Interview with Megan Rutter, author of Dangerous Grounds

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Welcome to fellow author Megan Rutter, who has just released the romantic suspense novel Dangerous Grounds (which I’ve read and liked and recommend).  She kindly agreed to answer some questions for me.

1.  First, you have to tell me about you and Minnesota.  What’s your relationship with the state?

My relationship with Minnesota is COMPLICATED, but loving.

I moved here sight unseen from Colorado in 1998.

My husband, who at the time was just a friend that I met online, offered me an internship on his sustainable agriculture research and development farm the summer between my sophomore and junior year of college.  I figured I’d take the summer doing something completely different to decide if I really wanted to stay in my field of study (forensic anthropology and ancient history) or move to an easier major.

I’d spent my first years of college and my last 2 years of high school studying under Dr. Michael Charney who was a professor emeritus of forensic anthropology. He passed away and I was devastated.

I took the summer internship, fell in love with my husband and his farm, and he urged me to continue my studies.

I spent a long time traveling out of the state, chasing my education, but I kept coming back.

Every time I left Minnesota I found myself missing it. I loved theseasons, even the winter, and the people. I missed the peace of the farm.

So when I decided to pack away my traveling shoes, this is where I planted myself. I haven’t left the state for more than a vacation in the last 5 years and I LOVE it!

2.  Did you come from a large family like the one in the book?

I did not come from a large family.  I have one older brother and older

My mom comes from a large family (9 kids), and my dad comes from a largish family (4 kids).

However I do have some cousins that are part of large families and I find their dynamics fascinating.

Even funnier yet, is that I don’t have a large family myself. I only have 1 child and have no plans to have more no matter how much she begs me. ;-) However around here, in southeast Minnesota, large farm families are common. Most people have 3-5 kids, and the Amish have tons! The largest Amish family in the area has 24 kids.  Wow!

When I created my family, the Olaffsen’s, I though it would be hilarious if they had a pack of girls. The jokes would be endless.

3.  What’s your background in forensics?  It sounds like you followed a twisted road to get to your expertise as a writer.

First you must understand that I have always wanted to write.  I have written even when it seemed like I would never be a writer.

But I’m also intelligent and a realist and I know how hard it is to become an author. Also I started my journey to publishing over a decade ago, when independently publisher authors were not valued in the way they should have been, and e books were still a new thing. So it was a long, hard road with a few 50 car pile-ups on it.

So while I was that kid always writing in my journal during recess and study hall, I wasn’t the kid causing a scene by emoting all over the place with a crowd of sighing followers who announced that they were going to be a WRITER. I was in a corner either studying or writing.  Kinda boring actually. ;-)

So as a realist I went to college and studied. I studied a LOT!

I have 3 major degrees and a boat load of minors.

When I was in high school, I was placed on advanced track, which is where I was taking mostly college courses by my junior/senior years. I met Dr. Charney in his skull lab (officially the Human Identification Laboratory) in the basement of one of the buildings my mom cleaned while she was working her way through college.  It was literally a 40 x 40 foot room filled with shelves that were filled to capacity with boxes of human skeletal remains. I was fascinated. And Dr. Charney thought I was the most interesting kid he had ever met. He agreed to teach me.

He died and I didn’t know what to do. As far as I knew he was the only one who studied skeletons the way I wanted to study them.

So I enrolled at Luther College, which had decent physical anthropology and ancient history departments. My ancient history advisor wrote me a recommendation letter to Dr. Snow at the university of Oklahoma. I studied for a semester with Dr. Clyde Snow and then moved from undergraduate to graduate school at the University of Minnesota, CSU Chico, Northwestern and the College of St. Mary’s at Oxford, working on my specialization of identifying and reconstructing ancient remains.

Remember this was before forensic anthropology was a major field of study in more than a few universities. Most people thought we were insane to study it.  So a lot of us had to move around piecing our education together by finding the professors who were experts in the field and studying with them for a semester or two before being sent to the next.

I primarily worked out of the biological science school at the U in Minnesota, but I took every fellowship I could get. It was a LOT of traveling. Especially during grad school after I was certified as a lab assistant, I went where my advisor sent me.

Yes this included New York right after 9-11, and some pretty nasty mass grave sites in Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Africa.

