January 27, 2011

A Bit O' The Classics - Sherlock Holmes

Years ago I read one of the more famous Sherlock Holmes mysteries, The Sign of Four, and attempted to read a few others, but was put off by the main character's egotism and could not manage it. Over the past months, however, I have watched almost all of the Jeremy Brett Sherlock Holmes adaptions, including the Adventures, the Casebook, the Return, and the Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes. Something about Brett's portrayal of Arthur Conan Doyle's classic detective had me hooked, and I hastily bought both Bantam Classics volumes of The Complete Novels and Stories of Sherlock Holmes.

Sherlock Holmes is a character that most people either love or hate; there is not often a middle ground (except, of course, for those who haven't read any of Conan Doyle's detective works at all). Hating him would be perfectly understandable, judging from his cool arrogance, his occasional petulance, and his scorn for those without minds like his own. He goes through highs and lows like a roller-coaster, spending his days, when he is without a case, either sulking with his long-stemmed pipe or sprawled out on the sofa in a daze, probably narcotic-induced. He apparently has little regard for anyone. He lives, generally speaking, in his own little world.

With a description like that, it seems a wonder that anyone likes him. Yet the fact that people do means that there is something more to Holmes than this, or that Conan Doyle managed to write such an egotistical character with charm. In reading Holmes, I found it was both.

This is not to say that anything in my description of Holmes is wrong; he is, by turns, arrogant, petulant, and scornful, and no mistake. But he is not merely all these things, else he would not have become nearly as popular as he did. For one thing, though his arrogance can be a little grating, one does at least have to concede that he is not conceited without reason; he is not like Inspector Lestrade, who preens over having solved a crime, while nabbing the wrong fellow. He is a genius, and keenly aware of the fact. However, Holmes is not without his failures, and not above being disgusted with himself when he overlooks a clue or finds himself (as he does, albeit rarely) stumped. There is a limit to his conceit.
"'Watson,' said he, 'if it should ever strike you that I am getting a little overconfident in my powers, or giving less pains to a case than it deserves, kindly whisper "Norbury" in my ear, and I shall be infinitely obliged to you.'" (The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes: The Yellow Face.)
As for his petulance during times when he is without a case, the very childishness that on the one hand can make his behavior irritating can also make it endearing. Holmes is very much like a child in some respects - quick either to fling himself wholeheartedly into work, or to give up all pretense of labor; ascending rapidly to the pinnacle of delight, and plunging again two seconds later into Anne Shirley's "Depths of Despair." These wild mood swings are amusing to watch, and it is always satisfying to watch him bound back out of his dejection with the arrival of a new, challenging case.

His scorn for Scotland Yard is also understandable, as Conan Doyle surrounds him with inspectors like Gregson and Lestrade, who are occasionally effective, usually blundering, and always looking down their noses at Holmes' "methods" until the last minute. Coming to Holmes is always their last resort, and though he always manages to solve the case for them, they then kindly inform him that they will "make something of him yet." Yet Holmes is generally good-natured about allowing them to take the credit for problems he has solved, and rarely asks for more than the enjoyment a case provides for him.

Besides these points, Conan Doyle's major weapon for making Sherlock Holmes likable is the fact that the story is told, not from the detective's point of view, but through the first-person narration of Dr. Watson. However, Watson deserves a post of his very own, so I will enlarge on that later.

January 20, 2011

Jane Austen's Villains

Jane Austen's novels are fairly fluffy, light reads, and naturally they do not have "villains" as The Lord of the Rings has villains. Most of them do, however, have antagonists - because stories rarely work without them. Having read all of her novels, including her incredibly absurd and highly amusing "Minor Works," I found the differences in her antagonists quite interesting to note; all are smooth-talkers, but their actions and level of villainy differ from one novel to another quite refreshingly.

Pride & Prejudice: Pride and Prejudice boasts Jane Austen's most famous villain in Mr. George Wickham, the unscrupulous officer who charms everyone with his looks and winning ways. He is slippery and conniving - the sort of man most people think of when they think of Austen's antagonists. This is often the first of Austen's novels that people read, so it sets the precedent that if a man seems too good to be true, he will turn out to be the villain.

Sense & Sensibility: Sense and Sensibility (written before Pride and Prejudice) has a similar "antagonist" to Austen's more popular novel. Mr. Willoughby, the charming "suitor" of flighty, romantic Marianne Dashwood, is the quintessential knight in shining armor and fills the role of the tall, dark, and handsome hero that Wickham does in Pride and Prejudice. But though he does resemble Mr. Wickham (Austen seems to have had something against W's), he also has some unique facets. He is a much more tragic sort of character, first of all, and is meant to evoke as much pity as he does anger in the reader - though I confess, I didn't feel particularly sorry for him in the end. Secondly, the story is from Elinor Dashwood's perspective, and since she is less blinded by Willoughby's charms than the rest of her family, he comes across in a different manner than the all-deceiving Wickham.

