Genrely Speaking: Historical Fiction

Welcome back to Gernrely Speaking, the part of the show where we crack open a genre and look at what it means when we mention it here. As I’ve mentioned before, the literary classifications we call genres exist as much as an expression of opinions as they do a scientific taxonomy of fiction. So keep in mind that any definition of a genre is as much a subjective idea as it is an ironclad classification, which is one of the reasons this segment’s name is a pun based on the phrase “generally speaking”.

Today we’re going to look at a genre that doesn’t get much press these days: Historical fiction.

What’s that? You’ve never heard of historical fiction? You don’t know what it is or what it looks like? Well then we’d better start there. Historical fiction is an aesthetic genre that generally has:

  1. Real History. Lots and lots and lots of history, the historical kind of history that comes out of history books. “Historical” is in the title because there has to be solid, well researched history serving as the foundation for this story. While some of a historical fiction novel is fiction the broad backdrop for the story has to be historical. This is why a novel series like the Thieftaker can kind of sort of qualify as historical fiction – while the main character, his magic and his close associates are fictional, the backdrop of events he lives in are not.
  2. Encounters with historical characters. Much like with it’s counterpart, alternate history, half the fun of historical fiction is seeing known historical figures in a new light. In this case the new light revolves around whatever scenario the new story adds to the historical record. Murder investigations during the revolution? Sounds like the mind of Ben Franklin might be needed. Stuck behind Confederate lines during the Civil War? Enter General Lee! If you’re a history fanboy then historical fiction is definitely a genre for you.
  3. The ability to pass without trace. The heart and soul of historical fiction is that it is something that could have happened during the known historical events depicted in the narrative. It’s a “what if” but a very specific one. So nothing the fictional characters do can have any outcome on actual historical events. No matter how much those events may grate on those characters, both protagonists and antagonists are going to have to live with the verdict of history as we know it.

What are the weaknesses of historical fiction? The biggest drawback to this genre as a writer is the amount of research you will have to put into writing it. The facts have to be right, or someone in your audience is going to spot your mistake and call you on it. Again, this is historical fiction. It has to actually be historical while still being fiction.

The second big hurdle is all those historical characters. While historical figures from ancient times like Ceaser, Nebuchadnezer or King David have a little wiggle room in how we can expect their character or disposition to be displayed, by the dawn of the age of exploration there’s enough written in enough different sources that a competent, well studied author can make a good stab at knowing what an important person was like day to day. And again, you have to get it right because the kind of people who will read these books are the kind of people who will catch these discrepancies and be upset by them.

The third problem is for readers new to the genre. They might find the careful web of historical facts and important events distracting or confusing, taking away their ability to keep track of a well written yarn.

What are the strengths of historical fiction? If you love history you will geek out over well written historical fiction. They’ll mention all the important things and you will most likely love every minute of it. It’s just like a well written tribute to your favorite movie, novel or comic book character – there will be easter eggs and fanservice just waiting for you to catch it. The fact that all the events and characters were real just adds to the fun.

For people who aren’t into history, good historical fiction is a great chance to learn about historical events in a gripping and exciting way. The works of G. A. Henty, a historian from the 19th century, were intended to teach his readers the history of Britain while entertaining them and exciting their imagination. Other authors may put less (or more!) emphasis on the actual historical narrative in their books but all the good ones will make sure there’s plenty of historical fact there. If you love a good book but never managed to make it through a dry history text in school, this may be exactly what you need to start a lifelong love of the past.


Sense and Sensibility

I still don’t understand how the man who made this film could have gone on to make… every thing else Ang Lee has made. Yes, it’s still romance month here at Nate Chen Publications and we’re wrapping it up with a true classic. This film is fairly old, in fact it turns 20 this year, but it’s based on a story by Jane Austen so it’s less a question of whether it’s aged well and more a question of whether it’s timeless.

Sense and Sensibility is two love stories in one, the first focusing on Ms. Elinor Dashwood and Edward Ferrars, a pair of people eminently suited to one another. Both are quiet, serious people of good sense who see in the other admirable qualities and good character. If this sounds kind of boring don’t worry, circumstances and previous history are very much set against them. There’s inheritances, overbearing mothers, previous commitments and general social standing to take into account, after all.

The second romance focuses on Elinor’s younger sister Marianne, a free sprited and sentimentally minded young lady who faces no obstacles to her paramour, John Willoughby, except that of Willoughby’s character itself. He’s a real cad, eventually proving to have gotten another woman pregnant and run from the fact. When he looses his inhertiance over the matter he leaves Marianne and goes looking for a wife who can support him. Marianne eventually winds up married to the kind, generous but reserved Colonel Brandon.

This story contrasts two different ideas of romance. The first is represented by Elinor and Edward, who don’t have a particularly exuberant or emotional connection. That’s not the same as saying they don’t connect, because they do. It’s just not in the big, expressive way most of the people around Elinor can understand. Marianne is even worried about her sister, wondering if she gets what love is. Marianne, on the other hand, falls hard and extravegantly. She practically throws herself at Willoughby (by the standards of the time) and takes not time to build a connection beyond a superficial emotional reaction. She never stops to see where she stands with him, instead building castles of dreams that ultimately prove to have no foundation.

Like all of Austen’s stories, in most of their adaptations, Sense and Sensibility takes a lot of time to look at the characters and how they relate to each other. With Emma Thomson and Kate Winslet staring as the two leading ladies we can see a lot of the contrast between the two characters, with the less expressive Elinor coming across as a woman who says little but feels deeply and the vibrant Marianne practically floating across the screen in most of her scenes. Of course, this is most effective when the romantic couple are together. Both Elinor and Edward and Marianne and Willoughby spend a lot of time in conversation. They manage to avoid boredom while clearly illustrating the character traights and connections that will eventually make Elinor and Edward’s relationship work when Marianne and Willoughby’s will fall through.

What I love the most is how the film manages to stick to a dry tone, rarely taking love entirely seriously but still recognizing that the people it portrays could very well be us. The mixture of humor and sympathy, along with an understanding of the importance in a meeting of characters and minds, as well as hearts, makes this a great romantic film. If you’ve never seen it, now’s the time to go and check it out.

Thunder Clap: Melting And Entering


“You know, whichever one of your minions thought that this would be a good way to get around is going to be put in for extra jail time. You know that, right?”