I did get a few internships working on ancient bodies, but I sat down one day and did the math. For every bog body, mummy or ancient skeleton I had the horn of studying I reconstructed 25-30 murder victims. It was depressing.

I did get a few amusing cases like the Moose-icide as my daughter calls it, and the call out to the subdivision built on an old hog farm.  It’s really hard to convince people that bones are truly animal when they’re certain they have stumbled onto a serial killer’s lair. Trust me. Not kidding here. Even the antlers on the moose wasn’t enough for some people. My mind is still boggling about that one. Yes it will appear in a book some day.

I had a daughter and realized that I would be spending my life putting dead children back together, because without my PhD I wouldn’t get into the research institutes that really work on ancient remains. Once again hubby came to the rescue. I felt that I had spent so much time and money learning my field I should stay in it. He knew I wasn’t completely happy even though I was still fascinated. He knew I still wrote stories in my spare time as a way to stay sane.

One night he sat down with my computer and read them.

The next morning he bought me my first ticket to a writer’s conference and a plane ticket. A month later he drove me to the airport and literally kicked me out of the car and drove off. I had no choice but to get on the plane.

It took one writer’s conference, but I was hooked. I would be an author one day.

Now I’m a very well educated author, who really knows how to hide a body and make forensics interesting in my books. And yes… Many of the strange stories in my books are real. Like the cat and the stoned cow. Because face it, reality is often stranger than fiction. ;-)

4. Dangerous Ground is a very sex-positive book.  Did you deliberately include those elements, or did it happen naturally in your writing? (Note:  I had to rewrite this question like five times to get rid of inadvertent innuendos.)

(Ok I had to write this answer a few times also. You put my mind in the
gutter! Mwahaha!)

I love the term “sex positive”. It makes me very happy.

I’m pretty sure those elements happened naturally.

I’m a sex positive person, raised by an ex-hippy with an older sister.

Trust me we talked the “sex talk” thoroughly growing up.  Actually I think I know more about my sister’s plumbing than her husband does.  ;-)

I also talk openly about sex with my daughter who is going through puberty right now. Which according to her is the most awful thing to ever have to face.  I feel it’s better to be proactive and give her the correct information that to have her develop fears and insecurities because people are filling her head with “sex is taboo and only enjoyable for guys” nonsense.

I feel strongly that female sexuality is a natural thing, and we should embrace our needs and desires.  There should be no shame in it. Sex makes us happy! Sex between consensual adults is an amazing, fun, happy, and beautiful thing. It should be celebrated as one of the best parts of being human.

So when I wrote about sisters, of course they’re going to talk about sex. And I wanted to write about it in a way that would make my readers feel positive about their own sexual needs. Because face it, I write romance and sex is part of love. Also I spent most of my adult life facing the worst humanity can do to each other.  I literally had to stare into the abyss of human cruelty.

Trust me, you don’t want to see those things.

I saw things that made me question if people are capable of kindness. So if I can spread a little positivity about our natural wants and desires, then I will. Because people are good and loving. Sex is a part of that.

Have sex. Enjoy it! Just remember consent is key.

5.  What are the next projects coming up for you?

I’m currently working on 2 novels.

I hope to have the second draft of Plain Murder done by the end of the month and to my editor and beta readers.

Plain Murder is Marilyn’s story.  It’s the sequel to Dangerous Ground. Yes the sister who doesn’t have a filter between mouth and brain. The   strong farmer, who doubts her abilities, but really understands people. Marilyn is faced with the murder of a friend. She must realize that she holds the key to finding justice.

Plus she gets to tell a stuffy Marine for an old blue blooded family how to remove the stick up his butt before she does it just to beat him over the head with it. Yeah, Marilyn is vocal about falling in love with the wrong guy.  ;-)

I’m also working on a dark romantic suspense from a new series, set in the near future. It’s still in rough draft form, but trust me you might not recognize the world you thought you knew. ;-)

and last but not least…

6.  Is there any note you’d like to leave readers on (hint: this is the additional promo question):

Please look for my book on Amazon or through my publisher, Solstice Publishing. It’s the result of a long, meandering and sometimes dark path to becoming an author.

I hope you enjoy it, and if you have questions, you can find me most days
on social media.  I try to be approachable.

M.R. Rutter was born in the mountains of Colorado to an ex-hippy and former Marine. She spent much of her childhood on her grandparents ranch near Leadville CO.