Emma: This cheery novel does not have a Wickham-like villain, and, indeed, really does not have an antagonist at all, unless it be Emma herself and her matchmaking. It does, however, have the interesting figure Frank Churchill, who especially interested and annoyed me with his selfish, unpredictable ways. I did not know the storyline when first I watched the 1995, Kate Beckinsale production (I read the book after having watched the movie), and so I couldn't be sure how Frank would turn out by the end of it. I found him one of the more interesting Austen antagonists because of that, and also because, selfish though his deception was, he had an understandable reason for his actions that made it almost possible to forgive him.

Persuasion: Persuasion, even more so than Emma, lacked a real villain. In my opinion, the worst antagonist was also the hero - Captain Wentworth, with his offended pride and way of nursing his wrongs. However, that all worked out all right in the end and Wentworth seems to be popular among Janites, so I will say no more.

Northanger Abbey: This novel, different from all of Austen's other works in many regards, shares a feature with Mansfield Park in having two antagonists, brother and sister John and Isabelle Thorpe. John, a friend of the heroine's brother, is anything but the smooth weasel that George Wickham is; he is rough and unlikeable, suited to deceive heroine Catherine Morland, in view of her rather silly, uncritical nature. He is an irritating character, and the fact that he has a chance of winning Catherine's affection makes him more so.

Isabelle, on the other hand, is more subtle and sweet, and thus more poisonous in her influence on Catherine. She is also rather a crude, unladylike character, though, just as her brother is no gentleman. Despite how different they are from the villains of Austen's other works, they are still a thoroughly unlikeable a pair.

Mansfield Park: I left Mansfield Park for last, it having perhaps the most unique style of all of Austen's works, for all its being disliked by many fans of the other novels. It has the brother-sister pair of antagonists that posthumously-published Northanger Abbey does, but Henry and Mary Crawford are far more insidious than the Thorpes. Henry is gentlemanly, though he seems to be more of the Frank Churchill type than the dashing Wickham or Willoughby, and while heroine Fanny Price remains in the dark as to his nature, the reader is aware almost from his entrance into the story that he is unscrupulous. When bent on winning Fanny, Henry's pleasant nature is all the more nerve-wracking for the reader because of Fanny's usual submissiveness and how oblivious the man is whom she truly loves, Edmund Bertram.

But in reading Jane Austen's novels, I thought her best antagonist was Mary Crawford. Mary is everything that Fanny Price is not - charming, vivacious, witty, and also devious, selfish, and unkind - and that mix of charms and vices is one of the best things to have in any villain. She is intriguing in her vivacity, but also hateful in her cruelty; amusing in her wit, but worrisome in her scheming. I have heard others say that they actually liked her better than Fanny, but I found the makeup of her character only served to make her a more stunning antagonist and set her apart from the ranks of Austen's other "villains."

January 17, 2011

What's in a Name?

"What's in a name? that which we call a rose
by any other name would smell as sweet;
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call'd,
retain that dear perfection which he owes
without that title!"

Thus philosophizes Juliet on her balcony in perhaps the most famous passage of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, referring to the fact that Romeo's surname is that of her family's sworn enemy. Philosophers will argue the validity of her idle comment that a rose by any other name would smell just as sweet, and in Anne of Green Gables the heroine (most definitely not a philosopher) makes the amusing and accurate observation, "I don't believe a rose would be as nice if it was called a thistle or a skunk cabbage."

Be that as it may, I rather wonder if Shakespeare could have written his play the way he did if Romeo's name were any different - or if it would have been half as popular. "The Tragedy of Gerald and Hepzibah" fails to pull any heartstrings in me. In Scripture a name frequently reflected something about the character of its possessor, such as Solomon's God-given name, Jedidiah, and were chosen with care by the parents to have meaning; sometimes they referred to circumstances of the child's birth (Jacob, for instance), or to appearance (as in Esau), or to some great deed that was foretold about the child's life (most notably Jesus Himself). Occasionally in Scripture there is also revealed the special name by which God called a man, as in the name Jedidiah or the covenant names God gave to His people.

In fact, the answer to Juliet's question is that there is a great deal more in a name than she would think. Names, as much in fiction as in real life, are very important and carry with them strong images; and writers, as much as parents, often face a challenge in naming their characters. Sometimes a character will present himself or herself and have a name already...and sometimes they don't. More's the pity. But if the latter is true, names are too important in a story to allow any writer to just skim over a list of baby names and pick one that sounds interesting, for characters have a tendency to rebel when their name does not reflect their character.

