Monday, June 29, 2015

Monday Writing: Masking the Villain

Last week I talked about the dreaded story bloat, and why it's sometimes better to leave out that intricately detailed backstory you've developed for a character.  Today, I'd like explore that idea further with a handful of villains in film and literature.  Let's take a look at a few, shall we?

Villains require a certain amount of mystery to be effective in their role.  This is particularly true in fantasy, which frequently builds on a good-and-evil struggle, but it's not limited to genre.  When you write a villain, there's a balance that needs to be struck between developing a nuanced character and developing a terrifying one - the more you leave unspoken about the villain (backstory, motivations, etc.) the more you leave to reader imagination, and the more frightening your villain becomes.  Anyone who works in horror has known this for years.  Just look at any of the Cthulhu stories, wherein the author sets up a creepy atmosphere and then in the moment of truth reverts to descriptions of ancient evil as too horrible for words.  Or, to step back into classic literature for a moment, take Iago - arguably one of the evilest characters Shakespeare ever created.  Iago takes a very specific delight in tormenting the people around him, but the reason he gives for his actions is a pretty flimsy one provided his ultimate body count.

But why does this work so well?  Well, first of all, leaving a little more to the reader's imagination allows each reader to tailor the villain to themselves in a reflection of whatever is most frightening to them.  Plus, it keeps the villain at an arm's length from the reader, which makes it easier for the reader to align with the hero and slip into an "us versus them" mentality to set up the stakes for the hero.  Once you start spelling things out about the villain, s/he becomes human, and therefore defeatable.  Darth Vader* is one of my favorite examples of an ideal villain, and he's certainly one of the most iconic.  Thanks to his mask, the machinery built around him, and his habit of keeping a lid on unnecessary exposition, he's one step removed from the humanity of the heroes; he's simply darkly, inscrutably evil (as we can tell from the all-black outfit and strangling of Rebels).  And yet his character is well-developed enough that despite the mask, the audience can still ascribe emotion to him through his actions, the tone of the voice, or the expressions of those around him.

The Joker from Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight is another such villain, although he's decidedly chaotic evil in opposition to Vader's lawful evil.  He's scarred and crazy and we have absolutely no idea how he got that way, which is frightening because it gives us no reference for how he'll act in the future.  His unpredictability is just as frightening as Vader's implacability - in both situations, there's a sense that there is no reasoning that can be done.  That inability to connect with the villain makes him all the more disturbing and sets up the reader to root for his defeat.

*Original series Darth Vader.  Don't get me started on the prequels.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Friday Life: Personal Peach Crumble

There is little in life more disappointing than biting into a luscious-looking peach and discovering that it is mealy.  Mealiness, as I've discovered recently, is caused by chilling peaches at the wrong time and is near-impossible to detect in the store.  Your best bet is to live in Georgia and just get your peaches fresh-picked from a local farm, as we used to do; failing that, you'll have to take your chances with farmer's markets or otherwise seek out a usually reliable source.  Still, if you do wind up with a mealy peach or two in a batch, all is not lost - those peaches might not be great for eating raw, but they will still cook up with lots of flavor, and a small peach crumble is ridiculously easy to throw together.

The directions below are for 1 large peach or 2 small ones; you can adjust as needed based on how many peaches you're using.  This recipe makes a crumble that will fit into an (oven-proof) cereal bowl.

Personal Peach Crumble

1 large peach
1 tsp lemon juice
1/2 tsp vanilla
2 Tb brown sugar
1/2 tsp cinnamon

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.  Peel and roughly chop the peach, then combine with lemon juice, vanilla, brown sugar, and cinnamon.  You can if you like add a teaspoon of corn starch if you like a more gelatinous filling; I usually skip it.

2 Tb flour
1/4 c brown sugar
1/4 c oats
1/4 tsp salt
2 Tb cold butter, cut into pieces

Combine flour, sugar, oats, and salt.  With a pastry cutter or your fingers, work the butter into the dry mixture until pea-sized crumbs form.

Pour the topping over the filling and pop in the oven for twenty minutes.  Alternatively, microwave the filling for two minutes, cover with topping, then broil for 3-5 minutes or until the topping is brown and bubbly.

Enjoy with vanilla ice cream!

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Wednesday Culture: String Quartet in A minor

For your Wednesday listening pleasure, here is the Belcea Quartet performing Beethoven's String Quartet in A minor, courtesy of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum podcast.  The work is Beethoven's celebration of his return to health after a serious illness, and although it is one of his later quartets, it has a beautifully Classical transparency about it.  Still, because it's Beethoven, there's plenty of drama and harmonic tension throughout.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Monday Writing: Story Bloat & Speculative Fiction

I genre-hop quite a bit, but when I'm not working on romances I tend to settle pretty consistently into speculative fiction.  Sci-fi is generally understood to be a couple hundred years old, although there are precedents from much earlier, and while fantasy has ties to myths and legends from the dawn of recorded history, Tolkien is usually acclaimed for the modern obsession with the fantastic epic.  Unfortunately, Tolkien's rich world-building and meticulously detailed story-telling seems to have given rise to the idea that any adult fantasy series worth its salt must be at least three inches thick (and the more volumes in the series the better).  And to gain the requisite bulk, the story must involve hundreds of characters with intricate backstories and motivations, all clearly spelled out for the reader.

