Amazon–no, the OTHER Amazon (A Catalogue Raisonne)

amazon exploration
Amazon rainforest
Photo by Eutah Mizushima on Unsplash

It’s that time of year again. You know what I mean. Time for diet sabotaging, socializing with people we can’t stand, and going way over budget on Amazon.

But, there’s another Amazon, one that can take us away from all this noise (i.e. non-stop Christmas music), hustle (sit DOWN, Black Friday), and bustle (don’t even think about it, traffic jams!).

I’m talking about the Amazon that is south of the border. Really, really south. Like, WAY south.

That’s right. Today, I’m bringing you a slice of Amazonia, courtesy of a Cait Reynolds Catalogue Raisonné. I’ll be sharing some of my favorite non-fiction and fiction about South American rainforests, rivers, and exploration.

The best part? There is absolutely NO risk of flesh-eating parasitic infections, malaria, or being eaten by one of the many, MANY things that can kill you in the Amazon.

The Rainforest Shmainforest episode of South Park is a classic and must be watched on a semi-regular basis. Because.

Oh, and just for a quick refresh, a catalogue raisonné translates to ‘annotated bibliography,’ but I like to think of it as a curated syllabus.

Yes, there is a difference. Yes, I am a geek.

No Camping gear required for this amazon

I do not like camping. I’m just being honest. I don’t enjoy dirt and discomfort. God gave us indoor plumbing for a reason, and it seems a shame to dishonor His gift by squatting in the woods.

I will be the first to admit that I do not have what it takes to be an explorer, at least physically. This is probably why I am endlessly fascinated by people who are driven to go to such extremes to either prove something, discover something, or solve something.

Frankly, the Amazon sounds like one of the more challenging and unpleasant places to do that…which is why it’s so delicious to read about when I’m all cozy with a cuppa and a puppa under a blanket.

Amazon exploring dog
This is not the face of an explorer. This is the face of a dog who likes his thousand-thread-count sheets, tyvm.

The books I have selected for this catalogue raisonné are, as usual, a mix of fiction and non-fiction. I am going to list them in order of how I think they should be read, because really, they do build on each other.

And, frankly, I’m having a hard time not adding in yet another catalogue raisonné specifically dedicated to Dutch exploration just in this post because it dovetails so beautifully…but, I will refrain. Until next week.

Without further ado…

amazon exploration

READING ORDER

The Conquerors by Roger Crowley

The Gold Eaters by Ronald Wright

Measure the Earth by Larrie D. Ferreiro

The Mapmaker’s Wife by Robert Whitaker

Exploration Fawcett by Col. Percy Fawcett

The Lost City of Z by David Grann

The Bedlam Stacks by Natasha Pulley

River of Doubt by Candice Millard

If you like my catalogues raisonnés, check out a whole page of them here!

Also, I’d love to hear from you about topics you’d love to see a catalogue raisonné on!

Unsticking the Sticky Middle of Your Book

Sticky Middle - Cait Reynolds
Sticky Middle - Cait Reynolds
Actual photo of Cait Reynolds emerging from the Sticky Middle. Photo by Nathalie SPEHNER on Unsplash

We’re two weeks into NaNoWriMo, and I’d wager that a bunch of us are stuck in the morass that I like to call the ‘Sticky Middle.’ We have made it through the first heady 5,000 words. Maybe even 15,000 or 20,000 words. But, now?

The words are coming slower.

The ideas are coming even slower than that.

Sticky Middle - Cait Reynolds
Photo by Niklas Hamann on Unsplash

We are in the vast wasteland between the OOH of the beginning and the AHH of the end, where it’s mostly…

MEH

EH

BLAH

ARGH

In other words…the Sticky Middle.

Why do we get stuck?

The Sticky Middle is mushy, amorphous mass of words that unfortunately form the bulk of a book. For a body of words that is so unwieldy and difficult to structure, the Sticky Middle unfortunately carries the weight of providing order to the plot while keeping the reader deeply engaged.

In a three-act plot structure, the Sticky Middle is Act II. Therein lies the problem.

Sticky Middle - Cait Reynolds

Most of us can take a wisp of an idea and fake it ’til we make it with Act I. Beginnings are relatively easy to set up and rough draft (yes, yes, I know that according to Dune, beginnings are a delicate time, but Irrulan never tried writing genre fiction, so she can suck it).

Even Act III isn’t a complete mystery to us when we start, no matter whether we are plotting or pantsing. The final product might change, but most of us have at least a sense of how we want to dole out the happy endings, prison sentences, and golden apples of immortality.

But, Act II?

How the hell do we figure out everything that has to happen? Even worse, how do we know when we have done enough and it’s okay to move onto the next part of the book?

It’s easy.

Well, that is to say, I’ve figured out a fairly simple technique that helps me, and I’m going to share it with you.

Training ourselves to walk through quicksand

I promise we are going to get to Act II and the Sticky Middle technique, but I need to take a moment and set things up.

Sticky Middle - Cait Reynolds

First, I’d suggest checking out my blog post about how to structure a chapter and figure out your sweet spot word count pace. In a nutshell, though, I basically recommend a couple things:

  • Practice timed writing so you get a sense of the average word count you can achieve in 30 minutes, an hour, etc. You’ll also get a feel for what your most comfortable span of concentration is and your peak quality output. For example:
    • I know that I can write about 500 words in 30 minutes;
    • I am most focused and productive in 30-40 minute segments;
    • I can produce 2,500 words of solid writing per day, but anything more than that and the quality of my rough draft writing goes down drastically.
  • Learn the discipline of chapter structure now in order to improvise later;
    • A scene/chapter has four parts to it: the Problem, Progress, But Then, and the Death Threat (read the post for descriptions of each of these);
    • Each of these four sections should be about 250 words each, or doubled to 500 words;
    • That means that a 1,000-word chapter is made up of 1 scene with four sections, and a 2,000-word chapter is made up of 2 scenes of 1k words each.

For the sake of this exercise, I’m going to use my personal sweet spot of a 2,000-word chapter.

Greasing the skids with Act I

The logic behind the structure and mechanics of Act I is another book-like blog post for another time, but for our purposes, let’s compare Act I to the stages of grief.

Why?

Because we are about to massacre the characters’ everyday existence…all in the name of setting them on the road to adventure. And, like with any death, our characters need to react to and grieve for what they are losing/have lost.

Sticky Middle - Cait Reynolds

I use the following stages (yes, I know there are five stages, but I only use four—whatever! Grief is a personal thing! LOL):

  • Denial: The curtain rises on our characters, and we get a glimpse of their day-to-day life. It’s not perfect. In fact, they’re probably in denial about all the things that are wrong and should change/be different.
  • Anger: This is the first thing that happens that simply cannot ignore that will set them on a collision course with the quest. It’s startling. Different. Disturbing. They don’t like it and try to go back to denial.
  • Bargaining: The characters are having second thoughts about ignoring the signal that change is coming. Or, maybe they can’t stop thinking about it. Whichever it is, they are now teetering on the edge of trying to cling to denial while acknowledging anger and bargaining to see if there’s a compromise.
  • Acceptance: Yeah, no help for it now. The quest is real. It’s in-your-face, beating-you-over-the-head-with-a-2×4, and the characters have no choice but to go down this new, uncertain, and possibly dangerous road.