“What’s your problem with it, Helix? The lack of control or being suspended over seventy floors of empty space with no safety net?”

“Not so much the lack of control as who’s in control.”

If it was still working I would have been recording Helix and Circuit’s bickering on my phone. There was a strong resemblance to couples I’d known in high school right before they broke up and I knew no one from the Project would believe me if I told them about it without evidence. It was weird to say the least.

I grabbed the edge of the elevator shaft and leaned out to catch a glimpse of the two of them hovering several floors up. “I don’t mean to bug you two but are you going to clear the shaft any time soon?”

“Just a moment, Rodriguez.” Circuit held his hands out towards the side of the elevator shaft and there was a sharp popping noise and a flash of light.

“What was that?” Helix asked.

“Quick shock intended to knock out a specific set of countermeasures,” Circuit answered.

“Well why didn’t you just do that before?” I asked, annoyed at the thought of all the time he’d wasted checking for and disarming traps the old fashioned way while we were on our way up the tower earlier.

“I was conserving power in case we had to search a large portion of the top floors one at a time,” he said. “Good work on that interrogation, by the way. I doubt we’d have had time to get any useful information out of those three we caught using any of the other interrogation techniques we had available to us.”

I felt a quick surge of satisfaction that only lasted as long as it took me to remember who was paying the compliment. “So is it safe to go through the door now?”

“No. I never forgot that there were more talents at Sumter’s disposal than just Helix, even if he was the one I expected to see the most.” He reached for the tool compartment on his chair. “There’s a mechanical lock – no electronics at all – on the doors to the floors where command stations might be set up. It was included in the plans in case Project Sumter ever found a fuse box capable of countering my safeguards. You could probably break through it if you had good footing, Agent Rodriguez, but I’d rather not run the risk that you find you can’t in the middle of one of your spectacular jumps.”

I winced at the mental image of my hitting the door and sliding off like a Looney Toons character. “Yeah, there’s limits to how far even a taxman can fall and survive.”

Helix kicked his heels against the far side of the elevator shaft and shot over to the door. His hands seemed to freeze to the door and the metal started to warp. I realized that my hair was standing on end and it was suddenly very cool in the shaft. “Anything I should know about this lock of yours before I melt it?” He asked. “Is it an exotic compound that becomes a toxic aerosol when it melts?”

“Nothing so exotic,” Circuit said dryly. “What’s your hurry?”

By now Helix was up to his elbows in melting door. It was kind of unsettling to see. “Circuit, you take your time before you do anything, am I right? Every scheme of yours is carefully thought out a dozen steps ahead and with contingencies every step along the way.”

“That’s a fair assessment.”

“Well it seems to me that you’ve never really developed an appreciation for the time crunch involved in real law enforcement work. You always take the fastest way because that means you have the best chance of catching the bad guy before he gets away, no matter what obstacles he’s come up with to slow you down.” There was a loud clunk and Helix pulled his hands out of the door, drops of glowing red metal scattering from his hands as he shook them off. “Door’s ready. Let’s go.”

Circuit grunted, I couldn’t tell if he was impressed or just amused, and the two of them moved up the shaft. I gathered my feet under me and made the jump, taking an extra split second to adjust my trajectory as I came in contact with the far wall. I’d gotten the timing and angle for a ten story jump down cold but we’d made our way up the stairs, with me carrying Circuit’s chair, until we got to the seventy-fifth floor, so I was only looking at a three story jump this time and I wanted the timing to be right.

Fortunately there were no problems on that front.

Unfortunately, after I crashed into the hallway beyond the elevator door I found myself staring at six armed men in a line across the far end of the hall with the squarish looking man, who Circuit kept calling Davis, standing behind them. He smiled when he saw me. “Well, it’s our escapee come back to us. Now would be a good time to think about surrendering again.”

“I didn’t surrender last time,” I said, cautiously getting to my feet. “I believe you gassed me.”

The smile quickly changed to something much darker. “Then why don’t we see if we can get you to surrender this time, shall we?”

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Disappointment Deconstructed: Guardians of the Galaxy

So. There was this movie called Guardians of the Galaxy and everyone told me it was fantastic. It was on most of the best movie lists I saw for 2014. It was supposed to be the fun Marvel movie, a romp that would get us out of our seats and moving.

Yeah, I don’t see it.

It’s like this. Guardians of the Galaxy is not a bad film. But it’s not really a good one, either.

Let me start with the things that are good about this movie – and there are some good things in this movie. It looks gorgeous, everything from the starships to the fur on Rocket Racoon is rendered in beautiful CG. In particular, I love the design of the Milano, Peter Quill’s ship. Also, this movie goes the extra mile to build up the Marvel universe’s plotlines, introducing both the character of Thanos and the idea of the Infinity Stones, things that will doubtless be important in films to come.

The casting is good, particularly casting the wrestler David Bautista as Drax. I’m not a wrestling fan and I know nothing about Guardians of the Galaxy outside of what comes from this film, but I can tell that this is the kind of role you definitely want a heavyweight pro wrestler playing. He doesn’t need to emote, he just needs to be tough. On the other hand, Vin Diesel is actually surprisingly expressive as the voice of Groot.

A very few of the jokes in the film worked for me. I thought the reference to the great legend of Footloose and it’s hero, Kevin Bacon, was funny and Drax’s severe literal mindedness is funny, particularly as it leads him to reject each and every attempt to give him a nickname.

The fullscale space/air battle at the end of the film is great. In particular the phalanx formation the fighters use is something that I’ve wanted to see in scifi for a while but no one ever thought to do – probably because it doesn’t make that much sense. But it’s cool, and that’s important too.

Using the tape Peter keeps as his sole tieback to life on Earth to bring his character development full circle is a nice touch and gives the film a little bit of much needed thematic unity.

Since I’m now out of good things I guess I’ll have to move on to the stuff I didn’t like or that waffled. I can basically lump these things into three categories, and I’m just going to list them under those headings in bullet points.

Poor Characterization. 

