Archives for category: About Writing

11.19.13cube

Writers usually have a clear idea of what their characters look like but it’s a good idea to weave description in, if at all. That is, you don’t need necessarily to describe a character physically at the beginning of your story.
Numerous editors complain that many a writer starts out: “Her windswept blond hair surrounded her lovely face…” or have a character looking in a mirror, “I saw in the glass my windswept blond hair surrounded my lovely face.”
Don’t do that!
For one thing, not everyone likes blond hair or beautiful characters.
For every rule of writing, there are exceptions that disprove the rule. My prime example is the first page of Gone With The Wind where Margaret Mitchell starts out, “Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom noticed that.” She takes the entire page to describe Scarlett’s hair color, eye color, physiognomy, and especially her demeanor. The latter factor—Scarlett’s feisty, flirtatious character—saves this page from cliché.
Romance books often depend on hair and eye color because, I suppose, people, especially young people, often fixate on those features. I knew a young man in school who was blond, and he only wanted blond girlfriends. For others, it’s just the opposite—dark-eyed, dark-haired people want a blond.
Don’t be that shallow person. Or that shallow writer, unless you have a point to make about a shallow character.
Some books never describe the physical appearance of characters, depending on the reader to create the character in the reader’s mind’s eye. I’m lukewarm about books like that.
Describing a character through another character’s eyes, though, can be an intriguing way to share that description with the reader because the other character will have a reaction to that person’s appearance and demeanor.
Now your description has narrative power.
Take this example from Ethan Frome, by one of my all-time favorite writers, Edith Wharton, also on page one:
“It was there (in Massachusetts) that, several years ago, I saw him for the first time; and the sight pulled me up sharp. Even then he was the most striking figure in Starkfield, though he was but the ruin of a man. It was not so much his great height that marked him, for the ”natives” were singled by their lank longitude from the stockier foreign breed; it was the careless powerful look he had, in spite of a lameness checking each step like the jerk of a chain. There was something bleak and unapproachable in his face, and he was so stiffened and grizzled that I took him for an old man and was surprised to hear that he was not more than fifty-two.”
In the next paragraph, on page two, a villager tells our narrator “He’s looked that way ever since he had his smash-up. And that’s twenty-four years ago….”
I read this novella (it’s only 181 pages) in high school and reread it periodically. Wharton’s tight, bold prose influences me to this day.
Are you drawn into the character after an introduction like that and, on page two, an inciting incident like that—the smash-up that left him emotionally damaged and physically lamed?
Absolutely!
My dark fantasy story, “Aurelia,” published in the January-February 2018 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction has my point-of-view character describe the character of Aurelia the first time he sees her in his sophisticated downtown law office:
“She sat in the gleaming lobby, cross-legged in a chrome-and-leather chair, rocking back and forth. Wet hair hung in strings around her face. Had she just come from a workout at Gold’s Gym down the block?
Then Robert noticed splashes of mud on her bare legs.
Mud? The morning was clear and fair. California was in the middle of a drought.
Her pale gold dress looked as thin as antique silk. Her broad features seemed inbred. A crooked eye beneath one feathery brow higher than the other. A pointed nose above a supple pout. She sniffed—or was she nibbling?—at a Gerbera daisy she held pinched between her thumb and forefinger. Her fingernails were filthy.”
Once again, this is description from another character’s point-of-view and raises a bunch of story questions. But we know little about how Robert looks, his hair color or eye color, except that he easily picks up women, even after he’s married. We know him by his actions and we can well imagine him.
In The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins’ wildly successful YA, the author barely mentions the character’s appearance other than she’s small and dark like most of the people in her district. The spare description was so powerful, though, fans of the book strenuously objected to the actress Jennifer Lawrence, tall and blond, playing Katniss.
So there you have it. I prefer a vivid description but couch it in a way that reveals plot and inner emotions. You can’t go wrong with that!
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CHROME.MED.295.KB

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, organizations, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Copyright 2019 by Lisa Mason.
Cover, colophon, and art copyright 2019 by Tom Robinson.
All rights reserved.
PUBLISHING HISTORY
Bast Books Ebook Edition published July 9, 2019.
Bast Books Print Edition published August 13, 2019.
No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage or retrieval, without permission in writing from the publisher.
For information address:
Bast Books
Bastbooks@aol.com
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Praise for CHROME
 “An excellent semi-noir full-on SF work by a terrific author. . . .a science-fiction homage, in part, to the noir books and movies of the forties and fifties, only brought forth into a future time a quarter-millennium from now. . .  a fully-realized society.”
—Amazing Stories.com
“So Walter Mosley reread Animal Farm and The Island of Dr. Moreau and says to himself, “Oh, yes indeed, I’ve got a terrific idea for my next best seller.” But! Lisa says, “Hold on, hot stuff. You’re too late. Chrome is already on the streets. Haha!
Wow! I just tore through Chrome. So much fun. Oh, I guess I should take a time-out to say that it was very well-written too, but I was enjoying the characters and the story so much that the superb writing simply did its job and I had to consciously reflect to notice the excellent and clever construction and reveals. Isn’t that the definition of good writing?”
—Reader Review
May 2020 Excerpt:
11
Chelonian Park
A cool spring evening descends over Chrome, heralding a peaceful end to a dreadful Blend Day. Terralina lies on her side, blissful on Tuddy’s moss-soft bed. She savors the moist heat of his bedroom. Savors him, lying beside her. Both of them rest comfortably on a custom-made mattress curving up behind them, cupping their carapaces. Their lovely human parts revealed to each other.
At moments like these when she’s had her fill of him and he of her, Terralina nearly bursts with love for her tortoise prince. His wrinkled lipless face, his wrinkled stubby limbs, his wrinkled celadon skin are the handsomest features she’s ever seen on any male specimen in all of Chrome.
Smiling, he offers her a strawberry. She takes the berry in her mouth and masticates, savoring the sweetness. Ever since Tuddy’s car and driver delivered her to Castle Ruchat Tartus early this morning, they’ve idled in bed all day. Making love. Drowsing. Nibbling on berries and meal worms.
“My darling Terralina,” Tuddy whispers, “do not ever run off like that again. I was worried sick. I was just about to wink the police. Send out a search party.”
“I’m sorry, Tuddy,” she says, exhausted from the strange events she’s witnessed in the last twenty-four-hour rotation. The tall, thin manimal. The coyote attack. Meeting Luna Lightfoot, bumping Tatts with the formidable puma-woman. Her angry heedless all-night bicycle ride through Chrome City and the boroughs. The abduction she’d witnessed at dawn.
Most of all, she’s exhausted from keeping everything a secret from Tuddy.
“Promise me?” he says.
She doesn’t say I promise never to do it again. She may have kept secrets from Tuddy before, she may keep secrets again, but she never lies. And she can’t promise him she’ll never mount her bicycle again and pedal off into the night, searching for something.
She sighs without answering.
That seems to satisfy him. He pours an expensive Chromian brandy into crystal snifters, presses a snifter into her little hands. He keeps the brandy on his night table in a decanter.
“To us,” he says, clinking his snifter with hers.
“Should we? It is still Blend Day. We’re supposed to abstain from every pleasure. Fast and weep and meditate on our bitter fate.”
“Yes, we should. We’ve already broken most of our vows,” he says with a wicked grin. “May as well break all of them.” He adds, “I need a bit of the hair of the dog that bit me, as the Earthians say.” Drains his snifter in one gulp.
Terralina sips daintily, then sets the snifter on the night table on her side of the bed. A chill runs through her. She’d wanted to tell him last night about the coyote attack and he wouldn’t listen. Now she doesn’t want to tell him, though he is listening. Her account would have to include Luna Lightfoot. Tuddy would never approve of her sudden friendship with a puma Blend.
So many secrets, and they’re not yet bond-mates.
After the taxi had sped off with the chameleon kidnapper and the rat child, she’d tapped her Tatt and winked Tuddy. He’d opened her wink at once. Of course he’d come for her with the car. But rush-hour traffic had ramped up in Chrome City, and the car took an entire hour-and-a-half traveling from Chelonian Park to Rodentia.
While she’d waited that interminable hour-and-a-half sealed up in her carapace, a pack of rat teenagers playing hooky from school discovered her. They taunted her, kicked her around nearly as brutally as the coyotes last night. The only saving grace? Rat teens aren’t as big and as vicious as full-grown coyotes.
They were kicking her around when Tuddy’s car pulled up, and the driver, Vara Rufus, climbed out. Terralina would have been terrified of Vara, a stout goanna, if she weren’t a loyal employee of Dynasty Ruchat Tartus. The goanna whipped her powerful lizard’s tail out of the seat of her trousers, brandished her considerable claws, and opened her jaws just in case the rat teens didn’t get the hint.
The rat teens fled, squeaking and squealing. Without a word, the goanna scooped up Terralina, trembling in her carapace. Flung her and her bicycle in the backseat. Sped away. Sped home.
Now, with twilight darkening, Terralina stirs fitfully in the bedroom’s moist heat. Her tortoise prince hadn’t come to rescue her himself—as he’d promised. His driver had. Was that good enough?
She isn’t sure.
Tuddy reaches for his snifter, tops it off. “You like the brandy?”
“I like being here with you.”
What tortoise Blend wouldn’t? Every chamber in Castle Ruchat Tartus enjoys sultry air thanks to an ingenious system of subterranean aqueducts, the water kept near boiling by great fires attended by thorny devil lizards in tank tops and denim shorts. The aqueducts, which owe much to the Roman baths on Earth two millennia ago, were designed and built by Tuddy’s great-great-grandfather, Redfoote Ruchat Tartus. In the years after the Plague, Redfoote slowly and patiently established the Ruchat Tartus fortune and social position by gaining domination of the heating and cooling of Chrome’s myriad habitats.
Countless species of Blends prefer heat and moisture in their homes, shunning aridity and cold. Countless other Blends prefer aridity and cold, and shun heat and moisture.
All things are possible on Chrome, the Blends like to say.
Terralina hates that Chromily, which is so patently untrue.
After she started staying the night at Castle Ruchat Tartus, Tuddy had taken her on a tour of the aqueducts. She got an eyeful of the ironwood pyres, the sluices and troughs, the thorny devils who attended them so diligently. If the aqueducts resembled ancient Roman baths, the staff more than resembled ancient Roman slaves.
Tuddy noticed her disapproving reaction. He’d called the foreman over.
“How goes the heat today, Moloch?”
A muscular lizard man, with impressive dust-colored spines jutting from his angular face, brawny shoulders, chest, and thighs, Moloch had grinned and shouted, “We loves the heat, Boss.”
Well. That could have been an act to impress the prospective princess. But she got the message and left the topic of the aqueducts and their staff alone. The aqueducts were not her concern. Not until she comes to Castle Ruchat Tartus to live for the rest of her tortoise life as Tuddy’s bond-mate.
When and whether.
Tuddy drains his snifter, closes his round little eyes, settles back on the custom-curved mattress. Satisfied snores gurgle out of his maw. Terralina smiles. She even loves the goofy way he snores.
But she can’t fall into satisfied snores, not after the idle, drowsy day. She swings back the curved side of the mattress and lets herself out of bed, pulling a green silk dressing gown over her shoulders and carapace.
She waddles to Tuddy’s luxurious bathroom, waves on the lights, checks her contraceptive patch. She’d never worn a C-patch before Tuddy. She’d had no reason to. She’d had no one in her life. And she couldn’t have afforded a C-patch, anyway, which was expensive Earth technology licensed to Chromian manufacturers.
How much her life has changed since Tuddy.
The C-patch on her thigh strobes bright red. That’s good. That means her patch is active and she’s protected. But when she climbed out of bed, she glimpsed Tuddy’s C-patch on his thigh. And his patch looked dull and gray. He’s not protected.
Terralina frowns. They’d agreed they would both wear active C-patches until the day they bond-mated and decided to start a family.
That day hasn’t come. That day may never come. She’ll have to have another painful conversation with Tuddy when he wakes.
Trouble. Trouble, again.
Terralina waves off the bathroom lights, wanders into the sitting room off the bedroom. She settles into one of Tuddy’s custom-built armchairs, the upholstery scooped out of the backrest to accommodate a tortoise’s carapace.
So safe, so comfortable at Castle Ruchat Tartus.
Then why does she feel so uneasy?
To an outsider’s eye, the castle resembles a gigantic tortoise carapace with massive tiles of the dynasty’s colors of red, green, and gold arranged in a mosaic over the dome. Turrets, watchtowers, and battlements jut up here and there. Inside and out, the chambers are watched over by Security Eyes. The World Eyes are strictly programmed for viewing the Instrumentality. Not the other way around.
No one on Earth is watching her. Terralina nods, assured of her privacy.
Two centuries ago great-great-grandfather Redfoote Ruchat Tartus had banned surveillance of himself and his tortoise family. His descendants have observed that ban to this day. Any tortoise, including Terralina, could earn spectacular World Eye royalties, given the monstrous morphing of their genetic heritage. Given the Earthians’ taste for monstrosity.
Redfoote had specified in his will that his clan was not to become a spectacle for human consumption. And he was right. Two centuries of diligent development of Chrome’s heating and cooling enterprise have earned the dynasty abundant wealth. No Ruchat Tartus needs to earn demeaning World Eye royalties at the cost of fifteen billion pairs of prying Earthian eyes.
Well done, Great-great-grandpa Redfoote. Terralina whispers thanks to the ancestral patriarch into whose clan she is about to be so warmly welcomed.
Then she frowns. Oh? Oh oh oh!
Did Tuddy defy Grandpa Redfoote’s injunction by accepting Bunny Hedgeway’s Jamboree invitation and signing a World Eye release? Did he defy the dynasty’s injunction by allowing all of Earth to get a good look at him last night? A very good look at a very strange Blend, someone Earthians have seldom seen. Perhaps have never seen.
Oh, ugly ugly! Publicity hounds are sure to come pounding on the doors of Castle Ruchat Tartus. Thirty members of the clan call the castle their home. They’ll become a sensational treasure trove of unlicensed flashes on the Instrumentality the moment they step out the door.
What will Tuddy’s mother and father think? His aunts and uncles? His brothers and sisters and cousins? His brothers-in-law, his sisters-in-law?
What about her?
No wonder she didn’t want to go inside to that horrid party. She was right. What have you done, Tuddy?
She leans forward in the armchair, apprehensive. Waves her Tatt at the World Eye. She hasn’t seen the Instrumentality since yesterday afternoon when the news was all about Jamboree.
Jamboree. Terralina snorts in disgust. Why should the Blends celebrate Jamboree? It ought to be another day of mourning like Blend Day. The day when a sadistic Earthian scientist centuries ago engineered a mouse with a human ear growing out of her spine, the ear larger than the mouse herself. Paraded the grotesque experimental specimen in the media as if this were something wonderful. An achievement to be proud of.
An achievement, Terralina shudders, to replicate. Which Emirk Corporation has done, twenty million times over.
Witness Chrome.
But the Vacanti mouse, the earmouse, wasn’t genetic engineering, after all. The sadistic scientist, some professor at a university medical school, grew cow cartilage cells in an ear-shaped mold and implanted the thing in the skin of the mouse. The Vacanti mouse was only a stupid prank.
A stupid prank that has become the Chromian mascot for Blend Day. A symbol for what Chromians are.
Terralina waves through viewcasts on the World Eye. Has there been any coverage of Blend Day?
She wants to see the traditional Procession marching down Broadway. The mourners in their hooded black robes. Chanting dirges. Whipping themselves with cat o’ nine tails. The usual parade float draped in black crepe, the gigantic model of the earmouse. Not genetically engineered? No, but tampered with by an Earthian technician, just the same.
The World Eye opens, the Instrumentality flashes, and Terralina sees neither the Procession nor the tiresome advertisements for hair removers and capped teeth.
She sits up, the skin on her arms prickling. Her breath catching in her throat.
A badger viewcaster yelps the news. Zena Kinski, the famous dancer, found murdered at the Hedgeway mansion last night while a high-society herd enjoyed the Jamboree party downstairs. Security Eyes saw no glimpse of the murderer. Motive unknown.
Terralina’s suspicions fly at once to the puma. Luna Lightfoot, a murderer? Just as quickly, her intuition dismisses that. The puma rescued her from coyotes. The puma swore a heartfelt oath of allegiance to Chrome. The puma bumped Tatts with her. No, not possible. The puma may have been up to no good last night, but she could not have been a murderer.
Fang wounds, the badger viewcaster yelps.
Lightfoot was wearing a mask when she climbed down the fire escape. She couldn’t have bitten anyone till she took the mask off.
What about the tall, thin manimal? Touching a handkerchief to his mouth, the cloth darkened by stains. What kind of stains?
Terralina rises to her little bare feet, paces around the sitting room. She should march into the bedroom where Tuddy lies passed out, snoring like a bear. Shake his shoulder, wake him with the news.
No. He won’t understand. Let him sleep.
Her mind reels with fear and confusion.
She needs to talk to someone. Does she know anyone at the Chrome City police? Someone who could tell her more?
To read the rest of this excerpt and discover who Terralina personally knows at the Chrome City police and what her friend reveals to her, please join my Patreon page at https://www.patreon.com/bePatron?u=23011206 and help me after the Attack. I’ve posted delightful new stories and previously published stories, writing tips, book excerpts, movie reviews, and more exclusively for my heroic patrons! I’m even offering a critique of your writing sample per each submission.
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6.3.18.LADIESSMALL

