If It Makes You Feel Free

To light it up again burn like a holy fire
Light me up again if it makes you feel free
Light me up again call me a snake and a liar
And I will be the fire that keeps you warm

Noah Gundersen | Slow Dancer

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Folkin’ Friday

If you need some acoustic guitar, fiddle, and beautiful harmonies this lovely bluegrass duo is the soundtrack for today. If you close your eyes, you can almost smell the sunshine on fresh grass and taste the sweet iced tea. There’s finally some sunshine in Boston and while the majority of this week has been spent pining for the south, it’s a beautiful day.

Six Days At The Bottom of [A Pile of Snow]

We’ve broken a city record for snowfall in the past week and it’s beautiful and surreal and sometimes it’s nice to get hit with the unexpected and be forced to roll with it because that’s really all you can do. When everything feels like it’s out of my control, it’s nice to remember that it is–and that it doesn’t have to be terrifying. Plus, Explosions in the Sky reminds me of Friday Night Lights which reminds me of Texas which reminds me of Home and that’s all the pick-me up I really need.

Don’t Let Your Mind Speak Louder Than Your Heart

It may seem like I haven’t been writing–but I have, just not here other than a few appearances for Friday Fictioneers and Write Club Fight Club (if you’re unfamiliar with these, please check them out!). As I near the halfway point of my graduate school program, the looming prospect of coming up with a thesis is starting to feel real. I have a novel that’s been in the works for a year and a half that I’d really like to use as my thesis, and all my writing energy (when I have it) is there. I have the luxury of a captive audience in my classmates and assigned workshops, but I don’t know if this manuscript would have ever had the potential it does without critique.

Writers talk a lot about discipline–and it’s important, crucial to creating and finishing good work. But, I think we also tend to beat ourselves up when we’re not writing–when the words are elusive and life happens. Sometimes, rather than tormenting ourselves for missed word counts or scrapped drafts, we just need to let go and live.

I’ve gone to three concerts in the past two weeks–two for bands I’ve seen before, and one for a brand new band–and it never ceases to amaze me how music just makes everything fall away. I saw Bear’s Den last night and several of their songs are the kind that make you inhale involuntarily, because you forgot to breathe, because you forgot that your body existed, that there was anything other than the music and the stage lights.

To the Reader

Before you think I’m channelling Baudelaire, never fear–although, there’s plenty to be said for him and his poetry! I’ve noticed there’s several new faces in my follower column and, as I’ve been sadly MIA from this space, I wanted to thank all of you (new followers and old) for reading and following and generally making this writing thing feel less like shouting into the void. If you’re new, I’d love to get to know you. If you’ve been following along for a while, mea culpa–I haven’t forgotten you or this blog, thanks for staying with it.

Lastly, because the only words I seem to have to spare these days are the words of others, here’s a little rock n’ roll from some Texas boys to spice up your Thursday.

 

Spotlight on Secondary Characters

Headlights at night-790596

Photo originally used for “No Sleep Tonight

Writers often talk about how their characters will develop minds of their own, how they’ll do things the author never would have expected when they first started writing them. I think this phenomenon is wonderful but I’m not sure it’s quite happened to me in the way many writers describe. It’s a side-effect of knowing your characters really well–something that is critically important if you want other people (i.e. readers) to see your characters as real people and not as cardboard Flat Stanleys on the page.

I have recently been working on some stories related to Southern Summer Night. I probably know more about Beau (the protagonist) than I do about a lot of my other characters. One of the newer stories was for class and and one element of the feedback I received was surprising–everyone wanted to know more about Beau’s relationship with his father; they didn’t have the benefit of all the information in my head about that particular S.O.B.

At the end of my master’s program, I have to present a thesis. So, sometime before that, I have to write said thesis. I originally thought I’d do a novel—I always wrote more novel-length stories than short stories–but that’s looking less likely. Short story collections are another option. However, if you know anything about short story collections, they’re like a fashion runway collection. Everything has to fit together somehow, it has to be cohesive. It has to have a theme. There’s another kind of short story collection where the stories are linked. Whether by place (Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson is one well known example) or character (Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout — there is some argument over whether this is a novel or short story collection, but for the sake of argument…work with me), the stories have a link that’s more solid than a common theme.

I started thinking about perhaps writing linked stories about Beau and his hometown and his family. The obvious first choice was Beau’s father, Mason. Everyone wanted to know why Beau hated him so much–and was there more to Mason than just being an abusive, alcoholic caricature? I started writing about Mason after figuring out what could have happened in his life–what disappointment, what slings and arrows (as it were) drove him to be the miserable, foul person he is in Beau’s life. The funny thing is, knowing as I do where he ends, I feel bad for the guy as I write about his younger days. I wonder if there was anything he could have done to change his fate. And then I realize while technically he has no choice because I am his Creator (insert maniacal laughter), it is his choices that turn him into the “monster” he becomes–and that’s his real downfall. That he chose poorly again and again.