  • We’re told Gomorrah hates her adoptive father, Thanos, because of all the horrible things he’s made her do and done to her. We never see any of these horrible things. We’re told about a few but we don’t see any of them.
  • We’re told Yondu has been the closest thing to a father to Peter has ever had. We never see him do anything to signify that relationship or any kind of special bond between the two.
  • We’re told the Ravagers wanted to eat Peter when they found him. We never see them try to eat anyone else. Wha?
  • Rocket claims everyone’s calling him a rodent or vermin but we never hear anyone but Gomorrah or Drax use these terms (or if we do it’s only once or twice) – and they’re the most caustic members of the cast so we should expect bad behavior from those two. In fact, no one but Peter, who knows what a raccoon is, ever seems to bat an eye at him and that’s as it should be. He’s just another alien in a galaxy full of aliens to most people. In short, this is a lack of consistency.
  • Why does everyone fear Thanos? We never once see him do anything nasty. Yes, it’s okay to build suspense around a villain but they have to do something villainous or they just come off as pointless – and that’s what Thanos is in this film.
  • What is Nebula’s problem? Explain based on things we see in the movie, not the comic books, please. You can’t do it, can you?
  • Why did we have to hear about Yondu’s collection of bric-a-brac on his pilot’s chair before we saw it? It would have been easy to show us it in passing so we’d know what he was talking about when he mentioned it to the dealer later.

Plot Holes

  • Why could Peter hold on to the Infinity Stone for as long as he did? I know it’s probably because his father was an alien of some sort but he never showed any kind of exceptional energy resistance before. Why is he so good at it now? You could have at least set this up somehow.
  • Why did the combined efforts of four people who were never particularly powerful contain a stone we were shown annihilating a group of much more powerful people earlier in the movie?
  • When did Peter put that little troll doll into that extra containment sphere he had?
  • What ever happened to that bomb Rocket was building? Why didn’t we see that get used before they jumped up to the big gun?
  • If using the Infinity Stone was as simple as sticking it to a hammer or something, why did no one do this before in the HISTORY OF THE ENTIRE UNIVERSE?!
  • If the Guardians of the Galaxy could contain the Infinity Stone safely, why didn’t they just hang on to it?
  • How did Rocket know he could grow Groot back from just one twig? Or is that supposed to be a new Groot?

Failed “Fun” Moments

  • After the nifty fight scene with Peter at the beginning and the inventive three-way chase scene that brings Rocket, Groot, Peter and Gomorrah together, the action in this movie goes way south. Most of the action scenes after these two boil down to people spraying bullets around or rather uninspired brawling. In particular, Bautista’s skills as a professional wrestler go woefully underutilized.
  • The music. I get that it’s supposed to be a nostalgic nod to Peter’s past but it doesn’t really do much for me. That’s probably just a personal thing.
  • Most of Peter and Rocket’s banter. I know I’m supposed to be laughing at it but it just never gets beyond the pedantic. I don’t blame the actors here, they were clearly trying hard to make it interesting, I just didn’t see that they had anything to work with.
  • The jailbreak sequence. In particular, the part where Peter thinks he has to get ahold of another inmate’s prosthetic leg could have been comedic gold but we barely see any of it. In stead we get a raccoon trying to hide self-satisfied laughter at hoodwinking Peter. Mixed priorities, missed opportunities.
  • The climactic moment is four people reaching to hold hands. If I wanted to see friendship as magic I’d watch My Little Pony. Yes, I’ve said I like heroes to triumph over villains via moral strength rather than temporal power but this just comes off as cheesy.

Most of Guardians‘ problems come from the film being too rushed. A prison sequence could be the better part of a movie – look at Star Trek VI. Instead we get it rushed into the second half of the first act. Situations, characters and ideas are barely given time to breath before we’re rushed on to the next thing and most of our understanding comes from being told, not shown.

I know that the movie had a lot of source material to draw on and it wanted to cover as much as possible because there was no certainty of another film at the time, but I’m afraid the result was too much being packed into too little time resulting in a movie that had a lot of potential but came out pretty lackluster. I know I’m supposed to be having fun with this film, and I even know where and why… but that doesn’t necessarily mean I’m actually having fun.

Marvel may have created a blockbuster but I’m afraid it’s a flashy movie over a pretty mediocre core. I doubt the film will age well – but then, who knows? Maybe that shiny exterior will still be good twenty years from now.

I’m not holding my breath, mind you.

Still, the franchise now has another episode to come back to these ideas and maybe make something of them. Hopefully things will go better with the next film.

The O’Malley Serries

It’s the month of romance so we’re taking a look at a handful of romance stories that I feel really do romance right, avoiding cliches of sentimentality and accidental relationships and instead providing thoughtful, emotionally and intellectually satisfying looks at romance. This is going to be a particularly hurried look because we’re not looking at a single book but rather a series of six. The story goes like this.

Seven orphans meet in a group home in Chicago and start looking out for one another. With time they reach the age of legal adulthood, change their last names to O’Malley and declare themselves a family. The first rule of the O’Malleys is family will always come first. (No, nothing to do with Fight Club. Not anywhere in the rules.)

So far this probably doesn’t sound like much of a romance series, right?

Well, as it turns out the O’Malleys have found themselves a wide and diverse set of careers to work in, the family includes a U.S. Marshal, a hostage negotiator, an EMT, a firefighter, a trauma counselor, a forensic pathologist and a pediatrician. With such a crazy line-up of careers, and the kinds of personalities that tend to get into such careers, the only logical thing to do is try and marry them all off, am I right?

At least, such is the premise of Dee Henderson’s six book series that explores this wacky and unusual family and exactly what it might take to get such people to the alter. There are a lot of things I like about the O’Malley series but probably the biggest is the way the characters look at each other. Most of the couples meet on the job – no matter how crazy the job is, what they do is never a source of tension in the relationship. Way, way too many romance stories try to treat work as this terrible, horrible thing that will only be a barrier between you and the one you love.

What Henderson does in her books is show how the O’Malley family have chosen their paths as a result of the burdens they bear from their time as orphans or abandoned children, a way to fight back against the wrongs they’ve seen and suffered and make the world a better place. What’s more, she shows how the people who come into the lives of the O’Malleys understand the choices they have made. These are not romantic interests with no connection to the callings the O’Malley’s have undertaken, these are romantic interests who understand those callings and share in them.

