Cruel to be Kind: Killing Off a Major Character

Occasionally, because I'm not really that smart, I'll put out a call for blog ideas. And sometimes I get one that's so original there's just no way to ignore it. So thanks to Claudia Tucker for asking: "Have you ever been tempted to 'kill' your main characters off and start with a new Hero who might be a an offspring Read more

Interview with Lee Karr, author of The Making of Day of the Dead

In 1986, George A. Romero--one of my heroes--released the third film in his original "Living Dead" trilogy, Day of the Dead (following Night and Dawn). The previous two films were both classics, and popular successes. They were also about as different from each other as two films could be. So I, like every other horror fan, was eager to see Read more

Guest Blog: Melissa Olson on Multiple First-Person Voices

Today my friend, author Melissa Olson, stops by to talk about her new book and the issues of writing more than one first-person series. You can also find Melissa (and me) at her online release party for The Big Keep later today, starting at 5:30 CT. I’d like to thank Alex for hosting me today, especially considering my topic is Read more

7 Questions About My Most Recent Novel

Okay, I was supposed to do this on Monday, but it got away from me. Thanks to Lucy Jane Bledsoe for tagging me in this, and to Melissa Olson and Deborah Blake for agreeing to be tagged for next Monday. Here are seven questions about my most recent book:   1. What is the name of your character? Eddie LaCrosse. 2. When and where Read more

Hans Up, Hans Down: the Villain of Frozen

Warning: SPOILERS pretty much throughout. If you're a parent, particularly of a daughter, then you--like me--have probably seen/heard/experienced Frozen more than you ever thought possible. But this is not a post about the ubiquitous "Let It Go" song, which now even Pearl Jam have referenced. No, this is about the one element of the movie that I just can't make up Read more

Who are the honorary Tufas?

Posted on by Alex in creativity, folk music, Hum and the Shiver, Jennifer Goree, music, Nashville, novel, short stories, tennessee, trivia, Tufa, writing | Leave a comment

How does one become an honorary Tufa, you may wonder?

The criteria is really pretty simple. You must have a song that you’ve written quoted (with your permission, of course) in a Tufa story.

So far, there are three honorary Tufas.

The first was Jennifer Goree. You can find out more about Jennifer and her connection to the Tufa here, but it’s safe to say she made a massive contribution, and she’s also been a staunch supporter. You can check out her music here.

Jennifer Goree, who composed the song “The Hum and the Shiver.”

Second, in order of appearance, is Andrew Brasfield. When I was thinking about a Tufa-themed story for my holiday collection, Time of the Season, I knew I needed a song that would be central to the plot: something that both captured the atmosphere, as well as becoming a literal presence in the story. I thought about using a traditional hymn, especially since the story features the young minister Craig Chess, but nothing really worked. So I reached out to Dale Short, Alabama author (you really should read his story collection Turbo’s Very Life) and host of Music from Home, and asked if he could recommend a song by a roots/folk/country indie artist that might work.

He recommended Andrew Brasfield, and pointed me toward his song, “Cold Wind.” It not only had the requisite atmosphere, but like The Hum and the Shiver before it, it provided the title.  You can read an interview with Andrew and learn about the song and the story here.

And finally, we have Mississippi-born singer-songwriter Kate Campbell, whose song “Wrought Iron Fences” is crucial to the story of the second Tufa novel, Wisp of a Thing. I first encountered Kate’s music way back in the early 2000s, when I was first researching what would eventually become the Tufa. I’d begun scouring the internet for examples of current roots/folk music, and came upon Kate’s website, where I won a CD. It was her first one, Lanterns on the Levee, and it’s as good a statement of purpose as any artist can make with a first album. Even the first track, “Mississippi and Me,” stakes out the territory she would explore in her subsequent work. But it was on her second CD, Moonpie Dreams, that I found two of my favorite songs of hers, “When Panthers Roamed in Arkansas” and, of course, “Wrought Iron Fences.”