What about you? Do you ever write about secondary or side-line characters and learn new things about them AND about your main character? Do you know or write the “back story” for characters–even if it isn’t included in your stories? Do you ever feel like you’re torturing your poor characters and should cut them a break?

 

Coffee With Hannah & Helena – Episode IV: A New (Hope We Don’t Get Sued)

Coffee with Hannah and Helena
Welcome to the first official edition of Coffee with Hannah and Helena! Grab a mug or a cup or a stein or a glass or a hollowed out skull with your favorite beverage and get comfortable. One of the things Helena and I like to talk about is the projects we’re working on—whether it’s a nascent idea or something that’s more solidly formed. It’s always enjoyable to talk about writing with other authors and get advice, whatever the stage of creation. We (read: Helena) also have a habit of playing a game we like to call Pop Culture Confusion (I just made up that title, roll with it). This essentially involves mixing up pop culture icons and the films/shows/etc in which they appear. We also like to speculate on who we would pick to cast characters in our stories when they one day make it to the silver screen. You can see how Pop Culture Confusion can make casting tricky. Today, we’ll be talking about CHUK – the serial novel in progress by Jessica B. Bell, dark alter ego of your favourite dilettante, Helena Hann-Basquiat (for more about Jessica, CLICKETH THOU HERE…EST)

Bayou Bonhomme Primer:

CHUK is a gothic horror mystery that takes place in the fictional Bayou Bonhomme, Louisiana, home of the legend of Remy LeVert, a swamp monster that to most is about as real as Bigfoot or the Loch Ness Monster. But there are those in Bayou Bonhomme that know for a fact that there is something old and evil that lives in the bayou, and they shudder in terror. There are others still that worship it as some sort of god, and do its bidding, which includes the occasional human sacrifice.
Chief of police Oscar Blanchette has lived with the knowledge of Remy LeVert’s true nature — call it C’thuN’Chuk, or Chuk for short — for the past fifteen years. Something terrible happened in the summer of ’98. A bunch of children went missing and turned up horribly mutilated, if they turned up at all. Was this the work of the otherworldly creature that lived in the bayou, or was there a human agent at work. One thing’s for sure – there are monsters in the Bayou — and some of them walk on two legs just like you or I. The story opens in current day, and another child has gone missing. Oscar fears it’s beginning all over again.
Leroy Angell runs a BBQ shack, boasting the Best BBQ in Louisiana, and it certainly is popular. Downright addictive, even. Leroy and Oscar share in old secrets, and while Leroy might not exactly be the most scrupulous of individuals, he is, for the most part, on the side of the angels.
The same cannot be said for Olivia Hereford, who stems from the two oldest, richest, and most powerful families in Bayou Bonhomme, the Herefords and the Bergerons, and who is secretly the head of The Faithful, the religious group that has worshipped C’thuN’Chuk for a hundred years or more. She is, quite simply, evil.
Then there’s Marla Bergeron — Oscar’s deputy, who he cares about like a daughter. Her allegiance is divided, having been raised in the traditions of her family, but after someone she cares about ends up dead, she begins to question her place in life, and if anything is ever truly ordained by Fate.

Soundtrack for CHUK:

Helena:

Helena Hann-Basquiat  About a year ago, Hannah and I were chatting, and I pitched her the idea of an ongoing story — completely unrealized or plotted at the time — set in the Louisiana bayou, where there lived an actual swamp monster. The idea was that it was just going to be an over the top, Tales from the Crypt-esque story about a BBQ Shack where the owner was cooking up strange meat that he got from this creature. It was really just a grotesque “the secret’s in the sauce” gag at first. Hannah, where did you think the story was going to go?

Hannah:

 Hannah Sears  Well, I certainly didn’t think it would go as long or become as big a world as it has–and that’s no slight against Jessica’s writing chops, if anything it’s my fault for underestimating. I wasn’t sure how far you could take a BBQ Shop of Horrors without just rehashing jokes about “It’s an old family recipe–that there’s part of the old family!” But as the story simmered and more spices were added, and Helena mentioned that the real monsters in the Bayou weren’t the ones you expected, I knew it was going to be good. Twisted, warped characters are a forte of Jessica’s.

Helena:

Helena Hann-Basquiat  I honestly think a lot of that had to do with not taking it seriously. I had a trilogy of novels in my head that just refused to come out properly, and I just wanted something different to get the creative juices flowing. Next thing you know, I’ve created an entire mystery, shady characters, a Lovecraftian mythology going back thousands of years, and of course C’thuN’chuk herself..

Hannah:

Hannah Sears  Not to mention Monsterotica is all the rage these days.

 Helena:

Helena Hann-Basquiat  That was completely unintentional… the tentacle porn bit just seemed to fit.

