Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Bright Lights, Big City, Black Orchid—Part Four

If one were writing an advertisement for a literary detective to appear in a series, it might look something like this:  

In search of a detective. Must be far more intelligent, perceptive, clever, intuitive and knowledgeable that everyone else. Prefer someone good with weapons, in case of danger. Quirks and foibles acceptable, indeed, encouraged. Should be well-read in the genre…

Hmm. Well, maybe not. What I was looking for, in my prospective story, was someone who fit into the mill village venue and could still be believable as a gumshoe. He or she had to know the people around him, be smarter than they were, yet be someone they would tell things to. And he—or she—needed a Watson or an Archie, someone to narrate the adventure. 

Guy Henson, I decided my detective’s name was going to be. This was a mash-up of names from my family: my Great-Uncle Guy Sanders was a baseball player for several mills in the area back in the early 1900s. His mother’s maiden name was Henson. So, the name taken care of, I needed a backstory. I set my mystery in the early 1920s, not too long after the Great War in Europe. I was sure Guy had fought in the war. He hadn’t been wounded, though he’d been affected in other, more subtle ways. 

Mills are noisy places, with hundreds of machines going full-out all the time. What if Guy had suffered through trench warfare, with its constant and unremittent shelling, and had come back home with the inability to handle loud noises? What if he’d tried to return to the mill life but simply couldn’t stand it? What sort of job might he do? 

Well, he could run the company story. As I said in an earlier post, the mill village company store was the Wal-Mart of the early 20th century. Everyone got everything there, from food to clothing to shoes to, well, everything. So everyone in the village would come to the store. 

This seemed to me to be the optimum spot for my detective to be, so he could observe and detect.  

So I started filling in a bit of backstory for Guy. Smart: he went to college and was an engineer, so prior to the war, he helped install some of the huge looms and such in the mills. Competent: see ‘smart’. Brave: see ‘fought in trenches.’  

All right, now I have a detective. All I need is a side-kick. Hmmm….

Sunday, January 11, 2015

We Interrupt This Program….

….for a review of GILDED CAGES, a steampunk romp by your humble servants, also known as me, K.G. McAbee, and my brilliant co-writer, Cynthia D. Witherspoon. The review is by Billy O’Shea, obviously a perceptive reader, who is a writer himself.

What do fans of steampunk want from a novel? Chances are they’ll find it in Gilded Cages by K.G. McAbee and Cynthia D. Witherspoon. It has adventure, action, mystery, suspense and a cast of characters who, while certainly classic steampunk types, are well drawn and always interesting. First of all, we have a pair of professional thieves: the formidable, multi-talented airship pilot Lady Abigail and her honourable if slightly slow-witted sidekick Simon Thorne. Then there is a ravishing French witch, around whose fate the plot revolves, a dependable manservant, and of course a dastardly villain, Henri d’Estes.

The action moves from England to France, Portugal and Egypt, and unlike some steampunk writers, McAbee and Witherspoon seem to have done their geographical and historical research well: the reader feels genuinely transported to the locality and time in question. The writers clearly know their shirtwaists from their charabancs. Each chapter is told from the perspective of one of the various characters, which adds an interesting touch to the narrative: no-one knows everything, but everyone knows something, and clues to the mystery gradually emerge.

The book is of course Victorian in style but easy to read, without the language seeming forced or false. I also enjoyed the tongue-in-cheek tone, the Wildean repartee, and the humour that arises in the clash of characters from quite different social backgrounds. The foppish Simon exclaims: “Electricity. It will never catch on, for I'm sure it's merely a fad. Gas light is so much more flattering to the ladies.” Bored to distraction on board a Nile cruiser, he is soon “ready to wrestle a crocodile or, perhaps, watch the stout lady do so while taking bets as to who would devour whom.”

In the final chapters, however, the story takes an occult and horrific turn that is quite unexpected, but deftly handled.

