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If Walls Could Talk: Ten Reasons to Listen to The Raconteur Roundtable

M.H. Norris

Did you get a chance to listen to James, Ben, and I on the first episode of the Raconteur Roundtable yesterday?

If not, don’t worry, I’ve got a link for you right here!

And in case you haven’t, here’s 10 reasons to.

1) James keeps a running commentary on my wardrobe

And it annoys me to no end. Make sure you listen each week to hear what color pants I’m wearing. Don’t ask me why it became a thing. It just did.

2) I remind the world what the fox says

So, in my defense, James tricked me into this. You’ll hear it in the second or third episode in the next few weeks because of course that had to be the blooper of the week.

But I wasn’t paying attention to him, rather to the fact that my computer was refusing to play the Kentucky game that day (Go Cats!) and I wanted my game because I was trying to multitask and then he got it on recording.

And a little of me yelling at my computer wanting my game to play.

3) Our Ace talks to the real Ace

Easily one of the most fun things I’ve had the privilege of seeing over the last year is Nicole Petit meet Sophie Aldred. Then, when we managed to secure her on the podcast, both of us were excited.

And honestly, it’s a fantastic interview. We talk about Strangeness in Space & Doctor Who, Sophie gushes about her kids, and we learn a few fun facts that I was surprised to learn about.

But I’m not going to spoil that…

4) Ben designs a unique jingle

I don’t remember how it happened. I don’t remember what started it. All I know is Ben started making up an odd jingle with James’ last name.

And James managed to get most of it recorded. So you hear Ben carrying on, me laughing so hard I can barely breath, and at the end, James can’t help but laugh too.

It’s on the episode that released yesterday.

This also gave birth to my personal favorite part of the new show, the post-show blooper reel..

So, if you listened but didn’t go all the way to the end, you’re missing out.

5) THE RACCOONTEUR

ISN’T SHE JUST ABSOLUTELY PERFECT!!!

When we came out with the idea of The Raconteur Roundtable as a title, Ben made some little comment about how our mascot should be a raccoon.

So meet, The Raccoonteur.

I LOVE HER SO MUCH

6) The show is live and raw

Coming up, there’s an interview in which what would normally be considered a blooper is actually right smack in the middle of the show. We got talking about the Joshua Wanisko’s story and he revealed the secret behind an Easter Egg.

It made me so happy I started to laugh and then cry.

And then, within two minutes (while I was still trying to recover from the above incident) James said something that had me snorting tea out of my nose.

That was a great day in the land of professionalism for M.H. Norris.

7) Fantastic Guests (Whose Books I Saw in a Bookstore Last Tuesday)

We kicked off with John Ainsworth yesterday and he was an absolute delight to work with. But he’s just the beginning.

We’ve got Jim Beard and Rich Handley.

Jim and I have worked on a couple of projects together and I still can’t remember why I didn’t get to come on for his original TVCU episode but I do remembering being bummed. So it was great to talk with him about his newest project Planet of the Apes: Tales From The Forbidden Zone.

Let me tell you, there’s nothing like seeing a book in a bookstore and you know the person who wrote it.

Great feeling.

We’ve got the one and only Sophie Aldred, We’re going to be talking with Andrew Cartmel down the road. Have you read his mystery “The Viynl Dectective”? The sequel comes out next month and I can’t wait to get my hands on a copy.

8) Outtakes

The single greatest bonus feature any show can have.

It’s now become a challenge to see who can accidentally create the best outtake for the end of show one. There have been times one has happened and we’ve all been like “that’s the one.”

Other times, we have plenty of options.

Enjoy making fun of us but don’t feel bad because we’ve made fun of us too.

9) You never know what state we’re all in

Here’s your Raconteur Roundtable fun fact (well one of many since I’ve been telling some of our secrets in this post). We have yet to record an entire episode while all being in the same place.

With Sophie, for example, Nicole comes on to guest host and we were in four different states with Sophie being in another country.

Someday, we’ll record together. Though I’m not sure we will know what to do when that happens.

10) Fun discussions each episode

We’ve added a new segment to the episodes. Now you get a fun discussion segment where we discuss something for 10 minutes or so.

Next week’s discussion is fun. I gush about something and I’m sure the discussion will come up again some other time.

But week to week, we’ll cover various things that may or may not be related to the interview in the episode itself.

So you never know what you’re going to get when you tune in week to week.

We look forward to seeing you at the Roundtable.

Literary Archaeology: Play Me a Memory – Using Music in Historical Fiction

Jon Black

I’m at South by Southwest Music Festival in Austin this week. Over five days, more than 2,200 bands from 67 countries are performing in 60-ish venues scattered around downtown. With numbers that large, if you can think of type of music, it’s here somewhere (yesterday, I saw a ska band from Tokyo).

This means two things. First, I forgot I had write this post until 5 a.m. Wednesday morning. Second, music is very much on my mind this week. Taken in tandem, they’ve catalyzed reflection of what a potent but criminally under-utilized tool music is for writing historical fiction and historical fiction.

