What’s with Venice?

One thing WordPress does is it gives you these daily statistics for how many people stop by your blog, and which pages they go to. So, looking at my stats, it appears as though at least 90% of the traffic through here is to that post I made some time back about The Merchant of Venice and why the Bassanio/Portia story is actually the main plot and the Antonio/Shylock story is only the subplot.

And I’m really wondering why. Is there something in that post that’s hitting a lot of websearch keywords or something? Is there something I ought to be learning from it?

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On character introductions: patterns

So, it looks like a second season of Bridgerton is on its way to Netflix; or it might already be there depending on how long it takes me to write this. I remember watching the first season and enjoying it well enough. I know it has its issues and its critics, but for the most part, the only thing I’m really interested in talking about is the technical side of introducing and identifying characters — as you might have guessed from the title above.

It took me four episodes — half the whole season — to finally be able to tell all three of the older Bridgerton brothers apart by sight alone.

But aside from this, the story does do one thing very, very right: it sets up a framework or mnemonic for identifying characters.

It does this by explicitly pointing out very early on that the Bridgerton kids are named alphabetically. Establishing such a pattern gives one an idea of what to expect, a mnemonic or framework on which to build one’s mental picture of the cast. When one tall, dark-haired gentleman is addressed as “Colin”, you’re not left thinking, “wait, I thought his name was Benedict?” You know that this is another brother, and you know how he fits into the family because of the naming system. Even if you forget all their actual names, you still have an idea of who and how many. In a way, the mnemonic does the work of establishing a “placeholder personality” for characters that the story may not have time to explore just this moment, something just distinct enough to keep the characters separate without overloading the reader/viewer with information that has yet to be relevant.

I think that my confusion over the Bridgerton brothers was partly because our first meeting with Colin and Benedict did not imbue either of them with any distinguishing characteristics. We had a bit of banter about which one was better liked, but in the end the only box the conversation actually checked was the “assign names to faces” box. Compare this with our meeting with Thomas and William in Downton Abbey: “You’re late when I say you’re late,” says Thomas, establishing him as a bit of a prick, and that bears out in the ensuing series. Or compare with Hill House, which spends enough time on the introduction of each adult Crain sister so that our familiarity with each one can overcome the general similarity of their appearance. We get neither with Colin and Benedict. The issue of likeability never becomes a distinctive plot point or memorable character trait. The framework establishes a helpful baseline, but no more than that: character recognition needs more than that for success.

This trick of establishing a framework need not be limited to names. If you were told that, say, there existed a circle of enchanters in which each member personified a different month, you’d know to look out for “January” or “August” even if those were not their names. You’d even have an idea of what they’d be like, based on the aspects associated with their associated months.

On a mostly unrelated note, I’d like to say a word about the racial casting of the show. Some on the left have criticised this as “race-baiting”, while some on the right have criticised this as “forced diversity”. Most, I suspect, don’t care. But I have, perhaps, a more pragmatic, perhaps even cynical, take on it: I appreciated the racial casting because it made Simon visually distinct. Similarly, casting a black actress as Marina Thompson meant she stood out from the Featherington girls with whom she was staying, much as “Marina” would stand out from “Prudence, Phillipa, and Penelope” in text. If patterns — frameworks, mnemonics — help people keep your ensemble casts properly ordered in their heads, breaking the pattern provides added contrast to make a character stand out.

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On character introductions

One thing I find fascinating in TV shows and movies is the way in which characters are introduced, especially when ensemble casts are involved. This started back when I got the first development edits for A Gentleman’s Murder and I was told, “You have five white men of similar social status, age, and background, and I’m having trouble telling them apart.” Well, of course I did my best to fix it, and I don’t know if I’ve been perfectly successful (perhaps a “perfect success” does not exist) but I think I’ve learnt a trick or two in the meantime.

If you want a master class on character introduction, I think that has to be the first episode of Downton Abbey. Here we have a massive cast of characters, many of them in similar roles, and yet we end the hour with a fairly good idea of who’s who. How was it done? Observe:

  1. We have two housemaids, Gwen and Anna. They are first seen together even though we don’t learn their names right away. We identify them first by sight.
  2. Two footmen are introduced together: while we see Thomas alone at first, William’s first appearance is an interaction with Thomas.
  3. When we first see Mary, she’s alone; we learn her name when the servants respond to her bell. The next time we see her, she’s accompanied by her sisters, Edith and Sybil, though we don’t learn their names immediately.

The trick, I think, is to introduce similar characters together.