Kate Campbell, who composed “Wrought Iron Fences”

Another artist prominently mentioned in Wisp of a Thing is Matraca Berg, one of the greatest contemporary songwriters in country music. Just check out the list of hits she’s written for other people. Unfortunately, she’s also a major-label recording artist, and therein lies one of the great rubs of contemporary music: many of the most famous songwriters, because they are contracted to major labels and music publishers, lack the legal standing to authorize the use of their own songs. You have to go through these other organizations, who do not grant permission lightly or cheaply. So unfortunately, Ms. Berg will remain a mentioned but not quoted presence.

The great Matraca Berg, songwriter extraordinaire

So that’s the list, so far. Hopefully you’ll check out the music by these great people, who are out there trying to do something meaningful and substantial in a world where popular music seems to consist of auto-tuned clones and divas. Because if you don’t support the cool stuff, you won’t have it for very long.

The origin of character names: Eddie LaCrosse

Posted on by Alex in Dark Jenny, Eddie and the Cruisers, Eddie LaCrosse, Sword-Edged Blonde, writers, writing | Leave a comment

One of the most common questions I get from fantasy fans is, “Why is your hero named ‘Eddie’?”

Naming characters, especially the main characters of continuing series, is an art far more than a science. For example, one of my favorite characters, Robert B. Parker’s Spenser, has a first name, but in the 40 books Parker wrote (and who knows how many his ill-advised successor, Ace Atkins, will ultimately churn out), it’s never revealed. Parker said in an interview that he initially planned to name him David, after one of his sons, but he didn’t want to make his other son jealous, so he just eliminated all references to it, and it became an ongoing trope.

Similarly, the character who became Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe started out in short stories with names like John Dalmas and Steve Grayce (there’s some debate over whether or not these were the same characters, but if you read them after reading Marlowe, it’s pretty clear). Even Artemis Fowl was originally Archimedes Fowl.

So, when it came time to name the hero of my fantasy/mystery series, my original choice was…Devaraux LaCrosse.

Not, I repeat NOT, a Devaraux (art by Gene Ha)

Yes, my tough-yet-soft-hearted hero had a name better suited to a soap opera.

This began with the earliest glimmerings of the idea, back when I was a senior in high school, reading hardcore fantasy (what is now called “secondary world fantasy”) and trying to impress Ms. Burress, the new teacher (long story that you can find elsewhere on this blog). One of the rules of fantasy seemed to be that heroes could not have ordinary names like “John,” “Bill,” or “Eddie.” They had to be called “Aragorn,” or “Conan.” And they went only by one name. One of the forgotten revelations of Star Wars was that its characters had two names, a first name and a surname, like (dare I say it) real people.

So, I gave my hero his monicker, and continued to work with that name for…oh, two decades. The story evolved (although not as much as you’d think), but the real change came in the tone. Originally I worked in third person, then changed to movie-script form (because I had dreams of being the next Lawrence Kasdan, back when that was cool). By the time I changed the voice to first-person, my main reading had shifted from SF/F to hard-boiled mystery. Still, it took longer than it should have for me to realize that a genre mashup was the way to go, and even longer to comprehend that my hero, and all the other characters for that matter, should have normal names.

And why did “Devaraux” become “Eddie,” and not “Dave” or Bob”?

The main inspiration was P.F. Kluge’s novel Eddie and the Cruisers, one of the few “musical noirs” out there. In the book, Eddie is a memory to the characters, a ghost both figurative and (maybe) literal, and thus incredibly mysterious. The clincher was George V. Higgins’ novel The Friends of Eddie Coyle, about a small-time crook trying to hang onto his sense of honor. There’s a great movie version with Robert Mitchum, but I didn’t see it until much later. Still, it led to a useful guideline: if your hero has a name that in any way connects to Robert Mitchum, it’s probably a good name.

Robert Mitchum in “The Friends of Eddie Coyle.” Also not a Devaraux.