Pre-Historic Flute Bone

Universal Language

Music is ubiquitous across cultures and dates to far earlier than was suspected until recently. Flutes made from bird bones and ivory found in Germany have been dated to 40,000 years ago. The Chinese were using turtle shell rattles as far back 4,000 BC. Silver pipes from 2,500 BC turn up in a grave in Ur. Mesopotamians also gave us the oldest surviving musical notation (albeit imprecise by today’s standards) from a clay tabled found in Nippur. A second tablet, dating from 1250 BC, already shows significant advances from the first. And the Cycladic culture of ancient was celebrating musicians in their painting and poetry, including graceful elaborate statues of musicians playing both Cycladic culture of Ancient Greece, include double-lutes and harps.

First, a confession. I love music. I really love music. I spent the better part of a decade working primarily as a music journalist/music historian. And that comes through in writing. Two of my works accepted for publication are music driven.  In “Gabriel’s Trumpet,” my upcoming novel from 18thWall Publications, a musician serves as the stories MacGuffin. In “So Lonesome I Could Die,” my upcoming short story from Darkhouse Books, the ill-fated protagonist is a musician. I also have a story I’ve been shopping around in which a music journalist comes to be a very bad end.

But, even if you don’t have my level of passion, there is much to recommend referencing music in Historical Fiction or Historical Fantasy. Many HistFic writers, despite our best efforts, often emphasize the sights of the past to the detriment of information provided by the other senses (excluding the now obligatory passage about how bad the past smelled). Music is a great way to insert the sounds of the past.

Referencing the sounds of Wagner, the Doors, or medieval troubadours immediately provides expositive shorthand regarding location and setting. When well chosen, it also helps build mood and atmosphere. Because sound is such a visceral sense and people often have very personal and intimate reactions to music, it is a great way to make readers feel like they’re right there in the story.

Troubadours

Video Killed the Radio Star

If you’re writing at the end of the 19th century or after, don’t forget the possibilities of recording, playback, and broadcast technologies. Consider the following sentences:

“After cranking the Victrola, she delicately set a phonograph record on the platter,”

“Jamming a cassette in the car’s 8-track player, he slammed his foot on the accelerator”

“Flipping through her phone, she wanting to share the album she’d downloaded just hours ago.”

Each of those is a single sentence that suggests an entire scene … in an unmistakable time period. Indeed, it’s not hard to go from there to characters and motivation.

STEAL THIS PLOT TWIST:  Speaking of recording technology, if you’re looking for an unusual way to challenge your protagonists, stick critical information on some obscure pre-phonograph  recording medium (cylinder, wire recorders, etc.). Now, send them scrambling to find a way to play it.

Phonographic Cylinder Player

Broadcasting technologies are very useful tools for writing. This is especially true of radio, which contains ads (in some countries, anyway) and news between songs. Such news breaks can establish the era or setting of a piece (a news story about the eruption of Mt. St. Helens), provide color (don’t forget the annual Strawberry Days festival this weekend, come on down and see the crowning of the Strawberry Queen), or advancing the plot (a hook-handed killer has just escaped the nearby institute for the criminally cliché).

Papa was a Rolling Stone

Music and musicians don’t have to be just background, color, or exposition, they can actually be part of the narrative.  At the end of the day, you don’t have to have a reason to stick a musician in your story. Archetypal musicians are colorful, larger than life, get away with flouting social conventions, and have interesting backstories. In other words, they are precisely the kind of characters that most authors like to write.

However, if that’s not enough, musicians have multiple narrative uses.

While generally considered somewhat disrespectable themselves, musicians come into contact and interact with people from all classes and walks and life. That makes them a great vehicle for providing information that protagonists might otherwise have difficulty accessing. That musicians often travel widely offers similar benefits.

And, while it’s a cliché, musicians are often portrayed with unusual (frequently shady) backgrounds.  It is easier to believe that a down on his jazz player knows how to hotwire a car than an accountant. Or that the grizzled of Meistersinger knows the paths through the mountains out of Hapsburg lands than a peasant.

In short, because of the enduring and portable archetypes we associate with them, the romantic and liminal musician can be played as something of a wildcard.

Woodstock (Dereck Redmon and Paul Campbell)

If Walls Could Talk: Remembrance of the…M.H. Norris

M.H. Norris

On my Facebook timeline, the last week or so, I’ve had some fun “On This Day” things show up. For example, two years ago today, I was at my first Comic Con. Two years ago yesterday, I met David Tennant. Two years ago last week, I got to announce that Notches was coming soon. Two years ago later this month, it was released.

So it was three years ago right now that I was writing my first book, “Badge City: Notches.” Sometimes it’s hard to believe it’s been that long and sometimes it doesn’t feel like quite that long.

So how did I go from the initial concept at the end of January 2014 to turning in the manuscript on May 1 of the same year?

Somedays I’m trying to remember how I pulled that off. That and that ending… I would love to know how I did that and do it again but I don’t think I’m going to get that lucky.

As I sit here and write this, I’m watching an old episode of Criminal Minds. If memory serves, this was in it’s ninth or tenth season when I was writing Notches and I watched them all while writing it. There’s some things tucked in there that James noticed that I didn’t at the time because I wrote it while watching this show.