Hannah:

Hannah Sears  I’m sure there’s a niche for that too, but I’d go to a movie store outside your neighborhood before asking. But speaking of Chuk, if you could pick anyone to be the voice, who would it be?

Helena:

Helena Hann-Basquiat  Oh, are we doing fantasy voice casting? Oh, this is always fun. Well, you know, I almost want the voice to be sort of androgynous — Tilda Swinton? That guy from that ’90s band BUSH? Whats his name? Gavin Stefani?

Hannah:

Hannah Sears  I’m not a Tilda Swinton fan (it’s probably latent jealousy from the fact that she was in a film with the Hiddles**) but she would be stellar.

(** This guy)

Helena:

Helena Hann-Basquiat  She was in a film with Loki?

(Interlude — Of course, we’re talking about the film Only Lovers Left Alive, a film by the amazing Jim Jaramusch, which looks fantastic.)

Hannah:

Hannah Sears  Yeah, it was after she attacked Narnia–world destroyers get on well together. (I totally missed the Gavin Rossdale/Gwen Stefani moment, that one was over my head.)

Helena:

Helena Hann-Basquiat  She was the only watchable part of Constantine. If they make a movie of Sandman, I’d cast Tilda Swinton in every role. One actor to rule them all…

Would I cast her as a Bowie-esque Lucifer? Would I cast her as the androgynous Desire? Would I cast her as the zany Delirium? Would I cast her as sweet but sombre Death? The answer to all of the above is a resounding YES!

 Hannah:

Hannah Sears  She looks like Voldemort. Was Constantine a stop on Bill & Ted’s most excellent adventure?
 If you’re casting rulers, who would play the chilling Olivia Hereford?

 Helena:

Helena Hann-Basquiat Unfortunately, no one can tell you WHAT Constantine is. You just have to see it for yourself. (TAKE THE BLUE PILL HANNAH! SAVE YOURSELF!)

Hannah:

Hannah Sears  Oh THERE’s the Advil Liquigel I dropped on the floor this morning. Cheers!

Helena:

Helena Hann-Basquiat  So who would I cast for Olivia? Sadly, the actresses I’d want for Olivia are dead. Olivia is, in my mind, a younger, evil Jessica Tandy — a refined Southern Belle with a vicious side. Bette Davis would have been perfect, too. But now? Hmmm… Who would you cast?

Hannah:

 Hannah Sears  This may be completely off base but I could see Sally Field–she’s got that spitfire quality that I could see translating into the Matriarch, but both your picks were blondes. I almost want to say Michelle Pfeiffer as well, but I feel like she’s a little bit of a cliche choice.

 Helena:

Helena Hann-Basquiat  Michelle Pfeiffer is a favourite, but yeah, you don’t want to type-cast her. I definitely think there needs to be a sexiness to Olivia that I don’t see in Sally Fields.

Hannah:

Hannah Sears  True, which is why I started thinking Michelle–she’s got that slinky quality that could lend itself to the creepiness.

Helena:

Helena Hann-Basquiat  I could see Famke Janssen as well — a young(er) actress could handle younger Olivia, and with makeup could play older Olivia. But then, Hemlock Grove. Don’t even get me started on how that show has taken a giant nose dive with the second season. Hell, right up until the last two minutes, I was still hooked.
Hey, what about Judi Densch as the voice of CHUK! (Worst casting ever…)

Hannah:

Hannah Sears  I never actually knew the name of the actress that played Jean Grey — Google is getting a lot of action this morning–DAME JUDY DENSCH. Show some respect!

Helena:

Helena Hann-Basquiat  I was actually already chastising myself for that, thanks. I’ll go borrow Jessica’s scourge. What do you think of Billy Bob Thornton for Leroy? I know he’s a little old, but I loved his performance in Puss In Boots.

 Hannah:

Hannah Sears  But it makes me see Puss in Boots and he’s so cute in his little hat. I still think the real question is who voices Chuk.

Helena:

Helena Hann-Basquiat  Didn’t we already answer this with the catch-all answer? Tilda Swinton. She’s like the default answer. If you’re asked to solve for X in a mathematical equation, the answer is Tilda Swinton. Why’d the chicken cross the road? Tilda Swinton. What’s the answer to Life, the Universe and Everything? 42 (Okay, that one’s not Tilda Swinton, but you don’t mess with Douglas Adams, darling.) But, how much wood could a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?

Hannah:

Hannah Sears  Who is: Tilda Swinton?

Helena:

Helena Hann-Basquiat  Of course.

Hannah:

Hannah Sears  I’ll take Who’s Going to Voice Chuk for $300.

Helena:

Helena Hann-Basquiat  Ah, yes, the voice. Cummerbund Bandersnatch, of course. Or Robin Williams (kidding.)