So when “Devaraux” became “Eddie,” a whole naming philosophy fell into place, one that I still try to use even when the influences come from somewhere else. For example, in the Arthurian-inspired Dark Jenny, the classic character Sir Kay, adopted brother to Arthur, becomes Bob Kay, adopted brother to Marcus Drake. If someone has an unusual name, such as Queen Rhiannon from The Sword-Edged Blonde, it’s indicative of character (she’s unusual, all right) rather than an attempt to sound appropriately “period.”

Is this anachronistic? Technically no, since this is a made-up world and I can do anything I want with it, as long as it’s logical and consistent. Is it appropriate? Some readers have said no, but the majority seem to not only accept it, but actively like it.

So that’s the story behind the names of my characters in the Eddie LaCrosse series. Have any other questions specific to my books? Leave them in the comments and I’ll try to address them in a future blog.

Addendum: on the same day I posted this, Tor Books (my publisher) posted a blog by an editor working from the exact opposite angle on fantasy character names.  It provides an interesting contrast.  You can read it here.

The apocryphal soundtracks to some of my books

Posted on by Alex in Blood Groove, Burn Me Deadly, Firefly Witch, Memphis, music, novel, pirates, Uncategorized, Wake of the Bloody Angel, writing | Leave a comment

It’s no secret that music is a big part of many of my novels, from inspiring the titles to influencing the plots to being part of the story itself. I’m not alone in this, I’m sure. Recently my friends at Facebook’s Heroic Fiction League, Nathan Long and John R. Fultz, posted “playlists” of YouTube videos, songs that either their heroes would like, or that captured the mood of their books.

My playlist is a little different.  This is the music I wish would play when a reader first opens some of my books.

For my most recent novel, the Eddie LaCrosse pirate tale Wake of the Bloody Angel, I’d love it if readers were blasted with this upon cracking the covers:

 

 

For another Eddie LaCrosse tale, Burn Me Deadly, if you consider chapter one as a “teaser,” this would the perfect music to play between chapters one and two:

 

 

For Blood Groove, my tale of an Old World vampire unleashed in the Seventies, I’d begin with this under chapter one:

 

 

Then, at the moment you finished chapter one:

 

 

And finally, the theme for my Firefly Witch e-book chapbooks, the tune the main characters Ry and Tanna would call “their song” and that, in a perfect world, would play whenever you called it up on your e-reader of choice:

 

 

(I know, it’s the Atlanta Rhythm Section version and not the original Classics IV, but technically this is the first version I ever heard, and about half the Atlanta Rhythm Section was made up of former members of the Classics IV, so it’s not as heretical as it might seem.)

Any suggestions for some of my other books?

 

New Short Story (and interview) at Apex Magazine

Posted on by Alex in fantasy literature, short stories, Tufa | Leave a comment

My short story, “Sprig,” is now available at Apex Magazine.

 

There’s also a fairly long interview.

Check it out, and if you like it, leave comments at the magazine site.

Five Great Movies About Writers

Posted on by Alex in authors, criticism, fiction, John Carpenter, movies, novel, originality, pop culture, storytelling, trivia, writers, writing | 7 Comments

Anders Danielsen Lie (l) and Espen Klouman-Høiner in Reprise.

Writers aren’t that exciting to be around when we’re working. What we do–staring into space, muttering to ourselves, typing then backspacing and typing some more–isn’t exactly dynamic. It might be why there are so few good movies about writers actually writing. That doesn’t mean there aren’t a lot of good movies with writer characters in them; that’s fairly common. But the movies that show accurately what the writing life is like, and how it affects the writer and people around him, those are rare indeed. Here are five of my favorites (notice I didn’t say, “best”).