We all could use a laugh these days, so I present for your enjoyment “Transformation and the Postmodern Identity Crisis”. The story was commissioned by editor Margaret Weis and published in the anthology Fantastic Alice, New Stories from Wonderland by Ace Books. The story was republished in my first story collection, Strange Ladies: 7 Stories by Bast Books. Here are what of the some of the critics say about the collection:
“Offers everything you could possibly want, from more traditional science fiction and fantasy tropes to thought-provoking explorations of gender issues and pleasing postmodern humor…This is a must-read collection.”
—The San Francisco Review of Books
“Lisa Mason might just be the female Philip K. Dick. Like Dick, Mason’s stories are far more than just sci-fi tales, they are brimming with insight into human consciousness and the social condition….a sci-fi collection of excellent quality….you won’t want to miss it.”
—The Book Brothers Review Blog
“Fantastic book of short stories….Recommended.”
—Reader Review
“I’m quite impressed, not only by the writing, which gleams and sparkles, but also by [Lisa Mason’s] versatility . . . Mason is a wordsmith . . . her modern take on Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland is a hilarious gem! [This collection] sparkles, whirls, and fizzes. Mason is clearly a writer to follow!”
—Amazing Stories
Transformation and the Postmodern Identity Crisis
I want to thank you all for inviting me here tonight to this, the thirtieth anniversary of my Fall into Wonderland. Yes, thank you, thank you very much. I would never have come if the Dodo hadn’t promised there’d be a fat speaker’s fee in it for me.
It’s not as though any of you have kept in touch. It’s not as though you’ve given me a jingle just to say, “How’s tricks, Alice?” It’s not as though you give a sh—oh, I beg your pardon. I don’t mean to offend. It’s not as though you’ve got the slightest notion what I’ve been through all these years.
Whatever happened to Alice, you want to know? She was, after all, such a strange little girl. Ever a scowl. Ever a snippy word. Had herself an attitude.
What could I do, what else was I fit for, after Wonderland? Of course I became a writer as my big sister encouraged me to do. You should see how much money I owe her. Oh, but you’ve never heard of me. You’ve never seen me on the list of the top ten richest writers in the world. You’ve never seen a trilogy of movies based on my books.
What are my books? Surely you’ve read The Shapeshifters, Down and Out in Berkeley and Boston, and TartGate: the Swindle and Tea-tray. Thank you, thank you very much. You congratulate me. How glamorous, Alice, you say. How exciting! What an adventure!
Have you got the slightest notion how the publishing business works these days?
One slaves in solitude over a book for two or three years, compromising health, sanity, and financial security. One’s editor pays an advance that covers the bills for two or three months, not counting food, phone service, and lottery tickets. One’s book gets noticed for two or three weeks. Booklist is snide, TLS brutal. After production costs, printing, paper, binding, marketing expenses, and general overhead to keep the publisher in posh digs, one earns two or three cents in royalties. One’s book is remaindered in two or three days while one’s editor implores one to get off that lazy bum and write ten more before the year-end.
Never mind the fantasies of hanging oneself. These will pass.
Who would ever aspire to a literary career? One would have to be raving mad.
But you don’t care. That’s on me, you say. Get a job. You don’t give a sh—oh, I beg your pardon. I don’t mean to suggest you’re an insensitive dullard who would rather veg out in front of the tellie every night than read a good book now and then. You don’t want to hear about the troubles of a girl of forty. The compulsive weaving of daisy-chains. The soporifics acquired without a prescription. The anonymous encounters in seedy laundromats with persons who refuse to make change. The arrests for disorderly conduct in tony shopping malls during lunch hour. Oh well, you say. You’re an Artist, Alice. Drowning in one’s own sorrow. It’s in the cards.
You want to romanticize Wonderland. You want to hear how cool it was. What a rave. What a romp. What a beneficent influence Falling into Wonderland had on my life. How Wonderland transformed me.
Transformed us all.
Have you got the slightest notion what happened to the White Rabbit? Every advantage, that’s what he had. Got admitted to Harvard Law School. Graduated summa cum laude. Joined the blue-chip law firm of O’Hare & Leporiday. Made partner in five years. White-collar crime and commodities fraud his speciality.
Yet there was always something too precious, too fussbudgety, about him. I suppose we should have seen it coming when the White Rabbit became an animal rights activist. Joined Small Mammals Against Savage Humans. Stands in SMASH picket lines outside Saks Fifth Avenue every Saturday, flinging ketchup on ladies in fur coats. Frequents the petting zoo every Sunday. Travels round the country delivering speeches supporting cruelty-free cosmetics dressed in a Givenchy gown, spike heels, and full makeup.
His poor old mum, whom you never hear about, nearly had a stroke when he posed, shaved bald and nude, for the cover of Vanity Fair. She calls me. “Where did I go wrong?” she wants to know. “Every advantage, that’s what he had.”
“Exactly, mum,” I tell her. “It’s postmodern life. Life after Wonderland. None of us knows who we are anymore.”
You’re silent now. Not chuckling? Not applauding? Do I suggest that the White Rabbit’s youthful experiences underground had some bearing upon his wantonness later in life? Do I suggest that Wonderland was an incitement to explore the dangerous depths of the subconscious mind? An inducement to abandon the moral strictures and conventions that Society, our schools, and our families have struggled so mightily and with the best of intentions to impose upon us?
In exchange for what? Illicit freedom?
Uncommon nonsense, you say? Ridiculous? Paranoid?
Well. It makes no difference to me if the White Rabbit pickets KFC franchises dressed in a chicken suit, but his law partners didn’t feel the same way. Hounded him out of the firm. Of course he’s suing. His mum won’t speak to him. And he still frequents the petting zoo every Sunday. You may draw your own conclusions.
But that’s the White Rabbit, you say. The White Rabbit is a shining example of the Dr. Spock generation. Those coddled Boomer kids. Me yesterday, Me tomorrow, and Me today. Give ‘em what they want when they want it. Every advantage, that’s what they’ve had. And see how they turn out?
Have you got the slightest notion what happened to the Mock Turtle? There’s another casualty. Diagnosed schizophrenic with delusions of bovinity. But since when has mental illness ever interfered with stardom? Since when has delusion ever impeded huge fame?
Those big brown eyes, that throbbing tenor raised in song! The sighs, the sobs. The disingenuous self-pity, the sudden sulking silences. Those maudlin dance tunes! What tabloid on the grocery store checkout stand hasn’t told the tale of how he became the idol of millions overnight? Mock Turtle, the King of Sop.
Of course Wonderland left its mark on him. I only became aware of how deeply damaged he was when we dated ten years later. The Mock Turtle is not exactly a fellow you want to introduce to your mum. But when we met again on the beach at Mazatlan, I fell for him hard. Always was a soft touch for his Poor Me act. One day he took me to a Miami Dolphins game. We stood up for the pledge of allegiance to the flag, and what do you suppose he said?
“A wedge of lemon in my glass
Of salt-rimmed tequila;
And with my French fries dipped in lard,
One burger
In a bun
With mustard and relish for all.”
Eating disorder, nothing. Obsessed with food, he was! Always crooning about soup and fish sticks. A foodaholic, a gourmand in extremis. A skinny reptile struggling to get out of that shell. Food fetishes? Try peanut-butter-and-bacon sandwiches. Couldn’t get through the day without a box of Ritz crackers. No wonder he packed on the pounds. Heart attack material, that’s what he became. And that’s what did the Mock Turtle in. Right in the middle of a performance on a Las Vegas soundstage. That’s the truth—it was a coronary. Not the booze, the pills, the teenage girls.
Of course everyone knows the consumption of mood-altering substances was commonplace in Wonderland. The mysterious liquids in those little stoppered bottles. The cakes of unknown ingredients left out on a side table. The smoke twisting up from herbaceous tinder. Could one contend that the fungus which induced the sensation of growing larger or smaller actually altered the body, such as steroids do? Or merely altered the mind? Though plenty of body-altering there. Take one’s liver, for starters. Never mind one’s brain cells. But oh so good, as the song goes. Can you imagine enduring the rat race without coke and Jack on the rocks? No wonder so many of us in postmodern society seek consolation in chemicals.
Who can blame us, after Wonderland?
To read the rest of the popular humorous story and discover whatever happened to the Caterpillar, the King and Queen of Hearts, the Gryphon, the Cheshire Cat and other denizens of Wonderland, please go my Patreon page at https://www.patreon.com/bePatron?u=23011206. You’ll find new and previously published stories, book excerpts, writing tips, movie recommendations, and more exclusively for patrons.
Meanwhile, check out Strange Ladies: 7 Stories (“A must-read collection—The San Francisco Review of Books). On Nook, Smashwords, Apple, and Kobo.
On Kindle at US Kindle, Canada Kindle, UK Kindle, Australia, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Brazil, Japan, India, Mexico, and Netherlands.
Strange Ladies: 7 Stories is in Print in the U.S., in the U.K., in Germany, in France, in Spain, in Italy, and in Japan.
Visit me at www.lisamason.com for all my books, ebooks, stories, and screenplays, beautiful covers, reviews, interviews, blogs, roundtables, adorable cat pictures, forthcoming works, fine art and bespoke jewelry by my husband Tom Robinson, worldwide links, and more!

