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Eleanor here — Heidi’s posting for me through a computer crisis.
I’m pleasantly halfway through two books read as simultaneously as possible and enjoyed together, separately, equally and with relish. One of them, just published in 2018, is Christopher Fowler’s joyous new Bryant and May of the Peculiar Crimes Unit in London. It’s entitled Hall of Mirrors. The other was published in 1949. A cozy in the Mordecai Tremaine series by Francis Duncan, Murder for Christmas.
How similar are they? Very. And very different. I knew nothing about either and was happy to find that both are what I would call Locked Room mysteries in the Agatha Christie genre. Maybe Mr. Fowler would howl at that, but genre is in the eye of the reader who can find similarities with other books in common with their likes and dislikes. This I like.
Both books take place post WW2, the Duncan is set closer, the Fowler later, in 1962. How can Bryant and May be set in ’62 ask fans of the Peculiar Crime Unit? Because Bryant and May were young policemen at one point in time, not the old fogeys Fowler makes them out to be now. The author, in a brilliant move, recounts one of their very early cases that takes place in their misspent youth, in a misspent time.
Both stories are set in Manor Houses in the country. The old piles are depicted as either falling down or just older than dirt. Both at a distance from the nearest town, both limited in contact with help from the outside world. Here’s how our individual authors describe their character’s first glimpses and reactions to the sight of their weekend pleasure domes.
Duncan: ‘As he (Mordecai Tremaine) drew nearer to the louring old house with its high mullioned windows, he was conscious of the vague but insistent and disturbing feeling that fate was on his side, and that in the great building just ahead, darkness and terror were waiting.’
Fowler: ‘The taxi drew up between a dribbling fountain and a set of sweeping limestone steps. This first impression was calculated to inspire awe, but on closer inspection, many of the marble facades were cracked and uncared-for, and weeds were pushing their way through the damaged steps. Bryant noted that the grass had only been trimmed near the house; the owners were saving money on gardeners’.
Then comes the fun of meeting the weird and suspicious cast of characters; guests and staff. One must never forget the staff. They can be more bizarre than the guests. And those guardians of sweet young things? They are always suspect. Until they’re killed.
A la (desole, sans marques accent) Agatha, we have to wait a while before anything dire happens, but we’re kept amused along the way with interesting and enfoibled suspects of the inevitable future crime, and of daily life in an era we know nothing about. The snowstorms help, or the army maneuvers in the fields around the house, to keep all guests and servants within ready reach. But, inevitably, Something, with a capital, happens. In one story we have a sculpted gryphon fall from a balustrade onto a guest below, and simultaneously in the other book a guest, dressed as Santa, is shot in front of the Christmas tree. One survives. I’m not giving anything away here.
In one story we have an amateur detective. In the other, we have two bona fide policemen who dance to their own drummers. And we have pages and pages of official and unofficial inquiries.
As you can probably tell, I haven’t finished. I’m hovering in the early 200’s in each book, following procedurals that may come somewhere around the same page but are handled entirely differently. E.g., “Knowing that Bryant’s investigative technique involved plastering his prints everywhere and throwing everything to the floor, he could hardly bear to carry on watching.” There was a suitable comparison in the other book, but I couldn’t locate it for this post.
I’m savoring these two reads, alternating between the two, getting characters and clues mixed and matched, manors switched, and sundry guests, staff and police jumbled. I haven’t had such a good time since trying to get everyone in The Lord of the Rings straight in my mind.
We’re going to Crime Bake again this year, my writing group and I, and I’m looking forward to it.
Walter Mosley is the guest speaker, and I’m a fan of his Fearless Jones crime stories. Not because of Fearless, who is indeed fearless, but because of his sidekick, and the series protagonist, Paris Minton. Paris is a bookstore owning wimp. I don’t own the bookstore part, but I do own ‘wimp’ and can feel his fear when, through no fault of his own, Paris is led down the garden path into danger time after time. When will he learn? Poor guy.