In point of fact, each and every one of the O’Malley books centers on a situation that demands the unique talents of one of the family. Solving those situations, whether it be the murder of a Federal judge or a string of arsons across the city, brings one member of the family closer to someone they know or meet and sparks of a relationship built not only on feelings but on shared purpose and the promise of a brighter future. At the same time, the O’Malley family itself is drawing closer together, dealing not only with the promise of better futures but the troubles of jobs that are not always forgiving and the specter of hard times in the distance.

That’s probably what I like the most about the stories – aside from the healthy dose of suspense and intrigue next to the romance. They have a healthy emotional equilibrium. While each story has heroes and villains, romance and filial love, they also balance these things against very difficult personal problems that the O’Malleys have to face when dealing with a world that needs professional firefighters and hostage negotiators.

In a way, the O’Malleys themselves embody what makes their stories so great. Their powerful bond exists only because each and every one of them was once without family or friends and they are grateful for it every day and work to make it a continued reality every moment. It’s a good background for romance – one we can all try to cultivate, whether we find romance there or not.

Thunder Clap: Ups and Downs


The worst part was, it was a really good plan.

Both Circuit and I made a few adjustments but for the most part Izzy planned our general strategy in a very solid and flexible way. I guess I should have been proud of her, since she was a junior agent from my branch, but I hadn’t really had any direct influence on her training or really worked with her directly outside of occasionally being on hand when Jack or Teresa were running her through something. So mostly I alternated between feeling awkward at how little I was contributing and frustrated because Circuit was right there and I couldn’t do anything about him.

So for the most part, it was business as usual.

The worst part was finding out that Circuit didn’t know exactly where the master switchboard that gave Davis and his cronies control of the tower was. “I thought you cooked up this plan, Circuit,” I griped. “How can you possibly not know where the nexus of your plan is?”

“Contingencies, Helix, contingencies are all. There’s at least a dozen reasons the placement of the switchboard might need to change.” Circuit jabbed a finger at me. “You finding me or discovering a draft of my plans. Problems with the contractors who did the construction. Further renovations to the building. Other circumstances. There’s eight different places across six floors it might have been installed.”

“What’s the most likely one?” Izzy asked, prompting the hint of a smile from Circuit for some reason. Then she held up a hand and said, “No, wait. I have a better idea.”

Circuit and I exchanged a glance. He raised an eyebrow and said, “Such as?”

She went out into the hall where we’d trussed up the three thugs the two of them had been brawling with when I got there, using all but one of the sets of cuffs I’d brought with me.

For anyone else four sets would be excessive but for Circuit, it pays to be prepared.

I followed not far behind with Circuit’s chair struggling to keep up over the rough terrain. Yeah, that was another thing taking a lot of getting used to. Circuit was supposed to be a specter who loomed over my career with the promise of constant danger. He wasn’t supposed to be fumbling around in a wheelchair, laughing at my people as we unraveled everything he’d ever worked for. Normally, I’d think it was some sort of sham but with the wheelchair there, constantly reminding me of what he couldn’t do, it was hard to doubt any of the rest.

It didn’t help that the situation wasn’t leaving a whole lot of time for thought. I found Izzy in the hallway, ripping open the front of the hoodie on one of the three thugs they’d taken down. Underneath the baggy shirt was a complicated and bulky harness. She hefted him in one hand so we could look at him and asked, “Sykes, can you levitate this guy like you did the ones down in the basement?”

“It’s not levitation, per se…” He trailed off and thought for a second. “Well, I suppose the name is short for magnetic levitation. So yes, provided he’s near a relay. Which we’re not right now.”

“As long as it didn’t get broken earlier,” she said, hefting her thug up in the air and starting towards the elevator shaft.

I gave Circuit a curious look. He started to shrug but stopped with one shoulder lifted in a comical way. A smile slowly spread over his face, like oil over water, and he started his chair towards the elevator shaft saying, “I think I’m going to enjoy this.”

And that wasn’t worrying at all. It didn’t take Izzy long to get to the elevator shaft, she was hopping over debris like rubble strewn battlefields were where she’d grown up. Actually, considering where her dad’s church was located that might be a real possibility. For some reason the doors to the shaft were lying bent and twisted on the floor when we got there. I had no doubt how it had happened and I was more concerned about why we were there than why Izzy had wrecked the door earlier.

She shook the man she was holding gently, mixing in a smack or two, until his eyes opened and got halfway focused. Then she asked, “Where is your boss at?”

It’s amazing how belligerence focuses a person’s attention. The thug went from bleary eyed and lost to focused and angry almost instantly. He also pressed his lips together firmly and refused to say anything. After about three seconds of that Izzy got a grip on the door frame, hefted him up one handed and shot a glance back at Circuit, who gave a slight nod.

Then she threw him up the elevator shaft.

From the sound of the screaming he went up a good three or four stories before gravity took over and he came back down. This is known as juggling answers and it’s actually an accepted interrogation tactic for taxmen, the catch is you’re supposed to practice it a lot before you actually apply it in the field because if you miss the catch, or even just don’t make the catch quite right, you can wind up with a splatter mark and not an intelligence source. That’s why I’d been kind of leery when Izzy headed towards the elevator shaft. It was the only place in the building with enough room for Izzy to perform the juggling part of the trick but so far as I knew she’d never actually practiced it before. I was worried she was going to drop him.

In point of fact, she didn’t bother to catch him.

He went by so fast I almost missed it, even with the building’s power restored elevator shafts are dark places and by the time I realized what happened he was long since gone back the other way, his scream dopplering out behind him even as he found all knew levels of hysteria to vocalize. I stared at Izzy blankly for a second, she’d never struck me as the stone cold killer type, but almost as soon as the idea of saying something occurred to me there was a clicking noise from Circuit’s chair and the scream cut off. I glanced from him to the shaft and back. “You caught him with the maglev harness?”

“I did indeed.” He leaned back in his chair with a self-satisfied smirk. “Let’s see if he’s in a mood to be more forthcoming now, shall we?”

The guy was whimpering as he came into view over the edge, grabbing desperately for the floor before Izzy scooped him up by the back of the harness and shook him like a ragdoll. I felt a little sorry for him, a little, not that he was getting the crap scared out of him but I had been shaken like that once or twice in my life and my stomach twinged in sympathy. Izzy gave him an unforgiving look and said, “Want to point me towards your boss now?”

“You don’t understand,” he said between gasps.

