Writing History, With Swordplay

whitefacehorseI’m looking at Dorothy Dunnett’s brilliant, swashbuckling Race of Scorpions, a novel that turns about the 15th Century dynastic war in Cyprus. She is wise not to drop us into Cyprus immediately. Her hero Niccolo is never easy in his allegiances, and his machinations will be so clever and transformative that we need a larger arena of action to bring the historically necessary factions of the Italian city-states into play. She begins:

“That November, God sent snow to northern Italy, to the inconvenience of all who had to travel on horseback.”

Trouble, the promise of genre and a smile in the first sentence. Nice. Furthermore, it’s going to be hot in Cyprus so she starts us off up to our withers in snow. Dorothy Dunnett continues,

“The Way between Poretta and Bologna became choked, and only the robust cared to use it. Among these was friar Ludovico de Severi da Bologna who set out from Poretta one evening in a mood of ferocious good humour.”

Ludovico will cause hero Niccolo a lot of trouble, and his journey shows that he is a brave and strong antagonist. The words “ferocious good humour” give us an antagonist who thinks he’s a good guy and is capable of anything.

Ludovico’s arrival, structurally, must herald change and shake it up for Nicco. And the friar had better have a good, resonant reason for it. He does. He’s coming to the rescue of an orphaned heir. Who doesn’t want to help an orphaned heir?

Now, having set up the restless money-loving hero Niccolo gambling in an inn, Ms Dunnet has him overtaken by Ludivico, at this point the herald of the conflict:

Nicholas flung down the dice. The door burst open. A bulky man stood on the threshold in a pool of fresh snow and strode forward, striking his cloak from his shoulders. His bare feet, encased in wet sandals, had tufts of black pelt on each toe. He said, “Messer Niccolo vander Poele. Remember me, boy?”

A perfect herald. How will Ms Dunnet use this first interaction to show us what a money-loving political manipulator and swordsman Niccolo is? How will our hero react to the friar’s entrance? Hopefully, he’ll be cool.

Nicholas heaved a great sigh and rose slowly. He said, “I could never forget you, Thomas. Fra Ludovico da Balogna, the man who means to drive the Turks out of Europe. Did you collect the money you needed?”

“Have your joke,” said the monk.

Ludovico hitches up his robes and sits himself down with a clank of his sword, and my happiness is complete. It’s going to be a great story.

Thanks, Dorothy Dunnet. I love visiting the Renaissance to look at narrative structure with you.

Dorothy Dunnett, A Race of Scorpions. Penguin Books, London. 1989.



George McWhirter to judge the Magpie Poetry Award

George McWhirterWho better to judge our inaugural Magpie Award for Poetry, than Vancouver’s inaugural Poet Laureate, George McWhirter?

The much-lauded poet, novelist, translator and editor has been instrumental in the development of BC’s literary scene, both as a long-time editor and advisor at PRISM international, and as a well-loved professor and Head of the Creative Writing department at UBC.  He has been awarded too many prizes for writing and teaching to list here, and we are thrilled and honoured that he has agreed to judge our first ever contest.

For a small sample of his vast body of work see this poem on the blog of Alex-Waterhouse Hayward (whom we have to thank for putting us in touch).

The closing date for entries for the Magpie Award for Poetry is 15 June 2014.  Contest guidelines are here.



Trust Your Reader

To celebrate the start of our first Magpie Award poetry contest, let me honour Max Plater, a poet from my very first writer’s group who passed along the best writing advice I ever received: trust your reader. As I continue to work through the submissions pile in our inbox, it is clear in the first paragraph which writers have learned to trust and respect their audience’s ability to perceive and follow the delicate rabbit trail. The writers with a true voice, that elusive quality so much sought and praised, reveal an intense intimacy and vulnerability (even if it is only leaked through the cracks.) Lesser writers smack of explanation, of grand action spelled with capital letters, and leave no room for lingering footnotes in the reader’s mind. The Golden Rule of Writing is this: trust your reader as you trust yourself. A writer must dig inside his own soul, wrestle with his art, and dare to go all the way down the rabbit hole. Because if he does, we’ll follow.

Between Us 

Above dry canyons where our worlds meet

not one word is lost between us

We step across them on a string bridge.