Refining the idea a little: You can do what you like with the first member of the group, but our first sighting of any subsequent members of that same group should ideally be in the presence of that first member. This allows the audience to focus on the things that distinguish the members from each other and remember them by those characteristics. When we first meet Thomas, we remember him as “the footman”. Then, when we see William next to Thomas, we remember William as “the other footman, who is not Thomas” and we immediately begin to pick out the ways in which he is different from Thomas. Had William been introduced without Thomas in view, we might identify William also as “the footman” and then begin to confuse the two characters with each other.

Now, another show I’ve recently watched is the Netflix series, The Haunting of Hill House. It is a show so brilliant that, after finishing it, I began looking up reaction videos to watch other people watching it. But one thing I’ve noticed from watching these reactions is that most people spend half the first episode thinking the Crain family has only two daughters, not three. They don’t know who Theo is until they see her sitting with Shirley on the porch and the conversation clues them in that Theo is a third sister.

Why is this? If we look back at the prologue, we find that we actually do meet all five of the Crain siblings right there: Steve emerges from his room when he hears crying and meets Theo in the corridor; he tells Theo to go back to bed, then goes into Luke and Nellie’s room to comfort them. Hugh, their father, walks in, offers his own comforting reassurance, then leaves; he looks into Shirley’s room and hears her talking in her sleep; finally, Hugh gets into bed with Olivia, tells her what happened, and the scene ends. This is, in many respects, an excellent scene for introducing the Crains, but it makes one small slip in introducing Theo and Shirley so far apart from each other. Nellie is distinct from her sisters by virtue of her connection with Luke, but at this point, Theo and Shirley are too similar to each other. Most people either don’t realise that the girl Steve meets in the corridor is not the same girl that Hugh looks in on afterwards, or they forget that Steve even met Theo in the corridor at all.

Hill House gets away with this because of how well people enjoy the rest of it; because the confusion is cleared up before it can get intrusive, and then it is quickly forgotten; and because, compared to Downton Abbey, its cast of characters is tiny. The same confusion applied to a cast of Downton Abbey‘s size would assuredly not be cleared up by the middle of the first episode!

So now, the big question is, how does this translate into the written word? Because text works very differently from the screen: names take the place of faces, and things that can be conveyed all at once with a single shot on screen must be laboriously described in text. On the other hand, ideas and concepts that can be expressed in text with a single sentence may require some awkward framing and storytelling to express on screen.

I don’t claim to have all the answers or to have everything already figured out. I’m still learning as I go. But one thing I tried to do with A Gentleman’s Murder was to impress on the reader, when I introduced the first of the five club officers, that this man was one of a group of five. The idea of being “one of five” was repeated at least once more, and when I introduced the fifth and last of those men, I made sure to list off the other four names as well. Saying that a character was “one of this group of five” was my attempt at the textual equivalent of seeing the three Crawley sisters all together at once, without actually having them share the scene — and that’s something you can do in text that you can’t do on screen: you can have your characters together on the page despite them not actually being in the same physical place in the story.

Was I successful? Well, like I said in the beginning, I don’t know if such a thing as a “perfect success” exists. But I do think it helped, and that’s better than nothing.

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Midnight Mass: Catholic representation and the importance of detail

I’ve been watching Midnight Mass over the past few days, and while I did have the whole story spoiled for me before, I still enjoyed the hell out of it. To be perfectly honest, it was the spoilers that got me interested in the first place, so this viewing was more “How does that play out?” than “What happens next?”

Part of the charm, at least for me, is representation: seeing My People on screen. And by “My People,” I mean Roman Catholics. And you must be thinking, why is that a big deal? We see Roman Catholics in the media all the time, from The Sound of Music to Sister Act. But you see, those tend to deal with very big, obvious, in-your-face aspects of Catholicism. Nuns and priests? Even within the Catholic community, they’re considered fairly extraordinary.

It is, I suppose, the difference between showing an ethnic minority in traditional garb, and showing that same minority living with the nuances that make them what they are.

The media has a bad habit of gesturing at Roman Catholics whenever a point needs to be made about Christianity or faith. And it occurs to me now that there might be something … culturally appropriative about that. As though Hollywood wants to throw on our cassocks and chasubles without understanding how they fit. The trouble is, there’s actually no shortage of Catholic representation in the media. There’s so much of it that we can’t separate the sincere from the appropriated, the wheat from the chaff. Not every story requires attention to those tiny details that tell the audience the author knows what he’s talking about, after all.