In the Mouth of Madness

Writers figure in a lot of horror films, most of them courtesy of Stephen King (Misery, The Shining, Secret Window).  This isn’t a Stephen King adaptation, or a Lovecraft one, but its story of writer Sutter Kane (Jurgen Prochnow), who writes like Lovecraft and has a fan base like (and the same initials as) King, carries the idea of the “best seller” to a demented extreme. With Sam Neill as an insurance investigator and director John Carpenter’s sure hand, it takes us into a world where people are willing to give up their own dreams for the common nightmares of someone else. I can only wonder, if it was remade today (which I’m sure it will be), will King be the model of success, or will it be Stephanie Meyer or EL James?

Paris When It Sizzles

Williams Holden is on deadline to produce a script, and Audrey Hepburn is the secretary who both challenges him and keeps him on task. Holden, like a lot of us, knows when his story’s gone off the rails, so the stopping and starting over becomes part of the fun. Add to this scenes from the work-in-progress acted out by those two, plus a slew of dead-on cameos, and it becomes the kind of creative process we all like to think we have in our heads.

Reprise

A masterpiece–there, I said it–from Norway about two friends who submit their first novels on the same day. One gets rejected, one becomes a best seller, but their friendship doesn’t suffer in the ways you might think.  An amazing cast, down to the smallest parts, and a perfectly-judged emotional pitch make this one way too close to comfort in some ways. But a brilliant film nonetheless. And bonus cool points for using Joy Division under the titles.

His Girl Friday

“Writing” can include reporting, and in fact, it used to: some of our best writers, and even me, started out as journalists back when that word meant something. Here it means Rosalind Russell as the ace reporter and Cary Grant as her fast-talking editor, who’s also her ex-husband determined to get her back. It’s a romantic comedy, to be sure, but director Howard Hawks also includes scenes of Russell doing her job, including an expert interview with a mousy convicted killer. And when the other cynical reporters take a look at what she’s written, their respect and silence–in a movie overloaded with the fastest dialogue you’ll ever hear–tells you all you need to know about her skill.

Chinese Coffee

You probably haven’t heard of this one. It started as a vanity project by Al Pacino, who wanted a filmed record of a play he loved appearing in. Pacino and Jerry Orbach star in this essentially two-person film, adapted from Ira Lewis’s play, about a writer (Pacino) and his friend (Orbach), who feels the writer has stolen from him: not plagiarism, exactly, but more from his real life and personality. It’s good because the actors are so good, and Pacino’s direction is unfussy and solid. Plus it’s an issue every fiction writer will encounter at some point.

Any other suggestions?

Interview: Andrew Brasfield, songwriter of Cold Wind

Posted on by Alex in anthology, cover art, creativity, eBook sale, faeries, folk music, interview, music, short stories, tennessee, Uncategorized | 1 Comment

When I began planning Time of the Season, my holiday-themed e-book chapbook, I already had two of the stories. Both the title story and “A Ghost, and a Chance” had been around for a while. But I wanted to write something new, and I’d gotten such a good response from my novel, The Hum and the Shiver, that I decided to write a holiday story set in the that world. The Tufa stories all revolve around music, so I needed a song to form the center of this new one. So I asked around: did anyone know of an original winter or holiday song, one by an indie artist who could grant permission for me to use the lyrics in a story?

Dale Short, host of the roots-music radio show “Music from Home” in Jasper, Alabama, suggested I check out this:


 

The first time I heard it, I knew it was the right song.

I contacted Andrew Brasfield, and happily, he agreed to let me quote from the lyrics in the story.  This is a trickier proposition than it sounds, because a lot of musicians, particularly the ones played on mainstream radio, don’t actually own the rights to their own songs. Music publishers, record labels and other for-profit intermediaries have to also grant permission, and usually require payment to do so. Happily, there’s a whole world of great music being done by people like Andrew (and Jennifer Goree, and Laura Powers, and Jen Cass, and Kate Campbell) who not only own all their own rights, they’re delighted to have them included in a story or used in a book trailer.

Andrew also recorded a new version of the song at AudioCzar Productions, and played all the instruments himself (except for percussion). That version is available as a free download when you buy Time of the Season.