One of my favorite things to do after watching a show (especially one that’s run at least five seasons) is to watch the pilot after having watched the show and see how far characters have come.

What goes into a story?

No seriously.

I sit here week after week covering bits and pieces and whatever musings come to mind. But sometimes I even have to be reminded myself of what makes up a story.

Characters, plots and subplots, beginnings, middles, and ends.

Facebook has been reminding me the last few weeks of first experiences for me. It’s hard to believe that years ago some of this stuff I take for granted knowing I had to learn. And isn’t that the joy of this profession we all love?

We’re always learning. Whether it’s research for the next book or something for a new character or just because we went on a rabbit trail because an idea popped into our heads and we honestly don’t know if it’s even going to make the cut or not.

Because I’ve been there and done that.

So what have I been doing this week with my writing?

I’ve started a couple of projects, begun to outline a third and got edits back from yet another. And I’ve seen all sorts of posts from myself, from friends and family, all showing me days of auld lang syne.

Though seriously past Mary Helen, if you want to let me know how you managed to write the climax of Notches, I’d love some insight.

I’ve written tons of posts gushing about how fun the beginnings of stories are. That stage where they’re just an idea and you haven’t tried to write a whole lot of it yet and there’s all sorts of “well what ifs” floating around.

But it’s also hard. That’s the first thing people see and it’s one thing to write the first scene. It’s another to write the second.

The first scene is where you write a hook. What’s going to be on the first page when people catch the summary on Amazon and judge the entire book based on it (yes, I’ve done it).

But the second and third scene (the rest of the first chapter really) is where you win over the ones who give you a chance.

Because I’ve also been the one to sit a book down before the end of the first chapter because the first page might have been good but it went downhill from there.

That’s one thing I struggle with in my writing. I feel like with every project that goes by, with every story that comes out I raise the bar on myself a little higher and then higher still.

How it feels.

That’s not to say that as writers we shouldn’t set the bar high for ourselves, but we truly are our own worst critics.

So, this week, these walls are feeling nostalgic and they’re looking at how high the bar is set for these upcoming projects.

Guess it’s time for me to swing high.

If Walls Could Talk: Random Word Syndrome – Editing

M. H. Norris

M.H. is mired in editing and excitement this week; James’ fill-in post was delayed by light food poisoning and two missed buses. Thus 18thWall Productions is proud to present, an article from the M.H. Norris archives. Back in the innocent days of 2014, M.H. had another, earlier blog on another, earlier 18thWall blog. It’s now lost to the sands of the internet–but now, from time to time, we’ll be presenting the best of her past thoughts, former emotions, and long-lost points. This week, we’ve taken a TARDIS ride back to April 4th, 2014.

Editing is as much fun as smashing your head against a table.

Those pages you thought were inspired are now covered with ink in the color of your choice (I tend to use pink or purple instead of the usual red). Now you are staring at a draft, finished (or mostly finished in my case, I still have a chapter left), you wonder, what do I do now?

“An Old Charming Book” (Image via Flickr user Wader)

The simple answer?

You keep writing.

But just saying that will leave me with a really short blog post. So let’s expand upon that.

There are several things you run into when editing through a novel.

The first, and the most fun of the things you’ll encounter, is a snapshot of sorts. You’ll get a snapshot in print of the last few months of your life. You’ll see the late nights, the sneaky writing sessions when you should have been in a lecture, that day off where you wrote for twelve hours straight. Even there at the end when you had that last push and hit the last few chapters. All of that is there, hidden in the pages.

Now for the other, difficult things.

One thing you’ll find…I like to call it the Random Word Syndrome. This usually is a word at the end of the sentence that is nowhere close to where you were going with your thought. Usually, the reason these words pop up is because you were multi-tasking when you were writing. Whether that be a conversation on Facebook or watching something on TV, these words tend to slip in.

Granted, sometimes, you can catch them when you do them and as a result, you won’t see them during the fun process that is editing. But then, there are the times where you just don’t catch them fast enough. And then you read said portions at your writing group. But hey, we all had a great laugh.

And in this field, you really have to learn to laugh at yourself.

Moving on…

Another thing you’ll find are inconsistencies. Usually, these are an accident. Usually, these remind you why TV shows have a person whose job is to make sure that inconsistencies die before they’re born. But they do happen.

Don’t let them bother you.

They happen for several reasons. One, you change something in the novel, add a plot point, or insert a detail that seems relatively minor at the time—but then you have to use it again. For example, I named someone, used the name once and later on, had to name them again and I accidentally renamed them.

Another is changing details, like the timeline, which can throw off earlier events. This usually happens when you decide to be cool and add authenticity by trying to make it fit into the actual calendar (which was rude and refused to match with what was in your head).

That can be fixed by sometimes reworking an earlier scene, which can be tricky if you have evidence involved. But that evidence can be reworked into the scene, sometimes in the same form, sometimes in a another. But rework it and hopefully it flows smoother.

One thing you’ll find, however, this one is strictly dependent on if you work the way I do. As I’ve said before, I primarily write in Scrivener. From there, I can export to Word. But, on occasion, somewhere in the transfer of the data, something messes up. The most popular one is it doesn’t like to italicize and instead underlines it.

