person lets the author put in his two-cents’ worth of interpretation of events.” Frankly, I think this is an abomination because the author has intruded himself or herself into the story.

So, what do you think?

Malcolm

Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of “Eulalie and Washerwoman,” one of the three novels in the Florida Folk Magic Series in which the narrator is a cat. 

‘Elmer Gantry was drunk’

Here’s how you can make your eyes glaze over. Consider writing a post about the first lines of novels, go online and read through the 100000000 sites listing famous first lines, and then after you’ve absorbed a lot of icing and no cake, you won’t want to read another book for the rest of your life.

But you will. So will I. We can’t help it.

Just to get it out of the way, “Elmer Gantry was drunk.” is my favorite first line because it so aptly sets the stage for Sinclair Lewis’ 1926 satire. It’s likely there aren’t a lot of people reading that book these days, though there was probably an upsurge when the powerful 1960 film starring Burt Lancaster, Jean Simmons, and (in a role like no other in her filmography) (Shirley Jones. I enjoyed both the book and the movie even though they’re very different.

Before my eyes glazed over, I was going to talk about opening lines, why I liked some, why I didn’t like others, and then see what your favorite lines are.  But now I’m overwhelmed, and not in a good way, with all the choices. Sure, most lists include Lolita – Vladimir Nabokov, Anna Karenina – Leo Tolstoy, One Hundred Years of Solitude – Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Slaughterhouse-Five – Kurt Vonnegut. I’ve read these books and all the first lines (except for Marquez’ line which I detest) might make an interesting discussion. But then, I had to look at longer and longer lists and discovered that not only were my eyes glazed over, but my consciousness as well: there was no way to limit the discussion and I felt like I’d just suffered through the punch lines of a hundred jokes.

I have similar feelings about lists or discussions about favorite songs, favorite movies, favorite poems, favorite paintings, and even favorite novels. It’s lame to put it this way, but all those favorites are like comparing apples to oranges–or possibly, apples to anchovies. My mood, and possibly who I was with, is often a big factor in my choice of a favorite anything. Sometimes I disappoint myself by re-reading a favorite novel and finding out that I don’t like it any more.

When I see a first line while reading a book for the first time, I might think, “Oh, that’s nice,” but when I see it in a list of first lines, it seems more like trickery. Unfair, I know. I guess I like the lines in context rather than pulled out of their novels like teeth.  When they’re glommed together, I feel like reaching for a drink or two or ten, and then writing, “Malcolm Campbell was drunk. He was eloquently drunk, lovingly and pugnaciously drunk. He leaned against the bar of the Old Home Sample Room, the most gilded and urbane saloon in Cato, Missouri, and requested the bartender to join him in ‘The Good Old Summer Time,’ the waltz of the day.”

Actually, I’d probably swap out “The Good Old Summer Time” with Ellington and Webster’s 1941 “I Got It Bad (and That Ain’t Good)” because it really is a cool song title. I’m sure there are other worthy titles I could have chosen, but I didn’t want to look.

Well.

If you have a favorite opening line, please add it in the comments list. If you have a hundred, don’t add them.

Malcolm

 

 

If you’re writing a novel about a slaughterhouse. . .

then you need to tour a slaughterhouse. Or, at least read a lot about slaughterhouses, what happened inside then and what became of the people who worked there. In his essay in “The Writers Chronicle,” Colson Whitehead suggests writing what you don’t know, otherwise, you’ll and up writing the same book over and cover. So, you probably don’t need a slaughterhouse career to craft a novel about them. Frankly, that’s the last place I want to work.

Many things fall into the category of research that makes writers sick. Researching the KKK for my novel in progress fits into that category. And yet, since I never belonged to the KKK, I need to find out what happened in their meetings or my scenes and descriptions won’t be correct. I could say, “who will know?” Well, I would know. So here’s a selection of KKK books you’ll find on Amazon if you go looking. Fortunately, I found what I needed on free sites and didn’t have to buy any of these.