The authors are highly experienced writers, with a list of publications as long as an airship. On the cover of Gilded Cages, they promise “A thrilling tale of romance and derring-do, death-defying adventures and dangerous escapades”, and that is exactly what they provide.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and if you like steampunk, I can give Gilded Cages my warmest recommendation.  ~
Billy O’Shea @ Goodreads


GILDED CAGES is available as an e-book at Smashwords, Barnes & Noble and other fine retailers, and will be available in print soon at Amazon.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Bright Lights, Big City, Black Orchid—Part Three

So, cotton mill: scene of crime. Cool. Now, who is the victim? Well, just about anyone can be a victim, but we all get a certain satisfaction about a character getting his/her come-uppance, don’t we? Someone who is nasty, or sneaky, or conniving, or rude, or is mean to dogs—my personal bete noir. Anyone who is mean to a dog deserves to die; there, I’ve said it. Argue if you will, but my mind is firm on the matter.

Always and forever, though, and far, far more important is: who is the detective—because, let’s face it, the victim only appears in one story, seeing as how she/he is the victim and sort of dead by definition.

But a good detective can appear in tons of stories. Sexton Blake, for example, who was called by some the ‘poor man’s Sherlock Holmes’ and, according to Wikipedia, ‘Sexton Blake adventures appeared in a wide variety of British and international publications (in many languages) from 1893 to 1978, running to over 4,000 stories by some 200 different authors.’

Four. Thousand. Stories. There are fifty-six Holmes short stories and four novels by Conan Doyle, and how many ‘additions’ to the canon since? One of my personal favorite series is the Mary Russell/Sherlock Holmes novels by Laurie K. King, but there are literally thousands more. And there are dozens of Nero Wolfe/Rex Stout novels, stories and novellas.

Now, what is the link in these? Why, the detective, naturally. I re-read all my favorite mysteries, not to find out who dunnit, but to spend time with the detectives.

So I had to have a detective that I’d enjoy spending time with, one who had a reason to be in a mill village in the first place, and one who had his own ‘Watson’, his own ‘Archie’; in other words, someone who is telling the story and standing in for the reader.

Who, oh who could it be? Tune in next time….


Saturday, December 27, 2014

Bright Lights, Big City, Black Orchids: Part Two

Okay, so I’ve read hundreds and hundreds of mysteries in my time. And I’ve also read a lot of ‘how to write a mystery’ manuals. It’s what we writers do, after all. We’re either writing, or reading about writing, or reading to see how other writers write, or of course reading for fun. Because, after all, the reason anyone wants to become a writer is because she loves reading so much, so thinks writing must be even more fun. 

And writing is fun. Writing is also hard work. And writing takes self-confidence. And practice. Lots of practice. It’s incredibly difficult to do anything well the first time you attempt it, after all. Sadly, as Mark Twain pointed out, ‘give a man a pencil and he thinks he’s a writer.’ I’ve been practicing my craft for a few years now, mostly in fantasy, science fiction, horror and pulp, but other than a couple of attempts at mystery short stories, I didn’t feel confident that I could come up with a clever plot.  

But I did feel confident that I could come up with interesting characters. And I would also need a setting that, hopefully, would feel fresh and new. Where, oh where, would my characters do their detecting? There are mysteries set in villages and cities, in ancient Egypt and in space, in the Middle Ages and in the 1930s…and every place and time period you can think of, with more coming out every day.  

So I looked around me. I live in a small town in South Carolina that used to be—before the textile industry vacated the premises and headed for other greener hills in other countries—the site of a cotton mill. Now, I don’t know if you’ve ever thought much about cotton mills, ever said, perhaps while eating breakfast, “Wonder how those cotton balls in the medicine cabinet ever became the shirt I’m wearing?” Probably not, huh? But in this area of the state, there are—or there used to be—more cotton mills than almost any other industry. Back in the day, say from after the War of Northern Aggression to near the end of the 20th century, you couldn’t swing a cat—not that I have ever had any interest in rotating felines about the head—without hitting a cotton mill. They were so abundant that the owners gave up on conjuring clever names for them and settled on Mill #1, #2 and #3.  