TRArt1BIG

I’ve read and presently read all kinds of stories and books—mainstream like F. Scott Fitzgerald and Edith Wharton, historicals like Gone With the Wind and Wolf Hall, mysteries like the Raymond Chandler books, romance like the Nora Roberts books, high fantasy like The Mists of Avalon, urban fantasy like the Kim Harrison books, science fiction like Hyperion and Dune, and creative nonfiction like The Devil in the White City.
But my favorite books remain the books I read as a child—Charlotte’s Web with talking animals, all four of the Mary Poppins books with talking animals, and Kipling’s Jungle Books, also with talking animals.
I suppose the talking animals ruined me in my childhood as a reader; I grew weary of mainstream writers obsessing about their problems with their families and their love lives and struggling to put a beautiful spin on every word. My mother gave me her own 1936 edition of Little Women. At eight years old, I hated that book, in spite of Jo. Now, years later, when the new film of Little Women was released, I tried the book again. I couldn’t get past the first thirty pages. In spite of (or because of) Jo.
I found compelling reading in the bold, tight style of a Chandler or even a Wharton (though Edith obsessed too much about bad marriages). I actively disliked and was put off by some writers’ overwrought style. (Still am.)
And I welcomed worlds other than our own, mind-boggling ideas, philosophical ideas, and offbeat characters.
Which brings me to Jo Walton’s blogs in the mid-2000s about genre books, some of which are collected in What Makes This Book So Great.
Walton is a book commentator and a fantasy writer herself; her blogs and commentary about books appeared on the Tor website. Her collection of blogs was reviewed in Locus Magazine and points she made about genre books—especially the use of metaphor—became emblazoned on my reader’s (and writer’s) mind.
From Walton’s Blog:
“I was reading A.S. Byatt’s The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye. This is a mainstream story in which a female academic buys a bottle containing a djinn and gets it to give her wishes. It’s a mainstream story because she finds the bottle on something like page 150 of 175. In a genre story she’d have found the bottle on the first page. It has mainstream pacing and expectations of what’s important. The story is really about how simple answers are not fulfilling. The djinn is a metaphor in exactly the way Kelly Link’s zombies aren’t a metaphor. People talk about SF as a literature of ideas, as if you can’t find any ideas in Middlemarch or Rainbow Six! I don’t think [science fiction] is so much the literature of ideas as the literature of world-building.”
What does Walton mean?
The world-building in science fiction and fantasy is the overarching metaphor—you don’t fly in the space of your mind (mainstream), you actually really fly in space (SF/F). You don’t confront the dragons of your emotional demons, you really mount a dragon and fly (SF/F).
So genre readers are accustomed—and expect—to enter an entire metaphorical world. Genre readers take literally anything that happens in the world.
And so. You, as a writer, may write “literary” metaphors in your genre fiction at your peril. Everything is REAL to the genre reader and a misplaced metaphor—when absolute fidelity to your world is crucial—can throw your whole story off.
Before I delve into some examples from recent SFF stories I’ve read, I’ll add one more observation from Jo Walton. She’s talking about how naming characters can go wrong, but her example is appropriate to my criticism below.
From Jo Walton:
“This led me to pondering that common pitfall of making up fantasy names: hitting on something that already means something else, and is thus inadvertently funny. “Mein” to me means “noodles” as in “chow mein” and “lo mein.” I don’t know if it’s authentic Chinese or Western restaurant Chinese. Because I’m aware it means noodles, I find it hard to take it entirely seriously as the name of an evil enemy. Next, bring on “the war with the linguini!” and “the war with the tortellini!” Fantasy names create atmosphere, and this is not the atmosphere you want…”
Point taken. Now on my specific observations about the use of metaphor in genre fiction and in a published story I recently read.
To read the rest of my critique of a SFF story I recently read that misuses metaphor, please join my Patreon page at https://www.patreon.com/bePatron?u=23011206 and help me while I recover from the Attack. I’ve posted brand-new stories and previously published stories, book excerpts, writing tips, movie reviews, and more exclusively for my patrons. You can also make a one-time pledge, if you like.
Visit me at www.lisamason.com for all my books, ebooks, stories, and screenplays, worldwide links, beautiful covers, reviews, interviews, blogs, round-tables, adorable cat pictures, forthcoming works, fine art and bespoke jewelry by my husband Tom Robinson, and more!
From the author of Summer of Love (a Philip K. Dick Award Finalist and San Francisco Chronicle Recommended Book). On BarnesandNoble, US Kindle, Canada Kindle, UK Kindle, Smashwords, Apple, and Kobo. On Kindle worldwide in Australia, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Brazil, Japan, India, Mexico, and Netherlands. BACK IN PRINT! Find the beautiful trade paperback at https://www.amazon.com/Summer-Love-Travel-Lisa-Mason/dp/1548106119/ or IN PRINT at Barnes and Noble at https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/summer-of-love-a-time-travel-lisa-mason/1104160569.
The Gilded Age (a New York Times Notable Book and New York Public Library Recommended Book). On BarnesandNoble, US Kindle, Canada Kindle, UK Kindle, Apple, Kobo, and Smashwords. On Kindle worldwide in Australia, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Brazil, Japan, India, Mexico, and Netherlands. BACK IN PRINT! Find the beautiful trade paperback at https://www.amazon.com/Gilded-Age-Time-Travel/dp/1975853172/ or IN PRINT at Barnes and Noble at https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/the-gilded-age-a-time-travel-lisa-mason/1106038566.
The Garden of Abracadabra (“Fun and enjoyable urban fantasy . . . I want to read more!) On BarnesandNoble, US Kindle, Canada Kindle, UK Kindle, Apple, Kobo, and Smashwords. On Kindle worldwide in Australia, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Brazil, Japan, India, Mexico, and Netherlands. NOW IN PRINT! Find the beautiful trade paperback at https://www.amazon.com/dp/1978148291/ or IN PRINT at Barnes and Noble at https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/the-garden-of-abracadabra-lisa-mason/1108093507
Arachne (a Locus Hardover Bestseller) is an ebook on US Kindle, UK Kindle, Canada Kindle, Australia Kindle, Barnes and Noble, Apple, Kobo, and Smashwords. On Kindle worldwide in France Kindle, Germany Kindle, Italy Kindle, Netherlands Kindle, Spain Kindle, Mexico Kindle, Brazil Kindle, India Kindle, and Japan Kindle. Back in Print! Find the beautiful trade paperback at https://www.amazon.com/dp/198435602X or IN PRINT at Barnes and Noble at https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/arachne-lisa-mason/1000035633.
Cyberweb (sequel to Arachne) is on US Kindle, BarnesandNoble, Apple, Kobo, and Smashwords. Also Kindle worldwide on UK Kindle, Canada Kindle, Australia Kindle, Brazil Kindle, France Kindle, Germany Kindle, India Kindle, Italy Kindle, Japan Kindle, Mexico Kindle, Netherlands Kindle, and Spain Kindle. Back in Print at https://www.amazon.com/dp/1984356941 or IN PRINT at Barnes and Noble at https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/cyberweb-lisa-mason/1001932064
Strange Ladies: 7 Stories (“A must-read collection—The San Francisco Review of Books). On Nook, US Kindle, Canada Kindle, UK Kindle, Smashwords, Apple, and Kobo. On Kindle world wide in Australia, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Brazil, Japan, India, Mexico, and Netherlands. NOW IN PRINT at https://www.amazon.com/Strange-Ladies-Stories-Lisa-Mason/dp/1981104380/ or IN PRINT at Barnes and Noble at https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/strange-ladies-lisa-mason/1115861322.
One Day in the Life of Alexa (“Five stars! An appealing narrator and subtly powerful emotional rhythms”). On BarnesandNoble, US Kindle, Canada Kindle, UK Kindle, Smashwords, Apple, and Kobo. On Kindle worldwide in Australia, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Brazil, Japan, India, Mexico, and Netherlands. Order the beautiful trade paperback NOW IN PRINT at https://www.amazon.com/One-Life-Alexa-Lisa-Mason/dp/1546783091 or IN PRINT at Barnes and Noble at https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/one-day-in-the-life-of-alexa-lisa-mason/1126431598.
Celestial Girl, The Omnibus Edition, A Lily Modjeska Mystery (Five stars) On Nook, US Kindle, Canada Kindle, UK Kindle, Smashwords, Apple, and Kobo. On Kindle worldwide in Australia, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Brazil, Japan, India, Mexico, and Netherlands. SOON IN PRINT!
Shaken (in Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine) on BarnesandNoble, US Kindle, Canada Kindle, UK Kindle, Apple, Kobo, and Smashwords. Also on Kindle in Australia, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Brazil, Japan, India, Mexico, and Netherlands.
Hummers (in Fifth Annual Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror) On BarnesandNoble, US Kindle, Canada Kindle, UK Kindle, Apple, Kobo, and Smashwords. Also on Kindle in Australia, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Brazil, Japan, Mexico, Netherlands, and India.
Daughter of the Tao (in Peter S. Beagle’s Immortal Unicorn) on US Kindle, Canada Kindle, UK Kindle, BarnesandNoble, Apple, Kobo, and Smashwords. Also on Kindle in AustraliaFrance, Germany, Italy, Spain, Brazil, Japan, India, Mexico, and Netherlands.
Every Mystery Unexplained (in David Copperfield’s Tales of the Impossible) on BarnesandNoble, US Kindle, Canada Kindle, UK Kindle, Apple, Kobo, and Smashwords. Also on Kindle in Australia, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Brazil, Japan, Mexico, Netherlands, and India.
Tomorrow’s Child (In Active Development at Universal Pictures) on BarnesandNoble, US Kindle, Canada Kindle, UK Kindle, Apple, Kobo, and Smashwords. Also on Kindle in Australia, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Brazil, Japan, India, Mexico, and Netherlands.
The Sixty-third Anniversary of Hysteria (in Full Spectrum 5) on BarnesandNoble, US Kindle, Canada Kindle, UK Kindle, Apple, Kobo, and Smashwords. Also on Kindle in Australia, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Brazil, Japan, Mexico, Netherlands, and India.
U F uh-O (Five Stars!) on BarnesandNoble, US Kindle, Canada Kindle, UK Kindle, Apple, Kobo, and Smashwords. Also on Kindle in Australia, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Brazil, Japan, Mexico, Netherlands, and India.
Tesla, A Screenplay on US Kindle, Canada Kindle, UK Kindle, BarnesandNoble, Apple, Kobo, and Smashwords. Also on Kindle in Australia, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Brazil, Japan, Mexico, Netherlands, and India.
My Charlotte: Patty’s Story on Barnes and Noble, US Kindle, UK Kindle, Canada Kindle, Australia Kindle, Smashwords, Apple, and Kobo. On Kindle in France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Brazil, Japan, Netherlands, and Mexico.
“Illyria, My Love” is on US Kindle, Barnes and Noble, Apple, Kobo, and Smashwords. Also on UK Kindle, Canada Kindle, Australia Kindle, Germany Kindle, France Kindle, Spain Kindle, Italy Kindle, Netherlands Kindle, Japan Kindle, Brazil Kindle, Mexico Kindle, and India Kindle.
Please visit me at Lisa Mason’s Official Website for all my books, ebooks, stories, and screenplays, reviews, interviews, and blogs, adorable cat pictures, forthcoming works, fine art and bespoke jewelry by my husband Tom Robinson, worldwide links, and more!
And on Lisa Mason’s Blog, on my Facebook Author Page, on my Facebook Profile Page, on Amazon, on Goodreads, on LinkedIn, on Twitter at @lisaSmason, at Smashwords, at Apple, at Kobo, and at Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America.
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Thank you for your readership!