In addition to those, older books have been captured by Google or reside in various libraries and archives. If you look on state-operated photo archives (such as Florida Memory), you’ll find photographs of KKK fliers, pamphlets, parades, and posters. I grew up in an area with an active KKK presence, so I have a sixth sense when it comes to tracking down the filth.

Looking at this shit is about like being forced to eat a food you detest, like turnips, for example. Do you eat the entire crock of turnips in one sitting, do you eat one bite every week smothered in something that disguises the taste, or do you say to hell with the turnips—or the KKK–and give up on your book? I think that historically accurate novels that mention the KKK are important to our understanding of the Jim Crow years of our past and (sadly) to the deluge of white supremacy groups we’re seeing around the country today.

When I was in high school, I got physically ill reading All Quiet on the Western Front. Later, I felt the same way when I read Hiroshima. I wondered how the authors were able to suffer through the facts and put words on the page. Such questions are a consideration, I think, for anyone writing a novel with horrifying sweeps or history and the bad guys responsible for them.

Anger is good motivation, and suffice it to say, I feel plenty of anger about the KKK. I researched the KKK when I wrote the Florida Folk Magic Series. My work-in-progress novel follows up on that trilogy, so that means reading more about the KKK than I want to know. You might find yourself in a similarly uncomfortable research situation. if you decide to write a novel about the prison at Guantanimo, the rape culture, terrorist attacks, or even a tour of duty in the House of Representatives.

When it comes down to it, you have to learn about it before you can write about it.

Malcolm

 

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell author to return after 16-year gap  

Sixteen years after readers were introduced to the magical world of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, Susanna Clarke is to publish her second novel.

Out in September next year, Clarke’s Piranesi will follow the story of its eponymous hero, who lives in the House, a building with “hundreds if not thousands of rooms and corridors, imprisoning an ocean. A watery labyrinth.” Occasionally, he sees his friend, The Other, who is doing scientific research into “A Great and Secret Knowledge”.

Source: Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell author to return after 16-year gap | Books | The Guardian

I liked  Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell along with a related ser of short stories. Now, finally, Clarke is releasing a new novel. But it’s a year away. How cruel. Get everyone excited and then make them wait.

She writes slower than Donna Tartt who’s released three novels since 1992. Both of them seem to be following the old-style approach to writing, taking a while to write each book rather than churning out Two or three novels a year like many novelists do these days.

I’ll be looking forward to this one.

Malcolm

My Glacier National Park novel “Mountain Song” is free on Kindle through October 1.

Thinking book covers

This is one of the cover pictures I use on my Facebook author’s page. It’s a handy way of showing all the covers in my Florida Folk Magic Series together.

While the book cover is often the last thing an author thinks about, it’s the first thing a prospective reader sees. Some say a reader decides in 15 seconds whether to look inside the book at a physical book store or via the look inside features on book pages at Amazon and B&N. However, as I write I can usually see my characters and their environment quite clearly; it’s almost as though I’m looking at them in a photograph.

So, I’m lucky that my publisher Thomas-Jacob works with authors to come up with the cover art. In this case, we used two artists. The first did Conjure Woman’s Cat and Eulalie and Washerwoman; then, when he wasn’t available to do the cover for Lena, we found another great artist who was willing to work in the style we needed to make all three books look like they belonged together.

Thoughts behind the cover: The book is set in another era, the 1950s. So, we have an unpaved road through the piney woods. Eulalie, the conjure woman, wore a dress and a hat (unlike the jeans and tee shirts people wear today) when she rode her bike into town to sell stuff out of her garden at the mercantile. Her kitty, Lena, would either side in basket or trot alongside. The railroad tracks figure into the story.

The style of the art tells you these stories are magical in that there’s something ethereal the scenes: the radiance in the first book, the spooky nighttime in the second, and the sudden appearance of an alligator in the road in the third one. The mood here would be quite different if we had tried to do this cover with a photograph of a similar scene or with stock drawings.

I like spending time on the look and feel of the covers because they set the stage for the story. When I look at the covers of some self-published books on Amazon, I wish the authors had worked a little harder to come up with unique covers instead of using stock photography and a boxy layout. Spending the money for original art or custom photography is money well spent.

Malcolm