Gothic

Gothic

“Uncle Peter?” Veronica Gladstone asked.

The rain beat against the window like so many tiny, cold drums. A flash of lightning did little to warm Veronica’s mood. It did, however, cast more light upon the room than did her feeble lantern. She gasped at the sight before her.

“Good evening, Veronica, dear. It took you long enough,” Dr. Peter Synn said. “I expected someone with your insatiable curiosity to discover my chamber on the first night of her visit, especially after I expressly forbade you to enter this wing. I find your obedience somewhat surprising, dear.”

“Did you say that you expected me?”

Veronica shuddered at the implications her intrusion being anticipated. The shackles on Synn’s desk implied one meaning. The skeleton strapped to the table implied another. The expression of the rather hirsute officer brought to mind yet a third. If she dared call him a man, then the figure next to him could crush her with one hand. She couldn’t decide exactly how the suave, but pale, aristocrat standing next to the clock wanted to devour her. Most disturbing was the unreadable face of the man near the window. She felt a fifth enter the room. Without looking, she recognized him as Michael, Synn’s silent valet. With the sound of squeaking iron, she knew he closed the door and blocked her only avenue of escape.

She felt all eyes upon her. As her gown slid from her shoulder, she wished she had taken the time to lace it, and to don her robe. Clearing her throat, Veronica said, “Uncle Peter, I do not believe you will harm me. I am, after all, your niece.”

“Permit me to correct your faulty memory,” Synn replied. “You are my wife’s niece, not mine.”

“Speaking of Aunt Barbara, I haven’t seen her since I arrived. Where is she?”

“Why, whatever do you mean, dear? Barbara is right here in this room.”

Veronica became aware of another presence in the chamber. Someone she saw, yet did not see. The figure looked and felt all-too-familiar. She wondered just who her aunt and uncle were, and what sort of company they kept. Self-preservation overwhelmed her sense of curiosity.

“Please allow me to depart,” Veronica said. “I will say nothing to Mother or Father.”

Synn laughed. “Do not fret, dear. I shan’t kill you. Neither shall my friends. Despite his appearance, Andrew is a Fusilier, and quite the well-groomed gentleman. Oliver is prone to violence when he loses at chess, but otherwise is as kind as a kitten. Christopher finds the taste of prostitutes more satisfying to his palate than that of the daughters of gentry. Vincent is somewhat a lady’s man, but he promised to remain clothed in my home at all times, so you will at least know where he is. Michael only does as I command. As for your aunt, Barbara seems to have mayhem of a most pleasant sort on her mind tonight. No, we shan’t kill you. I invited you to visit me because we have, shall I say, intentions for you.”

“What do you want from me?” Veronica asked.

“A witch would complete our little cadre quite splendidly.”

Veronica inherited her parent’s talents, and learned much at their sides. Somehow, Peter Synn knew. She cut her eyes toward the figure who appeared to be her aunt. Barbara swore that she would never reveal the Gladstone’s secret craft to anyone. Apparently, she had revealed it to her husband. While Veronica’s family faced no threat of death by fire, witchcraft was considered fraud by law. The many ears and tongues in the room threatened her father’s position, the Gladstone home, the family reputation, and its liberty.

She stammered, “I hardly qualify as a witch, Uncle.”

Synn sighed. It was a triumphant sigh. He said, “You shall join us, Veronica. One way or another, I assure you that you shall. While you decide whether that will be voluntary or compulsory, please enjoy a nice glass of wine with us. I insist. Michael, be so kind as to seat Veronica at the table.”

DAZ Studio 4.8 Pro -> Reality 4.1 -> Luxrender 1.5 -> GIMP 2.8.

Preliminary work in GIMP, ShaderMap 2, and Hexagon 2.5.

This was originally planned for late August. It was delayed to take advantage of the new features of Reality 4.1. So, just in time for Halloween.