ALEXA.CVR.MED.LARGE.5.17.17

From Goodreads came the first review of One Day in the Life of Alexa:
One Day in the Life of Alexa
, by Lisa Mason (Bast Books) incorporates lively prose, past/present time jumps, and the consequences of longevity technology. Kosovo refugee Alexa enrolls in a secret pilot program designed to extend her life span. Her best friend, Marya, is not accepted, but Marya’s infant aka “Little Monster” is. As the decades roll by, Alexa adapts to a life of constant measurement and surveillance. [Plot spoilers omitted] In reflection, the book is as much about the enduring trauma of war as it is about longevity technology, and in this it feels more like mainstream than science fiction. Mason’s skill as a writer sustains a quick, absorbing read with an appealing narrator and subtly powerful emotional rhythms (like the repeated refrain, “No matter how long I live, I will always remember this”)
https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/35200314-one-day-in-the-life-of-alexa#other_reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Lisa Mason doesn’t disappoint us on that issue and gives us a look …
By R Bruce Miller on October 1, 2017
Format: Kindle Edition
“Scifi is nominally about the future and the impact of technology on society. Lisa Mason doesn’t disappoint us on that issue and gives us a look at a desirable biotechnology with some serious long-term and unforeseen consequences. However, like all the truly great scifi writers, what she really writes about is you and me and today and what is really important in life. Alexa lives an improbable life and yet, somehow, is a very real everywoman. Solzhenitsyn would have appreciated the homage. Cats! Grow your own organic food! Yes, there is much fun to be had on this journey, but the message nonetheless is solid and important. I enjoyed every word even though this book spoiled my day because I had no choice but to read it in one sitting while drinking too much coffee.”
And here’s another five-star review, and then I’ll let you decide:
“[Alexa] finds her internal resource that allows her to survive many more days in a much more uplifting manner than poor Ivan Denisovich. Discovering where her strengths [lie] is not depressing but uplifting for this reader.” On US Kindle https://www.amazon.com/dp/B0711PP65J
“I truly loved Alexa. The homage to Solzhenitsyn was wonderfully well done. Your concept and characters were on the mark and very timely. Bravo!”
Book Description:
Alexa Denisovitch
, a refugee from Kosovo during the 1999 war, is just seventeen when she is accepted by GenGineer Laboratories as a Tester for Longeva, a revolutionary additive that may significantly extend her longevity.
But becoming a Tester has unintended consequences and Longeva causes devastating unforeseen side effects.
Confronting environmental, political, and personal perils of the future, Alexa must grapple with the tough questions of life, love, and death.
So there you have it, my friends. The novel is short, but I took a long time researching and writing it.
One Day in the Life of Alexa is in Print in the U.S., the U.K., Germany, France, Spain, Italy, and Japan.
Now an ebook on BarnesandNoble, Kobo, Apple, and Smashwords!
One Day in the Life of Alexa is also offered as a Kindle ebook at US Kindle, UK Kindle, Canada Kindle, Australia Kindle, France Kindle, Germany Kindle, Italy Kindle, Netherlands Kindle, Spain Kindle, Brazil Kindle, Mexico Kindle, India Kindle, and Japan Kindle.
Join my Patreon page at https://www.patreon.com/bePatron?u=23011206 and help me while I recover from the Attack. I’ve posted delightful new stories, previously published stories, book excerpts, movie critiques and recommendations, and more exclusively for my patrons.
Visit me at www.lisamason.com for all my books, ebooks, stories, and screenplays, worldwide links, beautiful covers, reviews, interviews, blogs, round-tables, adorable cat pictures, forthcoming works, fine art and bespoke jewelry by my husband Tom Robinson, and more!

 

4.22.17.SOLATTCOVER.BIG

In the February 2020 Writing Tip on Patreon, I discussed the importance of the three-act structure for your screenplay, novel, or story as a means for maintaining narrative momentum and viewer/reader interest.
In the January 2020 Movie Review on Patreon, I gave a detailed analysis of the film Captain Marvel, which earned worldwide box office of over a billion dollars and made the screenwriter the hottest property in Hollywood. I watched the film twice, the second time with a stop watch and a notepad and pencil. The writer hit all the right marks.
And so should you. After you’ve finished a complete first draft (or second draft or tenth) and you’re still struggling to make the story move, consider analyzing the story with a three-act structure in mind.
In this post, I’m going to analyze my novel, Summer of Love, which remains my bestselling book (both in ebook format and as a trade paperback) after I first published it in the 1990s with Bantam Books (a division of Random House). The book was a Finalist for the Philip K. Dick Award and a San Francisco Chronicle Recommended Book of the Year.
Note
: For the Bast Books edition, I edited out some 20,000 words of youthful excess and the book is still 100,000+ words.
Some fans, the kind of reader who rereads the book every year (seriously) didn’t like the edits and complained about the deletions (which this kind of fan notices).
Some fans appreciated and loved the edits and sent me emails saying “Thank you for doing this.”
You can’t please everyone, as the Ricky Nelson song goes, so you as a writer must do what you know is right. Editing out the excess verbiage made the three-act structure become clear to me and also clarified the relationships between the three main characters. Editing was definitely the right thing to do, and the book is much better.
Now then.
Summer of Love has its own internal complex structure. I found seven key days over the historical summer of 1967 during which some notable celebration occurred.  Within those seven days, three point-of-view characters tell their personal stories and perspectives on the events.
So there are twenty-one chapters. The trade paperback is 404 pages long.
Susan Bell (a.k.a. Starbright) is a fourteen-year-old runaway to San Francisco, to the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood where the Summer of Love took place.
Chiron Cat’s in Draco is a twenty-one-year-old time traveler from five hundred years in the future who has journeyed to 1967 on a vital mission to save the Universe.
And Ruby A. Maverick is a thirty-year-old, half-black half-white shop owner, a successful “hip proprietor,” who is a long-time resident of the neighborhood and the moral center of the story.
Act One is the setup of your main characters—where they start out in the story, a physical description of them, their motivations and goals, the initial obstacles set out for them, their initial physical actions.
Also, you should set up the location where the action takes place—but don’t get too hung up on this, you’ll have plenty of room to develop further location details as you go along. Also don’t get too hung up on physical descriptions of the characters—this too can be further developed.
In Act One, that’s a lot of material and complications to cover. Because an effective Act One should only be about 25 or 30 percent of the total length of the project. Act One should end with the plot spinning off in a new surprising different direction for your characters.
In Summer of Love, Act One is comprised of the first five chapters, ending at page 121, 29% exactly of the total length. (I’ll attempt to put as few plot spoilers in this analysis as possible!)
In Chapters One and Four, Susan arrives in San Francisco at dawn. She’s seeking her former estranged best friend, Nance, who ran away to the Haight-Ashbury a month earlier and sent her a postcard. Susan knows no one, has a limited amount of money. She meets a rock-n-roll band she idolizes and is seduced by their manager. She goes to live in the band’s communal house, works for free for them, and is sucked into the Haight-Ashbury life. She briefly meets Ruby, with whom she has a contentious meeting.
In Chapters Two and Five—(Note the book is internally structured on a round-robin between the three characters) Chiron also arrives in San Francisco via a time machine from the far future. He sets out on his vital mission, why he’s been sent here, and compares and contrasts 1967 with his own future time. Using a guideline, he seeks and finds Ruby at her shop, and is taken in by her. He works for a wage at the shop, lives in a room in her quarters above the shop, and sets about the investigative work he needs to do to accomplish his mission.
In Chapter Three, Ruby gives her personal view of the 1960s, her former relationship with the band’s manager, the idealism of the counterculture and also the corruption already beginning. She is suspicious of Chi and perhaps starting a new relationship with Leo Gorgon, a radical anarchist.
Chapter Six begins with a brief POV by Susan as she is betrayed by the band’s manager and wants to leave the band’s communal house, then switches to Ruby’s POV, as she encounters Susan again.
The plot spins in a new direction when the contentious meeting between Ruby and Susan becomes sympathetic. Ruby insists that Susan come to stay with her and Susan first meets Chiron, who wonders if she is the breakthrough he’s searching for to accomplish his mission.
Act Two, Chapters 6 through 16, involves mounting complications and difficulties for all the characters, and complications between them too, over that fateful summer. Also the community’s historical escalating violence and corruption. (No plot spoilers!)
Act Two ends when, again, you spin the plot and the characters off in a surprising new direction, which begins Act Three.
Act Three should only comprise 20% or 25% of the total project, during which you must accelerate the action and the fulfillment of the characters’ goals until you reach the denouement and conclusion.
Note:  I read a Booker Prize winning very long novel that dragged out Act Three so much, I no longer cared what happened to the characters at the end and skimmed through too many tedious pages to get to the freakin’ end, already. Don’t be that author.
To read my final analysis of Act Three of Summer of Love and to discover the very important Midpoint, please go to my Patreon page at https://www.patreon.com/bePatron?u=23011206
. Friends, readers, and fans, help me after the Attack. I’ve posted delightful new stories and previously published stories, writing tips, book excerpts, movie reviews, original healthy recipes and health tips, and more exclusively for my heroic patrons! I’m offering a critique of your writing sample per submission.
Visit me at www.lisamason.com for all my books, ebooks, stories, and screenplays, reviews, interviews, blogs, roundtables, adorable cat pictures, forthcoming works, fine art and bespoke jewelry by my husband Tom Robinson, worldwide links, and more!