Hannah:

Hannah Sears  Are you prepared for Chuk to periodically shout KHAN? (I know he doesn’t shout his own name in the film. Semantics.)

Helena:

Helena Hann-Basquiat  My only non-negotiable in the casting (other than the obvious Kristen Stewart, Kirsten Dunst, Robert Pattinson, Shia LaBeouf prohibitions) is no True Blood castaways, and that guy who played Gambit in one of the X-Men movies… you know… John Carter.

Hannah:

 Hannah Sears  You leave Taylor Kitsch alone or we’ll be having words! Angry words, that is.

Helena:

Helena Hann-Basquiat  Yeah, but GAMBIT. Need I say more?

Hannah:

Hannah Sears  I’ll just have him in the starring role of every single one of my movies. He’ll be the Depp to my Burton. Hey, I swore off X-men when they killed everyone and then they weren’t really dead. It was like LOST but less confusing and less pointless shirtless dudes.

Helena:

Helena Hann-Basquiat  In the comics, apparently Charles Xavier is dead. Again. “For real this time, we swear”

Hannah:

Hannah Sears  How George RR Martin of them.

Helena:

Helena Hann-Basquiat  Do you know how many times Jean Grey has died and come back? More than Jesus. Too much.

Hannah:

Hannah Sears  Technically he only did that once, so it’s not hard to beat.
Well, that’s all the time we have for today, thank you all for joining us–we hope you didn’t scald yourself snorting any hot beverages out of your nose, Helena and I are not responsible for injuries incurred from reading our posts. As Helena mentioned in our introductory post, we want this to be a conversation with more than the two of us, so I hope you’ll join in our discussion.

When you write characters, do you start with images in your mind, or do they develop over time? Do you create Pinterest boards or slideshows or inspiration boards etc with photos and things that inspire characters ? Do you start with the way a character looks at all or do you build from the inside out? 

“No story is terrible if…”

Does fiction have to be important? There are always jokes about the “great american novel” or “the book to end all books” when you are a writer. I look at the books I’ve been reading lately: Hemingway, Robison, Cunningham, McCarthy, and more. Were their books important when they came out? Or is it only that we see them that way through the hazy lens of time, the way the pages of old love letters yellow and fade so beautifully. They may say nothing more romantic than “I miss you” but when they are crumbling and illegible they are a sort of testament to love. Time cannot make bad writing good. In fact, I think it can only serve to emphasize the flaws as age deepens lines and gravity takes its toll. 

But, if it is a good story, if someone enjoys it and it captures their attention, their imagination–is it any less important than something by Hugo or Fitzgerald or Kerouac? Does everything we write have to be some sort of commentary? A stand for or against something? Can there be beautiful writing and captivating characters that serve no other real purpose than to reach out with their golden tipped fingers and pull you in saying, “Come with me to places you’ve never been”? 

William Faulkner said, “the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself…alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat.” 

The Hemingway of Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris said, “No subject is terrible if the story is true, if the prose is clean and honest, and if it affirms courage and grace under pressure.”

I tend to agree with both. Some people would perhaps say this is too narrow a stipulation, too confining. But what could be less so? The human heart in conflict with itself is a thing of endless possibilities. Endless humans (or non-humans if you will) and endless conflicts. The truth of a story is also subjective–it doesn’t mean the story had to have happened to you or happened at all. But if the story contains truth, reveals truth, prompts a search for truth–whatever that truth may be–how can it fail to be worthwhile?

The original question in this post was not rhetorical. I think blogging has become voyeuristic in so many ways. We read, we watch, we peer into the lives of bloggers, but we never interact. So I will repeat my question: does fiction have to be inherently important?

 

I swear, Officer, it’s fictional!

How do you research murder, mayhem, and malicious, malignant manipulation without being put on one or many governmental watch lists? 

Is there some sort of author website that has a compilation of murderous methods, torturous techniques, and poisonous plots?

Imagine such a repository. You must sign in by saying aloud, with your hand on a copy of the MLA Handbook or Moby Dick, “I solemnly swear, I am up to no good.” If you need to know how to kill a character and make it look like poison, cancer, heart failure, clumsiness–click here. If you’d like to know the proper rope to use if you must hang a villain, click here. The right gun, sword, morning-star, or lightsaber to commit your specific brand of murder? Look in the archives under: weaponry.

“But really, Officer, I’m googling chloroform for a story…that search about body decomposition? Different story, sir, but still a work of fiction!

Just because I theoretically know how to get away with murder doesn’t mean…right to remain silent? You know, sir, I am a writer? We write to resist silence. No, no, I’m not making fun of you.

No, I haven’t been drinking! Who do you think I am, Hemingway? No! He’s not an accomplice…well, he was a great man and I admire his work but…I’d like that phone call, now.”

But really, I’m writing a story with all sorts of nasty bits and pieces and I need to do some research. If I disappear for a while, send money for the lawyer fees.