While it is fun to play around with cute categorizations, we are still faced with the same question for Act I that I posed earlier with regards to Act II:

How the hell do we figure out everything that has to happen? Even worse, how do we know when we have done enough and it’s okay to move onto the next part of the book?

Nowwwww, we’re getting somewhere.

We really are. Trust me. I’m like a human GPS. I know where we’re going.

Sticky Middle - Cait Reynolds

At least to start with, I plan for:

  • Denial: 1-2 chapters
  • Anger: 1-2 chapters
  • Bargaining: 1-2 chapters
  • Acceptance: 1-2 chapters
  • Each chapter will be 2 scenes of 1,000 words each or 1 scene of 2,000 words;
  • All scenes will follow the pattern of Problem, Progress, But Then, and the Death Threat.

Therefore, I know that:

Act I will have 4-8 chapters and be 8k-16k in length.

BOOM.

Now, all we have to do is take this and apply it to the Sticky Middle.

Piece of cake. Right?

RIGHT?

Unsticking the Middle

Remember those two questions? Yes, you’re going to come to hate those questions…almost as much as you hate the fact you can hear my voice in the back of your mind whispering, “Is it really relevant?”

And, if you didn’t have my voice in the back of your head, you do now.

You’re welcome.

Sticky Middle - Cait Reynolds

Anyway. The questions.

How the hell do we figure out everything that has to happen? Even worse, how do we know when we have done enough and it’s okay to move onto the next part of the book?

Let’s tackle the first part. How do we figure out everything that has to happen?

Well, there’s good news and bad news. The good news is that it’s completely up to us so long as we follow one rule. The bad news…is that it’s completely up to us so long as we follow one rule.

That rule is super easy to remember: ALWAYS MAKE IT WORSE.

Think of Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs: physiological (food/water/sleep), safety, love/belonging, esteem, and self-actualization. Now, create plot points, clues, and twists that strip all of these away from your characters.

Sticky Middle - Cait Reynolds

No matter what, never give your characters a break, coincidence, relief, or opportunity. Happiness is boring. Cheerful coincidence could create the dreaded bookmark moment, or worse, condemn our book to the DNF (did not finish) pile.

The whole point of Act II is to take the protagonist to the moment when all is lost, everything has gone wrong, and leave them pretty much completely unprepared to face the climax…because that’s fun (at least for the reader).

The terrible, horrible, no good, very bad Act II

As you might have guessed by now, I’m going to break this down even further into structured segments.

Sticky Middle - Cait Reynolds

So, in Act II, we need the following:

  • Weird Shit & Things Get Worse
    • This is the chunk of the book where we start stripping the protagonist of her Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs under the guise of plot points, clues, betrayals, etc.;
    • This is where the bulk of the clues are going to come into play;
    • Decide how many facts the protagonist is going to need in order solve the problem and then set up an increasingly difficult obstacle course for each clue – this will help you figure out how many scenes and chapters you need…
    • …also, it helps keep a lid on irrelevant side-trips like the Mary Sue Shopping Spree;
    • Try to create a crescendo of severity of the risks and consequences of learning each piece of crucial information;
    • This naturally build to…the TWIST!
  • Twist and Shout!
    • The protagonist thinks she might have everything figured out, but surprise!
    • She doesn’t!
    • She could be totally wrong, blindsided by her own biases, have dismissed a key fact as unimportant, or trusted the wrong person for the right reasons;
    • WARNING: the twist MUST follow logically from all the clues we have been doling out. The twist cannot come out of left-field. It should be the fruit of our own hard work at thinking about the story and sacrificing our chance to enjoy guessing whodunit in real-time as we write. We have to know who the murderer is from the beginning so we can work backwards on how to hide the clues. It takes practice, but it’s far better than deciding that the twist will be…uh…she’s a werewolf! when what we’re really writing is a contemporary YA romance but haven’t thought far enough ahead about what is going to be the twist…
  • Sharknado! And, Sharknado II!
    • Or, rather…DISASTER!
    • As a result of the protagonist being ignorant of and unprepared for the twist, the consequences of the twist are the worst possible scenario come-to-life;
    • This is our chance to strip away that last shred of the Maslow Hierarchy that the protagonist has desperately been hanging onto;
    • It’s okay to do this. We apologize to our characters, let them know that we’re going to get them out of the hole, and then proceed to smash their world to pieces;
    • Remember, the disaster part of Act II is like Sharknado and Jaws had a love child who then dated Snakes on a Plane.
  • All is Lost
    • This is an optional section. That’s right. I’m giving you a choice. Booyah!
    • Basically, this is that quiet lull the comes right before the protagonist figures out the one thing that can change the course of everything and allow him/her to take up the mantle of the hero;
    • You know this moment…every Disney move has it…when Belle weeps over the dead body of the Beast and the last rose petal falls; Elsa and Kristoff are too late to keep Anna from turning completely to ice; in Disney’s Hercules, it’s the moment when Meg dies, and a mortal Hercules is not only helpless to save her, but has also failed to protect Thebes and the rest of humanity;
    • The purpose of an all-is-lost moment is to show the protagonist at her truest and most raw. There is no more pretense, excuses, illusions/delusions, false idols. She stripped to her foundations, forced to face her faults and fallacies, and in that moment, decide whether she will give into them or make one more attempt to put things right and become better than she was;
    • Again, this is optional because it doesn’t work for every story. It can depend on pacing, character arc, whether it’s a part of a series, genre, etc.

Sticky Middle - Cait Reynolds

Now, ready for the magic formula? Remember, I’m working based on every chapter being 2,000 words and 1-or-2 scenes, and all scenes will follow the pattern of Problem, Progress, But Then, and the Death Threat.

  • Weird Shit & Things Get Worse: 6-8 chapters
  • Twist and Shout!: 1-2 chapters
  • Sharknado! And, Sharknado II!: 1-2 chapters
  • All is Lost: 1-2 chapters

Therefore, I know that:

Act II will have 9-14 chapters and be 18k-28k in length.

BOOM.

Consider the Sticky Middle UNSTUCK.

A slick finale

All of this is not meant to regiment our writing in the equivalent of literary whalebone corsets.

Sticky Middle - Cait Reynolds

(Yes, I will cover Act III, but that’s another book blog post!)

But, if you—like me—struggle with the Sticky Middle, then this can be a map for making your way through the morass. The ‘Sticky Middle’ is that moment that determines whether we are going to make through November, NaNoWriMo, or throughout the year with every book we try to write…or that we finish.