That’s another easy fix, just a few clicks and your back in business. That said, don’t forget to fix them. If you take your time to make your manuscript look the best it can, it will show.

Editing is a fun process. It’s the necessary evil that every writer needs to face, no matter how much we would like to think otherwise.

Another piece of advice that I’ll leave with you is this: find someone to help you edit. Find another set of eyes (they will see something that yours don’t). When you write something, you know what you mean—but that doesn’t mean that that is what you said. By having that other set of eyes, you’ll be able to catch those spots and clean up your novel.

Writing is a process that seems solitary, but when you really get into it, you realize just how much that isn’t the case. You have peer editing (if you go that route and I advise that you do), that extra set of eyes, and when you get a publisher, you have those sets of eyes also looking at it. Add in the people that help you research, write the books you read to do your research, write and produce the shows you watch (and the extremely insane amount of people, time, and effort that it takes to make one of those come to the small screen). Everyone comes together in your novel.

It isn’t as lonely of a world as people think.

Literary Archaeology: The Devil is in the Details: Thoughts on Accuracy in HistFic

Jon Black

As someone who writes primarily historical fiction, I read a lot of articles and blog posts offering tips about writing HistFic. While the wording changes from piece to piece, one common bit of advice is, “Always make your story as accurate as possible.”

With respect for my colleagues, I disagree.

Great for 1920s Paris. Terrible for 16th century Florence.

As the following, admittedly, hyperbolic examples show, while it is certainly possible to pay too little attention to accuracy, it is also possible to pay too much attention:

PROBABLY TOO LITTLE DETAIL: “They got in a car and drove away.”

PROBABLY TOO MUCH DETAIL: “They entered the 1922 Duesenberg touring car, its chrome-steel frame hand-assembled in Auburn, Indiana, one of two manufacturing plants buoying that small Midwestern town, alongside Auburn Rubber Company. Sliding behind the wheel, after taking a moment to tie his Dawson Cap shoes, he listened to the smooth purr of its 224 cubic inch Continental L-head engine as it roared away over the bitulithic pavement, its surface a blending of bitumen and aggregate.”

The problem with the first is that it offers nothing of what brings readers to HistFic in the first place. The author might as well be writing contemporary fiction. The problem with the second is that it gets lost in own detail, becoming a simulation rather than a narrative.

I think the reason many people say “be as accurate as possible” is because most agree the second example goes too far. There is an implied caveat of “within reason.” But what does that mean? Obviously, there is an enormous range between the examples provided. As long as you’re between those markers, I believe there is no gold standard for what is right and wrong. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a best option for a given writer. Knowing four things can help you find what works best for you.

Too much research.

Know Your Audience

Not every reader enjoys the same level of historical detail or has the same level of demand/forgiveness regarding historical accuracy. Readership will naturally gravitate toward authors that match their preferences. And that’s okay.

Know Yourself

Not everyone is, or should be, Neil Stephenson and author books that are, arguably, functional history texts as well as narrative fiction. If you’re not enjoying the level of research you’re doing, there’s a very real risk that’s going to come through when you write about it. Of course, if you find that is often an issue … you might want to reexamine your choice of genre.

Not Enough Research

Know Your Genre

Readers will generally expect greater accuracy in areas related to the genre’s conventions and be more forgiving elsewhere. Additionally, some genres have default settings for accuracy greater or lesser than other genres. Some specific thoughts:

Historical Fantasy: As the name “fantasy” indicates, the genre already deviates significant from the real world, typically through the inclusion of magical, legendary, or mythic aspects. The permutations and consequences of such changes may be extensive and, as a result, the genre has comparatively relaxed expectations.

Horror: With its emphasis on visceral and emotional reaction from readers, authors of historical horror probably have more wiggle room on detail and accuracy than most. This is especially true of supernatural horror, which is arguably a subset of historical fantasy rather than historical fiction.

Military: This genre’s requirement differ depending on the scale of the narrative. If it is primarily tactical, authors will want to show they’ve done their research on weapons, tactics, terrain, etc. If the story is strategic in nature, showcasing politics and personalities is more important.

Mystery: Classic mystery often hinges on details. The type of fabric in a dress. The failing of a clock. The limitations of a specific poison. As such, avid mystery reader are often highly attuned to such things and likely to notice and resent obvious errors or omissions, especially those pertaining to the mystery itself or the chain of clues leading to its conclusion.

Pulp: With its emphasis on rapid pace and frequent action, detail and even accuracy are often secondary in pulp. Classic pulp often plays fast and loose with geography, politics, and history. In feats of daring-do, firearms, vehicles, and other machines often over-perform historical reality or a painted only in rough strokes. Or suffer implausible failures when a moment of cliffhanging tension is called for.

Romance: While not a genre I have a lot of affinity for, I have the enormous respect for those who write historical romance. Captivating modern readers with tales of desire, romance, and love set in eras of courting couches, chaperones, and scandalous bare ankles is no mean feat. Accuracy in social conventions (and the flouting of them) as well as fashion, both personal and couture, need to be front and center in this genre.