She studied forensic anthropology and ancient history in college and started her professional life as an assistant to her advisors while working on her coursework and thesis. After years of teaching other professors’ classes and putting murdered children back together rather than working on her focus, ancient remains, Megan left the field to pursue a career as a writer.

She now lives and works on a sustainable agriculture research farm in Minnesota with her husband, daughter and a menagerie of animals where she is a full time farmer, research assistant, mother and writer.

Happily for M. R. she can still fill her novels with mummies, skeletons and corpses.

New fiction live – “Something Borrowed, Something Blue,” contemporary horror on Wattpad


This one is currently available only on Wattpad; I entered it in the #TNTHorrorContest.  The next phase of the contest happens on December 2, with the top 100 stories posted to the contest webpage.  There appear to be a TON of entries.  It’s currently free to read; if nothing else happens with it, I’ll put together an ebook.  You can read it here.

On a side note, I heard a definition of creepiness that I love:

Creepy is when you can’t tell whether something is a threat or not.

I’m paraphrasing a bit; the quote came from here, a YouTube channel called “Lessons from the Screenplay.”  It’s a video talking about The Shining.

(horror – graphic violence – creepy)

"Something borrowed, something blue.  Something terrible will happen to you."
  It's a bad neighborhood in Detroit, the kind of place where abandoned houses get stripped, then taken over by squatters, then burned.  But it's about to get worse.
  Across the street is a white van with those words spray-painted on the side in blue.  It pulled up in the middle of the night without a sound.  The windows are solid black glass.  And it's watching you...

New fiction live – “How Smoke Got Out of the Chimneys” – Historical Crime/Caper

A Victorian Orphan makes good.


How Smoke Got Out of the Chimneys (Smoke #1)

Kindle | Nook | Kobo | iBooks | Goodreads (reviews)

(still some links going up)

London, England. 1840.

Gangs of four- and five-year-old orphans are being used as “apprentice” chimney sweeps–they’re the only ones who can fit down the narrow chimneys, taking brushes and baskets down with them into upper-class Victorian homes to scrape out the creosote. 

It’s good for ‘em, don’tcher know?

Caroline, a.k.a. the infamous Smoke, is one of the older orphans, who help lift and lower the smaller ones, handle the customers, and keep the gang runner, Hasty Wallace, from flying off the handle. But rumor is, it’s time to shuffle the sixteen-year-old orphan off to other business ventures. Ones with mattresses. Lots of mattresses. If it were up to Hasty (and it is), Caroline will disappear into a brothel in Whitechapel…or a ditch. Honestly, he doesn’t care which.

It’s time for Caroline to get out of the chimney business. And maybe it’s time that Hasty Wallace learned a thing or two about orphans…

(For teens and up – crime/caper – some violence)


The sequel, “How Smoke Delivered a Christmas Present” is in the Very Merry Christmas Bundle, full of Christmas cheer.  I’ll put the next story up on other sites after a bit – right now it’s exclusive to the bundle :)


How Smoke Delivered a Christmas Present

Exclusive at the Very Merry Christmas Bundle

London, England. 1840.

The Chimney Sweep Act has just been passed by Parliament, forbidding the use of underaged orphans as chimney sweeps’ assistants—four- and five-year-olds are being sent down into chimneys with wire brushes to scrape out the creosote. The government means well, but has instead put hundreds or even thousands of little kids with no real protectors out of work. Right before Christmas.

Caroline, a.k.a. the infamous Smoke, has been trying to rescue them all.

Three of the orphans are staying at the home of Mr. and Mrs. Croft, well-off mill-owners from Yorkshire. The first night, all seemed to be fine—but the next time Caroline checks on them, they have left the sign for trouble in their window. All three of them are missing, and their belongings are still nailed up in the crate they were delivered in.

Caroline breaks into the house, fearing the worst…

(For teens and up – crime/caper – some violence)

Male Writers of Romance

Can men write romances?