Oh, and by the way, I’ve got an AWESOME new class this Friday!

BAD BOYS: DANGEROUS LOVE FROM REJECTION TO REDEMPTION

Instructor: Cait Reynolds

Price: $45.00 USD

Where: W.A.N.A. Digital Classroom

When: Friday, November 17, 2017. 7:00-9:00 p.m. EST

REGISTER HERE

Some Bad Boys have tattoos and motorcycles. Others wear three-piece suits and eat mergers & acquisitions for breakfast.

Whatever Bad Boy flavor you like, there are key characteristics they all share…and there are some common mistakes writers make that will turn his sexy, wolfish grin into the simper of an anxious bichon frise faster than you can say, “How you doin’?”

This class will cover:

  • How to leverage all the classic Bad Boy traits while making your character unique.
  • Keeping the Bad Boy on the tightrope between attractively arrogant and annoying a$$hole.
  • From macho to marshmallow: how to avoid the traps that turn your man soft mid-plot.
  • Write like a man (because no Bad Boy should ever come across like a soccer mom with an attitude problem).
  • Redemption vs. realistic redemption: creating the arc for a Bad Boy we can live with.

A recording of this class is also included with purchase.

About the Instructor:

Cait Reynolds is a USA Today Bestselling Author and lives in the Boston area with her husband and four-legged fur child. She discovered her passion for writing early and has bugged her family and friends with it ever since. When she isn’t cooking, running, rock climbing, or enjoying the rooftop deck that brings her closer to the stars, she writes.

 

What is the Burning Reason You Must Write This Book?

Did you just stop and ask yourself that? Did the Burning Reason trip off the tip of your tongue, or did you stare blankly at the screen and think:

a.) “Oh, crap, there’s ANOTHER thing Cait wants me to think about and that I probably need to up my writing game.”

or

b.) “What the fuck is a Burning Reason?”

Both are totally valid responses, and you are not alone. When I first started writing with a goal to becoming published, I had no clue about the Burning Reason.  I just wrote because…uh…I wanted to tell a story.

The Burning Reason You Must Write This Book - Cait Reynolds

Yeah. It was a story. Beginning, middle, end. Happy ending. Tra la la and all that jazz. But, then, I wrote a story that accidentally really meant something to me (Duet of Desire, if you must know).

I was not just enjoying writing. I was passionate about it. Driven to finish. Driven to make a point. Okay, so I might have taken liberties in using Sarah Bernhardt and Worth to make my point, but at least I had a point to make.

The result was a book that is both a lovely little romp in historical erotica and a story that (hopefully) touches the reader’s heart and soul in a way that goes beyond the pat satisfaction of a Happily Ever After.

So…yes, I digressed. Back on track, then.

What IS the Burning Reason You Must Write This Book?

The Burning Reason is a thought, belief, truth, or emotion that forms the foundational bedrock of every story worth telling.

Skip thinking about the Burning Reason when you are getting ready to write, and you risk producing a story that is rote, forgettable, and does absolutely nothing for your brand or reputation.

Today, I’m going to take you through a little bit more about what a Burning Reason is, and what it does for our characters, plots, writing, and marketing…and of course, why every writer needs a Burning Reason to Write This Book.

That Itchy Feeling in Your Brain? That’s a Burning Reason.

Think about what sticks with us after we have either a very positive or very negative interaction with someone.

We replay the scene over and over again. We analyze the other person’s words, actions, motives, seeking causes, explanations, and often excuses. Then, we compare all of that to our own set of beliefs and and values, seeing how well everything lines up. When it doesn’t, that’s a moment when we either define our own position more clearly, or it challenges us to grow.

All of this usually happens unconsciously, but there’s that faint, itchy sensation in the back of our mind as we inadvertently puzzle out our personal philosophies.

We don’t even realize that the conclusions we reach are sometimes really profound statements of our core values. It’s easy to toss out, “Oh, she shouldn’t have done that because cheating on your boyfriend is wrong.” But, if we take a second look at those words, a deeper meaning emerges.

It could be wrong because we hold to religious dictates about fidelity. Or, we believe that cheating damages the fundamental trust that is crucial to a relationship. Maybe, we have been the victim of cheating, and we believe that no one should have to go through that pain.

Any one of those statements would make an excellent Burning Reason.

It doesn’t have to be more complicated than that. It can be, but it really doesn’t have to be.

The Burning Reason You Must Write This Book - Cait Reynolds

At the end of the day, the Burning Reason is simply something you believe in and want to share because it is the one way that you, as a writer, can truly use your craft to make a difference.

Seraphina and Taylor do not have a Burning Reason

You know my Mary Sue stand-in’s, Seraphina and Taylor, right? They go on adventures. They fall in love. They go to balls and parties. They save the world.

Wash. Rinse. Repeat. Ad nauseam.

Every utterly forgettable (and/or terrible) book tells a variation of the Seraphina and Taylor story.

It doesn’t matter if we change the color of their hair from raven to flaming, or if we decide their magical powers can make them control dragons instead of commanding fire. It doesn’t matter whether the drug lords who are after them are from Colombia or China, or if the stalker ex appears normal or comes off as plain batshit crazy.

The Burning Reason You Must Write This Book - Cait Reynolds

Without a Burning Reason, Seraphina and Taylor are just going through the motions, over and over again. The Burning Reason is why we remember Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy but not the names in that romance we borrowed on Kindle Unlimited last week.

If a character arc is made up of a past, present, and future, then the Burning Reason gives depth to their past, consequences to their present, and meaning to their future.

The Burning ARC

Using the Burning Reason helps us define the mistakes, false beliefs, and fears that bring our characters to that moment of Toxic Normal (phrase courtesy of Kristen Lamb) when the story begins.

For example, say my Burning Reason is I want to share my belief that we can’t always choose what happens to us, but we can always choose how we react. By keeping this in mind as I create Seraphina’s backstory, I begin to see a character who has a central fault of emotional knee-jerk reactions.

This fault has led to failed jobs, relationships, and a general sense of depression. That is where she is when the story starts.

The Burning Reason You Must Write This Book - Cait Reynolds

I know that once I begin to nail down the specifics of the plot, I am going to create obstacles, problems, and twists that require Seraphina to admit to, face down, and finally overcome this fault.

At the end, Seraphina might not have completely overcome her tendency to react slightly hysterically to situations, but at least now, she is aware of it. She is working to change her behavior, which in turn helps her achieve (or gives her hope of achieving) her happy ending.

The Burning Reason also works for the antagonist, secondary characters, etc. The more we think through how the Burning Reason applies to all the characters, the more we create deeper, more complex, more realistic, and more compelling relationships

…which in turn make for better problems in a plot.

Burning it down: plotting and the burning reason

Though I am a pretty good writer (*muscle cramp from patting self on the back), every now and then, Kristen Lamb needs to beat me over the head about not letting my plot degenerate into simply a series of bad situations.