But one of the many cool things about cotton mills is that the owners would build houses around the mills for the workers to live in, and not just houses but entire towns, with stores and churches and everything necessary for the employees, just so those employees would hang around to work and keep the mills running. Rent on these houses, and stuff bought in the company stores, would go in a ledger and often by the end of the week, the mill workers would not see a penny in wages, as those wages had already been spent on food and shelter and candy. Hence the song lyric: ‘I owe my soul to the company store.’  

As a kid, I had relatives who’d worked in the mills. My great aunt met all three of her husbands there, and my grandmother went to work in one at thirteen. Her brother, my Great-Uncle Guy, was a good baseball player, and Granny told me stories about how he was lured from mill to mill to play on the mill teams.  

Now if this doesn’t sound like a cozy village wherein a murder or two could quite profitably be set, then you’re not thinking ‘mystery’ is all I can say. So more next time on how the cotton mill village became the scene of my crime.
Cotton Mill Worker circa 1900


Thursday, December 25, 2014

Bright Lights, Big City, Black Orchids--Part One

The usual apologies for not blogging lately. But...

Back in early May, I read about a contest for Rex Stout fans called the Black Orchid Novella Award. Being a Stout fan from way back—and yes, you can read that any way you like, and I’m sure you will—I decided to try my hand at a Stout-ish novella.

The brief was clear: a novella, under 17K words, original, unpublished, that conforms to the tradition of the Nero Wolfe series, as in: ‘no overt sex or violence; emphasizes the deductive skills of the sleuth; does not include characters from the original series’.

Easy-peasy, right? Sure. Nothing to it. Uh huh.
Do you KNOW how many mysteries have been written? Series, stand-alones, noir, cozy, hard-boiled, classic, historical, and so on? Mystery series have been set in medieval England—I’m talking to you, Brother Cadfael—late 19th century Egypt—I love me some Amelia Peabody—and every other time period you can imagine. And the classic sleuths have ranged from the Eddie Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin, Doyle’s Holmes, Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey, Allingham’s Campion, Marsh’s Alleyn, Chesterton’s Brown, Hammett’s N&N Charles….and that just covers a mere hundred years or so. Since the 1930s—when FER DE LANCE, the first Nero Wolfe, was published…well, whoa. The idea was staggering that I could add something new and original to a genre so vast. 

But nothing ventured and all that. Living as I do in the South, near a small town that started out as a cotton mill village, I thought a mystery set in a mill village might be a workable concept. After all, I’ve read—obviously—a lot of mysteries and I couldn’t recall any of them set there. Also, a mill village has always seemed to me much like the small English villages where Miss Marple roamed: everyone had his or her place and position in the hierarchy, from the lowliest mill workers, up through the supervisors, and the owner of the mill being something along the lines of the local lord.  

So, venue decided upon. But then I ran into another difficulty. A clever plot. Look at Christie; all her plots are twisty-turny-complex. Could I do something like that? 

I reread some Nero Wolfe’s—never a chore, as all Stout’s books are eminently re-readable—and some of my other favorite mystery writers, plus some new ones I’d never read, and I discovered an interesting point: popular mystery series aren’t about the plot, but the characters. I can’t always remember who done it in my favorites, but I’m always glad to spend time with folks like Wolfe and Archie and Nick and Nora and Albert and Roderick. 
Hmmm. I appeared to be onto something. More about that in part two....and I promise it'll be soon.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Book review: A CURIOUS MAN: The Strange & Brilliant Life of Robert 'Believe It Or Not' Ripley

From a poor, inept, buck-toothed boy who loved to draw, to one of the highest paid cartoonists in history—and in 1936, one of the highest paid men in America—Leroy Ripley traveled a long way, in both miles and fortune, from his birth in the small town of Santa Rosa, CA.

