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JPC Allen Writes

Inspiration for Beginning Writers

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Favorite Stories

Writing Tip — Favorite Story: “Over Seventy” by P.G. Wodehouse

over 70The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Even in this digital age, when writers can access the world from their couch, we still experience a lot of the problems and pleasures that writers did in the past . Whenever I get down about the pursuit of publishing, I turn to P.G. Wodehouse’s semi-autobiographical book, Over Seventy. It’s semi-autobiographical because Mr, Wodehouse was a humor writer and wasn’t about to let the truth interfere with a good story. From what I’ve learned about him, the basic facts in this book are true — where he went to school, how he got his first job writing, and so on. But the details may be highly fictionalized, such as the reason he was fired from a job in a bank.

Mr. Wodehouse was born in 1882, and his only ambition was to be a writer. So when he began to make a living as a writer in 1900, he did what writers do now. He tried to establish a platform. It wasn’t called that back then, but that’s what his efforts amounted to. He got a job writing articles in a newspaper while trying to sell short stories to pulp magazines. He added to this by writing occasionally for a humor column at the newspaper. Then he was selling humorous stories to well-known magazines. After he moved to New York City around 1909, he became a dramatic critic for Vanity Fair and wrote plays and lyrics for songs in musical comedies.

After all these years of work, he finally sold his first novel, in serialized form, to Saturday Evening Post. The Post was a huge step up because it was a “slick” magazine as opposed to a pulp one. I assume the word means it had shiny pages. Slick magazines were also more prestigious and paid better. When he died in 1975, he had published over ninety books and was working on a manuscript in his hospital bed.

Over Seventy has a lot of funny digressions, running from butlers to manners and the state of American TV in the 1950’s. But I especially like the chapter “My Methods, Such as They Are.” I am fascinated by an artistic person’s creative process, regardless of the art. Mr. Wodehouse wrote that the amount of work he got done in a day hung on “whether or not I put my feet up on” his desk. If he did, then he drifted off into the past. If he didn’t, he settled down to work.

Mr. Wodehouse was definitely a plotter. He always worked from a detailed scenario. This makes sense because his madcap plots were so complicated that I can see how he would have to work it all out before he started on the first draft. I love his quote about characters.

“Some writers will tell you that they just sit down and take pen in hand and let their characters carry on as they see fit. Not for me any procedure like that. I wouldn’t trust my characters an inch. If I sat back and let them take charge, heaven knows what the result would be.”

What stories have you read about writers or any artist and his or her creative process?

 

Writing Tip — Favorite Stories: “A Scandal in Winter”

sherlock-holmessc-462957_1280Since I don’t like romance, I wasn’t sure what story I could find to fit this month’s theme of love and friendship. But then I recalled “A Scandal in Winter” by Gillian Linscott. It’s one of my favorite Christmas mysteries. I first found it in the anthology Holmes for the HolidaysIt’s also been collected in The Big Book of Christmas MysteriesSherlock Holmes and romance seem like polar opposites, but Ms. Linscott writes a very convincing romance, fitting perfectly in the Holmes canon. Maybe that’s why I like it so well. It’s a romance that makes sense.

In 1910, tween age Jessica is spending the Christmas season at a Swiss resort with her wealthy family. Her family stayed at the resort the previous year when another guest fell to his death. Jessica was the only witness. The official verdict declared the death an accident, but both guests and staff believe the victim’s wife has gotten away with murder.

Jessica and her sister Amanda notice two elderly men they nickname “Silver Stick” and “Square Bear”. They are the only two guests who are polite to the widow when she returns to the resort. Silver Stick questions Jessica about what she saw, and Jessica, who savors the attention, plays amateur detective. Why Sherlock Holmes is one the case gradually comes clear through Jessica’s observations.

Jessica’s voice is distinct. It was the first aspect of the story to hook me. She’s a privileged child, but she’s old enough and smart enough to question the privileges and conventions she’s been raised in. Ms. Linscott also has some wonderful descriptions. I picture Jessica’s mother perfectly — “Then Mother arrived, wafting clouds of scent and drama.” And the widow — “This year she was thin, cheekbones and collarbones above the black velvet bodice sharp enough to cut paper.”

In the end, Holmes proves his devotion to the widow in his own way. And his understanding of what’s most important to Jessica.

What romances have you read that surprised you, maybe providing fresh twists to the rules of the genre?

Writing Tip — Favorite Stories: The Three Horsemen of the Apocalypse

unknownTo tie in with my theme of digging deeper into our senses when writing, I chose the best example of writing about color that I’ve ever read. No author used color like G.K. Chesterton, and in his short story, “The Three Horsemen of the Apocalypse”, color not only brings the setting and characters to vivid life but is the crux of the plot.

This story was first published in 1935, but the characters discuss a political event that took place years before when European armies still relied on horses and dressed in the uniforms of their regiment rather than in fatigues that allowed them to blend in with their surroundings.

A Prussian unit, the White Hussars, is encamped at one end of a raised stone road, the only road through a huge, desolate swamp. Other Prussian troops occupy the Polish town at the other end of the road. The Prussian officer in this town will release a Polish nationalist he is holding prisoner unless he gets a message to execute him from Marshal Von Grock, who is camped with the White Hussars.

Von Grock sends a solider on horseback with the execution order. He leaves by the stone road. When the Prussian prince comes into  camp a few minutes later to review the troops and learns what the marshal has done, he sends a second rider with an order that countermands the marshal’s. The prince fears international opinion if the Prussians kill the prisoner, who is also a famous poet and singer. Once the prince leaves, Von Grock sends a third solider, not with a message but with a rifle to bring down the prince’s messenger.