There are a lot of techniques writers can use to prevent the slide from story to situations. The Burning Reason is one of the quickest and easiest.

When we are figuring out all the things that have to happen in the story, the Burning Reason helps identify what kinds of problems will become plot points. It also acts as a scale against which we can measure the increasing gravity of obstacles, risks, and consequences.

I harp on ‘relevance’ a lot, and, yup, you guessed it. The Burning Reason provides a way to spot-check the relevance of plot points. Let’s go back to the example of Seraphina’s knee-jerk reaction ‘fault’ and the theme of choosing how we react to things that happen.

The Burning Reason You Must Write This Book - Cait Reynolds

Every scene should be relevant in some way to Seraphina’s ‘fault,’ allowing her to deny it, face it, explore it, struggle with it, etc. In the first draft, it’s easy to accidentally slide into a scene or chapter where she is just going shopping, or having lunch, or making out with Taylor.

Once we begin editing, checking every scene against the Burning Reason that is behind Seraphina’s ‘fault’ helps us identify sloppy and/or superfluous writing.

This is also a great technique for breaking through writer’s block. Stuck on where to go or what to say? Look at the Burning Reason and think about how it could make things worse or bring out another aspect of the character’s faults and struggles.

Even the conclusion and resolution of the story is helped by keeping our eyes on the burning prize. Happily ever after is all well and good, but what does happy actually mean to our characters if we don’t know what has made them unhappy or caused them to struggle.

Cue the Burning Reason. *shifty eyes*

a reasonable brand

These days, authors have to be brand conscious and marketing savvy.  It feels like almost every week, there’s a new trick to getting newsletter subscribers, book sales, and Instagram followers.

Yet, I wonder if we aren’t overlooking something so fundamental that no amount of Facebook posting can make up for its lack.

In our rush to get to tell the stories in our head, get to market, and corner the market, we might be forgetting to think about the most important aspect of marketing: THE READER.

The readers are giving us the gift of their time and money, and we risk losing long-term fans if all we do is take advantage in the short-term without giving something back. (Producing a 20k word novella every two weeks doesn’t count as giving back unless you are the next Brontë sister or have a last name like Koontz.)

We have to respect and show our gratitude to the reader. The truest and most sincere way we can do that is to produce the best book we are capable of writing.

Part of writing a book that gives something back to the reader is offering up a Burning Reason.

The Burning Reason You Must Write This Book - Cait Reynolds

It’s something for the reader to think about, to mull over, to feel deeply moved by, to rage against, to remember often in years to come, or be pleasantly surprised by remembering it in a random moment.

We don’t have to be self-righteous, sententious, obvious, or pedantic about the Burning Reason. But, by writing a story that is built on that foundation, we are giving back to the reader the best possible thing we can: a connection with the beauty, tragedy, hope, and power of the human experience.

“If you do not breathe through writing, if you do not cry out in writing, or sing in writing, then don’t write, because our culture has no use for it.” Anais Nin

 

Two Tricks for Getting the NaNoWriMo Word Count

Ah, November, the annual hunt for the 50,000 word count.

The mating call of NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) is the sound of a million fingers tapping out 1,667 words a day for 30 days.

There are lots of tools and encouragement to help us cross the finish line: NaNoWriMo’s coaches, Twitter and writing sprints, write-in’s, and all other kinds of traditions, tips, and even superstitions (but seriously, this isn’t the playoffs, you really need to change your socks!).

Whether you’re a plotter or a pantser, sometimes climbing the 50,000-word mountain just seems impossible. It’s an immense amount of words to get down in just 30 days.

If it’s not trying to figure out what is going to happen next, it’s trying to curb a meandering scene that just won’t die, or struggling to come up with just another 50 words, or making the best use of a stolen 15 minutes.

However, having worked for years to figure out my own writing styles and rhythms, I’ve discovered an inherent structure to scenes and chapters. This structure is the word count reserve that I will use to tell this part of the story.

And, I’m going to share it with you.

COUNT ON IT

If we write as a hobby, any pace is fine. We can write 3,000 words one day and 45 words the next, and it won’t matter. However, if we are professional writers, then knowing our sweet spot pace is crucial.

It doesn’t matter if you are a plotter or a pantser. Professional writers work at a professional pace, and almost all of us can tell you what our sweet spot pace is and what our best and maximum word count per hour and day is.

For me, my word count pace breaks down as follows:

  • 30 minutes: 350-500 words
  • 1 hour: 800-1,000 words (sweet spot pace)
  • Daily best quality maximum: 2,500-3,000 words
  • Duress pace (deadline): 5,000 words

Does it happen like this every single day? No. Of course not. But does it happen like this most days when I write? Yes.  Yes, it does.

As a result, when I set up a project or need to know how long it is going to take me to write a book, I look at my pace, and I know what a realistic timeframe is for completion.

This isn’t just for NaNoWriMo. Learning your sweet spot pace is a discipline that will serve you for the rest of your career as a professional writer.

TRICK ONE: COUNT TO FOUR

You don’t have to have your entire book plotted out (though, I usually do) to take advantage of this trick. When we are about to go into a scene or a chapter, just remember:

THERE ARE FOUR PARTS OF EVERY SCENE AND/OR CHAPTER:

  • The Problem
  • Progress
  • But Then
  • Death Threat

The Problem is the situation that the chapter or scene starts off with. Depending on the plot, the Problem can either be a continuation of the problem the characters are dealing with at the end of the last chapter, or it can be a new issue.

Whatever the case, the Problem sets the stage for moving the plot forward. It determines which characters will be present in a scene, what clues will be revealed, actions taken, etc.

Progress is what the characters do to attempt to resolve the problem. It can be discussion, interaction, information, etc. However, it is crucial that Progress does not end up solving or resolving anything. Why? Because then we can’t get the…

But Then, which is when Progress gets interrupted by a twist, obstacle, confrontation, or any number of delightfully disruptive options. The But Then takes whatever is happening and makes it worse. Never better. Because better is boring.

The Death Threat finishes up the whole thing, takes the But Then (which was already pretty bad) and puts it on the knife’s edge of disaster. It’s not always a literal Death Threat to one of the characters. It could be the death of a clue, the death of a character’s trust in another character, the death of a lie or a hope. But the Death Threat is what keeps the reader turning the page to find out what happens next.

trick two: COUNT TO 1,000

When you start writing with this four-part structure, the easiest way to get used to it is to break it into four 250-word sections.

  • The Problem: 250 words
  • Progress: 250 words
  • But Then: 250 words
  • Death Threat: 250 words

That means that every scene or chapter that uses this structure will be 1,000 words. If you want to write a 2,000-word chapter, you can do either two 1,000-word scenes or one 2,000-word, scene, in which case, each of the four sections would be 500 words.

NaNoWriMo word count

But here’s the beauty of all this…if you know your Sweet Spot Pace, then you know exactly how long it will take you to write each of the 250-word sections. 

