Showing posts with label Emily Bronte. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Emily Bronte. Show all posts

29 January 2018

Would I Lie To You?


by Steve Liskow

If a story uses a first person narrator, the most important action in that story is the telling. The narrator arranges the people and events in a way that serves his purpose. Since he has a stake in the story, sometimes he cheats. That's where the fun begins.




Many of the classics gain their power from the irony of a dissembling story-teller. Lockwood, the secondary narrator of Wuthering Heights, is too conceited to understand that Nelly Dean passes the buck in her tale of Heathcliff and Catherine's star-crossed love. Through negligence or prejudice, she causes every tragedy in the book and blames Heathcliff, whom she admits she loathed at first sight.

Dickens's Great Expectations thrives because Pip believes that Miss Haversham is polishing him to be worthy of Estella. By the time he understands that Magwitch is his real benefactor, he also realizes that Estella is a miserable woman who would be a horrible match for him.

Critics have argued about Henry James's The Turn of the Screw since its serialization in 1898, and James did little to settle the argument, calling his story merely a "pot-boiler to catch the unwary." His prologue (He almost never used a prologue) shows us a series of narrators who are either biased, lazy, or irresponsible, and the story seems to be an exercise in covering everyone's tush. Is it a ghost story, or did the governess hallucinate the shades of Miss Jessel and Peter Quint? The visions first appear when she daydreams about the handsome master who hired her under strange circumstances, so I tend to side with the Freudians even if they do get heavy-handed. I used to love assigning this story in my honors American Lit classes, especially those who had read Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream the previous year and picked up on the allusion to Peter Quince, the rude mechanical who wrote the hilarious play they perform at the end. Musician Quince Peters, who appears in my two novellas with Woody Guthrie, comes from the same source.

The danger of using irony is that readers may not understand. Contrary to increasingly popular mis-reading, Huckleberry Finn is NOT a racist novel (for that, I suggest Uncle Tom's Cabin, which portrays the black characters as docile and stupid, more like Labrador retrievers than people). Huck has been raised by a white-trash drunk and he repeats what he's heard about black people all his life. At the same time, he shows us that Pap, Tom, Boggs, Sherburn, the Grangerfords, the Shepherdsons, and the King & the Duke are lazy, greedy, stupid, violent, dishonest, or most of the above. Jim, on the other hand, is brave, loving, loyal, honest, and patient.

Never trust what someone tells you if he shows you something else.

If you write mysteries, the unreliable narrator should be near the top of your bag of tricks. Agatha Christie showed how far you can take this idea in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926). You don't have to go as far as Dame Agatha, but since people lie in mysteries, why deprive the narrator of so much fun?

Remember, you have to let the reader understand that something is rotten in the State of Denmark. A careless reader won't catch on (so much the better), but if you play fair and suggest along the way that narrator X spins more than bottles, you have lots of possibilities.

So, how do you play fair?

One way involves having the narrator say right up front that he prevaricates. In Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Chief Bromden is a paranoid schizophrenic in a mental hospital. He ends the first chapter by telling us, "It's the truth, even if it didn't really happen."

How much clearer can you get?

Holden Caulfield is a direct literary descendant of Huck Fin and a close relation to Chief Bromden. It still surprises me how many readers of Catcher in the Rye miss that Holden delivers his narration to a therapist after he's had a nervous breakdown.

Mary Katherine Blackwood, the narrator of Shirley Jackson's underappreciated We Have Always Lived in the Castle, is almost as crazy as Chief Bromden, but not as straightforward. "Merricat" tells us on page one that she's often thought she should have been a werewolf and that she likes Richard Plantagenet and the death's-head mushroom. We see her obsessive rituals to ward off "trouble," too. She lives with her sister Constance and her uncle Julian; the rest of the family died from eating sugar laced with arsenic on their strawberries. The small town shuns the family because they believe Constance evaded prison because of insufficient evidence. It's nearly the end of the book when those townsfolk trash the sisters' home and Merricat snarls, "I will put death in their food and watch them die." Constance says, "The way you did before?" and Merricat answers, "Yes."

She hasn't lied to us before about who poisoned the sugar. The subject simply hasn't come up in conversation. By the time it does, we've had ample opportunity to see that Mary Katherine Blackwood has more issues than the archives of the New York Times.

Gillian Flynn is equally clear in Gone Girl. Early in the book, Nick Dunne starts counting the lies he tells other people. This implies that he lies to us, too. Sure enough, when the police and Amy's parents call him out on various inconsistencies, he admits the truth...eventually. What makes the book so powerful is that Amy, the missing wife, lies even more than Nick...and even more skillfully.

Sometimes, the narrator shows you subterfuge without actually saying he lies. Chuck Palahniuk gives us a huge disconnect two page into Invisible Monsters. The macabre tableau involves Edie Cottrell's wedding reception--and Brandy Alexander bleeding out at the bottom of the stairs from a shotgun blast. Palahniuk's scene is horrific because it's so specific. Then the narrator shows her true colors: "It's not that I'm some detached lab animal just conditioned to ignore violence, but my first instinct is maybe it's not too late to dab club soda on the blood stain."