TRArt1BIG

Beginning, middle, and end.
The three act structure.
Sounds simple?
It should be. Storytellers sitting around a campfire in a prehistoric cave followed this natural progression of a story. You, the writer, should too. You, the reader or viewer, should look for that. If you’re having problems liking a film, story, or book, the first suspect is a writer who doesn’t understand three-act structure and doesn’t shape her/his material to follow it.
This is why Quentin Tarantino’s film, “Pulp Fiction,” profane and violent and experimentally plotted as it is, works. Even though plots are left in mid-stream to be finished later and a number of “chapters” are labeled, the film rigorously follows three-act structure.
And this is why Quentin Tarantino’s latest film, “Once Upon a Time….in Hollywood,” is in my opinion a failure. Aside from the fact that the film leads the viewer on a manipulative mind-tease about the real-life horrific, brutal, senseless murders of Sharon Tate, her unborn baby, and six other people (and the many other objections I have), first and foremost, it is a meandering mess.
This is why “Captain Marvel,” which I analyzed in detail here and on my Patreon page, earned worldwide box office of over a billion dollars. Because the screenwriter rigorously followed the three-act structure, even with a complex plot with a lot science fictional material happening, plus a moving personal story.
Beginning, middle, and end.
Many storytellers do this naturally, but if you’re struggling with a piece, look first to this problem.
Sounds simple, but what do I mean, exactly?
Many how-to-write experts will tell you to start with “an inciting incident.” An action-packed opening that draws the reader in, wanting to know more.
That’s good advice, as far as it goes. Five bad beginnings, as I saw in a recent how-to-write article, are (1) having your character dreaming some action sequence and then waking up to find, well, it was all a dream, (2) a description of the weather, (3) a description of an impossibly gorgeous character, (4) having your impossibly gorgeous character look at herself or himself in a mirror (5) having a character furiously being chased through a woods, precariously climbing a mountain, or whatever.
In good hands, any of these may work (Gone With The Wind springs to mind, “Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom noticed that” and then Mitchell goes on for the first entire page to describe Scarlett’s looks), but you don’t want to tempt fate.
But wait, isn’t the inciting incident supposed to be exciting?
In a writing workshop I attended years ago, the teacher read the action-packed opening scene of a mountaineer scaling a treacherous mountain, slipping, falling, continuing to climb. The problem? It was boring! Boring because we readers didn’t connect with the character.
I’ve seen this same problem in many, many YA books.
Whatever ordeal or ordinary situation you put your character through in the inciting incident, you must make the character believable and sympathetic. You must connect the reader to the character in an emotional way so that the reader cares what happens next—to the character, first most, not necessarily the plot.
Even in a prologue—like in Water for Elephants by Sarah Gruen—that skips ahead to a later point in the plot, you must connect to the characters to the reader in a sympathetic way.
I’ve often told writers seeking advice, you have no plot without character.
But the beginning is just that—a set up of characters, time, place, and yes the initial glimmerings of a plot.
The beginning should take up about a quarter of your screenplay, story, or novel during which you should plant plot points of what is to come later. I always admire a good setup and good plot points that are then later “paid off.”
You reach the end of Act One, and initiate Act Two with a surprising plot twist that sends the action spinning in an unexpected direction. Take all your characters set up in Act One and send them on a quest, into a war zone, into betrayal by a lover, into a problematic marriage, into capture by hostile aliens.
The choice is yours, but make it a doozy.
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MysteryCoverSmall