PRACTICE MAKES PERFECT…INDIVIDUALITY

I know this kind of structure can feel restrictive, especially at first. Putting any kind of *gasp* limit on creativity seems like anathema, a cruel symbol of the cold, corporate nature of publishing.

However, we should think of it more like playing the piano. Before we can play Tchaikovsky, we first need to learn how to play scales. Basics before mastery. Scales, then exercises, then simple pieces, more complex compositions, the ability to play masterworks, and finally, the ability to improvise and even compose our own work.

In this age of quick hits and quick fixes, there are still some truths we cannot deny:

  1. Taxes will always be a bitch.
  2. Cat videos can cure almost anything.
  3. There is still value in taking the time to learn, practice, and learn some more because mastery is achieved in no other way.

Okay, okay, I admit it. That last one is actually the real point (but CAT VIDEOS!). So, maybe for NaNoWriMo, the goal isn’t just to write 50,000 words in 30 days, ending up with a manuscript that looks slightly less coherent than a cafeteria Sloppy Joe.

Maybe, we need to use NaNoWriMo to grow by challenging ourselves to find our sweet spot pace, practice writing consistent chapter structures, and hit predictable word counts.

Are you doing NaNoWriMo this year? What will you be writing? Leave me a comment with what you are going to work on and a Twitter handle so I can follow you! You can also find me almost every single day on the live chat room on WANATribe.com where writers from all over the world come together and sprint all day long…ALL YEAR LONG.

Good luck! May the word count be ever on your side!

Obsessed with the Catalogue Raisonné

catalogue raisonne

What on earth is a catalogue raisonné you ask? (And very reasonably so.)

A catalogue raisonné is a systematic, annotated catalog. Put another way, it’s a critical bibliography.

Or, put most simply, it’s my guide to little reading projects on a topic. 

Want to know about Victorian Murder? South American exploration? Ancient Greece? So do I. I’m insatiably curious. This is why I like to read both fiction and non-fiction on any given subject. You can read more about my non-fiction fetish here or why I struggle to find good enough fiction that makes the cut for one of these lists.

THE FIRSST SIGNS OF THE DISEASE

Over the years, what started in college as a head-over-heels love affair with reading every book on the syllabus turned into a truly integrated fiction and non-fiction exploration of any given subject.

What’s even worse (yes, worse), is that I love, love, love talking about these lists. I love talking about books and writing in general, but more than that, I love pointing out the connections between books, their approaches, and their conclusions.

This makes small talk extremely difficult for me. Someone asks me about the weather, and I end up telling them about the evolution of the differentiation between astrology and astronomy in the 16th century German university scene.

I can’t help it. It just spews out of my mouth. Ask Kristen Lamb. She once asked me an innocent question about the equivalent of a 19th century bra, and I gave her the entire history of bustle era underpinnings, from the truth about corsets, to the fact that underpants and pantaloons hadn’t become commonplace until the Regency era.

catalogue raisonne
I’m not obsessed. I’m…thorough. I like the word ‘thorough.’

So, what has all this led to?

incurable and incorrigible

This leads to me having to buy more bookshelves. But, aside from that, it also means I arrange my bookshelves. By time period and topic.

Quite properly, fiction is on its own shelf, arranged by time period and genre. *shifty eyes*

It also means that my Amazon wishlist is obscenely long. (My goodness, how did I get to 35 pages of books?)

It ALSO means that YOU get to enjoy the fruits of my labor.

THE CAIT REYNOLDS CATALOGUE RAISONNÉ

You won’t have to go digging through my posts to find a catalogue raisonné. I’ve collected the all here on one page for your easy access. I even put a little link in the site menu.

Yes, it’s awesome. I’m awesome. I look forward to bringing you even MORE of obsessive reading! (Because that’s how I’m justifying all the books. Really, that’s basically it.)

Do you want  to see a catalogue raisonné from me on a particular topic? Leave me a comment and let me know!

(Chances are, I own books about it, LOL.)

Don’t Let Your Inner Pushy Stage Director Bully Your Characters!

Writers get advice all the time not to listen to their Inner Editor–that snarky, perfectly manicured voice that has always has good hair and has probably never done a sniff test on a t-shirt in her life. But, there’s another voice we need to worry about: the Inner Pushy Stage Director.

Who or what is the Inner Pushy Stage Director?

It’s the fussy, sententious voice that carries a clipboard, wants you to emote more, and believes blocking is the only thing that can save the show (because God knows it won’t be the talent).

When it comes to writing, the Inner Pushy Stage Director has something to say about where every single character is, where they are going, and what they are doing (and exactly how they are doing it).

It’s not that it’s not good to know all of this. We should know where are characters are and what they are doing. The trouble comes when we decide to share all of that with the reader. The result of listening to our Inner Pushy Stage Director is writing that is clunky, over-crowded, and possibly the worst sin of all: BORING.

HOW DO YOU KNOW YOU HAVE AN INNER PUSHY STAGE DIRECTOR?

We’re writing. It’s not a complex scene. Our Hero Taylor is waiting for Sweet Seraphina to show up so he can debrief her on the morning’s miraculous escape from the Evil Band of Drug Lords/Mobsters/Human Traffickers.

There’s a knock at the door.

The way the Inner Pushy Stage Director wants to write this:

Taylor raised his head from his hands and looked up. He was too tired to startle physically from the sound. Wearily, he put his palms on his thighs and pushed up to standing, taking measured steps across the living room to the small foyer. He walked up to the door and came to a stop, squaring his shoulders against the ache in his ribs, and reaching for the doorknob. He grasped it with his hand and turned, slowly pulling the door open, watching as it revealed Seraphina standing on his threshold.

At this point, I can’t even write any more, I’m so bored. It’s all blah, blah, blah, and I’m starting to wonder when I’m going to get to the point,

If there isn’t a bit of dialogue or something interesting soon, I’m going to start picking at my nail polish…and that’s how we end up losing readers to “bookmark moments.”

If this had been written by the Steven Spielberg of Inner Stage Directors

Taylor heard the knock at the door but was too tired to startle at the sound. He went to the door, squaring his shoulders against the ache in his ribs and the exhaustion that dogged his steps. Seraphina stood on the threshold, looking completely unconvinced by his show of nonchalance.

Okay, now, we’re getting somewhere. It’s clear that this passage is tighter because it lacks the painful–and literal–step-by-step description of every action. But as a writer, how do we learn which actions need description and what is better left unsaid?

Fortunately, there are some simple tricks to keeping your Inner Pushy Stage Director in the wings where he belongs.

THE END POINT OF ACTIONS

Every action is made up of a series of movements. For example, to pick something up off the ground involves bending (or stooping) over, reaching out, grasping the object, and straightening up.

However, if Our Hero Taylor had dropped his phone on the ground, all I have to tell you is that, “Taylor picked up the phone.” In your mind, you have instantly pictured the entire series of physical movements that comprise the act of picking something up.