Thriller: While this genre has some similarities with pulp, expectations for technical, historical, and political accuracy and detail are generally higher.

Western: Hard to say. With a few exception, classic Westerns were more concerned with getting the feel right than the facts right. That trend began reversing in the 1980s. Today, brutally realistic and feverishly research works coexist alongside ‘Wide-Open-Space-Opera.’  

Know Your Time Period

While arguably less important that the proceeding three, still worthy of consideration. Different eras come with different benchmarks for accuracy and research. If you’re writing for “dark ages” Europe, sooner or later you’re probably going to have fill a gap or two from your own imagination, regardless of intent. On the other hand, if you’re writing 1960s Haight-Ashbury, almost every detail you might want is probably out there somewhere if you care enough to find it.

A Final Thought

Remember, there is a point of diminishing returns when it comes accuracy in historical fiction and historical fantasy. Beyond that mark, the research time and narrative constraints involved in greater accuracy simply don’t justify the returns. As an author, you have finite time.

Unless, somehow, absolutely crucial to the story, the time spent developing a functional knowledge of 16th century shoe production is likely better spent in writing an engrossing narrative with compelling characters.

Nothing New About Anachronisms: The building of Noah’s Arc, from the Nuremberg Chronicle.

If Walls Could La La: Don’t Make La La Land’s Email Mistake

After the surprise twist ending to the Oscars, I asked James how I could write about La La Land in this week’s column. Because after it won, and then didn’t win, Best Film, I wanted to talk about a movie that has quickly slid its way into my top 5 movies of all time.

So we came up with a couple of options, but none of them were really speaking to me. That sounds weird. But when I’m preparing this column week to week, I will reject several ideas because they just don’t feel right. Then, occasionally, I’ll use them a couple of weeks later.

Last night, I found a topic that spoke to me and let me talk a bit about La La Land. So a slight spoiler warning for the movie. Though if you haven’t seen it yet, go Google showtimes and go see it now.

Seriously…

I’ll wait…

Back.

I was scrolling through Facebook last week, when I saw an article about La La Land that made me think about it from an angle that I hadn’t considered. Not when I had watched it through the first time.

Then, the same subject was brought to my attention a second time last night. And when that happens, I often realize there’s a topic for this blog in there somewhere.

Through a large part of the movie, we see Mia writing, producing, and then later performing her one woman show, So Long, Boulder City.

To promote it, she sends an email out to everyone who is everyone in Hollywood. And we see the email in question on her screen for a second. In fact, I’m not the first to hit on this topic and someone else grabbed a screenshot of the email in question. (Despite that, James insisted on making his own, higher-definiton screenshot. Some people.)

There are several problems with this email. First off, if she insists on sending a form letter to advertise her play—instead of taking the time to personalize each response to whoever is getting it. At the very least she needs to BCC them so that everyone doesn’t see everyone else receiving it.

Yes, I know there are times where I’m getting an email along with several other people, but at least the sender BCCs it so that I’m not stuck seeing however many other people are also getting it.

Another problem is in the first line of the email. “Dear Sir/Madam.”

Seriously, she couldn’t take two seconds to customize it. Yes, it would have taken her a lot longer to send all these people an email, but by doing that she would have had a chance to have more people come to her show.

No offense, but if I see an email (or a snail mail letter) that starts with “Dear Sir/Madam,” I will delete it or throw it away.

People want to feel like you took the time to find out who they are.

Even if it’s bad news, like, “I’m sorry but your story isn’t quite what I’m looking for in this anthology,” people appreciate that you took the time to acknowledge that they are a person.

It’s beginning advice that you hear all the time when you look into contacting agents and publishers. It’s one of the first things they’ll say when people ask for advice.

Don’t submit a form letter.

So what can you do?

Every year, Writer’s Digest puts out a Writer’s Market. They do a general one and they also do some specialty editions.

Get it, and look at the options. At least page through it at your local bookstore. Some of these Writer’s Market volumes even provide tips for contacting specific markets and agents. This book does your research for you. Make sure your book is relevant to the agent or publishing house. If you’re trying to go directly to a publisher, make sure they take unsolicited submissions.

That was one of Mia’s problems. She knew all these people where the Who’s Who of Hollywood. But she didn’t know what they all looked for in their submissions. She didn’t do her research, and she paid for it.

Most if not all of those emails ended up either in their spam folders or went straight into the trash.

Because like So Long, Boulder City, your work is very much a labor of love. And it deserves its best chance at making it out into the world.

So do your homework so that you can give it its best shot.

Otherwise, you could end up like the end of La La Land. Think about it—the beginnings of that infamous ending start right in the scene where Mia does not observe the basic rules of professional email.

If Walls Could Talk: Cicero Review

One way a writer grows as a writer is to study stories in their field. In my case, that means I like to get my hands on mysteries. I’ve been reading Andrew Cartmel’s The Vinyl Detective: Written in Dead Wax, and I cannot wait for the sequel to come out in a couple of months. Lately, I’ve also read the Richard Castle novels (mainly for the meta aspect, where the novels Castle wrote in the show actually exist), and, of course, with writing a forensic anthropologist myself, I read Kathy Reichs (I’m on her second Temperance Brennan novel).