–Max Plater, Winter Fires (1998, Exile Editions)

Writing tips from Rumpole of the Bailey: Part 2


I’m examining the first three paragraphs of Rumpole A La Carte to see how John Mortimer gets the story going in the first three paragraphs. Rumpole on the Shelf

Right away, in Paragraph One, Mortimer gives us Rumpole the underdog crusading hero trudging round the old Bailey, short on time, but long on stamina as he battles to impose Rumpole order on a chaotic universe (the hero’s mission statement). Also, in paragraph 1, we receive the promise of genre as Rumpole references the murders he’s solved and his expertise with bloodstains.

Then, in Paragraph 2, Mortimer introduces what’s at stake—his wife, Hilda—as well as setting the story in its arena using Hilda’s cookery as an entry into the world of haute cuisine, where the battle will be fought.

All this in two paragraphs, a little over half a page…Now, turn the page, and in Paragraph 3 Mortimer introduces Hilda’s cousin, Everard, Rumpole’s peer on the field of battle, since he is also a lawyer, and his superior for looks, charm, culture and money. This is Rumpole’s Enemy. Everard Flings Down the Gauntlet…

Mortimer sets all this up with a masterful hand (and writes the TV script while he’s at it).

Thus, we have:

 Paragraph 1. A crusading underdog lawyer sleuth…

Paragraph 2. …will battle for his marriage…

Paragraph 3. …against the attractive, rich lawyer out to steal Hilda.

I bow to you, John Mortimer. I shake my head with admiration. I do my utmost to learn from you… Especially this week, as I’ve got a new mystery novella to start writing.

I couldn’t have a better model for structuring intrigue and struggle. Thank you, John Mortimer.  I miss you.

“I have often noticed, in the accounts of the many crimes with which I have been concerned, that some small sign of disorder—an unusual number of milk bottles on a doorstep, a car parked on a double yellow line by a normally law-abiding citizen, even, in the Penge Bungalow Murders, someone else’s mackintosh taken from an office peg—has been the fist indication of anarchy taken over…”

–John Mortimer, Rumpole A La Carte. From paragraph 1, page 1.

A Leader in Mystery: John Mortimer’s Horace Rumpole

Part 1

I’m always boggled at how much has to be accomplished up front when writing short mysteries. Those first paragraphs are vital…(although, really, what paragraphs are not vital, eh?) Whenever I begin a new novella, I consult the expert on crime, my leader, RumpolealaCarte

Rumpole of the Bailey.

We fans know about Rumpole, the barrister Underdog Hero—the Onion Knight of the courtroom. London’s Hedgerow Knight. We know that he likes his life as it is, the battles against the odds at the Old Bailey, in chambers, or at home, after which the well-earned hours of respite at Pommeroy’s Wine Bar with a glass of the old plonk. I often think Rumpole’s mysteries are as much about the defence of Rumpole’s realm as about deduction.  Each story offers us a joust and a mystery. What a treat. And what a challenge to set up.

Here are some Mortimer first lines….

“What distresses me most about our times is the cheerfulness in which we seem prepared to chuck away those freedoms we have fought for, bled for and got banged up in the chokey for down the centuries.”

“Mr Justice Graves. What a contradiction in terms!”

“There is, when you come to think about it, no relationship more important than that of a man with his quack—or ‘regular medical attendant’, as Soapy Sam Ballard would no doubt choose to call him.”

“As anyone who has cast half an eye over these memoirs will know, the second of the Rumpole commandments consists of the simple injunction ‘Thou shalt not prosecute.’ Number one is ‘Thou shalt not plead guilty.’”

A jumble matching challenge… These quotes are first lines from the stories Rumpole for the Prosecution, Rumpole and the Quacks, Rumpole at Sea and Rumpole and the Right to Silence. If you guessed them all, it’s a tribute to your perspicacity and Mortimer’s talent for titles. And for setting up his jousting opponent in the very first line.

John Mortimer, Rumpole A La Carte. London, Viking Penguin, 1990.


