10/26/2014

10 Two-Sentence Horror Stories


 
In honor of Halloween, I offer 10 horror stories in two sentences or less.
  1. My husband and two small children died in a mysterious fire.  No matter how many new clothes I buy, no matter how many times I shower, strangers still ask me why I smell like smoke.
  2. Sometimes, through the baby monitor in the middle of the night, I can hear my identical twin daughters talking excitedly to each other in their special “twin language.”  If only one of the twins hadn’t been stillborn.
  3. “Daddy fly!” my daughter gaily exclaims, as she pushes me over the edge of the cliff.
  4. I keep getting texts from my daughter, asking me to pick her up from school.  She died two weeks ago in a school bus crash.
  5. I’m grateful for my transplanted eye, don’t get me wrong. But I’ve also learned to keep it closed when driving; otherwise I keep seeing a gigantic tractor-trailer skidding out of control towards my car.
  6. My daughter has started talking in her sleep.   According to the professors at the local university who have listened to the tapes, she’s speaking ancient Sumarian.
  7. I woke up to the sensation of a dog jumping into my bed and lying down next to me.  I wish I had a dog.
  8. One day I finally asked by my usually hyper-responsible teenage daughter why she’s so often late getting ready for school in the morning.  “The grey lady who comes into my room at nights sometimes hides my things,” she explains, apologetically.
  9. Don’t you hate it when you unplug your phone and it rings anyway?
  10. I realize everyone’s looking at me in horror, but I don’t see what the big deal is.  Thanks to modern medicine, pretty much anything can be reattached these days.

10/19/2014

Book Look - The Borgias: A Hidden History, by G.J. Meyer


Phew! This is not an easy read! Meyer may have set out to write a book about the Borgias, but what he's really produced is a geopolitical overview of the Italian city/states and Europe during what you might call the "Borgia years" - mid 1400s to early 1500s. The argument certainly can be made that detailed, elaborate context is required to fully understand and accurately interpret the evidence related to the Borgias. Even so, I feel like the author went WAY beyond the stated scope of his project; whole sections of this dense work barely even mention the Borgias.

Having said that, I appreciated the opportunity to learn more about this fascinating epoch in human history, which has much to teach us about the senseless, futile butchery and misery that results when people devote themselves exclusively to the pursuit of wealth and power. This has always been the rap against the Borgias, of course; that in an age characterized by grotesque excesses of violence, passion, and ambition, they played the game more ruthlessly - and more successfully - than any of the other great families ...

... or did they? Meyer does a fairly creditable job of presenting the "evidence" against the Borgias (much of which, tainted as it is by hearsay and bias, would never be accepted as "evidence" now), placing the evidence in context, and making the case that the Borgias have been much maligned. Sure (he argues), the Borgia popes may have engaged in gross nepotism, but a case can be made that they were competent administrators who advanced by virtue of luck and ability rather than mass poisoning; Cesare may have justly served as the model for Machievelli's The Prince, but he wasn't noticeably more brutal or amoral than his peers; and poor Lucrezia may have gone through three husbands, but there's no actual evidence supporting the allegations that she was an amoral temptress who actively plotted their deaths.

Given the dearth of historical records, and the distortions contained in the documents that have survived (history is written by the winners, it is justly said), I'm not sure there's any way now to know where the truth lies; all I will say is that Meyer manages to make a fairly convincing case that a critical reassessment of accepted wisdom may be justified.

In summary, there's much here to recommend. The topic is worthwhile, Meyer certainly knows his period, and he does a creditable job of shaping the convoluted material into a form that's relatively accessible and interesting. However, I'm not sure other readers are going to be as tolerant of his geopolitical digressions as I was, and the denseness of the subject matter requires an application of concentration that some may be unwilling to expend.

10/08/2014

A Thousand Words - The Halloween Tree

The Halloween Tree, by Ray Bradbury
 Illustration by Joseph Mugnaini.
 
This simple woodcut picture gave me chills when I was a little girl.  Still does.

10/04/2014

50+ Romance Novel Obstacles to True Love


This is yet another one of those blog entries that stems from a conversation with girlfriends.  Discussing the  particularly preposterous plot of a recent popular romance series (hint: time travel and kilts), it occurred to us that all romance plots are inherently a little preposterous, if only because of the necessity for manufacturing some obstacle to keep the lovers separated long enough to generate a plot.  After all, where’s the fun in lovers finding each other in the first chapter and living happily ever after?   Where’s the sexual tension, where’s the suspense, where’s the glorious release when love finally triumphs over all obstacles placed in its path?