So when James told me that Big Finish Productions had a murder mystery audio, we both agreed discussing it would make for a fun column.

Let’s get the basic details out of the way before we hit play.

Cicero

  • Written by: David Llewellyn
  • Directed by: Scott Handcock
  • Starring: Samuel Barnett (Marcus Tullius Cicero), George Naylor (Quintus Tullius Cicero), Simon Ludders (Sextus Roscius), Elizabeth Morton (Caecilia Metella), Stephen Critchlow (Etrucius), Youssef Kerkour (Titus Capito). Other parts played by members of the cast.
  • Available Here

The story moves very fast, not wasting time with a lot of setup which is something I appreciate about a mystery. A wealthy landowner has been murdered in the street. His son, Sextus Roscius, is accused of the crime.  Fair enough, I’d look at the son first.

The catch is, Sextus was sixty miles away the night his father was murdered. These days that might not seem very farbut in Rome, 80 A.D., that’s quite a trek.

I love how thorough Cicero and his brother are, even as Roman men, thousands of years before forensics, profiles, or the revolution the Sherlock Holmes stories enacted on investigation. I know when I wrote my story for The Lemon Herberts, I rode the struggle bus trying to figure out how to compensate for the lack of computers in the 1970s. Even then, I still had most of what Cicero lacked.

But that problem didn’t stop the team behind this audio. Cicero follows trails further than I thought possible for that day and age.

I’m trying to be careful not to spoil but so much of this. I think you guys should take a listen to it.

The perk of this being in Ancient Rome is that the forum allows for one of my favorite mystery tropes, the infamous breakdown.

Cicero does it and he brings up this quote. It’s something we can all learn from.

“If we are to accuse a man of murder, there are three questions we must ask. First, and most importantly of all, was the accused at the scene of the crime? Second, did he have the motive to kill? And third, did he have the means?”

1) Was the accused at the scene of the crime?

This was something I struggled with when writing Badge City: Notches. The perk of The Whole Art of Detection was that the murder happened before my investigator came on the scene. It was the only one in the story so that became less of an issue. Ironically so, because the solution depends on killing someone from thousands of miles away. 

The soon to be accused in Notches, on the other hand, was in the middle of a killing spree. Yet they had to maintain appearances at the same time.

Hence why there was a multi-page timeline, detailing where the killer was at any given moment, attempting to keep me sane.

2) Did he have motive?

Motive…

Sigh.

I stand by this being the trickiest aspect.

The thing is, any number of things can cause someone to commit a grievous crime.

What fits this particular crime, and does your criminal have a motive your audience can believe?

3) Did he have means?

This also can be tricky. There are statistics about male and female killers, killers of different ages, and so on.

If someone used an advanced drug, where did they get it? If they threw someone off a roof, do they have the strength to do it?

Can they afford to have someone do it for them?

All good questions. Questions Cicero has answers to, and you need to as well.   

Another question Cicero raises, though less essential for writers in general: “Who benefited?”

These are questions you must ask when you’re solving a mystery.

Who benefited?

It’s another way to ask that important question, “Who had motive?”

Time after time, I’ve mentioned how much I hate having to come up with motive. It’s hard, and tricky, and at times frustrating. But it often makes your mystery. It’s essential, and this understanding of how essential it is serves Circero well.

Cicero reminds me a lot of a mix between The Thin Man and the Sherlock Holmes stories, but set in Ancient Rome around the forums that were their justice system.

So what did I think of Big Finish’s murder mystery?

This audio is just around an hour, and it highlights a lot of what makes a good mystery. It’s quite compressed and moves quickly.

With Cicero, Big Finish takes what could be a several hundred page murder mystery and weaves it into a tale that is just under an hour. Not only is it a solid mystery that kept my attention throughout, it also provides a fun look into Ancient Rome’s justice system.

Cicero is an example of how you don’t need bells and whistles and fluff to have a good story. It is straight to the point, and almost completely business.

And of course, we all know that since it is from Big Finish, it is a wonderfully put together audio.

If you get a chance, pick it up from Big Finish. It’s only $5 for an hour of great entertainment.

New Call for Stories: The Chromatic Court

Anthology curated by Peter Rawlik

“I pray God will curse the writer, as the writer has cursed the world with its beautiful stupendous creation, terrible in its simplicity, irresistible in its truth…” ~Robert W. Chambers, The King in Yellow

Robert E. Chambers’ The King in Yellow features a being, the King in Yellow himself, who is embodied in the play of the same name, and in the color yellow.

We want to follow in the footsteps of Chambers, invoking links between specific colors, the mythos deity they might represent, and what influence they might have on the various arts.

For example, what terrifying things are hinted at by the titles the Black Goat, the Green Man, the White Worm, and the Red Queen, and to what arts are they linked?

Give us tales that invoke the chromatic avatars of the Great Old Ones and the impact they have on the arts, but as we all know the arts are open to interpretation, and could easily include architecture, literature, cuisine, pantomime, and haiku. Art is in the eye of the beholder, and color is only an abstract concept, but fear and terror are very real, and so are the Great Old Ones.

