Favorite Books — Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis

This book changed my life. I can’t say that about a lot of books, but Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis did. No book, outside of the Bible, has had more impact on me. Through logic, Mr. Lewis reasons his way into why Christianity is true. He addresses many objections he had when he was an atheist.

My dad gave me a copy of Mere Christianity in college, but I didn’t read it until just after I was married. I’m sorry I didn’t read it earlier, since it was a gift, but I’m not sure if I could have handled the weight of the subject at a younger age.

I had never read such an intellectually challenging book. I loved it. My brain couldn’t get enough of it. Apart from the way it changed my life, this book also influenced how I write my fiction.

Creating Precise Images

Mr. Lewis writes about some extremely difficult theological concepts but makes them accessible through his use of precise analogies.

One of my favorites is comparing human society to a convoy of ships. The convoy is only a success if it reaches its destination. It can’t do that if the ships don’t watch each other to prevent collisions or if the crew of each ship doesn’t maintain its internal mechanisms.

Humans operate the same way. We can collide when we don’t care about other people or when we have so many internal problems that we can’t help but create conflict with others.

Such well-constructed, clear images inspire me to create metaphors and similes like that for my fiction. I want to describe people or settings or even explanations of a mystery so well that readers see it like a sharp-focused photo.

Building Better Villains

Mr. Lewis has many sections on the nature of evil. Although I know when I’ve done sinful things, it was helpful to learn the reasons why. Not only does this give me insight into my spiritual life, it also helped me build better villains.

In a passage, the author explains that one huge difference between good and evil is that people will do good even when they don’t feel like it, or when it won’t benefit them. They do good because they know they ought to.

No one ever did bad because they thought they ought to, when they didn’t feel like it. Every evil action benefits the person somehow. Even cruelty, which seems like evil for evil’s sake, provides satisfaction or pleasure to the person or else he wouldn’t bother.

Those explanations about evil have helped me climb into the skins of my villains and understand their motivations, helping me create believable characters.

What books have changed your life?

Writing Tip — Imagery

chalkboardw-2495162_1280The lesson I learned from P.G. Wodehouse is that a vivid description, especially a humorous one, not only makes the subject come alive but also makes it memorable.

Mr. Wodehouse was a master at creating with imagery that crystallizes a character or a situation. Here are some of my favorites:

He “looked as if he had been poured into his clothes and had forgotten to say ‘When!’”

“Jeeves and the Impending Doom”

To describe someone completely taken by surprise, he wrote “Aunt Agatha, whose demeanour was now rather like that of one who, picking daisies on the railway, has just caught the down-express in the small of the back.”

“Aunt Agatha Takes the Count”

Describing an angry school teacher who thinks a guest is about to tell her students an inappropriate story, he writes that the teacher cut off her guest, “rising like an iceberg.”

“Bertie Changes His Mind”

“As a rule, you see, I’m not lugged into Family Rows. On the occasions when Aunt is calling Aunt like mastodons bellowing across primeval swamps …”

The Inimitable Jeeves

“The Duke of Dunstable had one-way pockets. He would walk ten miles in the snow to chisel a starving orphan out of tuppence.”

“In moments of excitement she had that extraordinary habit of squeaking like a basketful of puppies”

“He resembled a frog that had been looking on the dark side since it was a slip of tadpole/”

compiled in Plum Sauce by Richard Usborne

I especially like the one comparing feuding aunts to mastodons. All these images are funny and memorable, and half the fun of reading Wodehouse is finding nuggets like these.

In My Own Writing

My novel is crime fiction and not humorous, but I gave my main character a sense of humor, so some of his descriptions can be funny. Because he lives in the West Virginia mountains and loves nature, he describes people in terms of animals, “like a toad ready to pop” or someone is “grinning like a grizzly.”

Even when humor isn’t appropriate for a scene or story, I still try to follow Mr. Wodehouse’s style, summing up a person in a brief but vivid way, what my writer friend Michelle L. Lavigne calls “a handle”.