I apologize for Veronica’s obviously modern panties, but I needed something to preserve the remaining modesty of a rather immodest girl. Besides, this scene is already everywhere in terms of fashion chronology. The Invisible Man is a markedly late Victorian character, but as no Victorian suits are available for G2M, I relied on the versatile Regency suit (Synn, Michael, and Vincent). The Century Nightgown (Veronica), on the other hand, looks like an intimate from around 1890. Corsair (Andrew) is historically nebulous enough to fit anywhere between 1800 and 1850. Princess of Darkness (Barbara) looks 20th Century to me, but it was the only non-fantasy texture I had for the Morphing Fantasy Dress. The Regency era accurate Sensibility didn’t look right when made transparent. Still employing the fashion time machine, I stepped back to the era of Queen Anne and used the Pirate Coat (Christopher) to give the vampire more of a continental flair, combining it, yet again, with the Regency suit. Highland Lad (Oliver) is decidedly Jacobian, but it works for a 19th Century setting. It also shows off his sutures. Considering Veronica’s panties, however, I was tempted to put Oliver in the Edwardian era Grantham Hall Suit and call it a day, or four hundred years worth of days.

Characters are named in honor of the “Hammer Repertory Company” (Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Oliver Reed, Veronica Carlson, Andrew Keir, Barbara Shelley, and Michael Ripper), with the addition of Vincent Price, as no scene like this is complete without a nod to him.

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FIRST NOVEL, FIRST DRAFT!

The Valley of the Mystic Moon, the first novel in my Chronicles of Aura Lockhaven series, is finished!

Okay, so it’s just the first draft. It really won’t be finished until I thoroughly revise it. I’ve already spotted places that need major work.

And I cheated. Halfway through the next to last chapter of the intended first book, I realized that the word count had crossed the 100,000 word threshold. So, I decided to end the first book earlier, and moved the last four chapters to the second book. I think it balances the first two books better that way.

You may be wondering why I was concerned about word count. When a publisher looks at a first novel from a writer, he or she likes the word count range of 80,000 to 120,000 words. Any less signals that the book isn’t developed enough. Any more signals that the writer didn’t revise enough. At 100,000 words, I knew this book would present a problem. My second drafts are always longer than my first.

That flies in the face of conventional wisdom, but it’s how I write. My first drafts are always skeletons. I write dialogue first, then description and action. I only add enough narrative to hold the story together. Narrative is my weak area. It isn’t enough, though, to just say “Aura walked across town.” Readers want more. They want their emotions engaged. Oh, all right! So, the narrative grows in my second draft. At 100,000 words, I really had no room to add muscle and flesh to my book. Now, at 85,000 words, I do. My goal is that 100,000 word mark. It’s a good size.

And I have a good beginning on book two, The Witch of Stonewall, already.

Now, to let Valley sit in the drawer and bake while I write Witch. Then, in January, I’ll start revising.

 

 

SOME REASONS TO WRITE

There are many reasons to write. I’ve been thinking about a few today, and they all begin with the letter E.

ENTERTAINMENT — There is absolutely nothing wrong with entertaining the reader. With today’s economic, social, political and international pressures, we need entertainment more than ever just to forget what we heard about on the evening news. Entertainment also serves as the main vehicle for the other reasons that follow.

EDUCATION — It’s always good to teach the reader new things, even things they didn’t know they wanted to know. Those facts are best hidden in the guise of entertainment, too. Walt Disney believed the best way to educate people was through entertainment. Hence, the movie Bambi. That movie was about the dangers of irresponsible use of fire in a forest. It ended up being about hunting, but that was an unforeseen side effect. It worked.

ENLIGHTENMENT — I think it’s different from education. Education presents new facts that the reader doesn’t know. Enlightenment stimulates the mind to think about things the reader already knows. For instance, the education in Fahrenheit 451 was the potential threat of a fascist government, while the enlightenment was the importance of reading, especially in its absence.

EDIFICATION — I would call this emotional enlightenment. The reader just feels good after reading something satisfying.

ECONOMICS — And what is wrong with money?