The end point of an action is the last movement (or two) that instinctively invoke an understanding of what the character has just done. We have all picked something up before. The movements are part of a common physical vocabulary we share as human beings. We just know what it means.

Therefore, we need to do is get in the habit of describing only the “end point” of an action.

In other words, we don’t need more verbs to describe a verb that already implies those verbs. Redundancy is redundant. (Sorry, couldn’t help myself).

THE MEANING OF ACTION

The Inner Pushy Stage Director is all about choreography. Everybody is moving around, doing things, providing a visual feast for the reader because ART.  He’s the kind of inner editor that believes that interpretive dance makes everything better.

In reality, there are two reasons why we describe any given action for any given character in any given scene.

One of the greatest memes of all times. Also, plotting in a nutshell.

Rule One: Action puts characters into situations where interactions, decisions, and reactions to events move the plot forward.

Rule Two: Action puts characters into situations where movement can either reveal or conceal something about a character’s personality, motives, emotions, and inclinations.

Rule One is pretty self-explanatory. Every time our characters decide to pick up the phone, answer the door, drive (or ride a unicorn/hover craft) over to their friend’s house, shoot/not shoot the Very Obvious Antagonist, they are taking an action that leads to more choices and chances for Very Bad Decisions.

Rule Two is a bit more subtle, but just as powerful. For example:

Taylor heard the knock at the door but was too tired to startle at the sound. He went to the door, squaring his shoulders against the ache in his ribs and the exhaustion that dogged his steps. Seraphina stood on the threshold, looking completely unconvinced by his show of nonchalance.

Our Hero Taylor’s actions “show” the reader something about his character (pig-headed stubbornness in refusing to admit he has mere human physical limitations) without having to “tell” them…which would have looked something clunky like this:

Taylor heard the knock at the door but was too tired to startle at the sound. He went to the door, determined not to let Seraphina know how tired he was. If there was anything he hated, it was showing weakness of any kind. Seraphina stood on the threshold, looking completely unconvinced by his show of nonchalance.

I have basically beat the reader over the head with “The 2×4 of Useful Information” (another blog post coming soon). As readers, we instinctively get from the first example that Our Hero Taylor is one of those guys who likes to push through utter exhaustion, doesn’t like showing weakness, is pig-headed stubborn, and is–frankly–a crap actor.

In the first example, the action is both revealing to the reader and concealing (or would be to a being of lesser perception than Sweet Seraphina) to the other character.

MOTION GRANTED

Whether a character is running, sleeping, standing still, or trying for the love of God to find a comfortable way to do Downward Facing Dog, movement and action are the physical manifestations of the plot.

Just as we work hard at refining dialogue and figuring out where to drop clues in the story, we need to look at how we write about how our characters move (or don’t move). Nothing drags the pace of crisp dialogue or take the shock out of a good plot twist like fussy, overly-specific descriptions of action.

Now, it’s time to plant your feet on the ground, push with your legs, stand up out of your chair, reach your arms above your head, breathing in to expand your ribs (optional nostril-flaring) as you get a good stretch before lowering your arms, rolling your shoulders, sitting down in your chair, putting your arms on the desk, and getting back to work.

Have a Snickers, Inner Pushy Stage Director…

Mansplaining the Romance Genre

Mansplaining

Full disclosure: after I post this blog, I’m probably going to go day drink and listen to Aretha’s “Respect” on repeat. Mansplaining romance and erotica has a way of doing that to me.

Yesterday, Robert Gottlieb wrote a round-up of romance novels in the New York Times Book Review.  Frankly, it’s more like he herds an entire genre into the slaughterhouse chute of his wit. But, just like slaughterhouses, his wit is ugly, messy, and not something that ever needed to see the light of day.

Shall we ask why they got a man who doesn’t even work in the genre to do this? Wait, never mind. You know what they say. Ask a stupid question…get a thousand witty answers…

Robert Gottlieb
Robert Gottlieb, mansplainer extraordinaire. Image courtesy of The New York Review of Books.

The whole article can be summed up in this:

This retro venture, flatly written like all Steel’s books, is just further evidence of how romance can swing any which way. Regency, psychopaths, wedding planners, ranchers, sadists, grandmas, bordellos, dukes (of course); whips, fish tacos, entails, Down syndrome, recipes, orgasms — romance can absorb them all, which suggests it’s a healthy genre, not trapped in inflexibility. Its readership is vast, its satisfactions apparently limitless, its profitability incontestable. And its effect? Harmless, I would imagine. Why shouldn’t women dream? After all, guys have their James Bonds as role models. Are fantasies of violence and danger really more respectable than fantasies of courtship and female self-empowerment? Or to put it another way, are Jonathan’s Bolognese and Cam’s cucumber salsa any sillier than “Octopussy’s” Alfa Romeo and Bond’s unstirred martinis? Robert Gottlieb, NYT Book Review, 9/26/17

This is a man who believes Barbara Cartland is about as steamy as romance should get. (Full disclosure, I love me the occasional BC, and this is not anything against sweet romance.)

No orgasm, solo or in tandem, we should note, graces the pages of the most prolific and successful romance queen of all time, Barbara Cartland, step-grandmother of Princess Diana and author of 723 novels, 160 of them unpublished at her death (just before her 99th birthday) in 2000. Her son is still doling these out, one a month, as “The Pink Collection,” and they are without benefit of sex. The formidable Barbara knew where her readers wanted the line drawn: No Cartland heroine ever came into contact with a hardened rod. Robert Gottlieb, NYT, 9/26/17

Barbara Cartland

You really have to read the rest for yourselves.

Ron Hogan is my new hero. He gives one of the most lucid, point-by-point take-downs of this kind of criticism I’ve ever seen. Read it here and give the man some love. Read the original bit of mansplaining (though, if you have high blood pressure, you may not want to – it’s rage stroke-worthy).

 I will always be the first to say that we do quite a bit of dumb shit to ourselves as writers in the romance/erotica genres, and often, we fully deserve the scorn, teasing, and other pokings through the bars of the cage that we get.

 However, there is a different between pointing out the trite and tropey in a genre and DENIGRATING THE GENRE IN ITS ENTIRETY!

Seriously.

For a guy who has edited Toni Morrison, Nora Ephron, and others, he comes as across as a seriously uninformed dick who delights in “mansplaining” everything that is wrong with a wildly successful genre (that earns enough money to pretty much keep the rest of the industry flourishing and off life support because there are only so many painfully precious lit fic books one can read before wanting to go to a poetry reading and sarcastically catcall the people at the mic) that is dominated by women who for the most part seem to know what they are doing and drive 90% of the innovation in book marketing and sub-genres.

Yes, that monstrosity of a (grammatically-correct!) sentence probably deserves your scorn. Let me try again.

Gottlieb needs to SIT DOWN.

(Strunk and White would be so proud of me for that bit of ruthless editing.)

Sit down!
SIT DOWN, GOTTLIEB!