However, a lot of male romance writers feel they have to write under female pen names and/or initials to hide their gender–and that’s just wrong.  Here are some of the male writers (or partners including a male writer) of romance I’ve been able to track down:


More resources (a.k.a., I’m still working through these):


If you know of more, please let me know :)

The Human List

I have a mental checklist for emotional distress.  Because I am THAT kind of nerd.  But also because I often have a hard time staying in contact with my emotions and feelings (like, literally I can make physical pain go away if I’m focused on something).  In order to keep myself from having some kind of breakdown, I had to come up with a relatively simple tool to follow when I’m drained and not feeling human.  This usually brings me back.

The other side of this list is that people looooove to give you advice.  Very personal advice.  Very personal advice that doesn’t take your needs, habits, and abilities into account.  They’re great about shoving that advice helpfully down your throat–at the absolute last point in time when you need it, when you don’t have the brain cells to sort out what’s bullshit for you and what might work, and what is really meant for the day after you’re about to have a meltdown, not in the middle of the meltdown itself.

This is also a list that helps me know what not to do.

So:  here are ten things to try in order and a zeroth thing that you can do if and when it’s available.  Please adapt to your own use, and keep in mind that I’m not a lawyer, medical doctor, or therapist.  If you are having a medical or mental emergency, you might want to run straight to a professional or at least call one.

How to start being human again:

0. Get a hug/reassurance that you’re okay if you can; pets count.

1. Drink something (not alcohol).

2. Eat something.

3. Take any meds you need, including caffeine and other addictions.

4. Get some rest. Sleep, ten deep breaths, meditate, whatever.

5. Do all your personal hygiene tasks: bathe, brush teeth, clean clothes, do hair/makeup, clip/clean nails, etc.

6. Move your body, exercise if possible.

7. Step away from the shit that’s making you crazy; if possible, communicate with those you trust.

8. Get some sunlight, if possible.

9. Do a quick cleanup of your area (from order of most to least disgusting).

10. Do a mental energy recharge, depending on your personality: read, socialize, play music, listen to music, reconnect with your spiritual practice, do something sexy, etc.  IDENTIFY SOME OPTIONS AHEAD OF TIME; if you are in a bad way, nothing will sound good.

It is usually a really bad idea to drink alcohol and skip to #10.  In fact, it’s usually a bad idea to skip to #10 regardless.  #1-9 are to patch the holes in your soul; #10 is for refilling your energy.  Refilling your energy without patching the holes makes you distrust the things that should be making you feel better.

This list won’t fix anything deep or serious; it won’t save a relationship; it won’t make you categorically less lonely; it won’t do the work that actually needs to be done; it won’t replace a doctor or therapist visit; it won’t make you a better person.  It’s just there to give you some mental space to figure out what to do next.


Dark Novels for the Dark Half of the Year

Over the last year (I fudged it – I finished A Dark Matter on October 24, 2015), I’ve read a number of excellent dark-minded books.  Here are the ones that stuck best with me–horror, noir, suspense, and one non-fiction.  No books in the middle or end of a series; some short stories; one novella.  One book that’s the first in a series.

I’m gonna go out on a limb and say that if you don’t want to be up late at night, don’t read any of these–they’re all that good, and that disturbing on one level or another.

The order here goes from most recent to least recent, because that’s how I have them listed on Goodreads.  Links are to Goodreads.

The Ballad of Black Tom – Victor LaValle (supernatural horror)(novella)

A riff on a Lovecraft horror story, “The Horror at Red Hook,” which is extremely racist–which this story fixes.  A con artists gets sucked into a bigger con than he can handle–one spanning the cosmos.

Strangers on a Train – Patricia Highsmith (noir/suspense)

The most suspenseful novel I’ve ever read.  I started listening to this on audio and had to finish it in print because I was sure it was gonna give me an ulcer.  An ordinary guy inadvertently “trades” murders with a psychopath.  Good luck figuring out which one’s the psychopath…

The House Next Door – Anne Rivers Siddons (supernatural horror…or madness?)

The suburbs.  Oh, the suburbs.  A truly suburbian haunted house story.  A talented architect builds a house of many strange and elegant angles, and loses his talent when he invites something unintended into the house.  Told from the POV of the neighbors.

The Savage Season – Joe Lansdale (noir/black humor)(first in series)

The first of the Hap & Leonard books.  A caper gone so wrong for two Southern boys that you have to laugh so you don’t cry.  Hap’s ex is back in town with a caper that should pull in a lot of money and scratch his ol’ doo-gooder itch.