There are several interesting ways to find a fitting name for a character. One is to recognize that letters, as well as names, come with at least a vague impression of the sort of person who might have a name starting with that. M's, for instance, are often applied to villains (Morgoth, Morgan le Fay) and seems to fit that role. If you can consider what sort of a personality your nameless character possesses, sometimes you can find a letter, or a couple letters, that especially fit - thereby narrowing down the list of names to go through.

Another way is to take into account the meanings of names; taking whatever you already know about the personality of Unnamed, you can find names by their meanings and pick one that sounds right and fits. The meaning of whatever name your character has can often play into a story - sometimes this is planned, and sometimes it is completely unintentional.

And then there is the third way, usually necessary for the most elusive characters who are simply too shadowy to fulfill any of the requirements for the above options: go to a source and start searching through names, taking into account both letter-imagery and meanings as you go. I've found it the most tedious way to go, but sometimes nothing else will work.

January 9, 2011

Light in the Darkness

A little while back I wrote a blog post on "Christian" fiction and the often shallow messages and themes in that genre of writing, and the tendency of such literature to be pure moralizing from start to finish. Most of the Christian novels put out by presses nowadays are fairly cookie-cutter in plot and content - generally romances with preachy overtones and simplistic themes, packaged in fluff - and these were the sorts of novels I discussed. They are the kinds of books that go down like cotton candy and have no meat in them to edify the reader, believer or unbeliever.

But there is also another branch of "Christian" fiction that is almost the polar opposite of the Fluffy Romance genre, with more dramatic themes, darker twists and turns, and more challenging morality. On a shelf they can be picked out from their romantic counterparts quite easily, often having deep, dark colors in contrast to the sunny landscapes depicted on the romance novels, and in this case one can judge the book by its cover. These books often seem (and sometimes are) more powerful than the other type of "Christian" fiction because they tend to wrestle with more complicated matters, with problems that force the reader to think rather than to mindlessly absorb.

However, these books are not necessarily much healthier than the romances. They do at first seem to deserve more respect than the other type of novels I discussed; after all, even if in the end the reader disagrees with the story, at least it makes them think. But the more one does think about it, the more I think it comes to light that the worth of such novels is as questionable as in their sugary counterparts. These stories challenge, certainly, but their very challenges only serve to muddy the moral waters, to filter the light, to blur the line between good and evil. They wrestle with weighty moral problems, to be sure, but often give no firm foundation for the conclusion - if there is a conclusion at all. The result simply is, and the reader is left to think what they will.

Now, to a degree, every story will be like this: writers cannot force their readers to agree with their conclusions. But a lack of foundation will make the morality of an entire story crumble, and the result will be confusion. If Good and Evil are not starkly revealed by the end, there will be very little light in the darkness. Stories like this, while they may be engaging and interesting to read, are unhealthy, and perhaps dangerous, in large quantities. We live in an age where right and wrong are what the viewer makes them to be, where evil is not truly evil, darkness is not truly darkness. While it is true that not all things in life are obviously black and white and the starkness of good and evil may vary depending on the story, Christians should take care not to obscure the line between one and the other, or they will remove the basis for any message they wish to carry through.

"You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do they light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven." (Matthew 5:14-16)

January 5, 2011

Jane Eyre vs. The Secret Garden

At first glance, two books like Jane Eyre and The Secret Garden seem to have nothing in common. Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre is the prototype of a Gothic romance - dark, brooding, and suspenseful - while Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden is a children's story, full of light and vivid colours. And it is true: they have almost nothing in common. The only feature they share is the setting, the haunting, beautiful wilderness of Britain, and yet it could easily be said that that very landscape is a major factor in making the two books such polar opposites.

In the black-and-grey story of Jane Eyre, many of the scenes take place in some level of darkness, either at night or on stormy days. Since the story is set in a secluded part of England where it rains a good part of every season, the wilderness enhances the Gothic feel of the novel and lends it an eerie atmosphere; the dark stone walls and passages of Thornfield Hall would not have been half as sinister without the added effect of the weather and landscape outside. Bronte emphasized in her novel the haunting allure of Britain's moorlands, which set the perfect backdrop for Jane Eyre's story.

"I struck straight into the heath; I held on to a hollow I saw deeply furrowing the brown moorside; I waded knee-deep in its dark growth; I turned with its turnings, and finding a moss-blackened granite crag in a hidden angle, I sat down under it. High banks of moor were about me; the crag protected my head: the sky was over that." (Jane Eyre - Chapter 28.)