“If I had a nickel for every time I heard that…”

“Agent Rodriguez,” Circuit said. “Please do keep in mind that if you handle him roughly and his harness breaks I can’t catch him in the maglev system.”

“Good point.” She adjusted her grip so that she had the man by the front of his harness and started to lean out into the elevator shaft again. “Let’s make it a little more unpredictable, shall we?”

“Wait, wait!” The thug kicked at the floor frantically in an effort to stay in place. The struggle got him nowhere but Izzy did wait like he asked.

“They’re on the seventy-eighth floor,” he said, calming down a bit when it became clear he wasn’t about go airborne again. “I don’t know what room they’re using but we checked in with a fat guy at the southeast meeting room.”

“I know the place,” Circuit said. “Sounds like Davis is there. Give him here, Rodriguez.”

Izzy handed the man to Circuit with a quizzical look but Circuit just shocked him back into unconsciousness. Between that, getting thrown around an elevator shaft and whatever beating he’d taken before I’d gotten there I suspected he was going to be in a lot of pain when he woke up again. “Right,” I said. “What floor are we on now? And how are we going to get that chair up to the seventy-eighth floor?”

“We’re six floors beneath where we need to be,” Circuit said. “And I was planning to just float my way there. The chair is maglev equipped and Izzy can jump the distance. How are you planning to get up there?”

“What’s wrong with the stairs?”

Circuit raised an eyebrow. “You mean, besides the fact that they’re very slow and the most heavily trapped part of the building? We can do better than that.”

I planted my hands on my hips. “Yeah? What you got in mind?”

“Hm…” Izzy was holding the unconscious thug up by his harness like she was studying an outfit at a shopping mall. She glanced at me, then back at him. “I don’t think he’s quite your size. Maybe one of the others.”

I looked from her to Circuit, who was nodding thoughtfully, and put up my hands. “Oh, no. I am not putting one of those on.”

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Beats to Scenes – Or From Outline to Story

It’s been a while since we looked at the mechanics of writing a story, how you take the germ of an idea and get it into something usable. Now outlining isn’t the greatest part of everyone’s creative process but personally, I’m a big fan of the beat outline. A lot of people seem to think outlining steals a lot of the spontaneity from a story. Some people have wondered how you go from outline to story at all.

I want to look at both these issues at once by showing how I think you jump from your outline to the scene of a story. See, I like to think that my outline is spontaneous when I’m creating it and my scenes are spontaneous when I’m creating them. Sometimes you’ll need to adjust your outline when writing a scene – usually by adding to it – but most of the time unexpected events while writing a scene just give you more opportunities to add twists to your outline that will be fun and exciting.

Each beat should be a specific event in your story. So, when that event happens, do the following:

  • Look at the characters that were a part of that event. A man getting shot in his apartment at night sets a very different scene from a man getting shot on a crowded street.
  • Decided which characters you want to talk about in the aftermath of that event. If they weren’t all there for it, figure out how they’re going to know about it. If the man shot was an off-duty cop his partner is probably going to hear about it from their captain, while if he was on duty his partner is going to know much sooner.
  • Ask yourself how your characters will react to that event. Was it good for them or bad for them? When setting the beats of your outline you think of them as good or bad for the protagonist but what about the other characters? The partner of a cop who gets shot is going to react much differently than the mobster who ordered the hit.
  • Decide what everyone in the story will do in response the beat your outline calls for. Then chose which of those responses are important to your story as a whole. Not everyone in a given scene has to have a response that you show in a given scene, some responses might be better addressed in a later scene, and sometimes characters who don’t fit in a scene have a response that is important to the story and you have to find a way to bring it to the attention of those in the scene. If the death of a cop spurs a criminal to start robbing banks it makes more sense for fellow cops to hear about it over the crime radio than for the criminal to announce it in person.
  • Look at your next beat and decide if it fits in the scene you’re writing or if it needs to be the start of a new one. A cop yelling at his captain about how to react to his partner’s murder? Probably a natural extension of his finding out about his partner’s death. But that same cop instead going to tell his partner’s spouse? That is probably better as a new scene.

Once you hit the point where a new scene is called for, go back and try and streamline the elements you’ve laid out. Juggle discovery of, reaction to and response to an event to create a nice cadence to your scene. Don’t let any one element take over and try not to let it drag out too long. Bigger beats will call for more time spent on them but on the whole you probably don’t want more than a page or two before the next beat occurs or the story begins to drag.

If you wind up with more than that you probably needed to break the larger point into multiple smaller ones. Knowing exactly how much beat you need for a scene is more art than science but in time most authors get a good grip on it and, for all those times you don’t, even as an experienced author, there’s always the editing phase.

It’s the reaction and response part of stories I love writing the most. There is where (for me) the spontaneity of a story lies and, with a good handle on where your story is going thanks to your outline, you should be able to let your characters stretch themselves and surprise you without going too far afield in your narrative. Most of the time, at least. And for the rest, well, at least you’ll see it coming quickly and only have to do a little remodeling of your outline, not completely stall out when you realize you’ve go no idea where you’re going anymore.

So happy scenecrafting! Let me know if it works for you.


This month we’re looking at romance stories. Given that it’s February and all. So let’s look at the movie Sabrina.

We’re talking about the 1995 version with Harrison Ford. If you were wondering. It’s funny but never mean-spirited, it tells a story about love but never makes it a story about destiny or raw sentiment and it’s not afraid of allowing it’s main characters to need each other to complete themselves.

Sabrina is basically a coming of age story for it’s three main characters. Sabrina herself is coming into her own – at the beginning of the story she leaves home to study overseas in Paris, leaving behind her father and David Larrabee, her childhood crush. She comes back mature, confident and has to come to realize she’s outgrown David. Linus Larrabee, David’s brother, is trying to close a business deal and David’s brief infatuation with Sabrina poses a threat to that deal, so Linus tries to break them up. In the process he comes to grip with the fact that he’s missing something and Sabrina offers it to him. And David himself is a bit of a wastrel who needs to get out of his brother’s shadow to come into his own.

As a romance this story excels in a number of ways but most significantly it does so by allowing all of the characters time together, not gushing with emotion or plotting against one another, but just interacting with one another in fairly normal activities and letting us see how they mesh with each other. Rather than give us planned speeches about who’s best for who and why we get to see why Sabrina forming a relationship with David would be unhealthy for them both but a relationship with Linus would benefit both.