Next time, Part 2: Rumpole A La Carte, a swift, piercing look at the setup.

money rose

The Pleasure of Paying

Last month’s Pulp Literature bank statement came this week.  It was a long one, and contained all the cleared cheques written to our Issue 1 contributors.  This made me much happier than you might think.

Because, you see, I enjoy writing cheques.

Yes, read that again.  I enjoy writing cheques.  Especially to writers and artists.  It means that here at Pulp Literature, in our very small way, we are contributing to the sustainability of the Arts as a profession.

We’re able to do that because of you, the people who backed our Kickstarter campaign, and those of you who have subscribed and bought single issues since then.  Every issue purchased helps us pay creators to do what they do best.

When you buy a copy of the book, its worth lies not in the printed page or file you download onto your reader.  The worth is in the inspiration the artist has shared with you when she put words or brush strokes on that blank page.  The story stays with you when you put down the book.  Even if you never read that story or see that illustration again it is still a part of your memory.  How do we even put a price on that?

Sublime intangibles of Art aside, we must put a price on it.  Writers need to be paid to write.  Artists need to be paid to create.  Otherwise they have to spend their time making a living in other ways, and the world becomes a poorer place.

And that’s why it makes me happy to write cheques to contributors.  The funds in our bank account are not ours.  It is money you have entrusted to us to distribute to the creative minds that make this magazine what it is, and we’re happy to be that conduit.

We wish we could pay our creators more, though.  After production costs for our first issue we were able to pay the contributors 50% of our full rates.  So we’ve promised to pay them the same amount again when sales of the first issue reach 500 copies. The promise applies to stories and artwork for future issues as well.  And if we reach 1000 subscribers we’ll be able to pay full rates on acceptance, and make the magazine viable into the future.

You can help make that happen by encouraging your friends to subscribe, spreading the word in person and on social media, and asking your local bookstore to carry Pulp Literature.

And I will be happy to continue writing cheques.



The Joy of Editing

Yes, I spent Valentine’s Day at my computer editing. No, I don’t feel guilty about this. My husband likes to see me on an editor’s high. I used all my obsessive energy to nail the italics for a tricky bit of interior monologue. My reward? The author wrote to thank me for saving his lines and not being a “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” editor.

While some editors try to “Do No Harm,” other editors believe in “Kill Your Darlings.” In between these two is the magical realm of helping without hurting. I believe the magic comes from listening carefully to the author’s voice, and bringing that voice forward.

A good editor is like a good doctor. Good doctors listen and ask questions. Bad doctors make assumptions. I find the joy of editing comes when I can listen, support, and strengthen the story rather than change it to impose my will upon it. Sure, I’ve read plenty of books that needed a stronger editorial hand, and would likely have been diagnosed for amputation by a more vigorous editor. But “kill your darlings” is the wrong attitude. Both the editor that is too soft and the editor that is too aggressive are not listening to what the book is trying to say. If you respect the best intentions of a story, you will be true to the internal skeleton and make each piece function properly. Each line carries a message that needs careful placement to achieve balance.

I’m off now to do more editing. We’re busy polishing an exciting Issue Two with our graphic designer, and it’s going to be really really good. (And no, I’m not going to delete one of those adverbs. ‘Cause it’s really really good.)

Point of View and the Promise of Genre





“High Commander Brennen Caldwell rushed upship from his sleeping cabin.”

–Kathy Tyers, First sentence of her novel, Daystar. Marcher Lord Press, 2012.

Kathy Tyers is a master of point of view. I admire how in ten perfectly chosen words she gives me time, place and action, as well as the promise of genre. I know not only that I’m reading science fiction, but the type of Sci Fi I can expect. I’m thrilled to realize that I’m in the POV of an officer and that, inside his skin, I’m going to fight battles in space. Just the Sci Fi I was hoping for!

I put my copy of Daystar beside my bed to read again and pull a few books from the shelf, just to see how some of my hero writers have given me the promise of genre, along with time & place & in-the-skin. I gave them 2 sentences, max, at the start of the book…

1.     On a slow, chilly day in December, shortly after the Lakers overcame a sixteen-point halftime deficit and beat New Jersey, I got a call from a murderer.