The Secret Garden, on the other hand, displays the opposite feature of the moors. While the frequent storms and rains do give the landscape a shadowy feel, they also mean that when the sun does shine, the scenery is turned into an amazingly beautiful, otherworldly place. Whereas Charlotte Bronte depicts black moors with stormy grey skies above, Frances Hodgson Burnett shows a rolling landscape of greens, yellows, purples, and whites beneath a clear blue sky. It is this sort of loveliness that characterizes her story and makes it magical, providing not only a background, but a vital part of the story as the beauty of the Yorkshire moors changes the main character altogether.

"'Look at the moor! Look at the moor!'
"The rainstorm had ended and the grey mist and clouds had been swept away in the night by the wind. The wind itself had ceased and a brilliant, deep blue sky arched high over the moorland. Never, never had Mary dreamed of a sky so blue. In India skies were hot a blazing; this was a deep cool blue which almost seemed to sparkle like the waters of some lovely bottomless lake, and here and there, high, high in the arched blueness floated small clouds of snow-white fleece. The far-reaching world of the moor itself looked softly blue instead of gloomy purple-black or awful dreary grey." (
The Secret Garden - The Key of the Garden.)


While the moors are perhaps one of the most vivid examples of the powers of a landscape, there are few places that do not display this sort of change from one day to another, or from one season to the next. Deserts, for instance, are seen as flat stretches of sand, sand, sand, and more sand, but on that rare day when rain does fall, the entire landscape changes as plants burst into momentary flower. The endless terrain, rock formations, and blue skies of the Badlands of the Midwestern United States have a lonely appeal that goes beyond the dry, monotonous way they are generally seen. (Or so they say; I fail to see it, myself...) These sorts of stereotype-reversals can be interesting to see used in writing, and to use in our own; the depiction of a single landscape can alter drastically, depending merely on whether the story is a Jane Eyre or a Secret Garden.

January 3, 2011

Perseverance

New Years is the time of resolutions and good intentions, when people take heart at the dawn of a new year and set out to remedy all the problems they had in the last year. Unfortunately the new year fails to remain new, and as the second or third month rolls around, people begin to realize that it is just as difficult to change in 2011 as it was in 2010. So, generally speaking, resolutions are dumped and we go back to our usual ways.

I know, I know: a very depressing look at the bright new year of 2011. However, it does highlight a trait that most Americans of the 21st Century profoundly lack, and that is perseverance. It is a necessity in all aspects of a Christian's life, in "running with endurance the race that is set before us" (Heb. 12:1), and yet we live in an increasingly ADD society that finds sticking to any one thing an insurmountable task. In an age where video games have surpassed books, where men and women change churches, homes, and even spouses as easily as they change clothes, it's not surprising that words like "perseverance" and "persistence" are no longer popular. However, they are still characteristics that should be manifested in every believer's life, and cultivated in every writer's work.

At interviews and book signings last month I was asked several times what advice I would give to beginning writers, and my first would be to read. Writing is not something that can be done by a person who will not read extensively and well. But my other thought for writers is that if they wish to make something of their work, they must persevere. It's easy to skip from one story to another as the ideas appear fresh in your mind; it's also very easy to abandon ship when the story goes through times of bad weather, where writing is more like pulling teeth than anything else - trust me, I know. However, such flightiness will never produce a finished work, but only leave you frustrated with bits and pieces of a dozen plots.

For the most part, even deciding that your current story is dumb and worthy only of the compost heap isn't a good excuse for bailing out. You may not necessarily be wrong - your story may be dumb and worthy of the compost heap - but the only way to grow is to keep at it. I know my writing was stymied for a long time until I actually buckled down, wrote, and finished The Soldier's Cross. I will not set this down as an ironclad rule that you must stick with every story you begin, since only you can know the pros and cons of continuing the work in progress, but we should all be very cautious about scrapping one story for any reason.
 
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I am a writer of historical fiction and fantasy, scribbling from my home in the United States. More importantly, I am a Christian, which flavors everything I write. My debut novel, "The Soldier's Cross," was published by Ambassador Intl. in 2010.
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published writings






The Soldier's Cross: Set in the early 15th Century, this is the story of an English girl's journey to find her brother's cross pendant, lost at the Battle of Agincourt, and of her search for peace in the chaotic world of the Middle Ages.
finished writings






Tempus Regina:Hurled back in time and caught in the worlds of ages past, a Victorian woman finds herself called out with the title of the time queen. The death of one legend and the birth of another rest on her shoulders - but far weightier than both is her duty to the brother she left alone in her own era. Querying.
currently writing



Wordcrafter: "One man in a thousand, Solomon says / will stick more close than a brother. / And it's worthwhile seeking him half your days / if you find him before the other." Justin King unwittingly plunges into one such friendship the day he lets a stranger come in from the cold. Wordcount: 124,000 words

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