I love driving down to the conference with my writing group buds, rooming with them and at the end of the day comparing notes. We’ve made some friends over the years and will try to find them in the crowd. Maybe they’ll find us; we’re definitely loud and numerous.
The conference has a way of revitalizing that old, lagging muse hidden away somewhere in the brain. I think it’s the brain. Maybe it’s the heart. What’s definite is that it is hidden and needs to get out and breathe some fresh air. Stretch. Do some deep knee bends and then come and tell me that we’re ready for a new project.
‘From Where You Dream,’ by Robert Olen Butler is one of my more recent reads. In fact, I’m rereading it. I’m intrigued by the sub-conscious-centeredness of his muse and the way he accesses it. His inspiration, he says, and maybe mine (?), is indeed hidden away in the place where dreams come from. That place you cannot reach while awake. Oh! So how ya gonna access it then? You know how fast dreams disappear the minute you wake.
Actually, I did retain a snippet of a dream yesterday morning when the alarm woke me from a sound sleep. Two men were delivering an empty fish tank to my house, and I, lounging in my lawn chair watching, pretended to be asleep. Does that mean I’m in denial? The last thing we had in a fish tank the size of the one they carried to the door was a 17-year-old African clawed frog my son had raised from a tadpole. A homeschool project that went on forever.
Denial or not, that snippet is still fresh. Why aren’t the useful, as in grist-for-the-mill type dreams remembered? Maybe if I set my alarm to wake me every hour, I’d have a higher percentage of memories.
Robert Olen Butler describes his dream state, how he gets there, and how he utilizes it to keep his words flowing. It’s a fascinating concept, and maybe it could work for me. It would be nice if it did since I’m not a plotter and my pantsing skills, such as they are, need a few good, swift kicks to get the juices flowing. I’m counting on the conference to help. Figuratively speaking.
NaNoWriMo 2018 starts in two weeks. I’ve participated five times since 2011, with four winners and one loser. Last year I skipped it. My rationalization: “. . . the best use of November is figuring out what I am going to do with all of those drafts I have spent years crafting. With any luck, that might include producing one completed novel.” That didn’t happen and neither did much writing.
History will likely repeat itself. With or without a NaNoWriMo draft, I won’t produce a completed novel. But over a span of thirty days I’ll have written fifty thousand more words than I would have without participating.
NaNoWriMo was on my mind on Saturday when I took a forty-five-minute drive. As I often do when I’m traveling alone in the car, I turned opened the voice memos on my phone, anxious generate some ideas for NaNo. This trip, I had a companion. My muse? My alter ego? Or just me being me.
Here’s the condensed version. (The full one is available upon request.)
A new project is hard because I know my Woodbury characters so well. But it’s an opportunity to develop new characters.
How about something revealed when someone dies? Already done that with Alexandria. That sucks.
Secrets? It’s always about secrets.
A mystery? Oh, heck yeah. Why would you even ask that?
I could throw some darts at the dart board. But there’s no dart board yet. Why can’t you just start a new project and finish it? That’s me being indecisive. Procrastinating. I think its laziness. Not procrastination. It’s hard work. You may be right. May be right? I admit, I can always find something better to do. Better? You mean easier. NO! More urgent, pressing. Writing isn’t urgent. It’s important to me but it isn’t urgent. So, you put out all those fires and then you don’t have any energy or time left to do the creative things. Yeah, that’s about right. Let’s figure out what you’re going to do.
SILENCE. Throat clearing. Thinking. Glad you told me because I wouldn’t have known. Do you have to think to talk? It always works out better for me when I do. You’re being creative, do you need to think?
Here goes. I’m driving along 302 on my way to Whitefield to pick up garbage along the highway. I could write a mystery about someone who kills a DAR member. The DAR mysteries? That would be fun! It would need some history. Someone is going to reveal that someone else isn’t really descended from a Revolutionary War patriot. Wait, doesn’t that already belong to someone else in your writing group? But it could be something to do with ancestry…someone buried in the wrong place, two families? Less than satisfactory.