What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours – Helen Oyeyemi (weird fiction)(short stories)

Disorienting, somewhat-entertwined short stories involving a lot of keys, a lot of doorways, a lot of regret.  Mysterious and poetic…one of the most gorgeous books I’ve read this year.  If you like Kelly Link, you should be reading this.

The Fireman – Joe Hill (post-apocalyptic)

For all that it’s 750 pages, a quick read.  A satisfying, action-packed post-apocalyptic novel.  Not so much with the subtle, but sometimes that’s just what you want.  A strange plague spreads throughout the world, causing people to start on fire.  There’s a guy with a mysterious past who tries to help the infected survive, despite every effort of the uninfected to kill them all…

The Suspicions of Mr. Wicher: A Shocking Murder and the Undoing of a Great Victorian Detective (non-fiction)

Non-fiction that reads like a novel.  The story of one of the first actual detectives, set in Victorian times.  Focuses on the resistance he faces in trying to solve the horrific murder of a little boy:  sometimes the people closest to the murder are the ones who least want it solved.

Audrey’s Door – Sarah Langan (supernatural horror)

The case of the unfortunate architecture strikes again.  A young woman fleeing commitment, a suspiciously cheap apartment in a historic building, a tragedy in the making.  What made this so memorable and delightful was the voice of the novel, which keeps you grounded one second and drops you into the abyss the next.

Lovecraft Country – Matt Ruff (supernatural horror)(short stories/novellas)

Entertwined short stories and novellas that together become a gestalt of horror!  That statement is melodramatic but true.  A rich old white guy who lives in a creepy Northern mill town invites a young black man to step into his parlour…racism, family, and the horror of living while black in the 1950s…which may not be all that different than today.  I’d call it the author’s masterpiece but I think Matt Ruff already hit that with The Mirage.

A Good Man Is Hard to Find and Other Stories – Flannery O’Connor (noir)(short stories)

I put off reading this collection for years.  Yeah, yeah, yeah.  Because everyone called them literary.  Which…okay?  I think “literary” likes to claim things that maybe doesn’t belong to it sometimes.  These are some of the finest noir short stories I’ve ever read, the blackest condemnation of human nature you could ever hope to meet.  And if you’re like, “Oh, but noir is supposed to be set in the big city and have detectives,” then try Otto Penzler’s The Best American Noir of the Century.  About half the stories in the book are set in the back woods of somewhere…

Alfred Hitchcock Presents: Stories to Stay Awake By (horror & thriller)(short stories)

I found it annoying that the stories are alphabetical by author:  the flow was so awkward!  But they’re all page-turners, so you get over it.  Some supernatural horror, a couple of sci-fi horror, but mostly thrillers.  “Don’t do it!” seems to be the common theme of all the stories in this collection…oh, but you know that they have to, they must!

Beloved – Toni Morrison (supernatural horror)

This is the most horrific book that I’ve ever read.  I had to go through a small grieving process when I finished it…the heartache.  A young black woman during the slave era has to make a terrible choice when escaping from her owner.  The choice she makes never lets her go.

A Dark-Adapted Eye – Ruth Rendell (noir/suspense)

The eye of the title belongs to that of the reader:  this is one of those books that you have to read, then at least read the opening chapter again.  When you do, you’ll see the events more clearly–not just because you know how it all comes out, but because your perspective has been changed.  I hate to say more…a woman, Faith, goes back over her memories of an aunt who was hanged for murder, and finds more than she bargained for.

Zombie – Joyce Carol Oates (noir/suspense)

No actual zombies were harmed in the making of this book.  I think.  Anyway, it’s a toss-up over who’s creepier: the main character, a serial killer, or the author, who puts on his persona like a skin suit.  Either way, short and perfect.

Peace - Gene Wolfe (weird fiction/supernatural horror)

One of Gene Wolfe’s earliest books.  Another one where I hate to say too much, so I’ll quote Neil Gaiman instead:  Peace really was a gentle Midwestern memoir the first time I read it. It only became a horror novel on the second or the third reading.”  Alden Dennis Weer looks back over his life, which has been filled with small, surreal oddities–and even weirder stories, told to him by family and friends…

A Dark Matter – Peter Straub (supernatural horror)

I listened to this on audio about the same time as I was reading Peace in print, which turned out to be a fabulous combination.  This is not the most straightforward of horror novels:  the resolution of the main questions/themes of the novel happens about four-fifths of the way through the novel, almost as an aside–you have to watch for it.  But it was lovely, subtle, layered, thoughtful, and covered me in goosepimples more than once as I realized something the narrators had been taking for granted.  Don’t read this for the jump scares.  Read this for the moment when you realize the horror implied by the casual comments, and for the suspense.