Every Mystery Unexplained
Lisa Mason
1
“As long as the human mind delights in mysteries, so it will love magic and magicians. I would say to all beginners, ‘Keep three things in mind:
First–Practice constantly new sleights, novel devices, and invent new combinations of old feats. You must always have something new wherewith to dazzle.
Second–Make your work artistic by clothing each illusion with all the glamour and shadows of fairyland and the suggestions of incantations and supernatural powers in order to prepare the observer’s mind for a mystery.
Third–Leave every mystery unexplained.'”
–Harry Kellar, “The Greatest Magician in the World,” 1887
My father is done with the doves and colored scarves by the time he gets to the spirit show. “And now, ladies and gentlemen,” Uncle Brady announces, his voice as sonorous as a Shakespearean ghost, “Professor Flint will endeavor through his astonishing, miraculous, and mysterious psychic powers to establish communication with the Spirits of the Dead!”
“Endeavor to establish communication with the Dead,” I whisper to Mr. Pannini, the booking agent for the Tivoli Theater, as we watch from the wings. “A pity he seldom endeavors to establish communication with me.
The audience shifts and titters, restless in the early evening, which is awfully cold and gloomy even for fog-haunted San Francisco. Gaslights flicker, leaking fumes into the chill, damp air. A smell of mold clings to the dark velvet curtains, a sepulchral odor that leaves me uneasy.
“The old man is a boiled shirt, is he?” Pannini says with a grin. He is a dapper, clove-scented, well-oiled dandy in fancy gabardine and a velvet bowler, a massive mustache curling over his lip. Some ten years my senior, I suppose, with the air of the rake about him. My father dislikes him intensely. “Nothing a young gentleman like yourself cannot handle, I’ll wager.”
“I endure,” I say, “the dutiful son.” I like Pannini. He slips me a Mecca cigarette. I light up, quick and guilty. My father has forbidden me to smoke.
My father has forbidden me to grow a mustache till I reach the age of one-and-twenty, which has been a source of more contention between us than cigarettes, since extravagant mustaches are all the rage for gentlemen in our year of 1895. A requirement of fashion that occupies many of my thoughts despite other concerns, such as the bank panic, massive unemployment, and civil unrest throughout our great nation of America. What lady will consider me without a mustache? I chafe at each passing day of these next nine months, shave the scant fuzz from my lip–dutiful son–and speculate pessimistically on what poor bristles may be produced when Pop’s injunction has expired.
“And what will you do, Professor Flint,” Uncle Brady is inquiring onstage, “if you should encounter the Grim Reaper Himself?”
“I shall challenge Him to a duel!” my father replies.
“A duel?” Uncle Brady says, inviting the audience to marvel with him.
“A duel to the death!” my father declares.
Onstage, my father arduously prepares himself to establish communication with the Spirits of the Dead. Of Pop’s many talents, this is one of his best, the dramatic preparation for impending dire difficulty. Uncle Brady assists him, yanking off Pop’s cutaway coat, ceremoniously withdrawing the dueling sword from the trunk. My father effects much rolling of eyes, rolling up of sleeves, girding of loins. He kneads his forehead, unleashing psychic powers.
A pity he had not prepared so well for my mother’s death.
Someone snores in the audience with an exaggerated gargle. A heckler? A pack of hoodlums in scruffy top hats tip rotgut in the back row. There has been an air of uncertainty, of desperation, since we arrived in San Francisco. No one in the far West honors paper money. You must pay in gold or silver coin. Only half the seats in the Tivoli are filled tonight.
“He ain’t Houdini,” Pannini says, not unkindly. “With a switcheroo act.”
No, Pop is not that dare devilish young rascal, the dexterous Harry Houdini. No one can top Houdini who, with his wild antics, has spoiled audiences from St. Pete’s to Nome. Everyone is clamoring to see “Metamorphosis,” during which the monsieur and the mademoiselle, each bound at wrist and ankle, exchange places in the box in three seconds flat.
“No, but I know how Houdini pulls off ‘Metamorphosis,'” I say. “I know exactly how he does it. The box trick has been around for a hundred years.”
“The box trick?” Pannini raises his eyebrows.
Over the years, the box trick has been vastly improved, ingeniously improvised, and presented again and again, fresh as the morning dew. But I bite my tongue. I cannot reveal how Houdini’s “Metamorphosis” is pulled off, not even if I wanted to.
“You know all about the box trick, do you?” Pannini prompts, intrigued by my hesitation.
“Sorry,” I say. “We magicians have a code of secrecy. We’ve all sworn not to reveal how an illusion is accomplished. Even if we’re not the ones performing it. Especially then.”
“Ah, a code of secrecy,” Pannini says with a shrug. “Well, don’t look so glum, Danny. It’s a fair crowd for the Tivoli. For a magic act.”
Now I shrug, and draw deeply on the Mecca.
“The old man has got to get himself a pretty heifer onstage,” Pannini says. “That’ll draw ’em in.”
“Oh, we had a beautiful lady in the act.”
“Did you?” Pannini says, suddenly animated. “Well, trot her out, sir.”
“She died,” I say. “Last spring.”
I fling the Mecca to the floor, stamp it out. My father will raise Cain when he smells tobacco on my breath.
“Sorry,” Pannini says.
When I look again, he’s vanished.
As it is, my father has got a good act. Not a great act, perhaps, not a spectacular act like Harry Houdini’s, but a very good act. He’s worked on this act, in its various permutations, for all the twenty years I have walked upon the earth and before then, too, according to Uncle Brady. My father is no dare devilish robust rascal, but a well weathered man, lean of flesh and spare of hair, whom some people mistake for my grandfather. Yet Pop has not lost his touch, in my opinion. In my opinion–and as his only son and heir apparent, I’m entitled to my opinion–it’s a lousy crowd for the astonishing, the miraculous, the mysterious Professor Flint.
Then again, nothing seems right since my mother died.
Now my father takes up the sword, commences feints and thrusts. In the sulfuric glare of the limelights, I can see sweat pooling over the starched wing collar that throttles his throat, soaking through his threadbare brocade vest like a bloodstain. I used to worry about Pop’s health. He always was a scrawny bird, and scrofula and consumption ran in his family. Sometimes it seemed to me that the exertions of the stage, not to mention the financial uncertainties of magic, would do him in.
I don’t worry so much about Pop anymore. He turned out to be the strong one. Which only goes to show you. You never can tell from the look of things what the truth is or what, an illusion.
With a swift, decisive jab, my father thrusts the sword–back into its scabbard. That’s right. This preliminary action sequence is intended to arouse any flagging interest among gentlemen in the audience. Gentlemen are by nature discontent and easily bored, not to mention skeptical. Sure enough, one of the hoodlums in the back row shouts, “Bloody well get on with it, man!”
But my father never concedes to a quick, cheap thrill. No, there are ladies and children in the audience–usually there are, anyway, though such tender persons appear to be singularly lacking at the Tivoli tonight. Ladies and children of sensitive sensibilities may become alarmed by Professor Flint’s aggressive antics. They may pause, they may press gentle pale fingertips to their pale throats, they may wonder if the next mystery will be too much for them to bear.
It is for this portion of the audience that my father sheaths the sword. A portion deserving, as my mother used to say, of a performer’s special courtesy. A portion endowed themselves with the power of trembling lips, of fluttering eyelashes, of little cries of joy or alarm, of those gentle pale fingertips just as she, my mother, was so amply endowed.
It is for them that my father now trots out the dancing handkerchief.
“But first, ladies and gentlemen,” he announces, “before I challenge the Grim Reaper to a duel to the death, I shall endeavor to prove that the power of Life goes beyond Death. Beyond the grave itself!”
To be honest, I personally think the dancing handkerchief is the silliest of illusions.
I’m always astonished at how much the ladies and the children and the gentlemen love it.
Need I say that all of the Tivoli’s stagehands, Mr. Pannini, and anyone and everyone not privy to our techniques, have been banished from backstage. Need I say that Uncle Brady and I sprint like souls possessed to our respective positions at each wing abutting the stage. Need I hint that the dancing handkerchief illusion works much like a marionette. Need I add that we gleefully seize the wonderfully simple and devilishly clever devices. For they are devices. There is no person on earth once clearly shown who would ever mistake the technical application of wrist and wire for the appearance of something supernatural.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” Pop is saying, “I will endeavor to demonstrate the miraculous Power of Life utilizing the most ordinary of personal accoutrements.”
My father has got one of those masterful voices and the ability to project his ironic personality out into a crowd. Yet I worry how well he will project his personality tonight, for the air feels thick in the Tivoli Theater. I feel a chill sweep through the room, like a draft from a back door left carelessly ajar.
“Does anyone,” Pop says, “have a handkerchief? Of purest white silk, if you please?”
In this surly crowd, reeking of cheap whiskey and unwashed clothes, I fear no person in attendance is genteel enough to possess the requested accoutrement. The chill deepens, and a cloud of bay fog drifts in. Clear across the stage I can see Uncle Brady twist his head around, glancing behind himself, at me, out there. He’s working up a fury for the stagehands. Some rotter has left a door open, taking petty revenge, perhaps, for his banishment from backstage.
One of the very few ladies in the audience stands, works her way to the aisle, and approaches the stage. I heave a sigh of relief. Across the stage, Uncle Brady pantomimes wiping his brow. What a lady she is, too, tall and slim, in a ruffled burgundy dress. Her coiffure tilts above her forehead at a saucy angle, a curl coiled on the high curve of her cheek. She smiles at my father, who bows graciously, and glances around at her neighbors, seeking their approval of her boldness. Her dark eyes light upon me, as I peer out from the wing. I can smell her perfume, a rich musk of red roses. She holds forth a white silk handkerchief in her elegant fingers.
Da,” she says in a purring contralto, “I have handkerchief.”
And then she winks at me.
Oh, Lord. I duck out of sight. Pop will have my hide if he should notice that someone in the audience has spied me skulking about in the wings. He proceeds apace with the illusion, however, deftly knotting one corner of the lady’s handkerchief. When he’s done, the handkerchief looks just like a little ghost, with a pert peaked head and a drooping shroud. He tosses the handkerchief on the stage, casually leaning over to rearrange the silk and attach the fabric to the—ah, never mind.
It’s a mystery unexplained.
Much like a marionette, as I’ve said. That’s all you need to know.
“Thus I shall prove, ladies and gentlemen,” my father says, “that within each small thing, even a mere handkerchief from this beautiful lady, the Spirit of Life can come alive.
And off we go, Uncle Brady and me at opposite ends of the stage, making that little ghost come alive.
First, the handkerchief raises its head, struggling to become animated, then (pardon me) gives up the ghost, and falls slack again. My father coaxes it, by turns tender, then stern, and the handkerchief rises, rises, growing more vigorous by the moment, finally standing upright and positively lively. The ghost leaps into Pop’s hands, leaps down again, and capers across the stage like a maniac. Pop gives chase, captures it. It swiftly escapes, and he gives chase again. At last he seizes the handkerchief and hands it to the lady, still bobbing and wiggling like a hooked fish. She cries out. Pop takes the wiggler back, unties the knot, and, with a murmured apology, releases a lifeless handkerchief.
The lady beams and displays her erstwhile ghost. Everyone in the front rows leans forward, entranced, applauding wildly.
Like I said, they always love the dancing handkerchief.
“Thank you, madam,” Pop says. “What is your name, please?”
“I am Zena Troubetzskoy.”
“Bloody well get on with it, man!” the hoodlum in the back row yells again. His pals guffaw.
“Madame Troubetzskoy, I am charmed,” my father says, ignoring the hecklers, and takes her handkerchief yet again and produces from it a fresh red rose. He regards the rose as if it is a wondrous treasure and hands silk and bloom to her.
Zena stares, openmouthed. As I peer from the wing again, I see a flush infuse her cheeks, staining her face as if with a sudden fever. “Can you really communicate with the Other Side, Professor Flint?” she asks.
“I certainly can,” Pop says.
Liar, I think. The enmity between stage magicians and spiritualist mediums revolves around this very point–what we each claim we can do. No one has actually established communication with the Spirits of the Dead. No one has proven that the soul survives. Yet spiritualist mediums deceive people with cruelties–and with illusions any stage magician can readily replicate. Maskelyne, the Royal Illusionist, exposed the Davenport brothers’ spirit cabinet as nothing more than the good old box trick. Anderson, the Great Wizard of the North, produced better table-tipping and spirit raps than the Fox sisters, who have bilked many a silver dollar from the bereaved.
If my father really could establish communication with the Other Side, don’t you think he would have contacted my mother?
But what else is my father supposed to say? No, not really? He cannot say that, not in front of an audience in a theater. A magician must never reveal the secrets of his illusions, must never explain the mystery though there is no mystery. That is our code of secrecy.
Still, I am uneasy with Pop’s charade, his disingenuous answer. Is he any better than a deceitful spiritualist medium?
If Zena Troubetzskoy is perturbed by my father’s lie, however, she gives no sign. “How marvelous,” she says and returns to the darkness beyond the limelights.
Now our rented orchestra strikes up a sprightly tune. Uncle Brady rushes onstage to assist Pop, while I pull the ghost getup over myself, head to toe, and sprint to my appointed place before the pane of plate glass. The pane, which the audience cannot see, is situated just so, in relation to the activities onstage and the activities offstage, and to a strategically placed spotlight. When light and darkness are arranged precisely right, when the physics of reflection and refraction are manipulated correctly, you will see an apparition appear out of nowhere onstage with Professor Flint. You will see the apparition joust with him in a death-defying duel. You will see him pierce the apparition clear through with his sword. At which point, you will see the apparition perish amid much pathos, and disappear before your very eyes.
All right, the ghost duel is not actually so death-defying. Not like the real stunts of that dare devilish Houdini, who trusses himself up like an animal bound for slaughter and swallows needles. Nor is the ghost duel original to my father. Professor J. H. Pepper pioneered the illusion, and many others have presented it in various permutations such as “The Blue Room” or “The Room of Mortality,” in which a skeleton in a coffin transforms itself into a young woman, then withers again into bare bones. Still, I think the ghost duel is the high point of Professor Flint’s act.
I never tired of watching this illusion back in the days when my mother played the ghost. When I was a kid, I used to love it. Uncle Brady would intone his Grand Invocation of the Spirits of the Dead, and the ghost would appear–just like that!–floating over the stage. And you could feel how the audience began to believe. Ladies would weep, and children cry out. Some gentlemen would toot their noses, while others would gasp, with fear or shock or the wonder of it all. One time in Cheyenne someone called out, “Praise the Lord!” and someone else answered, “Amen!”
What a ghost my mother played! Pop would fling down a leather glove in challenge, whip his sword from its scabbard. The apparition would fling down its own white silk glove, defiantly produce its own weapon. And off they would go, leaping and sparring. My mother was so charming and spritely and graceful that the ladies would stop their weeping, the children would laugh, the gentlemen would stop tooting in their handkerchiefs. These hardy people of our young American nation, who faced death daily by consumption or childbirth or fever, they would gaze at that graceful ghost and they would smile. I could see joy stealing into their hearts, and it was magic.
I am not nearly as charming a ghost as my mother once was, but I can spar, I can feint, and the duel has got this audience warmed up at last. From the location offstage where I accomplish my part of the illusion, I can hear the cheers and exclamations of encouragement. Pop pierces me through the heart, I perish and vanish, and it’s over. I fling off the ghost getup, and dash up onstage. The audience stands and applauds. Mr. Pannini gives me the thumbs-up.
I can see the relief on my father’s face. Pop is the sort of man who makes a meticulous accounting of each triumph and especially of each failure, however small. The failures disturb him far more than the triumphs ever give him satisfaction. Uncle Brady beams and bows, but he gives a little shake of his head, a sort of cringe to his shoulder, and I know what he’s thinking. He’s thinking nothing has seemed right since the accident took my mother’s life last spring.
The woman in the burgundy dress rushes up to the stage, clapping furiously, the red rose tucked behind her ear. Zena Troubetzskoy says, “How marvelous! Oh! How marvelous!”
2
First light of the dawn, and I smell wood smoke and the bitter, bracing scent of coffee. The flicker of a fire pries my eyelids open. Uncle Brady is already up, bending over our campfire, brewing coffee in a dented tin pot. I have spent the night out of doors, in the fog and the gloom, and I am aching all over, I am shivering, and my mouth tastes of stale cigarette smoke.
“Rise and shine, Danny,” Uncle Brady says. “You look like Pepper’s ghost warmed over, son.”
I do not doubt it. We have been on the road for a long time. I’m accustomed to sleeping on the ground or in the back of our wagon, accustomed to roots and rocks and rough boards assaulting my spine. But that doesn’t mean I no longer feel pain. Years ago, my father invested in a Henderson freight wagon with a canvas top. The thing is enormous, a regular cabin on wheels, built for durability, not comfort or speed. We require a team of four sturdy draft horses to pull it. Most of the customized interior is devoted to the transport of our equipment. I know well the narrow confines of my bunk, the sweltering heat or the numbing cold, the lack of a moment alone–but that doesn’t mean I relish each nightly ordeal any more than when Pop first started us out.
For months I’ve yearned for this engagement in San Francisco. For months I’ve hoped our stay would bring me some relief. There are magnificent hotels in San Francisco, hotels as fine as the best in New York City or Paris. What I would give for just one night at the Palace or Lucky Baldwin’s. For a stuffed mattress, a down pillow, a blazing fireplace, and a hot bath. For a cup of coffee brewed by one of the hotel chefs whose culinary reputations are repeated among vagabonds like us in the reverent tones reserved for legends and miracles.
But though it’s likely Pop could afford just one night at a magnificent hotel, though Pop suffers from arthritis in his hips and surely yearns for a hot bath and a soft mattress more than I do, the magnificent hotels will not permit Uncle Brady to stay in a suite with my father and me.
Which is a mystery to me.
For Uncle Brady is as deft with my father’s craft as any of our finest illusionists. He assists my father with our books of account and the management of our tour as shrewdly as any Harvard-schooled mercantilist. He is my dearest friend, and he was my mother’s faithful companion in the years before she and my father married.
But Uncle Brady’s complexion is the same rich brown color of the coffee he’s brewing. The magnificent hotels will insist that Uncle Brady stay in the servants’ quarters, and that is unacceptable to my father. When it comes to Uncle Brady, Pop has never tolerated anything but treatment equal to the hospitalities offered himself or me. He may be a boiled shirt, but my father has insisted upon this policy ever since he met Uncle Brady and my mother. And that was at the end of their journey from Georgia, in the terrible year before I was born.
So we’ve camped out for the night in the weedy field at Fourth Street and Mission, side-by-side with the medicine shows and quack peddlers and dime museums. The field is a carnival by day and a shindig by night, hosted by some of the most disreputable scoundrels in the far West. I have spent the dawn hours sitting up against a wheel of our wagon, wrapped in a reeking, buffalo-skin blanket, a derringer in one hand, and a large brass bell in the other. My father does not actually expect me to kill or even fend off a would-be horse thief. If our horses are accosted, I am to shoot into the air and ring the bell like mad, and Pop and Uncle Brady will make their appearances with our revolver and our shotgun. Instead vigilance, however, I fell into a poor facsimile of sleep, my slumber tormented by a dream of the gypsies we encountered in Cheyenne last spring. I dreamed of Leilani, taunting me.
My father extracts himself from our wagon with all the brittle dignity of a nobleman come to survey his hinterlands. Does he say good morning as I am painfully rousing myself? Does he inquire about my comfort or well-being or the restfulness of my slumber?
“You smoked a cigarette last night, Daniel,” is the first thing my father says to me. He seizes the mug Uncle Brady offers him and tosses scalding coffee down his throat. He does not wince or grumble at the taste or heat.
“Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned,” I mumble.
“When you turn twenty-one, you may do as you please, sir,” he says in a tone that leads me to suspect I will have little more freedom then than I do at twenty. “You may give over your health to wrack and ruin. You may cast away all I have taught you, cast away your livelihood, cast your very soul to the Devil. But till then, sir, till then, as long as you are in my company, you will abide by the rules.”
“Professor,” Uncle Brady says before I can summon up another disrespectful retort. “May we please discuss the state of our affairs?”
I collect my own mug of grit, crouch by the fire, and brace myself for the bad news.
“We’re broke,” Uncle Brady says. “Nearly broke.”
“I thought we cleared ten thousand dollars in Tacoma,” Pop says.
“An agent from Tacoma showed up yesterday afternoon,” Uncle Brady says.
“I saw no agent,” Pop says.
“I try not to worry you, Professor, before a performance,” Uncle Brady says. “He said the theater wasn’t insured. The fire cleaned them out.”
“It wasn’t our fault!” I say, though I know that’s not strictly true. Pop keeps kegs of methylated spirits for fireworks effects. A cigarette discarded by some careless stranger sent everything up in flames, including a good deal of our equipment. Worst of all, the accursed pane of plate glass, which we cart about in the wagon swaddled up like a newborn babe, was ruined. Uncle Brady had to wire ahead to San Francisco for a new pane, which we employed to such good effect last night.
My father is impassive. “You reimbursed him?”
“Of course,” Uncle Brady says. “We must do that if we’re ever to play Tacoma again. Then there’s the new glass, and the extra charge for an expedited order. There’s all the equipment that has to be replaced.” He pulls a list from his vest pocket, fits spectacles onto his nose. “The magic portfolio. The vanishing birdcage. The enchanted demon’s head.”
“Not the enchanted demon’s head!” I say.
Uncle Brady shoots me an exasperated look over the top of his spectacles. “The flip-over boxes and the feathered bouquets. Then there’s the costumes. I was only able to salvage three or four of them.”
My father grunts, I groan, and my stomach emits a sound resembling the utterances of a rabid dog. I’ve not eaten a thing since yesterday noon, and that was a meal of pemmican washed down with hard well water. The water had a smell to it that much reminded me of a cesspool. Traitorous thoughts fill my head. Perhaps I could secure employment as a waiter at one of the famous restaurants of San Francisco. At Coppa’s, say, or the Tadich Grill. At least then I could get something decent to eat and drink.
My father only says, “I’m grateful our suppliers have been so prompt, trustworthy, and courteous. We could not have gone on with the show without them.”
“Nevertheless,” Uncle Brady says, “we’re broke. Nearly broke. I’ve got a bill here for fifty dollars.” He wets his thumb and leafs through a stack of invoices. “It’s forty days overdue, Professor. We’ll get no more credit from the Chicago Magic Company if we don’t pay it at once.”
“Pop,” I say, “I’m hungry.”
“Go feed the horses,” my father says, unmoved. To Uncle Brady, “Pay it. And the take from last night?”
“The theater was half-full,” Uncle Brady says. “At this rate, our engagement here won’t cover our traveling expenses from Tacoma.”
Our engagement here is to last three weeks. “Oh, that’s splendid.” I pull myself to my feet. “You may both go and starve and good luck to you. As for me, I’m tired of magic. I’m not cut out to be a magician, anyway. I shall seek my own fortune in San Francisco.” I strike a defiant pose. “I shall go wait tables.”
“Perhaps the boy should go find some day work, Professor,” Uncle Brady says. “We’ll have to rehearse without him.”
“If you’re through with your coffee, Daniel,” my father says, ignoring the both of us, “go feed the horses like I told you.”
“May I remind you, Uncle Brady, I’m a person of twenty years, not a boy.” And to my father, “I will take no more orders from you, sir. I will abide by no more of your rules.”
“Comport yourself like a person of twenty years and attend to your animals, sir,” my father says. “They cannot feed themselves, whereas you can.”
“This squabbling won’t pay the bills,” Uncle Brady says.
“The bills,” I say. “Always the bills. You can take the bills and go–”
“I beg your pardon, gentlemen,” says a purring contralto. “Forgive me for interrupting your breakfast.”
We all turn, mouths gaping. Zena Troubetzskoy strolls up our campfire, smiling serenely. She is composed and fresh in her burgundy dress, the red rose tucked behind her ear. When I meet her gaze, she gives me that wink of hers.
“What breakfast,” I mutter but my anger vanishes like magic before her flirtatious wink. She is no girl of my age, but a woman older by a handful of years, and my pulse quickens in her presence.
My father casts a look at me that could choke a horse. He stands and bows, ever gracious. “Good morning, Madame Troubetzskoy.”
“You remember me, sir?”
“But of course. What on earth brings you to this unwholesome campground, madam?” He flips his hand at me; go get her a stool to sit on. I hop to it, retrieving one from the back of our wagon.
She sits, warming her hands over the campfire. “Professor Flint,” she says, “last night you said you can communicate with the Souls of the Other Side. Didn’t you?”
Uncle Brady and I trade glances. My father clears his throat. “So I did.”
“Then, Professor Flint, I must ask if you would attempt to communicate with my dear husband. There is something I urgently need to tell him. I cannot find peace till I do.”
My father takes her hand. “My dear Madame Troubetzskoy.”
“Please call me Zena.”
“Zena. I am a magician, Zena, a stage magician. Not a spiritualist medium.”
“Whatever you wish to call yourself is fine with me, Professor.”
“Zena.” My father kneels at her feet and lowers his voice. “We are not before an audience, so I must tell you something in the strictest confidence.”
“Yes?” Her eyes shine with anticipation.
“I’m a magician, as I’ve said. What I do, what we do–up there on the stage. It’s only an illusion.”
Her face darkens. “Oh, please, I implore you, Professor.”
“All an illusion, madam. It isn’t real.”
“But you told me you can communicate with the Other Side. You told me you have psychic powers. You told me.”
My father glances at Uncle Brady and me, and his mouth puckers up as if he has bitten a lemon. Pop does not consider anything he does in his act to be a lie. He never misrepresents himself. The audience knows it’s stage magic. The audience knows it’s an illusion. But this lovely woman in a burgundy dress has taken him at his word. And he does not want to confess that he lied, even if he did fudge a bit. He does not want to admit to false pretenses, however fleeting. He cannot bear to be exposed as a hypocrite like poor old Anderson, the great Wizard of the North, who so effortlessly discerned people’s intimate secrets onstage, but got so addled with drink that he often could not find his own way home.
“I said I endeavor to communicate with the Other Side,” my father scrupulously corrects her.
“Then endeavor for me,” she says. “Oh, please, won’t you try? You’ve got more psychic power than you know, Professor.”
Bosh,” my father says, but he glows with pleasure at her praise, nonetheless. Account for each triumph, however small; that’s Pop. I roll my eyes at Uncle Brady, but he shrugs and looks away.
“I shall pay you, of course.”
Whereupon she rummages in her burgundy satin purse and pulls out two gleaming gold coins.
Need I say our eyes bug out?
“Mercy,” Uncle Brady whispers. He helps himself to the coins in Zena’s outstretched palm, gives one to me. It turns out to be not a coin, at all, but a fat, irregular lozenge of pure gold, soft to the tooth and heavy in the hand, without the smell of inferior metals. The sort of unmarked token gamblers, robbers, and prospectors prefer to carry in the far West. Better than minted money because you can cash it in at any assay office or bank. Or you can trade such a token for goods or services at any respectable establishment or, for that matter, with any corsair or brigand. No questions asked. The piece I hold in my hand could be worth fifty dollars, or much more. Enough to pay the Chicago Magic Company in full, and then some.
My father clears his throat again. “Madame Zena,” he says, “would you like to sit at a séance? Is that what you would like to do?”
“Oh, yes, please!” she says.
On the one hand, I’m disgusted with my father for stepping over the ethical line drawn between stage magicians and spiritualist mediums. On the other hand, I’m proud of him for this small sacrifice of his integrity he’s willing to make for the sake of our show. For the sake of his family. I don’t really want to wait tables. I am Danny Flint, the eminent Professor Flint’s only son and heir apparent. I have been immersed in the wonder and the business of prestidigitation my whole life, starting when my father plucked me in my diapers out of a folding portfolio and told me to wave at the audience. One day he will pass the mantle of magic on to me.
Need I say that Uncle Brady and I dash to the wagon like souls on fire as my father serves Zena coffee and chats with her, commenting on the new day and the alarming direction of ladies’ fashions. Pop has made his decision. Uncle Brady and I trade grins. We are not displeased.
“This is going to be tricky, son,” Uncle Brady says. “We don’t know a thing about her.”
I hold up the gold piece. “We know this.
Make no mistake, spiritualist mediums who convince the gullible that they actually communicate with the Dead undertake plenty of research before they work their illusions. They make it their business to discover intimate details about those who come to sit at a séance. They possess the con artist’s knack of parlaying what they discover in the heat of the moment into more information, more confidence. Mediums employ the “Room of Mortality” illusion; they employ the good old box trick. Let no one ever be deceived about that.
We feverishly set up the tiny dining area at the back of our wagon, rearranging our shabby little table and four chairs. We position false walls gleaned from our backdrops. I’m feeling better and better about this turn of events. In truth, rigging up a parlor to produce a fake séance for an audience of one is absurdly simple for us. Excitement chases away the last dregs of my discontent. Gold. The lady has got gold.
“What else do we know about her?” Uncle Brady quizzes me. When my father is hard on me, Uncle Brady is forgiving. When my father is a boiled shirt, Uncle Brady is the soul of kindness. When my father imposes his rules and injunctions, Uncle Brady gently takes me by the hand and leads me down the paths of new knowledge. I respect my father. I love Uncle Brady. I have always called this distinguished, dark-skinned man Uncle Brady. So did my mother. For that matter, so has Professor Flint.
I grin, intrigued by his new game. “She was married.”
“And widowed,” Uncle Brady coaches me.
“She’s Russian,” I say. “Plenty of Russians in California, aren’t there?”
“Russians settled in this territory forty years ago,” Uncle Brady says. “A lot of them gold miners.”
“She wears some expensive perfume, a wonderful scent of red roses. Nice touch, Pop giving her that fresh rose. Where did he get it from, anyway? We haven’t paid a florist, have we?”
Uncle Brady shakes his head. “The mysterious Professor Flint has got a few tricks up his sleeve, I guess. Her dress is very pretty, but not quite in the height of fashion. I’d say she’s frugal.”
“I’d say she’s rich. Perhaps she owns a gold mine.” I rub my fingertips on the token. Let no one dissuade you that the sight of pure gold cannot send a lustful thrill through your very marrow.
“They’re coming.” Uncle Brady ducks behind the false walls, leaving me to brush bread crumbs from the table. I take Zena Troubetzskoy’s hand as she climbs into the wagon. My father climbs in after her, gallantly producing a red silk rose, a prop quite the worse for wear, kept in our inventory far too long.
“Oh, no thank you,” Zena murmurs, patting the bloom tucked behind her ear. The red rose, the real one, is dewy and fresh, as if it has just been plucked from the bush. “You need not try to amuse me with parlor tricks, Professor Flint. I want to speak with my husband.”
My father glances at me, and I see the frisson of panic in his eyes. He’s out of his depth, and he knows it. “Go get us a candle, Daniel.”
“Yes, Father.” I unobtrusively relieve Zena of her burgundy satin purse, excuse myself, and duck behind the false walls as my father continues to chat with her. Uncle Brady seizes the purse. We have no intention of relieving the lady of any more gold than she has freely relinquished. Instead, silently, carefully, we empty the purse, searching for information.
A lady’s purse typically contains a calling card, a monogrammed handkerchief, perhaps a ferrotype of the dearly departed. A pressed corsage would be superb, a letter even better, but I would settle for any sort of personal effect that would provide a clue as to who Zena Troubetzskoy is. Cosmetics, liver pills, a receipt from her dressmaker, the label on the purse itself. All I require are a few clues, which I will convey to my father through the simple method of coded. . . .never mind. Suffice it to say, we have methods of conveying information to each other which Zena could not possibly detect.
But there is nothing. Nothing but the purse itself–no label–and the plain white silk handkerchief she lent to my father last night. And gold. More gold tokens, quite a trove of them.
I slip back into our makeshift parlor, restore the purse to the lady, set candlestick and candle in the center of our table. I signal my father regarding the paucity of our findings. I sit. My father lights the candle and closes the canvas flap over the back of our wagon, plunging the parlor into darkness dimly lit by candlelight. We three join hands.
“I shall now endeavor to establish communication with the Souls of the Other Side,” my father says, cleverly borrowing her own words. He throws back his head and closes his eyes, hoping to unleash psychic powers. Uncle Brady sets to work behind the false walls, producing a fitful breeze that causes our candle flame to flicker convincingly.
Zena’s hand begins to tremble violently in mine. “Oh, Nickie,” she whispers under her breath.
Before my father can utter a word, I murmur, “Nickie?”
“Oh, yes!” Zena cries. “Nickie, is that you?”
“‘Tis I, my rose,” I say, unable to stop myself. “‘Tis Nickie.”
My father blinks at me, but he dare not scowl.
“I’m so sorry, Nickie,” Zena says. Tears burst from her eyes. “I never meant to leave you. I never meant to leave you in the mountains, the terrible mountains.”
“The terrible mountains,” I say.
“And here I am in my dress with a rose in my hair,” Zena says.
“You look beautiful as always,” I say.
“I never cared about the gold, not really. I just wanted to be near you. Yet I abandoned you, Nickie. I’m so very sorry.”
“I forgive you, Zena,” I say. “I know you did not mean to abandon me.”
“Do you, Nickie? Do you really?”
“Of course, my rose.”
“All I’ve wanted ever since is your forgiveness.”
“I forgive you, Zena,” I say. “Always and forever.”
She begins to sob in earnest, withdrawing her hands from mine and my father’s, and covering her face. My father blows out the candle, and stands, and throws back the canvas flap. Morning sunlight and fresh chilly air pour into our wagon. Zena finds her white silk handkerchief in her purse and dabs at her eyes. My father is impassive. I cannot read his face when he glances at me.
“Thank you,” she says to me, pressing my hand. Her touch is as cool and light as the brush of a bird’s wing. “Thank you so very much.”
“I am honored to assist you, madam.” I confess I am wildly pleased with myself, despite the lady’s distress. I read her like a book. Perhaps I am cut out to be a stage magician, after all.
“May I return tomorrow morning?” she says to my father. “There is so much more I want to say to my husband.”
“Oh, I think not, Madame Zena,” my father says sternly. “As I’ve said, we are not spiritualist mediums.”
“But do you see how talented your son is? Oh, he’s quite amazing! I knew he would be.”
“Yes, but this is not his calling or mine,” my father insists. Do I detect a small sour note of envy in his tone? Only a moment ago, he was the amazing Professor Flint. “We must rehearse. We are expecting an important shipment of new equipment, which must be unpacked and made ready. We must go on with the show, madam. I’m sorry.”
“Oh, please, Professor,” she says so plaintively that only a man with no heart at all could refuse her. She dips into her purse, pulls out another gold token. She tucks it into my hand, closes my fingers over it. Only a fool would refuse her.
My father is no fool. “Very well,” he says. “Tomorrow morning.” And off she goes, the hem of her dress rustling over the damp grass.
Uncle Brady tears down the false walls and stacks them carefully around the plate glass. I linger at the table, mulling over my small triumph. It’s odd, but I’m sure I felt something. A sort of stirring when I’d taken Zena’s hand.
“Daniel?” my father says.
“Ah, yes, the horses,” I say, and scramble to my task. I’m ashamed of my earlier outburst. Perhaps my father will let the incident go unremarked, but, knowing Pop, that’s not likely.
“When you finish with the horses, sir,” my father says, “go downtown.”
“I didn’t mean it, Pop,” I say. “I don’t know the first thing about waiting tables.”
“They say those fancy restaurants will stiff a new waiter,” Uncle Brady says. “Profit from his labor, then pinch his penny.” He throws a look of sympathy in my direction.
“Go downtown,” my father repeats and shakes his finger at me, but his eyes hold something new. “She’ll want more than a con artist’s tricks from you tomorrow morning. You’d better go and see what you can dig up on our Madame Troubetzskoy.”
To discover what Danny finds out about Zena and the dark secrets of his past, read the complete story of “Every Mystery Unexplainedand join my Patreon page at https://www.patreon.com/bePatron?u=23011206. Thank you for your help while I recover from the Attack. I’ve posted delightful new and previously published stories, book excerpts, writing tips, movie reviews, original healthy recipes, and more!
Donate a tip from your PayPal account to lisasmason@aol.com.
Visit me at www.lisamason.com for all my books, ebooks, stories, and screenplays, worldwide links, covers, reviews, interviews, blogs, round-tables, adorable cat pictures, forthcoming works, fine art and bespoke jewelry by my husband Tom Robinson, and more!