 

READABILITY

Last night, in a moment of curiosity, I decided to learn the reading level of my novel. It was easy to do. I opened a random chapter and ran the spelling & grammar feature of the review tool in Word 2007. At the end of the tool’s run, it gave me the reading level, based on the Flesch-Kincaid Test. Before I reveal the reading level of my chapter, let me briefly explain the Flesch-Kincaid Test, at least as best as I can given that I don’t understand math. The Test is an algebraic formula to give an average based on character count per word, word count per sentence, sentence structure and complexity, and presence of passive voice. I think. It provides an average, a ball-park figure.

My chapter ranked at a 4th grade reading level.

At first, I was shocked! I was offended — with myself. I am about to earn an MA in English! Can’t I write any better than that?

Then, I performed some studies of articles and blogs online written by people who have studied the Flesch-Kincaid Test and ran it on some popular authors. I was surprised. Stephen King, John Grisham, and Jan Karon all wrote at an average of a 4th grade reading level. The lush Stephen King? No way! Ernest Hemingway ranked at a 5th grade level.

The Flesch-Kincaid Test contains a flaw. The more dialogue that is present, the lower the reading level. Dialogue often contains sentence fragments, slang, passive verbs, etc. I am dialogue heavy, to invoke an understatement. So, my actual sentence complexity may be higher.

One important point to remember, and the people who designed the Flesch-Kincaid Test stress this — the lower the reading level on the Flesch-Kincaid Test, the higher the readability.  Do you remember history books written prior to 1985? Do you remember how difficult they were to read? Rather boring, right? They were written on a high school or college level. Then came writers like Stephen Ambrose and David McCullough, both of whom wrote on a much lower reading level, but much more like novelists. They made history fun to read! History books now dominate the New York Times best-seller list. A lower reading level is not a bad thing at all, especially if you want a wider audience.

Easier words, shorter sentences, less complex paragraphs, and direct structure make for an easier-to-read book. These are important points whether the writer is writing an adventure (me) or literature (Hemingway). Most readers do not want to read Finnigan’s Wake (even James Joyce didn’t want to write it — it was a direct jab at his critics). But most readers enjoy — actually enjoy — For Whom the Bell Tolls, Goldfinger, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Insomnia, the Testament, and The Other Boleyn Woman. Even Pulitzer Prize winning novels are written on a lower reading level, but higher readability level, than the prestige implies.

To compare myself to myself, I ran the same test on the preface to my thesis. It ranked at a 9th grade reading level, and personally, it’s the most boring thing I’ve ever written. Hmm. I have a feeling that I can write on the college reading level, but if I did, it would read like a treatise on thermodynamics.

I learned something. A few things, really. For openers, I learned that I can be a snob! I also learned that tests of this sort really don’t mean bo diddly squat. They are good guides, and yes, I would like to elevate my novel to the 6th grade level. Ultimately, however, I write commercial fiction — adventures — and I would much rather the reader turn the page than run for the dictionary. At the end of the book, I want the reader to say “When is the next book coming out?” not “What did he say?”

I will write this book the best that I can. If it turns out to be written on a 5th grade reading level, well that just means that 90% of the population can read it and enjoy it. More sales for me!

MY TOP TEN FANTASY WRITERS

This is strictly my opinion. Any time someone creates a “greatest” list, it is based on highly subjective criteria. My criteria is formed around influence more than skill or output. Some of the writers here had very little output, but their influence is phenomenal. It’s like George Harrison. I consider him the greatest guitarist of all time for the quality of his songs and the number of people he inspired to get off the couch and play. Was he the best? No. There are far more with greater skill and talent. So, this list is based more on impact and influence than skill and talent.

Fantasy is the oldest genre of literature. It can be traced back to Homer, the author of Beowulf and Scheherazade. How about those guys who stretched the truth about Daniel Boone and Davey Crockett? That’s all fantasy! It’s all mythical and it’s all something we enjoy and resonate with. These are simply the most modern writers in that genre and the ones who gave us what we read today. Enjoy!