I hope you enjoy these–I did!


Links: The week in review

I  have nothing deep and meaningful to talk about with writing at the moment but I want the feeling of having blogged, so I’m going to repost some of the links that I put up last week.  Or is that too honest?


Let me try again.

I have run into a number of wonderful things over the last week, and I thought I’d share some of them here, as it seems like Facebook has this tendency to hide the coolest stuff from people, because they’re–



*No rickrolls, I promise.

Ehhhh, close enough.

10.  If you ever wanted to know at least part of what a con man is thinking, check out this book:  How to Cheat at Everything:  A Con Man Reveals the Secrets of the Esoteric Trade of Cheating, Scams, and Hustles.  I gave it four stars (it went on a bit).  Some of it may even be true.

9.  The Witches’ Brew Bundle is still up, a slew of stories of witches for Halloween.  I have a short story in it, “The Ballad of Molly McGee,” about a grandmother, a baby, a foul-mouthed young woman, and the dying spirit of a mountain.  I think this is done on Friday.

8.  I put up a craft blog on information flow.  I’m just starting to be able to consciously handle information flow–so it’s not the most refined blog ever.  But if you have tips or challenges on the subject, I’d be glad to hear ‘em.

7.  Because I am nothing if not meta, I have a listicle within a listicle:  Ten Odd and Eerie Tales of London’s Victorian Cemeteries.  London used to have a special train just for funerals, did you know that?

6.  If you write dark fiction (of various stripes, like dark fantasy, horror, etc.), you can pitch your completed work to various agents and editors at #PitDark on Twitter, October 20.  More details at the link.

5.  You can make sure you’re registered as a Colorado voter online at the Secretary of State website.  And that’s all I have to say about that.

4.  Some lovely black and white photographs of Hong Kong from the 1950s.

3.  Researchers led by the Lund University archaeologists recreated one of the houses destroyed in the Pompeii volcanic eruption, a huge banker’s house.

2.  Some Latin American drinks that will make me forget pumpkin spice for fall.  HAHAHAHAHA!  The joke’s on you:  my husband, Lee, just made pumpkin bread.  I can have my Latin American drinks, and my pumpkin spice, too!

And my #1 link last week (in my humble opinion, anyway) was…

1.  The Mad Farter of France, who earned a higher fee at Moulin Rouge than Sarah Bernhardt, while playing his internal trombone for the amusement of adoring crowds.

No, seriously.

I also received the books I bought from Powell’s while I was out in Oregon for the Historical Fiction class; I bought Miss Manners’ Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior (Freshly Updated) by Judith Martin.  While I deplore the apostrophe use of the title, I can only approve of the following:

Dear Miss Manners:

Please tell me what is the proper way to stuff wedding invitations?  Etiquette books and local stioners have given me conflicting answers about whether… [snip]

Gentle Reader:

Please listen carefully, because this is going to sound like instructions for making paper monkeys out of bubblegum wrappers, as translated from the Japanese.


Dear Miss Manners:

Sme time ago, I had a short, tempestuous affair with my wife’s boss’s wife… [snip]

Gentle Reader:

No.  The only person who would feel better after such a confession would be you, and you don’t deserve it.  Whatever she suspected, your wife does not deserve the pain caused by certainty and vividness.

Besides, a secret affair is, by its nature, a secret jointly held by two people.  Although she has dissolved this union, you retain joint custody of the secret.  That a gentleman may find himself participating in a dishonorable situation does not excuse him from the obligation to pursue the course of honor within that situation.

Burn!  Almost as good as something out of Jane Austen.  Have a good week, and let me know if you’re reading something good.

Kobo 30% Off Promo Sale

Kobo has a 30% off sale on selected ebook titles – the promo code is 30OCT.

A Murder of Crows

A Murder of Crows

A Murder of Crows:  Seventeen Tales of Monster and the Macabre is there to be had if you want it :)

Information Flow: An initial blather

Note:  this is not the tightest blog post ever.  