In a short story I wrote recently, I needed a way for my teenage main character to describe two people he had seen for the first time. He call one man in his twenties “Mr. Smooth” because of his slicked hair, clean-shaven, pretty face, and fashionable clothes. He calls a well-dressed woman “Fashion Model”.

What are your favorite kinds of imagery? How do you use them in your writing?

 

Writing Tip — Favorite Authors — P.G. Wodehouse

conciergew-1184853_1920Whenever I want the literary equivalent of comfort food, I turn to the works of P.G. Wodehouse. He created a comic world unique in literature, as much as a fantasy world as Middle-earth and Narnia.

In the 1990’s, when the BBC produced a series about two of Mr. Wodehouse’s most famous characters, Bertie Wooster and his gentleman’s gentleman, Jeeves, the stories were set in a kind of alternative universe which looked a lot like the 1920’s but operated with it own rules. In Plum Sauce, a great book for readers just discovering the wacky land of Wodehouse or ones who are dedicated fans, author Richard Usborne outlines some of the rules of this world:

  1. “It is always hay-harvest weather in England: for 54 holes of golf a day, or for a swim before breakfast in the lake, morning in the hammock under the cedars, tea on the lawn, coffee on the terrace after dinner.”
  2. “Money is something you should inherit, get monthly as an allowance from an uncle, win at the races, or borrow” from a friend.
  3. “Country pubs are open all day long and their home-brew ale is very potent.”
  4. “All decent-sized country houses have cellars, coal-sheds and potting sheds for locking people up in.”
  5. “Most handsome men have feet of clay.”
  6. “Men and girls in love think only of marriage.”
  7. “No decent man may cancel, or even refuse, an engagement to a girl.”
  8. “A country J.P. can call the local policeman and have anybody arrested and held in a cell on suspicion of anything.”
  9. The night you go to a nightclub is the night it gets raided by the police.”

I prefer Mr. Wodehouse’s short stories to his novels, and my favorite ones are about Bertie Wooster, the idle rich young man who always gets himself into trouble because he’s not too bright and his friends take advantage of him, and his servant Jeeves, who always comes to the rescue. Bertie is the narrator of his stories and he’s such a likable character that it’s easy to be carried along on his escapades.

My other set of favorite characters is the vast Threepwood clan. Most of those stories concern Clarence, Lord Emsworth, Earl of Blandings, and his many relatives. Lord Emsworth is a widower in his sixties who would like nothing better than to hang out in his castle, smell his roses, and raise his prize-winning pig, the Empress of Blandings. But his troop of strong-minded sisters wants him to behave like a respectable member of the aristocracy. Not being the sharpest knife in the drawer and lacking a spine, Lord Emsworth is often at his sisters’ mercy, but his younger brother Galahad can be counted on to come to the rescue.

Because Mr. Wodehouse made his living at writing, he wrote A LOT. So you don’t have to wade through mediocre stories to find the gems, here are my recommendations:

From Wodehouse on Crime:

  1. “Strychnine int the Soup”
  2. “The Crime Wave at Blandings”. This may be my absolute favorite Wodehouse short story.
  3. “The Smile That Wins”
  4. “Without the Option”. A Wooster and Jeeves story.
  5. “Aunt Agatha Takes the Count”. Another Wooster and Jeeves story.

From Blandings Castle: The first six stories all concern the escapades at Blandings Castle. Two of my favorites are ” PIG-HOO-O-O-O-EY!” and “The Go-Getter”, but read them all because it makes the last one “Lord Emsworth and the Girl Friend” that much sweeter. For once, Lord Emsworth finds his courage.

From The Best of Wodehouse:

  1. “Honeysuckle Cottage”. This story is a hoot for writers.
  2. “Jeeves and the Impending Doom”

Over Seventy is Mr. Wodehouse’s autobiography and may be the funniest thing he ever wrote.

On Thursday, I will write about what I learned from reading P.G. Wodehouse.