What We Want

Fresh takes on the Cthulhu Mythos, Chambers’ mythology (the Yellow Mythos), and Cosmic Horror. This isn’t the place for Lovecraftian clichés. The more it feels like a “lost” Lovecraft story, or relies on the clichés of the genre, the less interested we are. Creativity is the watchword.

While we are open to straight horror, we much prefer submissions closer to Chambers’ style and tone. Which is to say, we’d greatly prefer dark fantasy with a cosmic horror undercurrent. If you’re unfamiliar with Chambers: The Twilight Zone and Manly Wade Wellman’s fiction are excellent examples of that sort of tone and sensibility.

We want complex tales of cosmic horror, the arts and artists all properly hued. To avoid overlap of colors, monsters, titles, and arts story pitches must be made to the curator first (at thechromaticcourt@18thwall.com). We already have a King, and we already have a Prince; help us a fill the rest of the court.

In addition to unique and clever takes on the Chromatic Court concept, we’d prefer strong, developed characters.

Inspiration

We recommend reading Robert W. Chambers’ The King in Yellow, the monumental work of dark fantasy that started everything. It’s the foundation of so many of the above ideas and mythology. Lovecraft linked the King in Yellow—both the entity and the play—to his own revised elder god Hastur.

T.E.D. Kline’s Black Man with a Horn linked Nyarlathotep to jazz and horned instruments, making Kline’s story an early forbear of this concept.

My own story The Sepia Prints, featured in my novel Reanimatrix, establishes Cthulhu as the Sepia Prince, and intrinsically links the being to opera.

Sundry Details

Payment: 5% of the gross profit will be paid for each accepted story. These payments will be issued to you at quarterly intervals. Stories under 1,500 words will only receive 4% of the gross profit.

Rights: First World Digital and Print.

Deadline: June 15th

Word Count: 4,000-16,000

How to Submit your Story:

  • Send your pitches to the editor at thechromaticcourt@18thwall.com.
  • All stories should be sent, as an attachment, to thechromaticcourt@18thwall.com.
  • The file must be formatted in .doc or .docx.
  • The interior of the document must be in double spaced Times New Roman (12 point font).
  • Indents must be placed through your system’s Paragraph function; do not set indents by pressing tab or space. If you already have tabbed or spaced indents, please remove them first. Please use full em dashes (—).
  • At the top of your document, please include William Shunn’s submission header.
  • Tell us a bit about yourself in the body of your email. Don’t stress this, it won’t make or break your submission.
  • Place the collection you’re submitting to, your name, and your story title in the subject line of your email. For example, “Speakeasies and Spiritualists / Rose Mackenberg / So You Want to Attend a Séance?”

Curator Bio

Peter Rawlik is the author of the novels Reanimators, The Weird Company, and Reanimatrix, and the co-editor for the anthology Legacy of the Reanimator.  His fiction has appeared in Tales of the Shadowmen, The Lovecraft eZine, Talebones, Morpheus Tales, Crypt of Cthulhu, and Innsmouth Magazine. The concept for The Chromatic Court evolved out of his story The Sepia Prints, which became a key chapter in Reanimatrix.

Taking Tea with Cromwell: Using Historical Figures in Your Fiction

Jon Black

One of the great opportunities offered by writing historical fiction and historical fantasy is option of using historical figures in your work. This device can be highly enjoyable for writer and reader alike. Examples abound, from that first great time-slip novel of historical fiction, L. Sprague de Camp’s Lest Darkness Fall to the ongoing alt-history novels of Harry Turtledove. In my opinion, the master of this art is Caleb Carr, whose novels The Alienist and Angel of Darkness make deft use of historical figures in bringing 19th century New York vividly, and often terrifyingly, to life.

Ada Lovelace, computer programmer, daughter of poetry, possessor of a great jaw.

Unfortunately, like any other tool in a writer’s kit, historical figures can be misused as well.

This fortnight’s blog posts shares some of my ideas and experiences regarding using historical figures in fiction. It’s a device I use in both of my upcoming novels for 18thWall. Part of Bel Nemeton occurs in a slightly fantastical 6th century while Gabriel’s Trumpet is a supernaturally-tinged mystery set in a variety of locations within 1920s America.

Historical figures serve three man roles in fiction.

Color: encountering an eccentric Samuel Taylor Coleridge, a combative Ike Clanton, or an enigmatically bewitching Mata Hara are just three examples of how historical figures can be a great way to add color to a narrative. Readers may indulge scenes (provided it’s reasonable in length) even when germane to the main action.

Exposition: Authors have a universe of options when it comes to exposition. But a carefully chosen historical figure can give exposition authenticity and an extra kick. If protagonists need mathematical expertise to crack the 19th century’s greatest code, who better to provide it that Ada Lovelace? How much more potent is a weird tales anecdote when delivered via Kipling sharing the one story from his time in the East he dared not put in any tale? What fish-out-of-water protagonist could want a better guide to Montmartre’s gilded decadence than Toulouse-Latrec?

