6/22/2017

Book Review: THE SERVICE OF THE DEAD, Candace Robb


The Service of the Dead, Candace Robb (Pegasus Books, 2016)

Historical mystery, first in a new series set at the end of the 14th Century, during the struggle over whether the rightful king should be Richard II or Henry Bolingbroke.

Protagonist is Kate Clifford, a young widow in York struggling to continue her late husband's business and also renting several properties as guesthouses. An unexpected part of her husband's estate turns out to be two children by a secret French mistress, orphaned after their mother's own death; Marie and Philippe are left almost literally at Kate's doorstep. Kate also has to deal with servants, retainers, and various relatives, some trustworthy, some not. And some taking part in the political turmoil between Richard II and Bolingbroke, though choosing any side at all was a dangerous choice.

When a murdered man is discovered in one of Kate's guesthouses, a deadly game begins, as Kate tries to determine the man's turn identity and loyalties, and in how much danger that truth will place her. More murders will occur before that truth is found.

Kate, as a character, grew slowly for me, and early chapters felt slow as a result. As more of Kate's own backstory is revealed -- she was sent south into an English marriage to protect her from a Hatfields/McCoys-type feud on the Scottish borders where she was raised, even though she is herself skilled with knife and bow and axe -- she became more interesting, and the book more enjoyable.

In some ways, this book feels almost like a prequel, introducing and setting up the gameboard and pieces that will be played in future volumes. (The second book in the series, A Twisted Vengeance, is out.) That setting-up process felt slow in the beginning, but sped up satisfactorily by the end. I'll give it four stars out of five.

(Won in a Goodreads Giveaway.)

2/28/2017

Pantsing A Story

"Of all the demons in hell, there is none I dread more than Revision." -- A. Everett Beek

So, been working on a new story. Usually, when I'm writing fiction, I've got a moderately good plot-line planned out in my head. Not quite an outline, but at least a cocktail-napkin style sketch of how a story will progress.

This time, though, I started out with a particular scene, with no clear idea of backstory, present story, or where the story was going. This sort of thing is usually described as a "discovery" story, or as "writing by the seat of your pants" (aka "pantsing"). With that technique, you just start writing and free associating and see where the story takes you.

Sometimes that works out well. And sometimes....

I'm about five thousand words into the story, and what I'm discovering is that the story seems to be developing more and more problems the further I go with it. As in:

  • When I started, I wanted this story to be done by the 5000 word mark. It's maybe half-done. Maybe.
  • The central character is a naive fool, and the other characters are liars, crooks, and a religious fanatic. The more I write, the less I like them. The only really appealing character so far is a very minor one.
  • One of the most important characters isn't in the story at all. He died before the starting point of the story, but what he did effects what everyone else does.
  • Too much time is spent by characters either explaining things, or avoiding explaining things.
  • Characterization is inconsistent, with how characters act shifting as the world and society and backstory gets slowly filled in.
  • The world-building (this is a secondary world story) is rough and shaky and untrustworthy. I don't feel like it's strong enough to support the narrative.
  • None of the several possible endings the story seems to be heading for feels like a good ending.
In short, I'm not happy with the work I've put into the story so far.

So I'm wrestling with the question of whether I should try and continue to move forward on this particular story, or just abandon it*, or go back to the beginning and try to revise and rescue what I've written so far.

The Conventional Wisdom says "Finish what you've started." But if you've made a wrong turn, why keep going in the same direction?

Writing is a manic-depressive activity. When it goes well, it's exciting and fun. When it doesn't, it's a bummer. B-U-M-M-E-R

I can see some things I could do and change to get a better direction going for the story, but that would entail just about starting over. Plus all those changes would make the story even longer. (I ran about the first fifteen pages through the local writer's workshop, and one of the more astute members commented that it felt like the beginning of a novel to her. For a story I wanted to keep under five thousand words. Ai-e-e-e....)

The wrestling with what to do continues. But I needed to vent my frustration a little.


*I never fully "abandon" a story. I've got what I call the Wonder Box, which is filled with notes, fragments and unsuccessful stories from years past. One good thing that came from pondering the problems with the current story is that it led to a realization on how I might fix an old, old story from back in my teenage years. Yeah, that old a story. Never throw anything away, kids.