Let me think about this. No. No thinking. Just say whatever comes to mind. What about the downfall of a man. And? Isn’t that enough? Big fish, little pond. He and his wife seem like the perfect couple. But there are cracks in the façade. He’s in the state legislature and has ambitions. He’s not important, he just thinks he is. He acts as the town’s unofficial mayor. His wife is always by his side, except for when she isn’t. Where is she? She has a life of her own, one that allows her to be gone from town. Daughter in college, son working in a city. Daughter is about two hours away and the wife visits often, but she doesn’t stay very long. Her husband hasn’t figured this out yet. What is she doing? She’s a freelance photographer. She’s getting money, we don’t know how, he assumes it’s photography. He doesn’t care what she does as long as she is there when he needs her. Who ends up dead? Her? Him? It’s too early to say.
This is hard, trying to get out of the Woodbury mode. I know I need something fresh, but I can’t think of anything that excites me. Are you giving up already?
“You want me to explain?”
So begins Chapter 22 of Peril at End House, Agatha Christie’s 1931 mystery. The suspects are gathered at End House, frightened and baffled all. Hercule Poirot, master detective and proprietor of the most efficient little gray cells on the planet, proffers a complete explanation of the mystery, pulls one final ace from his sleeve, and Inspector Japp pounces upon the murderer.
I’m thinking about endings at the moment, because I’ve just read Love Lies Bleeding by Edmund Crispin, originally published in 1948 and recently revived in e-book form. Happily nestled in a cozy setting (a mildly parodic English public school), the reader encounters a murder scene fairly littered with incomprehensible clues, a rather affected amateur detective – Oxford don Gervase Fen, who drives a very fast car – intrepid schoolgirls and a long-lost Shakespeare manuscript.
Unhappily – it made me unhappy, anyway – Fen refuses to discuss his observations or deductions except to suggest that the police and presumably the reader should have made them already. It’s description, dialogue and car chases all the way down.
At least, it is until the 85% mark on my handy smartphone e-reader. At that point, the unrecognizable body of the villain has been hauled from his wrecked car, detective and headmaster are back at the school, and Fen proceeds to explain exactly what we should have noticed and deduced. He does this for a very long time.
That last 15% was where, as a writer, I learned something. I could see Crispin’s method of creating his book as clearly as if he had personally explained it to me. Fen lays out the course of events, everyone’s actions, motives and even thoughts. Here and there, alternative explanations that might occur to the reader are explained away or dismissed as unnecessary to the main line of deduction. I’m morally certain that Crispin has simply placed his original outline, complete with his second thoughts and his solutions to them, in his detective’s mouth.
Once he had the outline, Crispin (IMHO) plucked out his list of clues, clothed them in pieces of necessary action that made striking scenes and trotted Fen through them. The occasional ‘but surely you have already realized…?’ reminds us that Fen is solving the crime – entirely out of the reader’s sight.
It didn’t make a satisfactory mystery novel. That is what sent me to Agatha Christie, who regularly wound up her books with concluding explanations by the detective. They are shorter than Crispin’s (and crisper), though Poirot does break the Detective Club rule that the reader must have all the clues in his hand before the revelation.
So, by way of contrast, let us consider the ideal, the perfection of the form: the solution of the murder of Philip Boyes, lover of the accused murderer, Harriet Vane, in Dorothy L. Sayers’ Strong Poison.
As the book opens, Harriet’s trial has ended in a hung jury. Lord Peter, suddenly in love, has only 30 days to find the real murderer before her retrial. For the first two-thirds of the book, we follow him down blind alleys and through unproductive interviews, unearthing suspects and clues aplenty in vivid, entertaining venues, but no proof. The last of these chapters ends with the collapse of the most promising theory.
Then, in a refreshing change of scene and pace, informants whom Lord Peter has planted among the suspects reward his foresight. Miss Katharine Alexandra Climpson – surely Sayers’ most delightful secondary character – unearths the motive. Miss Murchison, who has infiltrated the murderer’s office, finds the means. And rather than instantly deducing the opportunity from these facts, Lord Peter spends a sleepless night struggling to imagine how the crime was committed.