He's even clearer in Fight Club. 200 words into the story, he says, "I know this because Tyler knows this." Think about it. He repeats the comment throughout the book, too. That's fair.

Some narrators don't deliberately lie, but their background cause a bias that clouds their vision. I've mentioned Huck Finn, but think also of Nick Carraway, narrator of The Great Gatsby. Nick tells us his family is wealthy. His unconscious bias against the poor explains his letting Gatsby take the blame even though they both know Daisy drove the car that killed Myrtle Wilson. It's worth pointing out that Nick, who tells us he's the most honest person he knows, has two affairs during the book and came east to avoid marrying the woman he seduced back home.

Never trust what a character tells you if he shows you something else, remember?

In The Perfect Ghost, Linda Barnes shows us apparently agoraphobic Emily Moore, who mourns the death of her writing partner, killed in what might not have been an accident. At the same time, she starts sleeping with the famous director she and her partner were interviewing so they could write his biography. It may not be dishonest or unethical exactly, but it's poor enough judgment to make us examine the rest of her story more carefully.

Barnes, Flynn and Fitzgerald all use flashbacks, which delay the revelations because an altered chronology puts more pages between the contradictory details so readers are less likely to notice them. I generally avoid flashbacks, but nothing is off-limits if you do it really well. All three of these writers do it really well.

Another way to justify an unreliable narrator is to make him dumb or naive. Ring Lardner's short story "Haircut" (1926) features a barber telling a stranger about the events in a small Midwestern town. The story lasts as long as the customer's haircut, but Whitey the barber is too thick to understand how the people and events he describes fit together. By the end of his story, we understand that a murder has been committed. We know who did it, how, why, and that he will get away with it, too. Great stuff. And the unreliable narrator is the only way to make the story work.

Lardner's tale inspired my own story "Little Things." The two main characters are a bright eight-year-old boy and a shy six-year-old girl who meet when their respective single parents bring them to a miniature golf course. Amy lacks the wider knowledge to know that her experiences are not "normal," and Brian is too young to grasp the significance of what she tells him. Amy's mother and Brian's father are wrapped up in each other and don't even hear the little girl's revelations.

Everybody lies. But first person narrators do it better.

Trust me.


12 February 2015

Write What You Know


by Eve Fisher

"Write what you know!"  That old cliche gets trotted out regularly.  Now usually it's meant as an encouragement, but it's also used to set up (and even justify) limitations. I've had people seriously ask how I could teach World History without having visited every country in the world.  I've talked to writers who seriously said that they couldn't write about a ski bum or a serial killer or a heartbroken mother of a dying child because they'd never experienced that.

My response to the first is, "Does a medieval historian have to go to the Middle Ages?"  [Perennial note to self:  get a Tardis.  NOW.]

And my response to the second is, Emily Bronte, Emily Dickinson, and Flannery O'Connor.

Or Terence:

"I am a human being, I consider nothing that is human alien to me."
                        --Terence, The Self-Tormenter (163 BCE)

Or Walt Whitman:

"I am large; I contain multitudes."
                       --Walt Whitman, Song of Myself (1892 CE)

We are (almost) all born with the same emotional equipment.  Love, jealousy, envy, happiness, sadness, depression, joy, verve, hatred, need, greed, etc.  You want to know how someone else feels?  Pay attention.  To them and yourself.  Look inside and amplify (or de-amplify) as necessary. Everything that happens starts inside the human heart and mind.  If we're lucky, not all of it gets out, except in fiction.
NOTE:  "Just because it leaps into your head doesn't mean you have to DO it," is an observation I keep trying to share with my friends at the pen.  One of the main differences between (most) writers and (most) criminals is that writers have the ability to delay gratification.  (Per word, per piece, perhaps....) 
But seriously, think about writers:  Besides absolute loners like the Brontes and Emily Dickinson, there are many others who wrote amazingly atypical stuff.  In real life, Conan Doyle had far more in common with Dr. Watson than Mr. Holmes.  By all accounts Margaret Mitchell was neither a bitch nor lived during the Civil War.  Elizabeth George is neither a viscount nor a working class frump, and she's never lived in England.  Patricia Highsmith never actually killed anybody, although I understand that some people wanted to kill her.  Ray Bradbury never drove a car.  Rex Stout was happily married (at least the 2nd time), and fairly thin.  Our own Janice Law has never been a male gay artist of extremely unconventional genius with a liking for rough trade.  (That or she has the most fantastic disguise in history.)  It's called imagination.  And observation.  And mulling things over.  And wondering...  That's why we write.