In trying to write about handling information so I can clear up confusion, I keep stumbling over how to explain how to handle information about handling information…etc.  Things got confusing.  So my apologies in advance; this is tricky stuff to catch, and I’m fighting myself.  I’ll probably redo this post later, after I’ve spent more time with with the concept of how to handle information flow.  Take this as an initial brainstorming session, not a finely crafted position.

The bane of my writerly existence has been…

“I like the story but I have no idea what it means.”

Just writing that statement makes me feel like walking away from the computer, it’s so fraught with heartbreak.  And it’s totally on me.  I did it–or rather didn’t do it.  I didn’t present the story in a way that was readable and fair.

There are characters.  And plots.  And settings.  And conflicts.  And some other stuff.  And those things are important.

But there’s another level of what I’m doing, and it’s “how to tell the readers what will happen, what is happening, and what has happened.”

Which is kind of hard to explain to a non-writer.  Let’s say characters, plots, settings, and conflicts are all ingredients for a good story, but a lot of how a story goes over depends on the skills of the cook.  Good ingredients make for a better dish, but a good cook can do great things with whatever comes to hand.

How and when you tell readers things is part of a writer’s cooking skills, as it were.

And I really haven’t been paying attention to it.

I’m making some really great stories but I’m not letting other people really taste the dish.  I’m not dragging them into my imagination.  I’m not setting the stakes.  I’m not making promises the story has to keep.  I’m not clarifying what their questions are before they can ask.  I’m not making sure there is no way to misunderstand my goddamned pronouns.  I’m not describing every setting in such detail that the reader can be inside it.  I’m not reminding people of critical details as they become more vital in the plot.  I’m not wrapping up loose ends, I’m not telling the reader what this all means to the characters, I’m not making sure that I’ve nailed down everything I promised in the beginning, or taken out that which nobody needs.

Personally, I have a way higher tolerance for being utterly confused in a story than most people.  Recently, I went to a Historical Fiction class in Oregon with Kris Rush & Dean Smith.  We had books to read for class; one of them was The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln by Stephen L. Carter, an alternate history.

I loved it; everyone else in the class was meh or hated it.

The reason, Kris explained, was that the author hadn’t handled the information flow correctly, and assumed the reader was familiar with the historical time period, the historical figures in the book, and the reason that all of this was so important.

I had no issue with the book, and knew very little of the history.  It’s just that I’m used to extracting that kind of information from the barest hints.  I’m not sure why; maybe it’s just that that’s how I’m used to interacting with the world:  not paying attention when the explanations are being given out, getting bored with repetition, faking like I understand what’s going on later based off some half-remembered clues.  I really do think that I have some sort of girl-version ADD going on.

Doesn’t everyone do that?  No?

Well…okay.  I’m working on being more clear on what I’m writing means.

Here’s my initial checklist of things to look for with information flow, not to be used to plan an opening but to go over if a story is an informational flop:

  • Demonstrate character in the opening (the opening is the first 500 words or so).  The ways I’ve been doing this are to show the character doing something characteristic, or to lay the character voice on pretty thick.
  • Show setting in the opening (and demonstrate it, if it’s going to be a “character” later on).  How does one show why the setting means what it means to the character?  Describe it with love or hate, show it in contrast to something else?
  • Suggest conflict and stakes in the opening, and either demonstrate them or promise that they’ll be demonstrated later (this the part where you can totally bury clues to the ending in the beginning).  If the ending revolves around a death, maybe show a death in the beginning (thrillers do this all the time in the prologue).  If the ending revolves around a swindle, maybe show a swindle in the beginning.  I think romances are particularly good at this, often hinting how the relationship difficulties will be resolved in the meet cute.
  • Make promises about the story, using clues and subtext.  I initially tried to explain what subtext was, but that’s another blog post.  “I want to surprise the reader, so I won’t tell them what’s going to happen!!!” is a common tendency among writers.  It’s no good.  Do the opposite of that.
  • Explain the rules in the opening, or make a promise that the rules will be explained soon (and then do so; I think a 25% mark is a reasonable cutoff point).  For example, if the solution of your story is about magic, then you better explain how the damn magic works and proceed to play fair with it.
  • Explain the necessary backstory in the beginning of the story (the first 25% or so).  The opening of The Mummy is great at this; the voiceover doesn’t sound like a robot speaking, but like a wonderful storyteller telling you the beginning of a dramatic story over a fire.  (Note the bug on the back of Imhotep’s robe, as a hint.)
  • Undo any unwarranted possible assumptions in the beginning of the story by acknowledging them, then showing how your story differs.  Readers aren’t blank slates, who knew?  And so if you’re writing a story about vampires in which they can go out in the sunlight, you better damn reverse that assumption before it comes up in the story itself.
  • Use names carefully.  I recently discovered that not everyone slides between different versions of their names and nicknames as easily as I do.  All the names that a character is going to use have to be directly connected to each other on a regular basis.  “Jennifer (also known as ‘Weasel Killer’) Jones had recently come into a sum of money that no woman with such bad taste should ever see in a lifetime.”
  • Nail down all pronouns and vaguewords (“stuff”) so that there’s only one thing that they could possibly point to.
  • Give explanations and descriptions of new elements of the story before they become important.   If a reader feels anything other than juicy curiosity when they ask a question, then you need to back up and answer the question before it can be asked.  Think like a verbal storyteller:  this is a tactic to get your audience members to keep their damn mouths shut.
  • Remind the readers of important points multiple times.  Good grief you’d think that people would get bored of this, but apparently not.   “But you missed the clue on page 37″ is such a horrible thing to have to say, though.
  • Tell us what events mean to the characters.  You have to tell the readers what it all means, either directly (“She would have given her right eye and a parrot’s wing to never have to see Soren the Pirate ever again”) or indirectly (” ‘Did you miss me?’ Soren asked.  After careful consideration, she splashed the pint of beer in Soren’s face, then began beating him with the heavy mug.  If she had had her pistol she would have shot him, once in his twinking eye, and once somewhere else, just for fun”).
  • Tie up all the loose ends from the beginning.  At the end, go back to the beginning and see if you a) fired all the guns that were on the wall at the end, and b) put all fired guns on the wall in the beginning.
  • Resolve the main conflict of the story.  Even if there’s a sequel.  Sometimes overarching fantasy series don’t do this, but it’s almost always better if they do.  Think back to Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn Trilogy.  The ending of each book was such a mind@#$% that you started the next book with a completely different, and increased, set of stakes.  The main conflict is resolved…and replaced with something even worse.  Dun dun dunnnnnn…
  • Tell us what the ending means to the characters.  Stoic is a meaning.  Conflicted is a meaning.  Riding off toward the mountains so that a kid doesn’t grow up to be a gunslinger is a meaning…then watching the kid watching the gunslinger ride away is another meaning (Shane).  You don’t have to spell it out–but you can.

This is not, I’m sure, a complete list.

I mean, if nothing else, there has to be something that says when you’ve given too much information and are blathering on a bit (I’m always saying things twice, once to say the thing, and then to say the thing more poetically).  I’m not really sure how to say that yet, though, because I feel there’s something deeper going on there that I haven’t identified yet.

And paragraphing, I haven’t said anything about paragraphing, and that’s vital.

Hiding clues versus not hiding clues, ugh, didn’t even touch that…

Ehhhh…this subject is probably a book, when all is said and done.  But here it is for now, the incomplete and initial list.  The big uglies of information flow…as I understand them so far.

“I like the story but I have no idea what it means.”

If nothing else, let me apologize for all the times that I didn’t let readers fully in on all the fun & games I’ve had.  From here on out, I am to rectify that.

Witches’ Brew Bundle: For Halloween

Facebook+image+-+1200x628The over image for this bundle was so much fun I that I’m adding it full-size.

The Witches’ Brew Bundle is up, and contains my short fantasy story, “The Ballad of Molly McGee.”

Never trust a witch; she might not be telling you everything.  This is the story of how Molly McGee’s grandmother saved Molly’s newborn baby from her father–the spirit of a dying, strip-mined mountain.

Sometimes things get complicated, even for witches–and their grandmothers.

I wrote this while on vacation in the Colorado Rocky Mountains, out by Victor and Cripple Creek Colorado.  We went to all the history museums we could find, and all the tourist trap shops.  This is what my brain spat out during that trip.  It’s more than a little bit goofy, and says something about how some words get old–but others don’t.




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