I also can’t figure out why Gottlieb feels the need to write something this stupid and incendiary. There are a couple of possible reasons:

  1. Early onset dementia;
  2. He’s angling to be Paolo Coehlo’s next editor and needs to edge out the competition;
  3. He really, really wants to retire, but can’t bring himself to quit, so he’s hoping to get fired;
  4. I have no fucking clue…it’s just such a stupid move on his part.

It’s not even tied to the principle of all publicity is good publicity. As an editor and a reviewer, he can indulge in constructive criticism and gentle ribbing all he wants with authors. But to piss them off en bloc? *shrugs* just dumb.

I can’t even go near the whole thing about characters not sounding…well, let me just quote Ron Hogan here, because, like I said…I can’t even…

But then there’s this gem: “Zoe and Carver are African-Americans, though except for some scattered references to racial matters, you’d never know it.” Now that’s an interesting comment to make—and, sure, as Toni Morrison’s former editor, Gottlieb isn’t exactly a complete noob when it comes to African-American culture. But declaring that Hodge’s characters don’t seem very African-American raises a question: How should African-American characters behave to sufficiently convey their African-Americanness to readers? And that, readers, is a question that leads to few if any good answers, especially not from 86-year-old white men. Now, the New York Times may not be the only place an 86-year-old white man get away with saying a black woman’s characters don’t seem very black to him without anybody in the editorial chain chiming in about whether this literally gratuitous swipe is really necessary to the overarching theme of the essay. But it’s a place where this sort of thing is not uncommon. (Those of us with particularly long memories may think back to the time Ward Just, reviewing Stephen L. Carter’s debut novel, seemed genuinely amazed at how the black bourgeoisie comported itself.)

Ron Hogan, “All the Dumb Things You Can Say About Romance Novels in One Convenient Place,” Medium.com, 9/27/17

I’m pretty sure that he will read all the protesting comments and blog posts about this and chuckle to himself at the way all the little ladies out there are overtaxing our tiny, organ-obsessed brains to try and outwit him.

Therefore, I am issuing a challenge to Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr: TAKE DOWN GOTTLIEB. With humor. With memes. Topple him from his throne.

Don’t forget to tag me so I can see your brilliance!

Twitter: https://twitter.com/caitreynolds

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/caitreynolds

Tumblr: https://caitreylove.tumblr.com/

The 327th Re-Reading of “Make Way for Lucia”

I have long wanted to write about one of my greatest literary influences. Figuring out just how to do it, however, has been tricky.

I wanted to introduce everyone to E.F. Benson’s “Lucia” series, but then, part of me worried that 1920’s-1930’s English county life satire might not be everyone’s cup of tea. I might even get strange looks or *shudder* side eye.

But then, I reasoned, if anyone has read Evelyn Waugh and enjoyed his works, he or she would enjoy the less bitter but equally mordant wit of Benson in “Lucia.” Or, if anyone has read P.G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves or Blandings Castle works, they would appreciate the slightly sharper edge to Benson’s wit.

Yet, another obstacle to sharing my soul-deep devotion to these books popped up. It was a paradox worthy of Zeno (damn you, freshman year Philosophy 101 with Mr. McCarthy at Vassar!). It is that the apotheosis of Benson’s brilliance is reached with “Mapp and Lucia,” but that it is the fourth book in the series. Certainly, you can read “Mapp and Lucia” cold and appreciate it at face value, but without reading the first three books, you are left out of the sly inside jokes about Italian, the Moonlight Sonata, baby talk, and dueling.

On the other hand, if you put your hand to the plow and work through the first three books (and short story), you receive a tremendous education as a writer, in addition to the pleasure of getting the inside scoop about Lucia, Georgie, Miss Mapp, Major Benjy, Diva Plaistow (‘christened Godiva, such a handicap’), and Mrs. Wyse and her sables.

LUCIA IN TRAINING

I have come to truly appreciate the process that Benson went through in evolving as a writer when he tackled the Lucia series. He had achieved a modicum of renown for his ghost stories and other gentle social comedies. He also wrote a curious work on figure skating (oh, the hidden depths of the one-term Mayor of Rye!). But, with Lucia, he decided to create a protagonist that we would absolutely detest, yet couldn’t resist rooting for.

Lucia is a pretender and a snob. She is the original mean girl who is ironically without a truly mean bone in her body. She is petty, though, and keeps score. She fibs and dominates her way to the top of the social life in the small, sleepy English village of Riseholme. No matter the mutinies the supporting cast might stage, Lucia always emerges serenely, graciously victorious, bestowing her particular brand of vindictive forgiveness on the vanquished.

At least, that is the Lucia we know and love by the end of “Mapp and Lucia.” Benson is uneven and, at times, unkind in his portrayal of her in the first two books. You almost get a sense that he was frustrated with his various attempts to sketch her just right (like Georgie and his eternal attempts to capture the Landgate in his art). He begins to hit his stride at the end of “Lucia in London,” but then, it’s as if this final burst of virtuosity wears him out, and he seeks refuge in the picturesque town of Tilling.

Tilling is based on the actual town of Rye in England. Benson lived there for many years in Lamb House, which is the basis for the famous Mallards. He even served as mayor. He was a scholar of ancient Greece and came from a family deeply immersed in the Anglican church.  There is a theory that he based the character of Lucia on a female novelist acquaintance, and he himself finds a way to vent his spleen as the delightfully, righteously malicious Miss Mapp.

Miss Mapp is to Tilling what Lucia is to Riseholme. But, with Tilling, Benson fine-tuned his supporting cast to perfection, as well as giving the reader shops and landmarks that Riseholme lacked. With the book “Miss Mapp,” we see Benson testing his blade and finding that it is just right and ready for a return to Lucia. But all of Riseholme’s dramas put together lack the ‘spleen and savagery’ of a single game of bridge in Tilling.

Therefore, Benson must move Lucia to Tilling, which he does in “Mapp and Lucia.” The results are…cosmic. The rivalry of Miss Mapp and Lucia is epic. Nelson and Napoleon come to mind, as does Rome and Carthage. The battles are bloody, and the strategies cold and steely. It is human nature at its absolutely most entertaining.

LUCIA THE MAGNIFICENT

It’s also human nature at its most identifiable. Strip away the stage dressing of the 1920’s and 1930’s with their telegrams, marketing baskets, and custom of dressing for dinner, and you have a trenchant but kindly portrait of the faults, foibles, and fierceness of character. We can all identify with Lucia in the moment she is about to be found out in a little white lie or exaggeration. We can all identify with the baffled fury of Miss Mapp at a snub. We share Diva’s excitement over a new dress, or Georgie’s pleasure in the comforts of home. Their emotions are as human and timeless as our own.

There are few authors that I will read more than one book from. There are even fewer that I will re-read. I read the complete “Make Way for Lucia” series at least two or three times a year. There is always something new to discover in his magnificent, masterful manipulation of language. Every time I read these books, I gain new insights about pacing, dialogue tagging, restraint, and description. I luxuriate in his unabashedly rich use of vocabulary. I am obsessed with cracking the code to what keeps the humor fresh.