1. J.R.R. Tolkien — Do you even have to ask why he’s at number one? He’s considered the father of modern fantasy and without him, this would be a really short list. His output was minimal — four novels, an incomplete background book and a collection of tales. Yet, he created a modern mythology for the British by retelling old Saxon tales. When the movie version of Return of the King swept the Oscars, fantasy moved into the mainstream as an epic for all time. So, the Lord of the Genre earns the number one spot.

2. Robert E. Howard — Okay, sure, he’s a pulp writer, but he created Conan the Barbarian, a character who has entered the cultural lexicon right next to Sherlock Holmes, Tarzan, Batman, Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock. Howard is the father of the sword and sorcery subgenre, and without that, we’d be stuck with only high fantasy. Sword and sorcery is the fun side of our world! It’s the naked brawny man, and the naked buxom woman, fighting impossible odds with their smarts and a huge weapon, and don’t we all just wish! In a short career of only ten years, Howard produced 800 short stories, poems and novels in virtually every genre of his time. Now that is one hell of a writer!

3. Terry Brooks — Brooks gets a bad rap these days because many critics think he just ripped off Tolkien. I don’t think he ripped him off, but he borrowed from him. First off, he didn’t have much to work with back in 1977. Second, that’s what myth tellers do; they borrow from each other. He ranks here solely because of the impact of The Sword of Shanarra. That book appeared concurrently with Stephen Donaldson’s Lord Foul’s Bane, at the exact time that Dungeons and Dragons players and Lord of the Rings fans wanted something more, when fantasy was ready to expand. Brooks gave us that expansion. He showed us what could be done with what already existed. I don’t know how many high school students were inspired to try their own hand at writing fantasy because of Sword of Shanarra, myself included. Many of us are still writing.

4. Stephen Donaldson — While Terry Brooks showed us what could be done with what existed, Donaldson showed us what could be done that was new by giving us Lord Foul’s Bane. This was fresh! This was literature! This was a deep, dark and sometimes unapproachable book. Without Lord Foul’s Bane, and the rest of the Thomas Covenant series, I doubt we would have George R.R. Martin and Jim Butcher with their dark, all too human, fantasy stories. Donaldson did with fantasy stories the exact same thing that George Lucas did with science fiction in movies at the same time with Star Wars. He brought myth home to a new generation. Donaldson showed us that fantasy could be written in a literary fashion, and not just in a high epic style. And the man hasn’t stopped showing us that.

5. Marian Zimmer Bradley — Bradley is left off all too many lists these days, and I think it’s because as she grew older, she became more of an uberfeminist. Her later works certainly were too political for my tastes, but there is no escaping The Mists of Avalon. Not that you would want to escape it. It is a phenomenal retelling of the Arthurian legend. For years, Bradley was the only woman writing in the genre, but she brought many women into it, and for that, she deserves to be on anyone’s top ten list. Sure she said a lot of feminist things, but someone needed to say them, and what better platform than the fable of fantasy. Besides, she gave her name to a long running magazine. Not even Tolkien could make such a boast.

6. George R. R. Martin — Perhaps the best thing to happen to fantasy since Brooks and Donaldson! Martin brings a professional and historical voice to the table. Did you know he was the writer behind that great TV show Beauty and the Beast? Despite his small output of fantasy novels, the man knows what he is doing. The Game of Thrones is a retelling of the Wars of the Roses for a modern audience, and he nails the all-too-human attitudes of those who struggled for the throne for very good reasons. This is epic fantasy, yes, but also human. It is easy to find ourselves in one of Martin’s characters, and that can be a scary thing indeed. Martin’s books aren’t just fantasy, they are literature. I suspect that in 100 years, he will be taught in freshman lit classes in colleges everywhere.

7. Robin Hobb — Currently, the leading woman’s voice in fantasy, but I suspect that will change as those who grew up with Marian Zimmer Bradley and Robin Hobb come of age and start writing. What sets Hobb apart from most fantasy writers is her ability to let her characters suffer. I’ve only seen her equal in Joss Whedon. But that’s life and it’s what makes fantasy so needed in our world today. Life sucks, but maybe there is some magic left that we can use to help ourselves and others. Hobb gives us that insight.