Andrew was also kind enough to answer a couple of questions about the song.

1) What inspired “Cold Wind”?

I used to work in television and was sent out west to Lander, Wyoming for a documentary shoot a few times over the course of 2010. On one of the final trips we set out early in the morning to catch some college students who were waking up for the last of their 21 day trip in the Wind River Range. It was really early in the morning and beautiful and I had some time to think while we were hiking. The wind was very cold and cut through me and I thought, the cold wind is an interesting image. So I came up with the first line then thought of other natural elements. Fire and water were classic images so and made verses to go with all of them. Somehow I remembered those lyrics and committed them to a small Holiday Inn Express notepad as soon as I got back to my room late that evening.

Side note: The cover photo for the song is actually a public domain photo of the Wind River Range that I manipulated a bit.

2) Your cousin Dale Short first told me about “Cold Wind,” and directed me toward the video. I had that same thing happen with the characters in the story: they learned the song from that same video. What’s the story behind the video?

There is no real story to be honest. I knew I wanted folks to hear some of my songs and while they can get a glimpse from the three songs I wrote on the first Motel Ice Machine CD, those aren’t the only songs I have in me and some of those are arranged differently from the way I usually do them. Also, I don’t have the cash to get into a studio whenever I write a new song so YouTube seemed like a more accessible medium. I’ll be certainly be adding more videos soon.

Dale still hasn’t given me all the details on how we are kin, but he is a good guy nonetheless and I appreciate what he does for local musicians through his radio show.

3) What did you think of the story that incorporates your song?

I really dug the way you wove it all together. I actually got chills when I read my lyrics in the story. I’m a big Tufa fan and having the Hyatt’s play my song in their living room is sort of surreal. I read The Hum and the Shiver shortly after it came out and was hooked. I’m (im)patiently waiting for Wisp of a Thing.

 

 

Andrew Brasfield is from a small town in Alabama where he lives with his wife and two daughters. His main axe is harmonica, which he wields in a few different bands including Motel Ice Machine and The Lefty Collins Band. He also plays a bit of guitar, bass and ukulele. He knows a handful of mandolin chords and has a few piano tricks. You can find out more about him here.

A special Halloween greeting

Posted on by Alex in fans, Halloween | 1 Comment

Here’s a special little Halloween treat for all my readers.

 

Writers Day #4

Posted on by Alex in Burn Me Deadly, dragon, Firefly Witch, Tufa, writers, writing | Leave a comment

 

This is the fourth of a series of videos showing how a typical writer (i.e., me) works through the day.  This one is about research, something you can often do when real life intrudes on your actual writing time.

Announcing Time of the Season

Posted on by Alex in anthology, Blood Groove, cover art, eBook sale, fantasy literature, Firefly Witch, folk music, Free Download, Hum and the Shiver, music, Pagan, short stories, tennessee, Tufa, witchcraft | 2 Comments

So this year I’m trying something new: through the good folks at Story Vault, I’m releasing a three-story ebook chapbook for the holidays.

It includes:

“Cold Wind,” a Tufa story that updates us on Bronwyn and Craig from The Hum and the Shiver.

“A Ghost, and a Chance,” in which Sir Francis Colby from Blood Groove crosses paths with the most famous Christmas ghosts of all.

“Time of the Season,” a New Year’s story about a very special visitor to the home of Firefly Witch Tanna Tully.

There’s also a special gift: a free download of the song “Cold Wind” by Andrew Brasfield.

I’ll let you know when it’s available, but in the meantime, here’s the cover:

Witchcraft Through the Ages (of TV and Movies, that is)

Posted on by Alex in Alice Hoffman, Catholic Church, filmmaking, Firefly Witch, movies, Pagan, pop culture, Seventies, short stories, tv, witchcraft | 1 Comment

Elizabeth Montgomery in an early episode of “Bewitched.”