Born in 1890 and called Roy by family and his few friends—he didn't add the Robert until later—Ripley never fit in as a child and dropped out of high school. At one of the many lucky turns that peppered his life, he got hired to draw 'a cartoon a day' for the San Francisco Press Democrat at eighteen, in the days when photos were too expensive. But it wasn't until he moved to New York and his cartoon 'Champs and Chumps' morphed into the soon-to-be world famous 'Believe It Or Not' that his fame skyrocketed.

Ripley traveled extensively, racking up visits to an impressive 200+ countries, and spent all his time looking for oddities, both human and otherwise. He drew and wrote about them, collected artifacts relating to them, and never got over his gee-whiz, small-town-boy fascination for them.

Author Neal Thompson's biography is a clear-eyed investigation of one of the most interesting men of the early 20th century. Ripley the man was as unusual as some of his finds. His fascination with the uncommon, the strange and the bizarre resonated in his own life. He lived for over fifteen years in a single-room apartment in the New York Racket Club—he once beat a nationally-ranked champion at the sport—even while his empire grew. Then, when he decided he really should unpack the crates of artifacts he'd been collecting on his travels, he bought his own island, complete with mansion, to showcase them. The Odditoriums followed next, plus radio shows and even television, and his catchphrase, 'Believe It…or Not' entered the language.

Well written and meticulously researched, THE CURIOUS MAN is a fascinating description of this odd and child-like man who had such an enormous influence on travel, reporting, comics and more. I highly recommend it.
A CURIOUS MAN: The Strange & Brilliant Life of Robert 'Believe It Or Not' Ripley
by Neal Thompson   Three Rivers Press. ISBN: 978-0-7704-3622-3

Disclaimer: I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.


Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Novellas Are the New Black...or Are Sequels?

I like writing novellas. They're long enough to explore characterization and plot, without being so long that they bog down midway. Writing in the 17-40K range gives you room to move around, room to really get inside the minds of your characters. And a novella can be read in far less time than a 100K novel, with just as much pleasure, at least to me. Sure, you can feel a little short-changed, a bit of 'but what happens to them next?' when you invest in characters, but that's what sequels are for.

Ah, sequels. When I was a kid, I wasn't familiar with the glory of sequels. I read anything that fell into my hands, everything in the school library and that ultimate pleasure: books for birthdays and holidays. But when I left these characters, I left them. They were gone, and the only way I could visit with them again was to reread the book. Not something I ever balked at, certainly, but sometimes you just want to know more about 'em, right?

So, I read THE TIME TRADERS by wonderful, awesome, amazing Andre Norton. Loved it, loved it, loved it. Then I found GALACTIC DERELICT. Oh frabjous day, calloo, callay! The same characters were in both! Gordon Ashe and Ross Murdock were there, doing their time-travel stuff, only this time they were in space too! Sequels…the Universe's gift to rabid readers. I love sequels! And prequels! And 'stories set in the same universe'!

Bringing me back to novellas. The bloated word count in a lot of modern science fiction and fantasy ranges well over 100K. Back in the 50s and 60s, books in these genres came in at a leaner, meaner 50-60K. I like writing in that range myself. But I never knew I'd enjoy writing novellas as much as I do.

My friend, brilliant writer J. Kirsch, aka Jon, has recently begun a fabulous series of novellas which began with THE PRINCESS WHO WOULDN'T DIE. It's free for a while, so go get it and read it now. Go ahead: I'll wait.

Now that you're back and all full of Princess goodness, did you notice the length of Naji's story? Under 16K and still, you got a full, clear, exciting, great story. And Jon is working on a sequel too, so try to hold down your impatience. If you can, mwhahahaha…

I've got a steampunk novella coming out soon from Pulp Literature called BLACKTHORNE AND ROSE: AGENTS OF D.I.R.E. And, guess what? I'm working on a sequel.