LUCIAPHILS

In “Lucia in London,” while the titular character is busy clawing her way to the top of the smart set in the metropolis, a clique of devotees dub themselves ‘Luciaphils’ because they find her brazen antics utterly captivating and entertaining.

Legion are those who, in the decades since the first printing, have sworn allegiance to the society of Luciaphils. There have been attempts to capture the cheeky charm and bloody wit for the small screen. Unfortunately, these have been as successful as Lucia’s attempts at a ‘morsel of Stravinski.’ Some things simply cannot be translated from the written word.

Speaking of the written word, though, the English novelist Tom Holt (another one of my favorites) managed to capture Benson’s voice and wit perfectly in two novels and a short story. It’s kind of the ultimate fan fiction, and yet, it’s more than that. It’s a true homage to a master. Therefore, I recommend after completing “Make Way for Lucia,” you should try “Lucia Triumphant,” “Lucia in Wartime,” and “The Diplomatic Incident” (in that order, despite their publication dates).

I would love to initiate more people into the wonderful world of Lucia, and Luciaphils are always welcome here for Lobster a la Riseholme and Isabelle Poppit’s red currant fool…

Murder Most Victorian

I am a good person. A kind person. I love animals. I brake for pedestrians. I return my shopping cart to the cart corral. Usually.

Yet, as a writer, I spend my ‘work day’ thinking about how to make my characters miserable, and it’s rare that a day goes by that I don’t think about murder…or an insanely clever way to dispose of a body.

Perfectly normal, right? RIGHT????

But, see, I’m not the only one with this contradictory nature. Victorians loved the delicious, deviant thrill of hearing about terrible things. Inveterate pearl-clutchers on the outside, on the inside, they seethed with the desire to know all the details of whatever gruesome death had been reported in the newspapers – or next door. Whichever.

MOURNING, MANNERS, AND METHODOLOGY

Death was far more present, familiar, and above all, visible to Victorians. I remember reading in Isabelle Allende’s ‘Fortune’s Daughter’ about how completely normal it was for a virgin to know more about death than sex.

Death came like an unexpected guest to rich and poor alike, however, Victorians were unfailingly courteous to the bitter end. They turned bedside vigils into social calls, funerals into music hall dramas, and wakes into tea parties with finger sandwiches and milky condolences.

When death was discourteous enough to be brash, blunt, and sudden – lacking all subtlety and sensibility – it made up for its appalling want of manners and feeling by providing the entertainment of a *whispers* investigation.

The 19th century saw both upheaval and progress in the way crime was detected. The evolution of the modern police force went hand-in-hand with the first forensic tests for arsenic, advances in autopsy procedures, and  the development of investigational methodologies.

WHO KNEW DEATH COULD BE SO MUCH FUN?

The Victorians certainly were clued into the fact that death – or, more specifically, murder – could be delightful. Well, delightfully entertaining. When it wasn’t happening to them.

Naturally, I have found their delight equally delightful in both reading the books they read and reading about how they read books…and investigated murders.

To that end, I’m introducing a new feature on this blog: A Cait Reynolds Reading List.

  • The Poe Shadow by Matthew Pearl
  • The Murders in the Rue Morgue by Edgar Allan Poe
  • The Dante Club by Matthew Pearl
  • The Interpretation of Murder by Jed Rubenfeld
  • Death at the Priory by James Ruddick
  • The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher by Kate Summerscale
  • The Beautiful Cigar Girl by Daniel Stashtower
  • The Invention of Murder by Judith Flanders

One of my favorite things about college was getting the reading list for every class. I loved going to the bookstore, but even more, I loved reading the books and seeing how they all connected facts, ideas, interpretations, and built a whole, full, rich picture of a subject.

It was the start of a rather serious and expensive addiction to non-fiction.

After I left college, I continued to do the same thing, though at first, it wasn’t on purpose. I would simply get fascinated by a topic and read everything I could.

I even found fiction that met my Picky Bitch standards.

Naturally, these are not the only books that are excellent on this topic. But, in a world of too many choices, sometimes it’s nice to have at least a guide to choosing.

If you like this, let me know, and I will do more of these reading lists. I’ve been putting them together for the past 20 years, so I have plenty of material.

Leave a comment if there is a particular topic you’d like me to do a reading list for, or if you’d like to some non-fiction-only or fiction-only lists!

The Shelf of Fiction I Would Save in a Fire

I am a horrible person.

At least when it comes to fiction.

I judge mercilessly. I fling aside into the DNF pile with wild abandon. I curl my lip at typos and sneer at poor word-smithing. I flip the bird (and sometimes the book) at puerile plotting.

However, over the course of my life, I have encountered books that have rocked my world in various ways. Some books entertained me. Some books changed my fundamental views of life and love. Others pushed my development as a writer. Still more became the type of books I want to write when I grow up.

So, without further ado, I present…the exquisite collection of Fiction Cait Would Save in a Fire.

YOUNG ADULT BOOKS

These were the books I read as a tween and teenager. Over. And over. And over again. Aside from Dandelion Wine, they all featured strong heroines on amazing adventures. These heroines faced their greatest fears, overcame mistakes, and saved the day. I read Dandelion Wine in my freshman year of high school, and one story in particular about the old lady and the young man blew me away with the magnitude of life, love, and death.

COLLEGE, FRANCE, AND THE BEAUTIFUL PAIN OF WIT

I was a French major in college and studied abroad in Paris. I made my pilgrimage to Victor Hugo’s house. I sat in cafes. I thought deep, dark thoughts about life. I then learned to both embrace the strange, bittersweet finality of things and shrug my shoulders at it, because it’s only life after all.

A cautious step beyond classics and comfort zones

Nobody should be surprised to see Jane Eyre, Pride & Prejudice, and Dracula on my list. Halton Cray is one of the most delightful riffs on Jane Eyre that I have ever read. But then, I realized I needed to start reading beyond my comfort zone, and I discovered books like Apathy and A Confederacy of Dunces that made me laugh, and books like The Shipping News and The Red Tent that made me cry.

Going Way, WAY out of my comfort Zone

None of these books have anything in common…except for the fact that they are amazing. Each one of them is exquisitely written, completely immersive, book-hangover-worthy, and taught me something absolutely vital about the craft of writing.

THE UNICORN: SERIES I WILL ACTUALLY READ

I will not read series. In general, I find it difficult to maintain interest in the characters over the long term. However, these writers managed to convince me that their characters had more to give, more to grow, and more to say. That is the highest tribute I can give a writer’s craft. Well, that, and buying the next book in the series.

I SHOWED YOU MINE…

Now, show me yours!

Leave a comment with your “Shelf of Fiction You Would Save in a Fire”!

I’m always looking for a good read…