I'm not inherently opposed to such writing, but the fact that I'm seeing more and more of these tomes suggests that authors - and perhaps readers, too - are missing the basic underpinnings of a well-told story.  Yes, Tolkien created complete worlds, down to the structure of his fictional languages, and he wrote about epic events, but it was his world that was complex, not his story.  His story was actually very simple, and although all of his characters have detailed backstories, those backstories are largely absent from the actual text of the Lord of the Rings.  Aragorn's heritage and his relationship with Arwen was significant enough to the plot to be mentioned in passing (fated king, betrothal, etc.) but the full stories behind both of those aren't told until you seek them out in the appendices.  The story of how Eowyn and Eomer came to be in the care of their uncle is likewise saved for the appendices, as are the histories of the dwarves and Elrond; the detailed backgrounds of major players like Galadriel, Sauron, and Shelob are reserved for another book entirely.

My point here is that perhaps this long-windedness isn't always necessary for the telling of a good story.  The creation of a well-rounded character usually does require the development of a fleshed-out backstory, but that doesn't necessarily mean that the backstory belongs in the telling of the tale itself.  As an author, it's important to know the background so that the character's choices are informed, and certainly there are times when a dip into the backstory draws the reader further into the protagonist's head, but that doesn't mean all stories need that bulk.  And in some cases, the character is more compelling when you don't know the history - but more on that next week.

Next time: Masking the Villain (or why mystery is better for villains).

Friday, June 19, 2015

Friday Life: The Best Sourdough Baguette Recipe

Remember when I tried to make sourdough baguettes?

Well, I am happy to report that after some trial and error, I at last found a method that works consistently for preparing good baguettes.  The last batch I made rose beautifully and came out gloriously chewy and sour.  It takes a while to make, but it's very easy and so worth it.  And the very best thing about this recipe?  No kneading! 

The Best Sourdough Baguette
2/3 c sourdough starter
3 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon active dry yeast
1 3/4 teaspoons salt
1 1/2 cups water

1. First, proof your starter.  (I'm going to work off the assumption that you already have a sourdough starter going; if you don't, see here for how to build one.)  I keep my starter in the fridge and use it infrequently, so before starting a recipe I need to wake it up.  Take 2/3 c starter and combine with 1/2 c flour and 1/4 c water (out of the amounts above), then let sit for several hours to let it come to room temperature.  The mixture should become bubbly and/or frothy.  This tells you that your starter is still good!  

Note: if your starter is very sour and you want to sweeten it a little, feed your starter (add 3/4 c water for every 1 c flour, mix, and let bubble) a day or so in advance of baking day.

2. Add the remaining flour and water to your starter with the yeast and the salt and mix well.  You should end up with a sticky mass of dough. 

3. Cover bowl and let sit at room temperature, 12 to 18 hours.

4. Turn out onto bread pan (preferably a baguette pan) and shape into loaves. Refrigerate overnight. (I removed from fridge and let rise another 8 hours because my loaves hadn't risen enough.)

5. Preheat oven to 500 degrees F. Fill with water a large pan (or two cake pans) and set on the lower rack while the oven preheats. Make sure they have enough water that it won't boil off while you're waiting for the oven to preheat.  

Note: I found it helpful to keep a kettle of boiling water on the stove to refresh the pan of water when I put the baguettes in.  That helped keep the moisture in.

6. When oven is preheated, slash the tops of the baguettes and pop the baguettes into the oven.  Move as quickly as possible so as not to loose the steam, and do not open the oven until it's time to remove the pans of water! Bake 15 minutes.

7. Remove pans of water and bake another 10 minutes. Remove from oven and let cool.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Wednesday Culture: My Soul Cries Out/Star of the County Down

Let's liven things up a bit, shall we?

I previously posted a video by the Orthodox Celts performing the traditional Irish song "Star of the County Down."  I've played Irish music for a number of years now, but I was introduced to this particular song via a hymn.  As it happens, I appreciate the poetry of the hymn as much as I enjoy the tongue-in-cheek verses of the original.  Here is the chamber choir at my alma mater performing "The World Is About To Turn."

Monday, June 15, 2015

Monday Writing: Prompts

Perspective is truly a wonderful things.

As humans, we're more or less trapped inside our own perspectives, individually shaped by upbringing and personality and all the tiny events and choices of our lives that have made us who we are today.  We can get glimpses into other people's thought processes through conversation, exploration, and, of course, the arts (story-telling particularly pulls us out of our heads and puts us in someone else's) but it can still be hard to grasp the fact that five people can hear a sentence and interpret it five different ways.

Which brings us to writing prompts.  I've been thinking about the writing prompts from a couple of my creative writing courses recently.  In high school, I wasn't always a fan of the prompts; coming up with something to write about is rarely a struggle for me, and I chafed at the necessity of slogging through some terrible short story based on a prompt that didn't particularly inspire me.  But the regular prompts were useful for a couple of reasons: they encouraged me to broaden my writing horizons (after a couple weeks it was pretty easy to see that I liked to lapse into a couple of similar storylines); they provided a regular writing experience that improved my writing discipline; and they gave me a chance to see into the minds of my fellow writers (the few times that we shared).  Plus, they encouraged me to come up with stories I might never have written and seek out information I might never have found.

My teachers encouraged me to look for writing prompts everywhere - from lines overheard in a coffee shop to news articles to an art gallery.  There is an abundance of writing prompts online, of course; I'll list a few resources below that I like.  And then there is always the writing group.  If you can, get your writing group to try some prompts - or have each member do a retelling of a favorite fairy tale.  The different twists on a single prompt can be inspiring when you're feeling in a rut.

New York Times 500 Prompts for Narrative and Personal Writing

Writer's Digest Weekly Prompts

Poets & Writers Weekly Prompts (Fiction, Non-Fiction, and Poetry)