Short-hand: Word economy is important. A sighting of Picasso or Rasputin, hearing Louis Armstrong blow trumpet in a nightclub or Mussolini give a bombastic speech, a brief exchange with Mark Twain or Cotton Mather; all of those immediately anchor a story in a very specific time and place for readers. Such a brief encounter at the beginning of a work or any time there is a change in venue can be quick way to set the stage and save words better used for driving the action forward.

Of course these categories are not mutually exclusive.  A figure might fulfill two or even all three capacities in a work.

Too Much of a Good Thing

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, on a very normal and presumably opium-free day

Like any other aspect of writing, the use of historical figures can be overdone. Avoid giving readers the impression you’re simply name dropping or bragging “Hey, look, I did my research!” (Of course, you want to show you did your research—but be smooth about it.)

You also don’t want to risk your creations getting lost among a parade of historical counterparts or diminish the impact of individual historical figures by drowning them out among their peers (Much as I enjoy the work, I think there are moments were Carr knocks at this threshold in Angel of Darkness).

Strength vs. Dexterity

When deciding which historical figure(s) to utilize in a work, consider there is a general tradeoff between a figures level of fame/power and the freedom you have in using them. The more minor and less well-documented your figure, the more wiggle room you have, the less research is essential, and the lower the risk that readers in the know will walk away from your work unsatisfied. If you’re using the 9th century Persian physician and astrologer al-Khaseb, you’ve got a pretty free hand. If you want Ann Bronté , Edgar Cayce, or the Venerable Bede, your latitude is more limited. And that doesn’t even touch the challenges of Elvis, Einstein, or Shakespeare.

Also, let’s not name names here, but certain historical figures are overdone.

Flowers Don’t Bloom in the Shade

Another issue to consider with a true historical heavy hitter is the relationship between that figure and your characters.

Using such heavyweights necessitates a high level of writing, especially if the figure plays an active role and isn’t merely color. If such a figure is sympathetic to the protagonist, why can’t/won’t he or she simply lift obstacles out of the protagonist’s way? Conversely, if the historical figure opposes to the protagonist, why aren’t the obstacles insurmountable? These questions need to not only answered but answered believably.

Unless your characters (especially the protagonist) are true peers of such a figure, history’s major players are best held at a distance. Indeed, their presence can be entirely off camera. “Justinian, emperor of the world’s most powerful empire,” a looming presence throughout Lest Darkness Fall, is he ultimate challenge that must be met to prevent Rome from sinking into the dark ages. Yet not only is interaction between Justinian and the protagonist Padway very limited, it all occurs via written missives between the two.

That may not be an option for every writer. If, for example, your plot revolves around the foiling an assassination of Ben Franklin by a cabal of mages, he will likely put in at least an appearance or two.

Admittedly, I flout my own advice by inclusion of Langston Hughes in Gabriel’s Trumpet. But Hughes is just such a compelling figure I couldn’t resist his inclusion. I hope to mitigate the risk, I feature him relatively early in his career. Which brings us to…

Before and After

Theodore Roosevelt, police commissioner

A possible “best of both worlds” solution is to portray a major historical figure either before or after their prime. Carr’s novels use this effectively with Teddy Roosevelt. In combination with the force of Roosevelt’s personality, his power as president of the United States could easily overwhelm a narrative and the other characters in it. Instead, in The Alienist, we see Roosevelt during his time New York City’s police commissioner. By the time Angel of Darkness rolls around, he has advanced only one rung to Secretary of the Navy.

At the other end of the spectrum, historical figures in the twilight of their accomplishments, perhaps retired or otherwise not in the limelight have great potential. In addition to providing knowledge or exposition, such individuals can serve in the role of mentor, patron, or even quest-giver for protagonists.

Through The Eyes of History

Everything that has been said thus far about using historical figures in fiction goes double if you’re making a historical figure your protagonist. (Quite frankly, it is a task I don’t feel up to at this point in my career.) Using a major historical figure here is not only a true test of skill but also a substantial commitment necessitating significant research execute believably (especially to readers with more than a cursory knowledge of the figure). Turtledove uses Robert E. Lee as the protagonist throughout much of his novel, Guns of the South. A very tall order indeed!

Snipe Hunting Through History

Historical figures included in your work need not be ones you’ve heard of previously. Once you identify general parameters of the role, an online search can turn up a cast of colorful if obscure figures. Of course, if you hadn’t heard of them previously its likely most of your readers haven’t either. On the other hand, that very obscurity can be an appealing Easter Egg for serious history fans.

Bel Nemeton required the services of an 18th-19th century figure familiar with Indian Coinage. Experimenting with this approach, I found the prodigious James Prinsep, director of the East India Company’s mints and student of Indian numismatism (and who may soon put in an appearance elsewhere).

Repeating the process with “Gabriel’s Trumpet,” I need a photographer active in 1920s New Orleans, My research turned up E.J. Bellocq, an eccentric misanthrope who served as “unofficial official” (and often NSFW) photographer for the Red Light district of Storyville.

I admit, I’m hooked. I’ve found this approach not only enjoyable but personally rewarding.

Mata Hari