Sayers does withhold his reasoning on this one point from the reader, but only for a few pages. For the rabid mystery fan, she even drops three hints: Lord Peter found the answer after consulting these books: “The Trial of Florence Maybrick; Dixon Mann’s Forensic Medicine and Toxicology; … and A.E. Housman’s A Shropshire Lad.” The clues are in the reader’s hands. Using them, Lord Peter proceeds to trap the villain.
So. I think I can see how Crispin produced a passable mystery. It sounds like an exercise worth doing as a start. Now all I need is the wit and the stamina to take the result of that exercise and turn it into the next Strong Poison.
To end on a happy note for less-than-Sayers-level writers: Love Lies Bleeding is a “best seller” on Amazon – in the category of “Kindle kidnapping crime fiction” By some measurement or other, fame awaits us all.
If you were to occasionally send out a bit of writing as an entry into a competition or a submission to a magazine or a book proposal to an agent you’re bound to wind up being spurned more often than not. Ergo, being between rejections is commonplace. Not good, but average for a writer. Submitting your writing is an awful lot like kissing frogs.
Being between rejections is the same as being between projects. They overlap. They follow one another like hunter and prey. Like a horse and carriage, horse and carriage, horse and carriage, circling around you till you have no idea which came first. It’s a whirlwind occupation for the hardy who can’t wait for the big payoff. It’s staying on the carousel til the ring, how, you’ll never know, gets caught up in your fist and it’s a hallelujah moment.
I’m very recently post-rejection but that won’t stop me from going after the next ring or frog that looks like it might have my name on it. Might. Some rings are definitely out of my range and/or interest, thank goodness, otherwise, I’d never get anything done.
I want that ring. Is that enough to actually win one? Wanting? I don’t think so. Wanting a cottage in the Calanques doesn’t mean I’m going to get it. There are other things, things that could be within my grasp, to want, and I’m going after them. The time between projects and rejection will narrow and become a blur, the Hallelujah moment and the daily grind will melt together, and the desire and the failure will become one . . .
Really? That’s a little too zen for me. I’ll try that again;
. . .desire and failure will take their appropriate places in the vast scheme of things. And I’m going to try and equalize them as much as possible.
Time to bring you up-to-date on everything that’s kept me away from here since April 23.
Turns out that leaving Arizona a few weeks early this spring was a good idea. Within two weeks of our return, my ninety-year old mother was in the hospital with a compression fracture and three weeks later she died. With lots of help from family, we cleaned out her apartment in two days then sold the things we couldn’t keep (along with lots of my things–another good idea) at several yard sales. Her graveside service followed a few weeks later; the extra time allowed us to plan a very special service to honor her memory.
My husband and I have always said that once my mother passed, we would sell our house and move. Somewhere. That moment suddenly was upon us. We worked like crazy getting our house ready to put on the market, had lots of showings, and less than two weeks later we were under contract. That was pretty much the extent of our summer.
Except for the fantastic trip to Utah, Jackson Hole, WY, the Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks that we took with our Arizona crew in the middle of July, that is! We were fortunate to take our nine-year old grandson from NH with us, for a total of twelve. He loved his cousin time and the bears, bison, elk, Old Faithful, white water rafting, horseback riding, and pool time.
Amidst all of that, we worked feverishly on plans for a small apartment over the garage of my daughter and family in a town about twenty miles north of us. When the contractor calmly suggested cutting the roof off the garage to put in a shed dormer, we knew it was time to regroup. My daughter suggested we look down instead of up. Her finished, wide-open, walk-out basement makes much more sense–it’s larger than the first house we built back in 1975 and will cost twice as much to make it into an apartment.
We are now at a point that I never thought I would be at again: picking out kitchen cabinets, flooring, appliances, bathroom fixtures, paint colors, new furniture. I’ve managed to push as many of the decisions as possible onto my daughter. It is her house.
Our closing date for the end of October fast approaches. We have categorized our remaining furnishings as keep, sell, or give away. My husband says get rid of everything and start fresh. He may get his wish. After this weekend’s yard sale (the fourth of the summer!), we may be left with just the essentials: our bed, couch, television, coffee table, and coffee maker.