8. Jim Butcher — Urban fantasy at its best! I love Raymond Chandler anyway, and when I encountered the first Harry Dresden book, I had the best of both worlds — the love child of Philip Marlowe and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, with a sense of humor.  Butcher asked “why not?” as in, why not a private investigator who is also a wizard? Why not indeed! Keep writing, Jim!

9. Terry Pratchett — If Monty Python showed us what the Brits can do with a fantasy movie by giving us Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Pratchett shows us what they can do with a novel through Discworld. This is as hilarious a series as the Hitchhiker’s Guide series! Surreal, droll and all too modern, Pratchett gives us fantasy with a deep bite. In a genre that all too often takes itself seriously, Pratchett pokes us in the ribs and makes us laugh. At ourselves. And that hurts! But we want more.

10. J.K. Rowling — Shut up! I don’t want to hear it. The woman who dethroned Pratchett as Great Britain’s number one author deserves to be on this list. Sure, she needs a good editor (she repeats herself, uses too many ellipses and allcaps) but she did accomplish something profound. She reminded us that courage and determination can overcome evil. Harry Potter brought a lot of new readers, and writers, into the genre and they can’t seem to get enough. Hey, the more readers we have the better! Rowling took fantasy and made it accessible to teens, and through them, adults as well. Anyone who can do that should be in the top ten on any list.

Perhaps I should expand this list to the top 15 or 20. I can think of others to add. Terry Goodkind is blasted left and right for his misogyny, but that helps create a world of vile evil, and don’t we live in that kind of world? How about Stephen King? He may not write fantasy, but the Dark Tower series qualifies, and he has influenced many writers, myself included. How about H.P. Lovecraft, who told us how to create atmospheric settings? How about Edgar Rice Burroughs? I know he’s associated with Tarzan, but I remember his one-off novel The Mad King, which was a great fantasy and his answer to The Prisoner of Zenda. How about C.S. Lewis? I’m not a Narnia fan (too many evangelicals like it, and if they like something, then I automatically hate it) but he was a great writer and that was an influential series.

That’s the problem with lists. There are always more to add.

GROUNDING IN FICTION FOR REALISM

Yep, it is possible to have realistic fantasy. I don’t refer to magical realism, although that is a wonderful subgenre and worthy of a higher profile than it has. I mean, put so many durn concrete details into a scene that it feels like reality. Turn the environment into a character. Let the reader know how it looks, smells, feels and sounds. You may be pushing it if you describe how it tastes. Best leave that for food and drink, unless your character has a habit of eating rocks.

The writers of urban fantasy do this the best. Their settings are the modern world as we know it: the cracked sidewalks and fizzing lamps of the inner city, the overquaint cleanliness of gentrified neighborhoods, the sprawling sameness of suburban apartment complexes. They just don’t say Joe had a beer and drove home. They say Joe had a Budweiser at the Loophole and drove his 1989 Ford Bronco II back to Idlewild where he collapsed on his futon. Kinda sounds like our world doesn’t it? Bored now! But just as the reader begins to be bored with all the details of his own life spread out on the pages before him, enter the wizard private investigator chasing down the werewolf that’s baffling the police!

The end result is the fantastic elements stand out in even sharper relief. Most of us would like an escape from the dull mundanity of our environments, if not our own lives. The more real the fictional environment, the more like our own, the more we relish those fantastic elements that we wish happened in our own lives. Most of us would like to know that there’s a monster out there that isn’t elected. Most of us would like to know we had the power to change our worlds for the better. That’s why most of us read fiction. If we didn’t want that, we’d stick to the newspaper.

This works in other genres as well. I’ve seen it work well in horror and mystery. The science fiction and historical people have it down to an art. It’s sometimes called the Fleming Effect, after Ian Fleming’s penchant for describing every piece of machinery, how it worked, how it disassembled, who all owned it, and just what James Bond planned to do with it, or to it. We can smell the machine oil in that Walther PPK of his, and the diesel fumes coming from the engine of the Disco Volante. Somehow, that makes it easier to believe that this medium grade civil servant can save the world yet again.