2.     One winter shortly before the six weeks war, my tomcat, Petronius the Arbiter, and I lived in an old farmhouse in Conneticut. I doubt if it is there any longer, as it was near the edge of the blast area of the Manhattan near-miss, and those old frame buildings burn like tissue paper.

3.     As I sat in the bath tub, soaping a meditative foot and singing, if I remember correctly, “Pale Hands I Loved Beside the Shalimar,” it would be deceiving my public to say that I was feeling boomps-a-daisy. The evening that lay before me promised to be one of those sticky evenings, no good to man or beast.

4.     “We should start back,” Gared urged as the woods began to grow dark around them. “The Wildings are dead.”

Match em! With the craft these writers bring to the page, you might set yourself…20 seconds?

 o   Robert Heinlein, The Door Into Summer. Fantasy House, 1956.

o   GRR Martin, A Game of Thrones. Bantam, 1996.

o   Jonathan Kellerman, Rage. Penguin, 2005.

o   PG Wodehouse, Bertie Wooster Sees It Through. Simon and Schuster, 1955.

WindandSHadowOkay, I’m going to read all these books again. You can find Kathy Tyers’s Daystar , her Firebird trilogy, her Star Wars Books and other great tales on the Kathy Tyers page at Amazon.com


Inviting Comments, below. Got any great POV promise of genre starts to add here?

Bonus Question: Kathy Tyers wrote her opener and gave us time, place and genre without using the word “as”.  Any others equal this feat?


Groundhog Day

shyAs a teen,  I lived in my journal.  My words were the real me, my true existence, and if I ventured out into other lands, they were usually books. Reality was either too boring or too overwhelming for my senses; either way, I preferred to escape into an interior world where I had more control and could lock up the intense experiences of real life, hoarding them in inner chambers as treasures or tortures.

Yesterday I heard three women describe their internal worlds which had trapped or redeemed them. Dhana Musil, Sylvia Stopforth, and Elaine Woo are contributing authors of Shy: an Anthology (Lewis and Altrows, editors; University of Alberta Press, 2013.) These women fit the stereotype of shy introverts, but as I listened to their stories, it was clear they were not shy on the inside. They wrote loud and clear, and revealed more of themselves on each page than most extroverts reveal in an overlong evening of partying.

Which leads me to ask special questions for Groundhog Day, that unique holiday when worldwide media focus on a notoriously shy and retiring animal (and technically an overgrown hibernating squirrel):  Do you think shy people are more sensitive? Did being shy contribute to your becoming a writer or reader? If you write, is your voice different in prose than in person?  We each have our own experience of being shy. What’s yours?

Outlining with Brooks and Da Vinci

Da Vinci, Master Outliner

Da Vinci, Master Outliner

“He who loves practice without theory is like the sailor who boards ship without a rudder and compass and never knows where he may cast.” –Leonardo da Vinci

“Outline, outline, outline.” –Terry Brooks

I’m finally finishing revisions on my novel The Extra: A 1934 Hollywoodland Mystery, wherein two Vancouver girls run away to Hollywood in 1934 to become movie stars, only to discover the dead body of a famous actor on their living room sofa. I’ll bet I’ve written and rewritten it half a dozen times. The trouble was that when I began writing The Extra, I didn’t much like outlining. Oh, I had an outline in my mind Sort of.  Certainly, I





Was                                                                          Go


There are enormous sections of that book that languish unemployed in dozens of Moleskines.

During the course of these revisions, I began outlining each character’s growth over the arc. I learned to outline the whole narrative, the section, the chapter and the scene. I developed graphic organizers for outlining. I learned to love outlining (I’m a sucker for graphic organizers). Meanwhile, three years into revising The Extra, I began a second mystery series, Stella Ryman and the Fairmount Manor Mysteries. Working from outlines from the very beginning this time, I finished the first omnibus in good time and am nearing the end of the second volume in that series.

I’ve just about got the last chapter of The Extra right at last. Fortunately, I never got tired of my hero Frankie Ray or her struggles to clear her name and escape the electric chair.

But it’s a shame to waste that kind of time. The I-could-have-written-eight-other-books kind of time. More planning, less drafting. Da VInci said it: ”He who thinks little errs much.”  In a workshop I attended, Terry Brooks said it at least as well: “Outline, outline, outline.”