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In 1996, the (now-late) editor, writer, and my dear friend, Janet Berliner had a hot streak. She wrangled excellent deals for three anthologies with Big Publishers, for which she commissioned me to contribute three stories, including this one for the anthology, David Copperfield’s Tales of the Impossible.
Yes, that David Copperfield, the handsome stage magician who appeared frequently on television in the 1990s and has a long-running show in Las Vegas (still, I think). From the San Francisco Bay Area where I met her, Jan had moved to Las Vegas, crossed paths with David, and convinced him (she could be very convincing) to put his name on the anthology. He contributed a story, as well.
The gorgeous hardcover anthology was published by HarperPrism (a division of HarperCollins) in 1996, then also in a mass paperback edition, and in several foreign countries.
Jan’s proposal could not have come at a better time. I’d recently finished The Gilded Age, a time travel which takes place in 1895 and in 2395, as well as Celestial Girl, A Lily Modjeska Mystery, a four mini-book series and a passionate historical mystery which takes place exclusively in 1895. I was conversant in that time period in San Francisco and I was fluent in my Victorian voice, which is a bit different from my modern voice(s).
The project was also ably suited to my resources at hand.
It turns out that Tom Robinson, the abstract symbolist artist and studio jeweler (and my husband), was fascinated by stage magic as a boy growing up in Los Angeles. He collected stage magic magazines and books, acquired magic tricks from a local curio shop, and invented a few tricks himself.
He and a friend were wandering through their neighborhood in the Los Angeles hills when they came upon a fence surrounding a warehouse. In the backyard were placards and instruments and strange devices. Tom recognized them at once. “Those are stage magic tricks!” He hopped over the fence and met John Guaghan, the premier stage magic illusion-builder in the world, purveyor to Blackstone and probably to the young David Copperfield. Tom worked for Guaghan while he was still a teenager in high school, building and decorating stage magic illusions.
he opening quotation of “Every Mystery Unexplained” (and the title) is from one of Tom’s magic books and the ebook cover of “The Great Socar”, a stage magician from India, is a charming illustration from one of Tom’s carefully preserved magazines.
My story, “Every Mystery Unexplained”, is the only stage magic story in Tales of the Impossible. I expected other authors to turn in stage magic stories, but they didn’t. Mine is the only one!
Here’s what one critic had to say:
“This is the type of story I was hoping for from these anthologies: a blend of fiction and magic history . . .  Mason knows her magic history (the title is from a Harry Kellar quote) and she knows San Francisco. My favorite story of the year!”
-Katherine Nabity, The Writerly Reader
To read the complete story of “Every Mystery Unexplained”, join my Patreon page at https://www.patreon.com/bePatron?u=23011206. Thank you for your help while I recover from the Attack. I’ve posted delightful new and previously published stories, book excerpts, writing tips, movie reviews, original healthy recipes, and more!
Donate a tip from your PayPal account to lisasmason@aol.com.
Visit me at www.lisamason.com for all my books, ebooks, stories, and screenplays, worldwide links, covers, reviews, interviews, blogs, round-tables, adorable cat pictures, forthcoming works, fine art and bespoke jewelry by my husband Tom Robinson, and more!