Details of that variety help make the fantasy a little more plausible. And here, I mean the fantasy of fiction, not specifically my genre.

It isn’t quite so easy if you’re writing something like I’m writing. My novel is set in England in AD 1051. That is 1,000 years ago. No product names to litter around. However, I can try to be as faithful to the landscape and history as possible. I’m trying to use the right names for the birds, flowers and trees, describe villages based on photographs that are close to the era, describe the clothing that Saxons wore then, and get their lifestyles right. The protagonist can wear boots, but she cannot just go into a store and buy a pair. They have to be custom made. She can have a cat, but that cat cannot be a Maine Coon (not for another 900 years). She can carry a sword, but it should be three to four feet long, not one of the big five foot Crusader two-handers. She cannot possibly see Glastonbury Tor from a distance of twelve miles away, when the human eye can only see three miles before the horizon interferes.

That said, I’m not willing to sacrifice a good story for the sake of historical accuracy. I’m fudging the villages where the magical minded people live, making them a little more like 13th century towns. But I also explain that — these people are more cosmopolitan minded and have stronger contacts with the continent than the civilians do, so their lifestyles will be a little more advanced. There, plausible enough.

And some things I have to make up. While similar attire was worn at the time and earlier, especially in the Mediteranean areas, there is no concept in Saxon English, Nordic, Gaelic, German or French for the bikini! “Looks like something a Pict would have worn 600 years ago” is about as close as I can get. But that does help further ground the story. “She put on her clothes” is just too abstract and obscure. It could mean anything. The more the reader can see it, the more realistic the story will seem, and the more the fantasy will jump off the pages.

And that is the whole idea.

WHAT SHOULD I WRITE?

I’ve been gabby lately, but I can’t help it. Blogging is a good break when I need to put the novel down for a few minutes.

I just want to pass on some advice I heard that may help my fellow writers answer the oft-spoken question “What should I write?”

Many people know they are writers. They have a natural talent for putting words together into magnificent stories that leave readers breathless. Picking a subject, or a genre, is daunting, however. There are so many! Which one does a beginning writer choose?

I faced that question in February. It was my last semester of classes before I wrote my thesis and graduated with an MA in Creative Writing. It was time to begin writing for myself, time to start publishing. But what? After reading the stuff for three years, I felt I should write “literature;” in other words, mainstream stories with powerful emotional messages. But I didn’t know if I wanted to. Sure, I love literature — Hemingway, Steinbeck, Carver, Wallace — but I didn’t know if I wanted to write like them. It seemed to me that literary writers piled heavier and heavier miseries upon their protagonists and in the last chapters, killed them. After suffering with chronic depression for 19 years, I wasn’t sure I wanted to relive those emotions and invite a possible relapse.

So, what should I write?

About that time, my professor said “What should you write? Well, ask yourself what type of books fill your bookcase. If you like to read it, then you should write it. Chances are other people will want to read it, too.”

I went home and looked at my bookcases. What dominated them? I had virtually everything from theology to history, from Tolstoy to Twain, from science fiction to horror. One genre, however, towered over them all, filling the entire bookcase in the living room. FANTASY! I am drawn to the mythical, the archetypal, the heroic. I had Tolkein, Howard, Lovecraft, and King Arthur. I had a whole row of English history books. I had books on dragons and swords. Heck, I even had a sword hanging on the wall!

I had a duh moment. A duh moment is when the answer is so obvious that it’s overlooked and it takes someone else to point it out. As in … “What color is my hair?” “Take a look in the mirror, doofus!” DUH! “Where are my glasses?” “What are those things on your nose!” DUH! “What should I write?” “What the heck do you spend all your time reading and all your money collecting?” DUH!

I committed to the fantasy genre, and I have never been happier in my life.

So, if you’re stuck on choosing a subject for your story, ask yourself what do you like to read? Write what you like to read. You will be happy! And so will your readers.