In real life, obstacles to True Love tend to be, well, boring: personality conflicts, parental objections, money.  Fortunately, romance writers are much more creative – it’s hard to imagine a tragedy, complication, misunderstanding or act of villainy that they haven’t enlisted in the cause of thwarting the course of True Love.  Nor would we want it any other way.
Following is the list we whimsically initiated that day, with sample books/movies supplied when we could think of them.   If you’re a romance writer in search of inspiration for conflicts, help yourself.  Otherwise, enjoy the opportunity to celebrate the sheer scope, creativity, and venerable cheesiness of these familiar, beloved romance tropes:
 Separated by social forces/conventions
  1. Separated by religion.  Is there an easier way to torment your lovers than by having one of them come from a Catholic family, the other from a Protestant family?  Or doom one to be raised in an Amish community while the other is an avowed Outsider?  Might de Boise-Guilbert and Rebecca (Ivanhoe) have lived happily ever after if it hadn’t been for whole the “I’m a Christian crusader, you’re a Jew” objection? 
  2. Separated by economic status.  God help the rich man or woman who gives their heart to someone with a heart of gold but a purse of dust, for their relatives are sure to throw a hissy.  (Sense & Sensibility, Persuasion)
  3. Separated by social status.  Because everyone knows ogres can’t be permitted to fall in love with princesses (Shrek), businessmen can’t be allowed to fall in love with prostitutes (Pretty Woman), and girls of good family can’t go around lusting after brooding stableboys (Wuthering Heights).
  4. Separated by race/nationality.  Sadly, his may be the only one on the list that actually occurs more often in real life than in books, though it’s a reliable trope in Bollywood movies where dishy Indian protagonists are forever falling in love with unsuitable Westerners.
  5. Separated by age.  Can either take the form of protagonists too young to marry or a doomed May/December romance (Big, Lost in Translation, Harold and Maude, Moonrise Kingdom).
  6. Separated by business interests.  One’s a cop, one’s a famous jewel thief (To Catch a Thief); or, one’s the owner of the business, the other’s a secretary (Working Girl); or, one owns a conglomerate, the other owns an independent shop (You’ve Got Mail). Can True Love triumph over job conflicts?
  7. Separated by feuding families.  Romeo and Juliet.  That’s all we need to say about that.
  8. Separated by politics.  A standard conflict in historical romances, especially those that involve civil wars.
 Separated by intellectual/emotional differences
  1. Separated by ideas. He’s a liberal (environmentalist, activist, social worker), she’s a conservative (business executive, lawyer) – can they do a better job than Congress of overcoming their ideological differences? (The Way We Were)
  2.  Separated by emotions.  He’s brazen, she’s shy (Mansfield Park); he’s uptight, she’s quirky (basically anything starring Meg Ryan); she’s a brain, he’s a slacker (Say Anything).  Apparently opposites do attract – just not until the final chapter.
  3. They can’t live with each other, but it turns out they can’t live without each other either (His Girl Friday).
 Separated by circumstances
  1.  Separated by prior obligations.  “I cannot marry you as I have, alas, been promised to another!”  Especially common in historical romances, back when parents arranged their childrens’ marriages based on political, social, and business considerations (Sense & Sensibility, Shakespeare in Love).
  2. Separated by an inconvenient marriage.  Because nothing crushes budding love like a mad woman in the attic (Jane Eyre), a coma wife, or that rash decision made when you were still young and impressionable (Casablanca, Bridges of MadisonCounty).
  3. Falling in love with your best friend’s guy/gal.  How do you choose between friendship, loyalty, duty, and love? (My Best Friend’s Wedding; Lancelot & Guinevere in Le Morte de Arthur)
  4. One (or both) have jobs that constantly separate them (celebrities, athletes, musicians, interpreters, art restorers, foreign correspondents) and often involve romantic temptations.
  5. Lovers discover they are tragically related to each other – cousins, or a brother/sister separated at birth.
  6. One (or both) are entangled in a sham marriages (or engagements)  (While You Were Sleeping).
  7. The course of true love is interrupted by a crisis: war (Last of the Mohicans), plague, or the ever-popular captured by pirates (The Princess Bride).
  8. The course of true love is interrupted by a major life event or tragedy: a death in the family, a political setback, or a sudden change in economic circumstances (an inheritance or bankruptcy).
 Separated by deliberate interference
  1. The course of true love is interrupted by a jealous rival or other interested party (Antony & Cleopatra, Snow White).
  2. The course of true love is interrupted by friends/family members with their own agendas.  Because nothing’s as insidious as the manipulations of someone your characters erroneously trust but who is in fact motivated by greed, selfishness, and/or revenge (A Separate Peace, Othello).