My 9,000-word story, “Arachne”, my FIRST story, got published in OMNI Magazine, then the premiere genre fiction venue. I’ll have much more to say about how that came about later.
This post, however, is about how to turn a shorter work into a longer one.
First off, I don’t recommend it.
You can easily take a little piece of a book and turn it into a coherent, self-contained story. I don’t make a practice of that, either, but have done so in “Crawl Space”, a Garden of Abracadabra spin-off story that’s very charming. And I have plans to write more spin-off stories in the Abracadabra universe, as well as a YA series featuring Becky Budd, a wonderful teenage character who is just finding her way in Real Magic, with the help of Abby Teller.
I also have plans for stories linked in the same universe that, when they’re all written, could be knit together and become a book. Or at least a story collection that feels like a book. I published a story, “Teardrop”, in the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, that got good reviews. This takes place in the Bakdoor universe. I have plans to write more Bakdoor stories. A lot of writers do this, to make good use of a fully developed world and characters.
But what about taking a short story and turning it into a novel? Why do I not recommend the practice?
Because you’re immediately faced with the problem of “padding.” If your story feels self-contained, complete in and of itself, satisfying in and of itself, with a beginning, a middle, and an end, your attempt to expand it will slow the pace to a crawl with useless words, endless descriptions, and silly subplots.
But if you can identify issues in the story that seem “compressed”—as many readers and critics did of the story “Arachne”—then you’ve got a chance for expansion into a good, saleable novel.
For the rest of what I recommend for expanding your story into a novel and the service I’m offering, please join my Patreon page at https://www.patreon.com/bePatron?u=23011206 and support me while I recover from the Attack. I’ve got lots of goodies for you—four delightful stories, movie reviews, recipes, book excerpts, and more.
Donate a tip from your PayPal account to lisasmason@aol.com.
Visit me at www.lisamason.com for all my books, ebooks, stories, and screenplays, reviews, interviews, blogs, roundtables, adorable cat pictures, forthcoming works, fine art and bespoke jewelry by my husband Tom Robinson, worldwide links, and more!