As Mr. Pond, who is telling the story, says, “The whole thing went wrong because the discipline was too good. Grock’s soldiers obeyed him too well; so he simply couldn’t do a thing he wanted.”

The plot hinges on the white uniforms with a “flame-colored baldrick” (I had to look this up: it’s a belt worn over the shoulder). All three soldiers on horseback wear it. These uniforms stand out against the dark swamp as do their white horses, which is the standard for the regiment. The descriptions of the swamp as the riders ride along the lonely road at night are so vivid that my mental picture is engrained in my brain.

“The grey-green blotches of flattened vegetation, seen from above like a sprawling map, seemed more like the chart of a disease than a development; and the land-locked pools might have been poison rather than waste. “

“The moon had risen over the marshes and gone up strengthening in splendor and gleaming on dark waters and green scum.”

Mr. Chesterton also uses color to contrast the marshal, wearing a white uniform, with the prince, who is wearing a black and blue uniform with a dark cloak.

I found this story in the collection Thirteen DetectivesWhat stories have you read that uses color, or one of the other sense, so effectively?

 

 

Writing Tip — Favorite Stories: Owls Hoot in the Daytime and Other Omens by Manly Wade Wellman

guitarw-1928322_1280Funny how a story sticks with you.

My fourth grade teacher read the class a story about a musician who travels through Appalachia and takes on a man who is intimidating a whole community through black magic. This man commands a strange bird, who strikes terror in everyone. The musician defeats the bird when he smashes his guitar on its head. The guitar is strung with silver strings, silver being a metal that evil can’t tolerate.

That was all I remembered of the story. When the internet came around, I tried to find it. After years of trying different combination of key words, I finally found it: “O Ugly Bird!” by Manly Wade Wellman, the first of his stories set in the North Carolina mountains about the wandering musician who goes only by the name of John and battles black magic with Christian symbols.

Mr. Wellman wrote many short stories, and I’ve read many of his other fantasies, but none captured my imagination like the John stories. First, he wrote these in first-person, which I prefer, and second, he wrote in the rhythms and words of Appalachia, where both sides of my family comes from. Also I haven’t read many stories where the hero consistently uses Christian symbols to defeat supernatural evil.

I include the John stories this month because almost all the stories are centered around a song. In “O Ugly Bird!”, John makes up songs to goad the witch-man. In others, he searches for unusual songs to sing. Sometimes the songs have power over people, like leading a greedy man to his doom in “The Desrick of Yandro”. Other songs, like “Vandy, Vandy”, relate a story that tells John something about the enemy he’s locked horns with. In one of my favorites, “Nobody Ever Goes There”, a young couple end up on an island in a river that no one in town visits after dark. As dark shapes begin to close in on them, John stands on the bridge to the island and sings a version of “Do Lord”. That song may be the most upbeat gospel song ever written. No wonder the evil creatures have to back off. There’s even a Christmas story, “On the Hills and Everywhere.”

Mr. Wellman wrote five novels featuring John, but I tried one and didn’t like it. Some people put these stories under “horror” or “dark fantasy”. They were written between 1951 to 1987, so they aren’t graphic or explicit. I couldn’t read them if they were.

Another bonus for me are all the wonderful names of the characters. “John” is the only boring one in the bunch. For women, we have Vandy Millen, Tilda Fleming, Craye Sawtelle, and Donie Carawan. For men, there’s Joris Yandro, Tewk Millen, Shull Cobart, and Forney Meecham.

A very good collection of all the John stories with a great introduction is Owls Hoot in the Daytime and Other Omens. You can’t buy it, but I’ve been able to get a copy through my library.

Bonus Story

Mr. Wellman also wrote a story featuring Sherlock Holmes during World War II. You can find it in the anthology, The Big Book of Sherlock Holmes StoriesIts title sums up the Holmes legend perfectly, “But Our Hero Was Not Dead.”

 

Writing Tip — Favorite Stories: Thanksgiving: How to Cook It Well

ThanksgivingssHave your ever read a cookbook just for the stories in it? Until I married, cookbooks were merely collections of recipes. But then I began buying cookbooks for my mother-in-law, a fabulous cook, as gifts, and my husband told me she liked to read ones that had a lot of descriptions or opinions or stories in them.

That’s how I stumbled across Thanksgiving: How to Cook It Well by Sam Sifton. In his introduction, Mr. Sifton explains:

“For a couple years I spent Thanksgiving Day at The New York Times, where I once was restaurant critic and now work as national editor, answering panicked questions from readers. I was a one-man Thanksgiving help line.”

With a wealth of stories, expertise, and very strong opinions, this book is a collection of what he had learned.

I love Mr. Sifton’s style of writing, and his insistence that there is a right way to cook Thanksgiving — no marshmallows on the sweet potatoes, please —  and anyone can do it if you plan ahead and work at it. He doesn’t believe in shortcuts. In an age when most people are trying to find hacks for shortening almost any task, it’s refreshing to find someone who refuses to take that route. Yes, Thanksgiving is a lot of work, and that is what’s makes it special. If we keep coming up with ways to make it easier, eventually, we won’t bother celebrating it at all.

I haven’t tried the recipes in the book, but they cover everything from how to tackle the turkey to dessert with additional advice on place settings and clean up. What I can recommend are the stories. Such as the first Thanksgiving the author “took a significant part in cooking … when I was 20” and his first attempt at frying a turkey with many wonderful descriptions and opinions sprinkled throughout.

Do you have a favorite cookbook because of the stories as well as the recipes?

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