But in Midnight Mass, when the altar boys turn to the task of filling the cruets, when Bev speaks to Father Paul about wearing gold instead of the green mandated by “Ordinary Time”, when the Flynns bat around terms like “thurifer” and “acolyte”, I feel seen. I feel as though I’m being addressed by someone who really gets me. I look at the flood of Catholic representation elsewhere and I feel as though I’ve spent my life like an infant fed on corn starch: full, yet undernourished. Was this how Mexicans felt when Coco built its story around the Dia de los Muertos?

This, I think, is also what gives Midnight Mass its power. This story could have been told in broader strokes, skipping all of these smaller details. But it is this attention to detail that makes it feel both real and personal. Crockett Island matters to me because the spiritual lives of its Catholic residents feel real in an intimate way. Despite my rational mind telling me that this could never happen in real life, my instinct says, “This is far too close to home.”

Which is not to say that you can only enjoy Midnight Mass if you are a Catholic or intimately familiar with Catholic practices. We enjoy media touching on details outside of our experience all the time. You don’t have to be Jewish to enjoy Fiddler on the Roof. It’s just that the the more detail there is, the more you’re assured, if you’re an outsider, that you’re being fed something authentic; and the more accurate those details are, the more an insider feels, as I felt, that this is real and that he or she belongs in the larger fabric of the world where such stories are told. Even if one has never had an issue with any sense of belonging before — it’s nice to be counted.

Midnight Mass is brilliant, and I don’t say it just because this one aspect of its cultural setting resonates with me. It is beautiful in a way that, I think, would appeal to anyone who loves Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood — its lyricism and the deft portraiture of village life. I’ve not read any Graham Greene, but, by all accounts, there should be a deep resonance there as well, a similarity of theme and approach. It’s just … probably not going to appeal so much to anyone just looking for the thrill of ordinary horror, without the literary trimmings. But for anyone with a taste for literary analysis, Midnight Mass is a show that has me making up lengthy essays in my head about everything from story structure to individual characterisation to our relationship with dogma.

Also, I’ve pretty much spent my morning rewatching the ending sequence over and over again. It hits, and it hits hard.

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Cocktails at six, murder at seven

Here’s a question from a few years ago, on another forum, that I still think about today:

At what point in the book should the murder happen?

Well, the simple answer, in my opinion, is that there are three places in the story where it would be most appropriate for the primary murder to occur: right at the beginning, within the first few pages; at roughly the 15-20% mark; or at roughly the 50% mark. And now you’re wondering, why those three places in particular? Why not anywhere else? For that, we’d have to go a little more in-depth. We’d have to ask the real question:

What is this story really about, and what is the function of the murder in it?

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Awake, awake

Hail October. This year’s annual Interactive Fiction competition has just opened up, and I’ve got the games downloaded and ready to play. I finally finished my reviews for the 2019 competition a couple of days ago; I do not think I will attempt to review the 2020 competition, and, with that gap in my record, I doubt I’ll attempt to review this year’s competition either.

In “Cat’s Paw” news, we went through another rewrite after my last entry — goodness, was it that long ago? — and it was an extraordinarily slow business. But that’s done now, and so are the copy edits. The manuscript has gone to pour, and next will come the proofreading. There’s a cover artist working on the cover right now, too, so it feels like things are waking up again after too long a hibernation. Apparently the book is slated to come out in February 2022, so that’s something to look forward to.

I think we’re going with “Unnatural Ends” as the title. I just don’t feel ready to make it official yet.

And I think we can all agree that 2020 should be declared “The Year That Didn’t Happen.”

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Feed the Birds, Tuppence a Bag

Day 11 of isolation. Actually, I’m counting this as “Day 11” only because I had to leave the house briefly on the 20th. Church has been suspended because of the COVID-19 pandemic, initially until Palm Sunday, now indefinitely, so I haven’t been out in the two Sundays since. Otherwise, I’ve been living my life very much as normal.

It’s nowhere near as bad as the Spanish Flu of a hundred years back, but that’s largely because we don’t have half our able-bodied young men cramped into a few filthy trenches in Flanders this time round, and the media isn’t suppressing reports of the outbreak for the sake of morale in the face of war. Also, we’re taking things a lot more seriously now. If this never gets to be half as bad as the Spanish Flu, it will be because we “over-reacted”.

So let’s talk about something completely different: “Mary Poppins Returns”.

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Major Update

It’s been a while, and high time I made an update. Of late, I’ve kept thinking, “Oh. I should write something about this thing that happened — but I can’t do that until I’ve made a proper update of all these other things.” So here we go.

First things first, “Cat’s Paw” is now “in production” at Inkshares, along with the other books to make it through the Mystery & Thriller contest. It’s been written and rewritten, and the third draft is currently sitting in the queue. It looks like it’ll come out the end of the year or early next year, which I have to confess is quite a bit later than I was hoping. Still, it’s coming along. One hopes there won’t be too many further revisions after this.