At the same time, the story is not afraid to let a romance be a time of growth. Too many modern romances make it sound like any kind of change threatens to tear a relationship apart, while Sabrina shows us that the very act of finding a relationship should change the people in it in a myriad of ways and, in fact, if they aren’t changing constantly that is what threatens to break them up. Finding romance is what spurs on the growth of all three of these characters, it’s not about savoring some ephemeral moment together but rather about charging forward side by side.

The best part about this film, both as a romance story and as a work of film in general, is how quiet it is. There’s nothing loud, nothing in your face, rather it’s full of moments where we see people’s attitudes through little things. Sabrina is always tense around the Larrabee brothers at first. It takes her longer to open up to Linus but ultimately she becomes more comfortable with him than with David – and we see it entirely through her posture and expression. Linus goes from preoccupied and intense to gradually more relaxed and open. David gradually starts to look more thoughtful. It makes the whole story feel comfortable and lived in, like it’s the kind of thing that could go on forever, rather than like a shiny trinket, eye-catching but likely to tarnish or scuff at the slightest touch.

In all, this is one of the great romantic stories of recent memory, and a fitting place to start our examination of stories that have done romance right. If you haven’t seen Sabrina, go out and watch it now.

Thunder Clap: Putting the Foot Down


They caught up to us on the seventy-fifth floor.

Partly that was because, after almost ten minutes of grueling ascent, we’d finally left the elevator shaft and started searching for what Sykes called the master switchboard. “It’s not all talent,” he’d explained as we left the shaft behind us. “There’s a certain amount of smoke and mirrors that goes into making a deathtrap like this work.”

“Can’t say that I’m terribly surprised,” I said, carefully picking my way behind him as his chair, wishing the motors in it weren’t quite so loud. It was probably my imagination but the empty cubicle farm we were passing through seemed to echo with the noise and it was hard not to see thugs with assault weapons in the shadows of each of the cramped compartments as we passed by them. “I can’t image you packed all that hardware into that thing you’re sitting on.”

He snorted. “It would be twice the size and have none of it’s current functionality.”

“Yeah, I’ll take your word for it.” I jumped slightly at what looked like a face peering out from beside the utilitarian desk to my left but it turned out to be a large photograph of an attractive thirtyish man tacked to the wall of the cubicle.  “Want to tell me what we’re looking for? In case we get separated or something.”

“Oh?” His voice managed to sound condescending and skeptical even though he kept his eyes forward and scanning the room instead of turning to let me see his face. “How do you know I’m not going to send you after some random piece of equipment to get you out of my hair? Or make you smash something that will benefit me?”

I shrugged, then said, “How am I supposed to tell the difference anyway? From the sounds of it there’s only two experts on this kind of tech in the world. They’re both in this building and I can’t really expect the other one to help me so that leaves me with you. My options are you telling me what to smash and letting you disable it yourself. I just want to have both of the available.”

“More thinking ahead than I’d credit to someone your age.” He held his hands up about as far apart as his chest. I noticed his chair kept moving even though his hands weren’t on the controls anymore. “We’re looking for something about this big, looks a lot like a mixing board. Which is exactly what it was before we repurposed it.”

I wasn’t sure what a mixing board was but before I could ask him we came to the end of the large cubicle farm we’d been moving through and to a hallway that led to office space. Sykes kept rolling towards the opening but I held back, figuring this was another good place for a boobytrap of some kind. In a way I was right because almost as soon as I stopped three guys – well, technically two men and a woman – burst out of the first door on either side of the hallway.

Time slowed down for a second and I saw Circuit’s chair jerk backwards, pivoting to the left so fast it actually rose up on one wheel. The thugs were dressed in shapeless gray and black clothes and had some kind of bullpup assault weapons. Jack’s voice in the back of my mind chided me for not being able to identify them. He was mostly drowned out by dad’s voice reminding me that when I’m in serious trouble there’s nothing wrong with grabbing the heaviest thing at hand and throwing it.

Sheet metal desks aren’t that heavy all by themselves but once you fill them with paperwork and files and pens and stuff it all adds up and the cubicles had a lot of them.

The thugs fell back, one stopping to spray a few bullets out the door at us, and unfortunately the first desk I threw caught the edge of the hall doorway and crashed to the ground, blocking it. One of the guards braced his gun barrel on top of it then jerked upright and collapsed when Circuit arced an actual bolt of lightning from a photocopier ten feet away over to his chair and from there into the metal desk. One of the remaining guards kept up covering fire while the other collected the fallen man and started dragging him back into the offices.

Circuit was straining to see around the corner without tipping his chair over or exposing too much of his profile but he still managed to see what was going on. “Don’t let them get back into the offices! If we loose sight of them they’ll be able to maneuver and regain the initiative.”

I hefted another desk and got a grip on the narrow end of it. “Stand clear, Sykes. Or, whatever it is you do.”

“Funny.” He didn’t sound amused but he got out of the way.

Smashing two desks down the hallway left some serious marks on the floor and walls and I struggled to maintain my footing on the uneven carpeting as I pushed the office furniture down the hall like a prize winning linebacker. It was a lot noisier than I expected, with the desks banging together, bullets bouncing off or punching through the sides, a couple of meaty thuds as I caught up to and ran over the thugs and what sounded like an entire stained glass cathedral shattering at once. The source of the last noise eluded me but I didn’t have much time to think about it.

The last guard had been smart and, instead of trying to out run the desks down the straight away she’d actually jumped on top of them. The whole mess had been moving pretty fast and she wound up tumbling over onto the floor next to me but she kept hold of her weapon and most of her wits. I made a snatch for the rifle but she made no attempt to hold onto it beyond squeezing down the trigger and spraying bullets all over the place. That made just wrenching the thing away from her kind of dangerous so I just kept the barrel pointed away from us while I broke the weapon’s sling and body checked her away from it.

In the time it took me to do that she’d pulled a knife from somewhere on her person and managed to open a shallow gash on my arm. I flipped her rifle around, switched on the safety and threw it at her, spinning stock over barrel. It caught her in the shoulder, spinning her back a half step and practically dumping her into Circuit’s lap. He grabbed her just long enough to give her a nasty shock before tossing her aside. “Not bad, young lady. Not bad at all. What was that noise?”