Look, there's nothing new under the sun.  Humans are humans (including Neanderthals).  Everyone on Jerry Springer could be any of us, given the wrong circumstances and a complete lack of self-control in public.  There are really no new plots, which is a godsend to those of us who scramble to figure out not whodunnit but how the heck they did it.  My story "Sophistication" used a 4,000 year old plot device and I'm damned proud of it.  And if the news is quiet, and you just can't think of a reason why someone would commit a violent act, consider Steven Pinker's breakdown of the Five Inner Demons from his book, "The Better Angels of Our Nature":
  • Practical violence (means to an end)
  • Dominance violence (the quest for authority, prestige, power, glory, etc.)
  • Revenge 
  • Sadism 
  • Ideology 
There's a list to haunt your dreams.

James Joyce,
painted by Patrick Tuohy
in Paris, 1924
So we have all the emotions, we can crib the plots, what do we really need?  Education.  Facts.  And here's where we are the luckiest generation in history.  You can research almost ANYTHING on the internet.  I don't have to be James Joyce, sitting in Paris, writing frantic letters back home to Dublin, trying to nail down details of Dublin, June 16, 1904.  (Although there's worse things to be, that's for sure.  I wouldn't want his failing eyesight, but otherwise...)  I can find out almost anything I want to know about guns, poisons, crime, statistics, spyware, malware, anything-ware online.  I can read old diaries, old letters, old cuneiform, and go to an infinity of historical websites dedicated to Life In ___ (fill in the blank).  It's out there. And I have done it:  I am proud to say that my most recent sale to AHMM (thank you, Linda Landrigan!) is "Miss West's First Case", set in a tuberculosis sanatorium in post-WW2 Vienna, and I did ALL the research either on-line or amongst my books.  

Write what you know?  Honey, we can know anything we want.  We just have to put it together. Excuse me, I have to get writing!


15 March 2012

The Long and the Short



by Janice Law

Recently, I was asked to write a four page mystery for a forthcoming anthology. While our Sleuthsayers colleague John Floyd constructs such tidbits for Woman’s World, this is unknown territory for me. However, there’s nothing like a contract in hand and promises of a check to focus the writer’s mind and once I had a plot idea, the story went surprisingly easily. And fast.

This was because I have learned one of the invaluable aspects of the writing game, writing to length and having a sense of how many words take up how much space. Obvious, apparently, but anyone who has worked with beginning writers knows that writing to a set length is one of the difficult things to master. Ask a class for a two page essay, and you will get one and a half skimpy paragraphs with looks of anguish from half the class, and prideful four and a half page torrents from the other half.

Of course, journalists acquire a sense of length with their mother’s milk – or by their editor’s pencil. Well before they earn their first byline the decent journalist can hit his or her word count or, in bygone days, the allotted inches, on the nose.

And how does one acquire this useful skill? By writing over and over again pieces of the same length. I learned by doing two page movie reviews for a West Hartford newspaper. After several months, I not only could hit my page count, I had a new confidence in writing in general, and composition ceased to be a matter of tears and angst.
Now, everything I write (and with twenty books published and more than I’d like in the drawer I’ve written plenty) is just a multiple of those old two page reviews. I’ve acquired a sense of length.

So the little ultra-short story was not quite two reviews length or slightly more than the old Criminal Brief blogs. I figured a half page to set up the situation, a half page for the conclusion and just under three pages for the meat of the story. QED, as we used to say in geometry class.

The matter of length, though, has another aspect. I am convinced that writers all have an optimal length (or lengths). In my case the Anna Peters mysteries consistently came in around 275-290 pages. My contemporary novels are a tad longer, between 300 and 350 pages. My short stories without the incentive of a contract run between 10 and 14 pages, rarely longer – or shorter.

Other writers, I believe, follow the same sort of pattern. Stephen King clearly writes long. The Portuguese Nobelist Jose Saramago wrote short – check Cain, his posthumously published novel about the first murderer.
The great Edwardian humorists, P.G. Wodehouse and Jerome K. Jerome liked short. The classic American novelists were divided. Melville liked long as did Stowe; Hawthorne liked short and was better even shorter. The great UK Victorians and the great Russian novelists needed amplitude, though one of the best of the era, Emily Bronte, brought in Wuthering Heights at a modest length.

Perhaps if penicillin had been available to knock out her TB, Bronte might have evolved into a long writer. More recently, this been the pattern of successful mystery novelists. While Christie, Chandler, and Simenon all stayed with compact books, all too many of our contemporaries have moved from short and tight to brogdingnagian. Dick Francis, he of the thrilling Nerve and Flying Finish, grew rich on doorstop novels of multiple plots – and abundant padding.

P.D. James has grown longer, too, over the decades, if with fewer ill effects, but Elizabeth George’s Believing the Lie suggests that she may have reached the tipping point. Ruth Rendall has resisted the trend; indeed her most recent novel was shorter than usual, but she has had the outlet of the Barbara Vine novels, suggesting she has two ideal lengths.

Surprisingly, given the cost-cutting in the publishing world with lower advances – or no advances at all – cheaper paper, and cheesy construction, there seems to be a preference for the massive. Big novels, big books suggest big ideas or, at least, big sales and big sticker prices. Big suggests important, though many a savvy reader knows it really means inflated. But in this economy, who can blame writers, if like me with a contract in hand, they are tempted to venture beyond their muse’s favorite territory?

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