One thing that must be done about it, though: both my publisher and I agree that it needs a better title, one that doesn’t summon up all manner of cat pictures when Googled. Also, the main reason I called it “Cat’s Paw” in the first place seems to have disappeared with the last revision.

It looks as though the TV option for “A Gentleman’s Murder” is still churning away in the background. I don’t pretend to know everything that’s happening there, and I’m still not quite sure I believe it’s real, but I’ve just spent the last month or so banging away at a manuscript for the pilot episode. My publisher is very keen on having me deeply embedded into the writing for it, though I’ll admit it frightens me a little. Books and IF are so much safer.

Part of the contract for the TV option apparently means that the three short IF works I made back when I was crowdfunding “A Gentleman’s Murder” have been called into question. The games have to be pretty completely divorced from the books, which entails more work than I felt they were worth. As such, I’ve simply taken them down.

I’m also no longer living in Montreal. The past year or so has been marked with a number of deaths in the family, and with the passing of my Aunt Mary, it seemed best to move back in with Mom so as to keep her company. That was last June. I’m getting to know the people at church, but, as I don’t generally have much cause to get out of the house, that’s really about it. Thank goodness for the internet, eh?

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Cat’s Paw

Once more, into the breach!

It’s time for a second novel, and I am once again crowdfunding on Inkshares. Well, “crowdvoting”, to use the term JF Dubeau prefers. There’s some philosophy behind the Inkshares system, but the bottom line is that, generally speaking, a book needs to gather pre-orders before it can be published. So here’s “Cat’s Paw” … not a sequel to “A Gentleman’s Murder”, as I was expecting, but a second book nonetheless.

“Cat’s Paw” was originally conceived as an idea for a horror story, albeit one with a whodunnit plot because I’m the local whodunnit guy. A lot of horror tends to rely on supernatural elements, though, and I knew that was something I wanted to avoid because one of the core elements of the sort of whodunnits I like is that the rules of the world are known to the reader from the get-go. Such is not the case with supernatural elements. And while it’s true that there’s a respectable body of horror fiction that does not rely on supernatural elements to pull off — Stephen King’s “Misery” comes to mind, as does Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado” — I am neither Stephen King nor Edgar Allen Poe.

So “Cat’s Paw” is a mystery, albeit one with roots in a very dark place.

There’s some overlap between the genres, I think. Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” is often cited as the first modern detective story, but I have no doubt that Poe thought of it as another entry in his line of horror stories. And Agatha Christie’s “And Then There Were None” might be the original slasher flick — that staple of horror films.

Inkshares kicked off a mystery-themed contest a week ago, and a friend advised me to enter “Cat’s Paw” into it. So I did. I mean, it was too good a chance to pass up.

The real challenge now, though, is to get people involved a second time. I can’t help but feel that it takes a lot of cheek to ask for people’s help on the same sort of thing again, but some people have been wonderfully generous. And of course, the timing overlaps IFcomp almost perfectly. The next couple of months are going to be interesting, to say the least.

Oh yes, before I forget … here is the link to the “Cat’s Paw” project page: https://www.inkshares.com/books/cat-s-paw . Go, check it out, tell your friends. Your support is what keeps me writing.

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Audiobook!

Audible released the audiobook version of A Gentleman’s Murder the day the book itself was released, taking me a bit by surprise. I didn’t realise they were already done with putting it together. The narrator is Raphael Corkhill, who has a really attractive baritone voice that I could listen to for hours. We’d spoken a few weeks earlier about a couple of pronunciation questions (yes, I do want “Magdalen” to be pronounced “Maudlin”) and he seems like a really smart fellow, too.

The ratings so far are largely positive, but rather annoyingly, the only specifically audiobook review right now is a bit on the negative side. I hope it will be balanced out very soon by other reviews. I can only assume that people were too bowled over by Corkhill’s performance to properly express their enthusiasm.

As part of the audiobook deal, I now have a handful of promotional codes for free audiobook downloads of my book. I’d really like to put them to good use, and I thought it would be a great thing to give them all to libraries for the blind. The problem is … I have no idea where these libraries are, how to find them, or which would get the best use out of a promo code. I’ve been told that libraries will have their own system for lending out purely digital content, and that’s the best assurance I have that a library might even be able to use the promo code at all.

It’s been four weeks, and I’m still hesitating on which libraries or schools for the blind I should try to contact. If anyone has any ideas, I’d love to hear them.

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