I blinked and looked around, wondering if he’d gone a little crazy. “Which noise? There were a lot of them.”

“The glass -” He paused, looking up at something behind me.

I spun and followed his line of sight, expecting more guards to be coming. Instead, the ceiling was glowing cherry red. “Better back up, Agent Rodriguez.”

I shared the sentiment so I did as Circuit suggested. About five seconds later the ceiling just sort of melted and my boss fell through. He was surrounded by an aura of shimmering heat and it looked like he was holding a chunk of the sun in each hand. I backed up a little more, leaning against the sudden wind. Almost as soon as the hole in the ceiling opened up all the air in the hall decided it was time to head out through it.

As fast as it’d started the wind died down and the hallway seemed to get warmer. At the same time the glow around Helix died and he was just a normal guy of below average stature. “Izzy?” He dusted his hands off, and I noticed something like concrete pebbles scattering on the floor around him. “I heard gunshots. Are you okay?”

“Fine.” I looked up at the ceiling then back at him. “How did you get up there?”

“Long story.”

“Better save it for later, Helix.” Circuit’s chair whirred up behind me, maneuvering to avoid the torn up carpet. “We need to find the master switchboard and shut it down before Davis gathers all his men into the building and flushes us out.”

Helix’s head snapped around and his expression cleared kind of like the sky right before a big storm rolls in. “Circuit.”

“Be mad later, Helix. For once in your life, believe that I am here to help.” He parked his chair and grabbed the armrests like he was bracing himself. Which he probably was. “I’ve always been here to help, we just never agreed on the method before.”

“And we do now?” Helix asked the question in a calm tone but I felt a chill in the air, one that faded as he stalked past me and came back twice as cold as soon as he was past.

“This has to stop.” Circuit said each word slowly and clearly. “We will stop it, you and I. And then Project Sumter will take me in, I promise you. I’ve never lied to you before, Helix. I’ve no reason to start now.”

“Not even to get out of a mess you’ve caused?” Helix growled.

“This was not how things were supposed to go, Helix! This was not-”

Helix grabbed Circuit and yanked him half way up out of his wheelchair. “Listen, your wife may claim this you didn’t okay this and maybe I even believe it, but when you boil it down this is your fault. Your plan, your paid psychos, your idiot ambitions. Just because someone picked up where you left off doesn’t mean you’re not culpable for giving him everything he needed to cause this mess. I don’t care how you want to play this, we’re going to do it my way. And that means you-”

“Better idea, how about we do it my way?” Both men stopped mid argument and looked at me. Helix looked even scarier than the stories always make him out to be – and that’s no mean trick – but Sykes quickly went from surprise to outright laughing.

“Helix, whatever you’re paying her it’s not nearly enough. Is she fast tracked to senior agent yet?”

“Not funny, Circuit.” He shoved Sykes back into his wheelchair and said, “Tell me something, Rodriguez. Why would I want to listen to a field agent with little to no experience that just got captured by hostile forces?”

“Because he,” I pointed accusingly at Sykes, “planned this whole thing. Whether or not he did it recently or wanted things to happen this way isn’t the point, what matters is that whenever Circuit planned something your were the first thing in his mind. This place is built to stop you from getting in.” I looked at Sykes. “Am I wrong?”

He straightened out the front of his suit and shook his head. “Accurate enough. Only the lightning funnels are really meant to prevent Helix from using his talents fully – or to punish him if he does – but I anticipated that would be enough.”

“Lightning funnels?” I asked.

“They can trigger lightning strikes when there’s atmospheric disturbances like a storm,” Helix said. “Except we’re inside, Circuit. Even the unnatural weather heat sinks make when they’re active won’t cause a storm in here.”

“The building draws enough current of the grid to do the job,” Circuit said.

“If these funnel things are the only Helix specific defense in the building, what else is there?” I asked.

“The stairwells and elevator shafts can be collapsed, if need be, and the surveillance systems can all be run from the master switchboard or,” he patted his chair, “with this, if we park it in the right place and if there’s not a stronger fuse box at the switchboard – which there isn’t. Whoever’s running the system for Davis is passable, and keeping him locked out of the system is taxing and prevents me from using any of the systems myself, but the other side is locked out as long as I’m here and conscious.”

I pursed my lips for a moment, thinking. “Stillwater? Can you still hear us?”

“Stillwater is here?” Helix asked.

“I was wondering if you’d forgotten me.” The old man’s disembodied voice said from over by the door. “I’m still picking up your echoes but it’s not as clear as I’d like. Fill me in?”

“In a sec. That water worker, Heavy Water, is he still with you?””

“Yep. We’ve moved another floor down to play keep away but right now it doesn’t look like anyone’s looking for us.”

“Okay.” I took a deep breath and looked both men in the eye. “I have an idea.”

Helix snorted. “I’m still not seeing why we should listen to you.”

“Circuit planned for you. When his underlings stole the plan they adjusted it for him.”

Circuit smiled a wicked little smile. “But no one’s planned for her.”

Helix looked like he’d just taken a bite out of something rotten. “Okay, fine. What’s your idea?”

Fiction Index

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Avengers Analyzed: Thor

It’s time to finish up our look at the superhumans of Marvel’s The Avengers with a look at Thor. While Bruce Banner was our starting point mostly because I found him to be the least understood character, and Tony Stark and Steve Rogers followed him because their stories felt related, but Thor is the logical place to wrap up our superhero overview because he’s the final superhero in the film to show up.

Thor presents us with an interesting one because, while he’s probably the most powerful of the Avengers in absolute terms, he’s actually the most normal of them emotionally and relationally.

Yes, Thor doesn’t age, wields a weapon that easily puts out four times the power of Tony’s arc reactor and takes hits from The Hulk without appreciable harm, but he’s also got affectionate parents, friends who share his life and goals and a brother.

That last bit is the sticky part.

Point is, if you ignore the scale of his life, Thor is actually the most well adjusted, emotionally grounded and mentally stable of the four superheroes on the team. He has no suppressed anger, overactive ego or severe trauma. His greatest personal problem is a lack of familiarity with Earth culture. This both lets the audience see Loki from another angle and sets up his personal conflict.