Continue reading “Writing Tip — Favorite Authors — P.G. Wodehouse”

Writing Tip — Favorite Author

PoirotThe opening of Murder on the Orient Express in theaters tomorrow reminded me of a time when I inhaled Agatha Christie mysteries. In high school, I read almost all of them. Over the years, when I wanted a comfort food book, I often returned to my favorite novels and short stories. As I’ve grown older, I find more flaws in the storytelling than I did as a teenager, but some of the novels still can’t be beat for plotting in a mystery.

That was Mrs. Christie’s strength, mystery plots. Her characters were often one-dimensional but characters, unless they were the detectives, were not why people made Mrs. Christie the best-selling author after Shakespeare. They loved her plot twists and the opportunity to solve a puzzle along with her detectives.

Of her two main detectives, I like Miss Marple better. I like the idea of this elderly spinster being so good at reading people from her experiences in a small English village that she could apply her knowledge to just about any person she met. Like in Pocket Full Of Rye, she becomes suspicious of woman’s husband when she realizes the woman is the nice kind who always falls for troubled men.

If you want to write cozy mysteries, you must read some of Mrs. Christie’s novels and short stories. If she didn’t invent many of the conventions for cozies, she at least made them popular, such as the nosy amateur detective and gathering all the suspects together so the detective can reveal the identity of the murderer.

Recommended Reading

Breaking with conventions. In the 1930’s, certain rules had been developed about how to write crime fiction. Mrs. Christie “murdered” those in Murder on the Orient ExpressThe Murder of Roger Ackroydand And Then There Were None.

Hercule Poirot. Two of my favorite novels with the Belgian detective, Christie’s busiest creation, are Death on the Nilewhich was turned into a very good movie, and Hercule Poirot’s Christmas, which is my favorite Christmas murder mystery. It has everything you expect: a large country house, a toxic family, and a clever murder with a murderer, who also breaks with conventions.

Miss Marple. Even though I like this character, I think  her novels aren’t as successful as Poirot’s. But try The Body in the Library and The Moving Finger.

Short Stories. If you like short stories, like me, read Thirteen Problems with Miss Marple and The Mysterious Mr. Quinn, who certainly lives up to his adjective.

If you like cozy mysteries, what are your favorites?

 

Writing Tip — Favorite Author — Lessons from Melville Davisson Post

new-river-gorge-1286064What I learned from reading the Uncle Abner mysteries by Melville Davisson Post is how the setting establishes the mood of the story. Mr. Post’s description of the weather and Appalachian mountains in West Virginia pulls me into the story so completely that I experience the setting with the narrator Martin, Abner’s nephew.

From “The House of the Dead Man“: “It was a morning out of Paradise. crisp and bright. The spiderwebs glistened on the fence rails. The timber cracked. The ragweed was dusted with silver. The sun was moving upward from behind the world. I could have whistled out of sheer joy in being alive on this October morning and the horse under me danced.”

From “A Twilight Adventure”: “There is a long twilight in these hills. The sun departs, but the day remains. A sort of weird, dim, elfin day, that dawns at sunset and envelops and possesses the world.”

From “The Riddle“: “That deadly stillness of the day remained, but the snow was now beginning to appear. It fell like no other snow that I have ever seen — not a gust of speck or a shower of tiny flakes, but now and then, out of the dirty putty-colored sky, a flake as big as a man’s thumb-nail winged dow and lighted on the earth like some living creature.”

In each case, describing the weather sets the mood. Martin’s exaltation of the October morning reveals his mood, just as his description of the snow shows his unease. I really like the words chosen to describe the snow because in current times, when people see snow, they get excited or grumble, but they usually don’t dread it.

post_abner_des_cov_cmykTwilight is the perfect setting for “A Twilight Adventure” and not just because of the title. Abner and Martin come across a lynching party. The men responsible think they have the culprits, but just like the twilight can make objects appear different from what they look like in full daylight, Abner shows that the evidence the men believe is conclusive actually has several interpretations.