Starting fresh is my new approach on Gabby, one of my Woodbury trilogies. Though I’m not scrapping everything I’ve written, I have made some major changes. I’ve moved the beginning of the book back a few scenes, setting the murder a few chapters into the book. Gabby has a new background and family. If I can pull it off, the third act will include different points of view. Borrowing a memorable line from one of my favorite movies, we think you got a lot of potential, Gabriella.
The trouble with plotting a novel in which your protagonist encounters challenge and change is that you have to experience her losses with her. Eliza Harris, protagonist of my long-labored mystery novel, is going to end up moving into a “senior community” of highly eccentric academics. When I thought this up, it seemed full of promise. That was before I invented Fallowfields, the house she is going to leave.
Near my own real home (I am, unfortunately, a real person) is a short stretch of country road where, around 1800, six New Hampshire tycoons built their mansions, one right next to the other. Remember the old ads for Dewar’s Scotch that had a rich guy trotting across the yard to his neighbor’s palatial home from his own, to borrow a cup of Dewar’s? It’s like that. Without realizing I was doing it, I created Fallowfields from bits and pieces of the three houses I’ve visited.
Externally, Fallowfields is unlike the Ridge houses. It’s a Victorian brick monstrosity, rather like the house of the Addams family. Inside, though, it’s a dream. In fact, imagined houses are like dreams. Bits and pieces of places we’ve known are plugged in or detached as needed, logic not included. As in Terry Pratchett’s Empirical Crescent (built, you will recall, by Bloody Stupid Johnson), the door of Number 3 can open into the back bedroom of Number 14, entirely without consequence.
Once you import these mysteriously significant spaces into a story, though, the pieces need to fit. The staircase and the fireplace in Fallowfields’ living room have changed places three times. In the end, the fireplace settled on an outside wall – less likely than a central position in a house of its vintage, but I needed a staircase open to the living room, so one character can overhear a remark not meant for her ears. Of course, she could simply have been walking in from another room on the same floor. But by that time, I had the stage set in my mind, and her descent from above pleased the director in me.
The layout of Fallowfields has reached the point of proprioception for me. I can feel the living room on my right as I stand in the dining room looking down the corridor to the front door. This south side of the house has been grafted onto the layout of the local mansions – it is an apartment that my mother lived in for only one year while I was mostly away at college. So although Fallowfields is a very large house, with big rooms, when my mind is absorbed in the action of the story, the walls shrink in around me. When space is needed for, say, a large party or for a character to be far enough away from another for a whisper not to be heard, the walls ease out again. These contortions warn me to be careful; they’ll be fertile breeding ground for howlers in the logistics of the story.
The furnishings are much to my taste. Eliza’s desk is huge and heavy, made of the same mahogany as the pieces brought into our household by my English great-grandmother. It sits beside a tall window with six-over-six panes of glass. Outside is an ancient maple, huge and close enough for Eliza to watch lines of snow fall from individual twigs on a sunny February day. There is a liquor cabinet well-stocked with Scotch, bourbon and, at the back, an old bottle of rye that comes in handy for a rough-and-tumble visitor. The kitchen has a soapstone sink, hewn from the (perfectly real) soapstone quarry near my home on the side of Cottonstone Mountain.
Fallowfields has outbuildings linked together in the big-house-little-house-back-house-barn configuration of early New England farms. These, unmagicked, are cobbled together from the back house and barn of the original farmhouse on our property plus my grandmother’s chicken house in Peacham, Vermont.
My mystery plot requires that the back house have a loft, the barn’s tack room be turned into a laboratory and its hay loft into an apartment. They lost none of their reality in these renovations. The horse stalls in the far end of Eliza’s barn still bear the faded names of Shetland ponies who lived, long ago, in ours: Jennifer, Princess, Duchess.
So it will be very hard for me to force Eliza out of Fallowfields. I console myself with the thought that it will remain enshrined in the story, holding in place a lifetime of memories.