Witchcraft has an iffy history in film and television. When I first started doing my Firefly Witch stories, one thing I reacted against was the standard image of the pop-culture witch. Leaving aside the blatant “wicked witch” portrayals, it’s still hard to find anything remotely accurate, let alone sympathetic. It’s not impossible, though.

One of the earliest films about witchcraft, which unfortunately took the devil-worship position, is the unique Swedish/Danish film Haxan. Retitled Witchcraft Through the Agesin English, this one-of-a-kind 1922 silent film depicts witchcraft the way history describes it, then explains how witches were tortured by the Inquisition. It’s impossible not to be horrified by the treatment of the unfortunate women, and to feel sympathy for them. It’s not really a narrative film, yet it’s not a documentary, either. An indication of its strangeness is that the best-known version in English was narrated by William S. Burroughs.

In 1942, Veronica Lake played the witch Jennifer in the romantic comedy I Married a Witch. In the 1958 movie Bell, Book and Candle, Kim Novack plays Gillian, desperately in love with James Stewart. On TV in the 60s, Samantha Stevens (Elizabeth Montgomery) dominated Bewitched(okay, Agnes Moorehead dominated it, but still…). All these characters, though, labored under the kind of strictures common at the time: Gillian and Jennifer lost their magical powers when they fell in love, and Samantha had promised not to use hers to help her husband’s career.* At the time, witches had to be de-powered to allow the “natural order” to assert itself.

Kim Novak in “Bell, Book and Candle”

These comedies also embraced the common trope that one is “born” a witch; that somehow, the special powers are inherited rather than learned or earned. It’s even possible to read it as saying witches are not actually human, but a different species. But the idea of “innate powers” is a thread that runs through most witchcraft movies, with a couple of notable exception.

In the 70s, one of the most accurate depictions of genuine witchcraft appeared in the seldom-seen George Romero film, “Jack’s Wife (1972). Also released under the more exploitative titles Season of the Witch and Hungry Wives, it’s about a woman who’s drawn into witchcraft as a remedy for the ennui of her suburban life. It’s a blatantly feminist film, and treats the main character’s involvement with magic as empowering. It’s also very much of its time, which means it gets a little arty-for-art’s sake at times.

Jan White in “Jack’s Wife,” enmeshed in the symbolism.

The other notable exception, the character of Willow on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, brought the idea that witchcraft was a learned skill into the popular imagination. Unfortunately, it’s also depicted as something addictive, and an entire story arc was devoted to its detrimental effects on Willow.

The rise of feminism and the idea that women were, I don’t know, actual people capable of doing something other than supporting men changed depictions of witchcraft. The Witches of Eastwick (1987), a pretty dire film from a critical standpoint, did at least show that women supporting each other could defeat even the Devil Himself. The Craft(1997) starts with the idea that outcasts working together can be strong, but then degenerates into standard horror.

My favorite positive depiction of witchcraft is 1998′s Practical Magic. Based (extremely loosely) on Alice Hoffman’s novel, it shows two sets of sisters, younger (Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman) and older (Dianne Weist and Stockard Channing), using their powers to protect their family.  I confess that I have a total crush on Sandra Bullock’s character (not, I hasten to add, on Ms. Bullock herself).

Sandra Bullock in “Practical Magic.”

Together, these movies and TV shows present a very distorted view of witchcraft filtered through society’s concerns. That’s fine as far as it goes–witchcraft can be used as a metaphor, just as anything else can be–but to me, it never captured the true (okay, wait for it…) magic of Wicca/Paganism/the Craft. It was never shown as joyous, rarely as empowering, and certainly never as the religion it truly is. When I began writing my Firefly Witch stories, I wanted to put as much of that back as I could and still tell interesting, dramatic horror/fantasy stories.

If you’d like to check them out and decide for yourself how well I did it, go here. And if I’ve missed an important example, please tell me in the comments.

*I reference this show in my short story “The Darren Stevens Club,” in the first Firefly Witch collection.