In my novel, when I wanted a peaceful scene, I chose a summer evening bathed in golden light. Mellow light for a mellow mood. For a tense scene, I can write about the stillness before a storm.

Or I can use the weather to contradict the action or the characters. In “The House of the Dead Man”, the glorious fall morning is the back drop for a confrontation in a cemetery. I can write about a storm, but instead of describing it in terms of fear, I write about kids playing in it.

Is weather important to your style of writing? How do you use it to set the mood of your story?

 

 

Writing Tip — Favorite Authors — Melville Davisson Post

post_abner_des_cov_cmykI only discovered the mysteries written by Melville Davisson Post in recent years. Mr. Post (1869 -1930) was born in Harrison County, West Virginia and was a trained lawyer practicing in Wheeling, West Virginia, the nearest city to my hometown. He eventually gave up the law and became a prolific writer.

The only stories I have read by Mr. Post are the twenty-two mystery short stories featuring his detective Uncle Abner. Set in the pre-Civil War days when West Virginia was still western Virginia, Uncle Abner is a landowner who raises cattle and has a thorough understanding of the law. We never learn his last name. He has a brother Rufus, whose son Martin, about ten-years-old, narrates the stories.

Uncle Abner is a fierce Christian, strong and righteous like the prophet Elijah. He uses this strength and righteousness and his ability to solve mysteries to help others, usually people who are the victims of loopholes in the law. Abner believes in abiding by the law but knows the law should serve justice, and if it doesn’t, he will.

I have no legal background, but I assume the loopholes and points of law, so pivotal to the plots, were once actual laws, and these add a layer of reality to the stories.

detective-1039883_1280Of the twenty-two stories, the first ones are the best because Mr. Post tends to repeat some of his plots in the later ones. My favorites are “The Angel of the Lord”, “The Wrong Hand”, “The Tenth Commandment”, and “The Mystery of Chance”. “The Doomdorf Mystery” is the most well-known story in the series and contains one of the most original solutions to a locked-room murder you will ever read. “A Twilight Adventure” has an interesting plot.  Abner and Martin happen upon a lynching party. Abner demonstrates how the evidence the party has uncovered points to more than one person, and they may be set to kill the wrong man.

I would love to rewrite “Naboth’s Vineyard” in a contemporary setting. Abner is convinced the judge presiding over a murder trial is actually the murderer. When he demands the judge to step down, he calls on the law to back him. But the law is not words written on a page or the local authorities. Abner calls on the true law, the people who vote for it.

Next time, I will write about how Melville Davisson’s Post’s stories have inspired my writing.

Warning!

If you are interested in trying the Uncle Abner stories, they are hard to find in a hard copy. I don’t know about their availability in digital form. The book I have, Uncle Abner: Master of Mysteries, was reprinted recently by West Virginia University press and is so riddled with typos I would not recommend a first-time reader of the stories using it. I like the stories so well that I put up with the errors.

Writing Tip — The Deer on a Bicycle

735600As I’ve written here before, I am a huge fan of Patrick F. McManus. His stories, first published in Field & Stream and Outdoor Life, are some of the funniest I’ve ever read. He also wrote a mystery series featuring Sheriff Bo Tully and a book about writing humorous stories, The Deer on a Bicycle.

Mr. McManus’s day job was teaching writing at Eastern Washington University, so not only could he write, he could teach it, too. Even if you don’t write humor, this book is packed with great advice.

I like the framework for the first half of the book. Mr. McManus has an imaginary character named Newton ask questions about writing, such as “Pat, what do you mean by ‘indirection’ in a story?”, “What do you believe is the ultimate in prose style, Pat?’, and “Short humor, Pat, What is it and who cares?”

In the second half of the book, the author selects twelve of his short stories and provides commentary about each one, focusing on structure or characters or some other writing techniques. I find this the most helpful section of the book.