What about you, readers and fellow writers? As a story streams through your brain, what parts of your world does it clothe itself in?
PLAYING IN MUD
We’re in the dog days of summer, when that mysterious star, Sirius, rises somewhere on the horizon.
Take a hike, Sirius.
Most everyone feels sluggish and irritable during these sticky mid-summer days. There are some, I hear, who come alive while sweating but as for me, I’m looking forward to the crisp days of autumn, even though those crisp days herald the cold of winter.
So, I was tending toward feeling heavy, hot and brain dead one late afternoon when I came home from a challenging couple of hours playing Mah Jongg. I found my son making a giant mud puddle in the backyard. My backyard is big enough that a swamp of mud the proportions of a grave site would not be readily seen, but I wasn’t ticked but rather intrigued; what the heck? I said to myself.
“What the heck, Whitt? You’ll have all the warthogs and hippos here by morning, wallowing, trying to get cool.”
He had a lot of sound equipment hovering near the muck which I hadn’t noticed at first. My son is not five years old, the typical period of a muddler, he’s going on thirty-five, a reasonable age for a film-maker. He’s a man of few words. “Did you win?” he asked.
“I did pretty well, considering the heat. What’s up?”
He showed me a list of sounds he needed for his film: a cartwheel rolling through muck, boots walking through sucky mud. Sounds of water; water being drunk, being splashed, drifting through my fingers, splashing from a basin, and being poured from a pitcher into various metal containers, and etc.
I became a trekker through mud. I became the gofer, looking through my kitchen for all the different vessels that made water not taste better but sound better. I became a Gunga Din and manned the hose when the mud was not viscose enough, stopped the flow when the mud overflowed its banks. I gulped water and sipped water, sloshed it and stirred it. I pushed start and stop buttons when Whitt became too mud encrusted to touch his equipment, and I listened through headphones to mucky, yucky sucky sounds inaudible to the naked ear.
It was fun. I forgot the heat.
Then, while he made a fire in the pit to record the crackling sounds, I made us some dinner.
Being a filmmaker is a lot like being a five year old. It’s infectious, too.
This was in my inbox this morning, from one cousin, by way of another. High excitement indeed!
“In case you are not current in world news, here is the unbelievable scoop. The Tour de France is going to go through Roudouallec on Wednesday. No, they are not lost. They will be on the route Lorient/Quimper for stage 5. From what has been described to me they will come from the south (Guiscriff) on the road past Kerzellec. Then enter the Bourg of Roudouallec, make a left and then make the turn on the route to St Goazec still going north. After a short while, they will turn south towards Coray and then onto Quimper.
I imagine that crowds will be coming into Roudouallec from the surrounding towns and create the biggest excitement since the US Army rolled through in 1944.”
Roudouallec? Where’s that?
Roudouallec is in Brittany, France. It’s on the Armorican peninsula immediately before Finisterre, or Land’s End, the furthest west that you can be in France
So, what’s the big deal?
The big deal is that Roudouallec is my family homestead. My father was born there in 1909, the youngest of ten children. Half of his siblings eventually came to the United States because of the deprivations of WW1 on the little farming community. Two of my father’s brothers had been gassed in that war. Nothing was the same again for those who lived there, farmers for the most part.
My father was born in a stone, mud-floored house. To lay a mud floor was considered an art back then, only done by specialized craftsmen. He came to this country when he was 17, following in the footsteps of older siblings. Throngs of Bretons came to NYC to work in the hotel industry and for Michelin Tire in New Jersey. Roudouallec and many other small towns lost large percentages of their populations. The old folks held their neighborhoods together by sheer willpower.
My father died in 2002 at the age of 93. Two years later my daughter and I took his ashes back to Roudouallec to be buried in the family vault. It was my first trip to the old country, as he had liked to call it. It was the first time in my life that I didn’t need to spell my maiden name, LeGuillou, for strangers. That was surreal enough, but even stranger was the feeling that I belonged in this one street village overshadowed by the ancient church, only a few years away from the twice-daily cow parade through the center of town. I’m sorry I missed that but, hey, can’t stop progress.
