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Favorite Stories

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?

Writing Tip — Favorite Stories: Classics of Crime Fiction

nightw-578091_1280Trying to pick one favorite story to highlight this month’s theme proved impossible for me. There are so many stories in crime fiction I love. So I decided to select a variety of stories from the classics of crime fiction. Over the years, I have discussed these stories in more detail, so I’m putting links to those posts.

Sherlock Holmes

“The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton” from The Return of Sherlock Holmes — Holmes and Watson decide they are justified in committing burglary to save a woman from a professional blackmailer. I love this story because we get to see how much Watson enjoys his adventures with Holmes. He’s thrilled to the core to be sneaking through the night to commit a noble crime.

“The Illustrious Client” from The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes — I tend to like the stories where the superhuman reasoning machines are shown to be human after all. While trying to prevent a woman from marrying a sexual predator, Holmes is beat up, Watson is outraged, and once again, Holmes believes he needs to break the law to achieve justice.

“The Three Garridebs” from The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes — While trying to help a client who will receive a large bequest if three people with a rare last name are located, Holmes finally reveals the depth of his feelings for Watson. Watson’s description of seeing this side to his best friend’s nature is both touching and funny.

Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin

“Christmas Party” from And Four to Go — As with Sherlock Holmes, I like the stories that humanize Wolfe, who I find much less likable than his assistant/bodyguard Archie Goodwin. Wolfe becomes a suspect in a murder when he thinks Archie might be considering marriage.

“Black Orchids” and “Cordially Invited to Meet Death” from Black Orchids — The rare black orchid ties these two novellas together. The first concerns how Wolfe acquires the black orchid. It’s hilarious to read how he’s eaten up with envy when a rival orchid fancier cultivates it. This story also has a clever way of forcing a murderer to reveal himself. In the second story, a client meets a particularly nasty end. When Archie sees that Wolfe has sent a spray of black orchids for the funeral, he knows his boss is paying for than his condolences. But why?

Hercule Poirot and Jane Marple

Death on the Nile — Hercule Poirot has no shortage of suspects to consider when a beautiful young heiress is murdered on a boat cruising the Nile. I saw the movie of this book when I was in sixth grade, and the plotting blew me away. I think it’s one of Agatha Chrisities’ more clever puzzles, and the relationship between the two murderers is unusually complex.

Thirteen Problems — Miss Jane Marple solves a variety of mysteries in this short story collection. I’ve always like this characters because younger people and the authorities think the elderly spinster is too sheltered to know anything about real life. But because Miss Marple is a keen observer of human behavior in her small hometown, she understands people better than anyone.

And now for something really obscure …

The Third Omnibus of Crime, edited by Dorothy L. Sayers — I stumbled across this collections of mystery and horror short stories at my library when I was searching for titles by Dorothy L. Sayers. Compiled in the 1930’s, it features two mystery stories which are among my favorites. In “Wet Paint”, fishermen of the Pacific Northwest are disappearing from the boats while out fishing, leaving no clues. The sense of growing dread the fishermen feel is expertly conveyed. And the solution is perfectly reasonable and still perfectly surprising. “Inquest” has the most original motive for a murder I’ve ever read.

If you like classic crime fiction, what are some of your favorites?

 

 

 

 

Writing Tip — Favorite Stories: Fair! by Ted Lewin

713maf2b2mlLike I wrote in my post “September as Writing Inspiration”, September, in my neck of the woods, means the county fair, one of my favorite community events. And no book captures the spirit of the American county fair like Ted Lewin’s Fair!

With extraordinarily detailed water colors, Mr. Lewin depicts the life of a county fair from the arrival of the amusement rides to the moment they pull away to head to the next town. His descriptions of the sites, sounds, and tastes will be familiar to anyone who has attended a fair. I especially like that Mr. Lewin devotes so many pages to the 4-H kids and their animals since I now have experience with that competition through my kids.

Mr. Lewin has illustrated hundreds of books and written many himself. Some of my other favorites are Stablewhich relates the story of a stable that still gives lessons and provides horses and ponies for weddings and street fairs in New York City. Another wonderful book is Gorilla WalkMr. Lewin tells of his adventures with his wife, fellow illustrator Betsy Lewin, when they visit Uganda to see gorillas in the wild.

And if you want a unique reading experience, try Mr. Lewin’s autobiography I Was a Teenage Professional WrestlerI guarantee it is the only autobiography of a wrestler turned children’s illustrator.

By the way, I am always looking for good mysteries and would love to find one set at the county fair. Has anyone ever read one?

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