  3. One lover must successfully complete a quest or deed to earn the attention and favor of their inamorata (Ivanhoe).
Separated by supernatural forces. 
  1. Separated by time.  The lovers somehow contrived to meet across time but are doomed forever to be parted by the eras that separate them (The Time-Traveller’s Wife, Outlander).
  2. Separated by mortality.  One lover’s a mortal, the other’s a ghost; a guaranteed tear-jerker of a conflict (Ghost, The Ghost & Mrs. Muir).
  3. Separated by species.  Because nothing’s quite so fraught with complications as falling in love with a creature of an entirely incompatible species – say, a vampire, werewolf, mermaid or fairy (Twilight series, Edward Scissorhands).
  4. Separated by destiny.   A superstition, omen, or prophecy keeps the lovers separated – you’ll find this one in medieval romances and some fantasy/sci fi.
Separated by noble sentiments
  1. One lover nobly eschews romance because they are secretly suffering from a wasting illness, a mental disorder, a drug addiction, or some other depressing malady.  Damn their scruples!
  2. One lover nobly eschews romance because they possess a Terrible Secret that will prevent them from having children (a genetic disorder; a previous trauma that prevents conception).
  3. One lover nobly eschews romance because they were Tragically Orphaned At Birth (or, alternatively, suffering amnesia) and don’t feel they can honorably enter into a marriage without knowing the full details of their own parentage/heritage.  An honorable old Dickensian trope.
  4. One lover nobly eschews romance because the object of their amour is obviously vulnerable, damaged, or for some other reason unable to rationally evaluate their decision to enter into a relationship.
  5. One lover adores the other so completely, they’re willing to sacrifice their happiness to help the other (City Lights).
Separated by insecurity
  1. One lover deliberately eschews the other because they don’t believe they’re worthy of love, possibly because they feel themselves too plain (Jane Eyre)  or too damaged (Moonstruck).
  2. One lover becomes jealous of the professional successes of the other (A Star is Born).
  3. Lovers fall in love in absentia – perhaps via mail, email, phone calls, letters in trees, or letters in bottles – then become afraid to meet lest their hopes be dashed.
Separated by vocation or calling
  1. One lover deliberately eschews love/marriage in order to pursue a vocation or calling (The Natural, It’s a Wonderful Life).
  2. One lover takes a vow of celibacy/chastity, either as part of a profession of faith or as a vow to god in exchange for some great favor (The Thorn Birds).
  3. One (or both) are trapped in careers where lovers and/or spouses could make things inconvenient  (Elizabeth the Queen, The American President).
Separated by unsuitability
  1. One of the lovers (or both) must modify some character defect in order to deserve the other (Mr. Darcy & Elizabeth in Pride & Prejudice; Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind; Bill Murray in Groundhog Day; Han Solo in Star Wars).
  2. One of the lovers must free themselves from  an unsuitable entanglement (for example, that girlfriend/boyfriend who is only using them for their money/their influence/to make someone else jealous) in order to become available to the other.  (Jane Eyre)
  3. One of the lovers must overcome a preconceived prejudice against the other (Pride & Prejudice, Cyrano de Bergerac, Ms. Congeniality).
Separated by memories of love
  1. One lover deliberately throws obstacles in the path of romance because they’re not yet over a previous romance – even better if their first love died under sudden and tragic circumstances (Always, Sleepless in Seattle).
  2. One lover deliberately eschews romance because they still bear psychological scars from their last traumatic romantic entanglement (Rebecca).
Separated by blindness
  1. Friends fall gradually in love (Harry Potter).
  2. Enemies or rivals fall gradually in love (All’s Well That Ends Well, It Happened One Night, When Harry Met Sally).
  3. Unrequited love.  One minute he’s in your “friend zone,” the next moment you’re realizing he’s Mr. Right (Emma, Jerry Maguire, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Kermit the Frog & Ms. Piggy).
Separated by deception
  1. One of the lovers is living a secret life - spy, fugitive, superhero - that they are not at liberty to disclose (Batman, Spiderman, Zorro).
  2. One lover is pretending to be someone they’re not.  This is one of Shakespeare’s favorite tropes; there’s almost always someone passing as someone else, and usually as someone of the opposite sex.
Separated by a BIG MISUNDERSTANDING. 
  1. And finally, the granddaddy of them all, the “Big Misunderstanding” – where one lover mistakenly believes the other lover has somehow let them down (White Christmas), or there’s an outside force preventing them from pledging themselves to another, but by the time the last chapter rolls around, all the misapprehensions have been dispelled, clearing the way for True Love to triumph.