Tomorrow, instead of taking refuge from cows in the shallow doorways and side streets of Roudouallec, tourists will be watching from windows and roofs as bicyclists streak down the narrow mile-long main drag that extends from a most excellent creperie at one end to my cousin Mimi’s house at the other. This will undoubtedly be the biggest excitement since 1944.
I know that my cousins will be watching from the front yard of Mimi’s home, the first house in Roudouallec after you leave Finisterre.
I’d like to be there too.
I will be watching coverage online.
Having recently attempted to mend a badly boggled plot, and as a result scattered a whole book to the winds, I decided it was time to work stupid. Plagiaristically, even. I pulled off my bookshelf a favorite old textbook. Not from a creative writing class – I never took one of those (and that was a bad mistake.) My chosen instructor was Vladimir Propp, Russian scholar of folk tales and author of Morphology of the Folk Tale.
Morphology analyzes the structure of the stories in a huge corpus of Russian folk tales assembled by Alexander Nikolayevich Afanasyev, who was the Russian brothers Grimm rolled into one.
Afanasyev’s collection, published between 1855 and 1867, filled eight volumes and included some 600 tales. Propp found that he could condense everything that happened in every single one of the tales into a list of no more than 31 narrative events. He called these “functions.”
Better yet, for those of us with plot blindness, Propp claimed that whatever subset of the functions was included in a tale, they always appeared in the same order. That is, a tale might include only functions 2, 3, 8, 14, 16, 18, 30 and 31, but in the chronology of the tale, those functions will always appear in that order. Marvelous! Pick your functions, fill in a few details and there’s your story! Right?
The subset of functions above is not random: they’re the ones I picked out for my ready-made plot. Here are their definitions:
INTERDICTION: A forbidding edict or command is given.
VIOLATION OF INTERDICTION: The prior rule is violated.
VILLAIN CAUSES HARM, not necessarily to the hero.
HERO ACQUIRES A MAGICAL AGENT.
COMBAT OF HERO AND VILLAIN
VILLAIN IS DEFEATED.
VILLAIN IS PUNISHED.
HERO IS MARRIED AND ASCENDS THE THRONE.
Now, about those details….
Brainstorming is where I always get into trouble. It’s not that I can’t do it. I just find myself unreasonably delighted with the characters, settings and odd little objects that pop into my head. Once I’ve thought them up, I can’t sacrifice them just to make some stupid plot work.
The hot dogs are a case in point. I’m currently re-re-re-reading The Circus of Dr. Lao, Charles G. Finney’s 1935 masterpiece about a very strange little carnival. So my brainstorm around the Propp plot naturally begins by setting my story in a carnival. A magical carnival, of course. That decided, I need a combat at a carnival. Bingo! A hot dog eating contest now infests my story, and I can’t get rid of it. And wait! Carnivals always have lots of stalls selling food. Like state fairs… Have you heard about the deep-fried Oreos at the New Jersey State Fair? The deep-fried butter in Wisconsin? How about those Twix-stuffed Twinkies wrapped in bacon at the North Carolina State Fair? I’ve got to get stuff like that in.
Then, instead of casting about for an interdiction, my mind leaps ahead to the magical agent. It’s my favorite function, and my favorite form of it has always been the magical animal. Propp lists multiple ways in which these may fulfill the function; I end up combining three of them. The third, a bag of dragon’s teeth, wandered in from my long-ago dissertation on the Argonautika.
So now I’m knee-deep in hot dogs, fried butter and dragon’s teeth. When I finally start the search for a good interdiction, food is still on my mind. I get a good long way with “no magic in the food for customers,” but then that gets tangled up with a princess (actually the carny owner’s daughter) who isn’t allowed to eat because it messes up her magic…. Did I mention that Propp also condensed the character list into only seven people?
I showed my brainstorm to date to my writing group. They said, “???”
I’m determined, though. I’ve already caught myself in three intolerable contradictions and wrestled my way out of them. I will get a story out of this exercise, or eat a Twix-stuffed Twinkie wrapped in bacon.