Thor’s Background

Basically, Loki got jealous of his adoptive brother and arranged for him to be exiled to Earth, where Thor learned to be less of a Jerk. The material point is that Thor had to stop Loki’s scheming to take the throne of Asgard but in the process discovered his brother was adopted and full of discontent. Although Thor ended the matter by foiling Loki and accidentally sending him into the unknown depths of space he regrets the way they parted and clearly wants to make things right.

The Conflict 

Thor’s personal conflict is character vs. characters. Yes, as in multiple characters. For the majority of his time in the film Thor is not personally in conflict with Loki per se, rather he’s in conflict with the rest of the Avengers over what should be done about Loki. Thor still sees his brother as someone to be reformed and brought back into the fold. The rest of the Avengers see him as a threat to be dealt with via any means necessary. Thor wants to reconcile with his brother. The Avengers want Loki gone any way they can get it.

These goals aren’t necessarily contradictory but they will keep Thor and the Avengers working at crosspurposes even as Loki approaches his endgame.

We Meet Thor 

“What’s the matter, scared of a little lightning?” – Captain Steve Rogers 

For all his self-satisfied preening and condescension towards the other Avengers, when Thor arrives Loki gets nervous. We never see him show any trepidation towards anything else, he never flinches from his brother in person, but Thor beat Loki once and he doesn’t seem to have been in Loki’s calculations this time around – their dialog on first meeting suggests Loki expected his father to keep Thor at home. Thor is a weakness in Loki’s plans and a figure with enough personal power to shake Loki’s seemingly boundless self-confidence.

And then he steals Loki out from the noses of the Black Widow, Iron Man and Captain America.

Points for intimidation factor. Points for style. Nothing more to see here. Move along.

Loki – First Confrontation

“I’m not overly fond of what follows…” – Loki 

As Loki’s brother, Thor is given the unique privilege of confronting Loki multiple times through the film. Each of these confrontations marks a distinct point in Thor’s character progression and so the very first thing Thor has to do is drag Loki out for a little chat.

This initial conversation is not very long, courtesy of Tony Stark, but it clearly shows Thor’s priorities. Yes, Earth is under Thor’s protection and yes, he’s very concerned about what’s happening to it. But he’s really hurting because his brother has turned into something he doesn’t recognize and Thor can’t grasp why. Now this is in no small part because Thor is not particularly bright, he mostly gets by on being very earnest and normally this is one of his strengths. But the same forthrightness that makes Thor trustworthy and keeps his life simple also keeps him from ever fully grasping Loki’s ambition and need for validation.

When Loki mentions how much energy it must have taken Odin to send Thor to Earth we have to understand that Loki is seeing an expression of how much Odin is willing to do to keep him from happiness. All Thor sees is how much his father loves Loki and wants him to come home.

This scene is a perfect illustration of how Thor’s perspective is different from everyone else’s. The fact that it ends with Iron Man tackling him and throwing him into a pitched melee with two of the other Avengers only serves to show the logical outcome of Thor’s skewed perspective – it leaves him at odds with everyone else in the group.

A Battle of Worldviews

“This is beyond you, metal man. Loki will face Asgardian justice.” – Thor

Just about everything that happens with Thor from the end of his first brief conversation with Loki until Loki’s bid for freedom on the Helicarrier serves to illustrate the tension between him and the rest of the Avengers over what Loki is and what he’s there for. Most telling is when Thor tells Fury Loki isn’t out for power but vengeance. And not just any revenge, revenge against Thor specifically. Thor is still thinking of this as a personal problem between himself and his brother and he winds up fighting all three other superheroes in the Avengers before he starts coming to terms with things.

That’s right, as the most forthright of the Avengers Thor winds up physically fighting with Iron Man, Captain America and even the Hulk as an outward expression of his inward resistance to seeing Loki as they do. He just can’t accept Loki as an enemy to be defeated. He still wants Loki to be the brother he can save.

Loki – Second Confrontation 

“Are you never not going to fall for that?” – Loki

The moment Loki locks Thor into the Hulk cage is short, sweet and revealing… for Thor. Loki has never directly played his hand against his adoptive brother, mainly because the trickster knows he can’t overpower thunder. But the prison that used to hold him gives Loki a new card to play against Thor and for the first time there’s no masks between the two. Loki doesn’t just try and keep Thor out of the fight, he tries to kill him. It’s the same as burning the bridges between them.

While Thor escapes the death trap he’s also reached a turning point. After crash-landing in a field somewhere on the East Coast Thor brushes himself off and turns to reach for the hammer. This is an interesting moment. Although no dialog is said the image is reminiscent of the moment in Thor’s first stand-alone film, when he reached for Mjolnir and was found unworthy.

Now Thor finds he’s misjudged his brother, seen only a personal problem when Loki was all too willing to ignore Thor to pursue his bigger plans. Maybe he’s wondering if that lapse of judgment makes him unworthy to wield the hammer again. More likely he realizes the moment he takes up that hammer again he’ll have to turn it against his brother. But he takes it anyways, and it marks the turning point of his character.

Loki – Third Confrontation and Character Resolution

“Loki, turn off the tesseract or I will destroy it!” – Thor

Thor is too much of an earnest guy not to give Loki a chance at formal surrender before pounding him but this time around he’s not pleading with Loki, he’s offering an ultimatum. When Loki turns him down Thor stops playing nice and fights for real. While Thor doesn’t have the insight of Banner, capable of seeing through Loki’s illusions and immune to his semantics, once Thor turns his hand against his brother Loki’s no match for him.

People have said that Thor’s sudden reconciliation with the rest of the team is very abrupt but really, when you realize that his conflict with them was rooted in the different ways they saw Loki, it begins to make a great deal more sense. As soon as that difference of opinion is gone there’s nothing more to fight about.

There’s not as much of an arc to Thor’s character as the other three characters we’ve examined so far and perhaps that’s not surprising. After all, he is the best adjusted of them already and maybe his character didn’t need as much growth as some of the others. And to be fair, Thor is the first character to score a clean win over Loki, sending him running into the arms of the Chitauri after their confrontation at Stark Tower. That’s no small feat considering the only other character with a clear win over Loki is the Hulk – the other characters in the film never do more than stall Loki and frequently play into his hands.

Sadly, no one does that more than the core human members of the cast – so we’ll examine them next. Coming up in March, we look at Agents Romanoff and Barton. See you then!