At the very end is a list of humorists Mr. McManus likes. Most of them are classic writers of American humor like Mark Twain and Erma Bomback. Several of them I haven’t read and I am looking forward to sampling their works.

Next time, I’ll write about what I’ve learned from reading The Deer on a Bicycle.

Writing Tip — Evoking Sight

watercolor-2332129_12803I really like the post on Almost an Author using sight in our writing.  You can read my comment on the exercise Mr. Young proposes. It’s extremely useful to remind writers to slow down and truly observe a scene.

Most of us write by sight. What kind of writing you do effects your visual descriptions. Novelists can add more detail than a short story writer, but a short story writer may come up with an extraordinarily vivid description because of the constraints of the form.

One area of sight I want to improve is the use of color in my writing. We are so used to seeing color that we take it for granted unless the color is unusual in some way, especially ugly, pretty, vivid, and so on.

G.K. Chesterton used color very effectively in his writing. I discovered him through his Father Brown short stories. I tried reading them at twenty and didn’t understand them at all. But I did remember his descriptions of landscapes. When I went back to the stories years later, I could appreciate them so much more as well as his skill in writing with color like a painter.

profession-1923499_1280Here are some of my favorite examples from the short story collection The Innocence of Father Brown:

“They awoke before it was daylight; for a large lemon moon was only just setting in the forest of high grass above their heads, and the sky was of a vivid violet-blue, nocturnal but bright. ”           From “The Sins of Prince Saradine”

Describing a duel : “Everything above them was a dome of virgin gold, and, distant as they were, every detail was picked out. They had cast off their coats, but the yellow waistcoat and white hair of Saradine, the red waistcoat and white trousers of Antonelli, glittered in the level light like the colors of the dancing clockwork dolls.”       From “The Sins of Prince Saradine”

“In the cool blue twilight of two steep streets in Camden Town, the shop at the corner, a confectioner’s, glowed like the butt of a cigar. One should rather say, like the butt of a firework, for the light was of many colors and some complexity, broken up by many mirrors and dancing on many gilt and gaily-colored cakes and sweetmeats.”      From “The Invisible Man”

My favorite story by Chesterton is “The Three Horsemen of the Apocalypse” collected in Thirteen Detectives. The plot hinges on the fact that in the late nineteenth century, army uniforms were based on regiment colors, not the terrain where the army was located. The ending is a tremendous paradox, a speciality of Chesterton’s, and I never saw it coming, but once it arrives, it makes perfect sense.

Tomorrow I have a guest post on a friend’s blog, so I will talk more about colors in my own writing next week.

Writing Tip

globe-2150324_1280What I Learned from J.R.R. Tolkien, Part 2

My second lesson from Mr. Tolkien is this: All writers, even nonfiction writers, are in engaged in some kind of world-building.

With any kind of speculative fiction, the world-building is obvious.  But any writer who is introducing readers to an unfamiliar world has to do a type of world-building  for it to seem real to the reader.

Historical fiction uses a world-building different from speculative fiction.  The writer wants the reader to understand a given time period so well that she feels like she knows what it was like to live in that era.  Such well-researched settings enhance the fictious story.

But even nonfiction history books have to explain a vanished past in terms a reader can comprehend and make connnections with.

mail-pouch-tobacco-1310858_1280

My novel is set in the eastern mountains of West Virginia in the present, and I still have to do world-building, or at least, region-building.  So many Americans are unfamliar with a rural lifestyle that I need to explain things like a lack of chain stores or bad phone reception.  I have visited the area and researched the animals and plants so when I need to drop in some description, I can be accurate.  Readers will feel like they are visiting an unique place and people who live in the area won’t find errors.

Nonfiction writers have to do this kind of research and then present it in a way that engages the reader.  A dry listing of facts won’t do it.

So whether you write fiction or nonfiction, realistic or speculative fiction, I think all writers can appreciate the effort Mr. Tolkien put in to make the unreal so amazingly real.

 

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