Writer’s Critique: The Possible Benifits of Gothic Novels

I was re-reading Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen. For those who don’t know the British Regency satire, Austen’s first written and last published work, is about a young woman obsessed with Gothic novels and how that leads her to rather embarrassing misadventures. This was a nod to the popular novels of her day, novels that Austen herself read. I’m not sure if Austen ever tried to write within this genre and decided it just wasn’t for her or if she knew she just wanted to give some recognition to what was considered the “buy at the airport trash novel” of the age.

The point is that you can’t read just your own genre when preparing to write.  I know this sounds like tired knowledge, the “if you want to be a writer you must read, read, read” advice which is always the first given in any class, workshop, or panel. The reason why you always hear it is because it’s good and true advice. So I’m just adding to it. You need to read more that simply the genre you want to write.

“But I only like romance which I why write romance,” I hear you say. That’s good, but you aren’t experiencing as much that could help you grow as a writer. 

For example, within Northanger Abbey Austen purposely mimics the adjective laden style of Anne Radcliffe, a popular Gothic author. She does this for the parts where the heroine is allowing her imagination to run away with her, added suspense that makes the reader wonder if something shocking might in fact be about to happen. Then, as truths are revealed she goes make to her normal style. 

I’m not saying use precious time reading things you hate, but broaden your scope just a little. Maybe start with a non-fiction book on a topic that interests you. Just don’t start with Anne Radcliffe’s Mysteries of Udolpho. That book is long or at least it felt long. 

Character Study - Talking Animals

Stories of fantasy and science fiction often utilize a speaking creature as a plot point. This tradition goes back to ancient mythology. However, there’s a distinction between the wise owl of the ages and Mr. Owl taking your sucker. When does the mystical being become the Disney sidekick and when are either appropriate?

First off, anyone who knows my Funko pop collection is aware of my weakness for Disney sidekicks (as well as Universal film monsters, but that’s a different story). But even the animators of these family movies have to make the decision between simply cute or human level communication. For example, in Moana and Tangled the animals show a higher level of emotion and comprehension without talking. This fits well into the fantasy realms in which the stories take place. They provide humor, warmth, and even some plot points, but do not detract or make the main ideas feel silly. Where as in Cinderella, the mice talk in ridiculous broken English, acting as both comic reliefs and talking heads for the audience.  

The trouble is when your creature serves no purpose other than aesthetic value. You think “Kids like spiders. I’m writing a kids book so I’ll add a spider.” Unless you’re Mercier Mayer, that isn’t really how it works. Character Osidekicks should always serve a role and have point. They should not just be an excuse to sell plush (I’m looking at you Barbie movies). 

A good modern example of an animal sidekick who cute, cuddly, and can be used as a plot device is Mouse, the Temple dog from Jim Butcher’s the Dresden Files. He checks all of the boxes and I would totally buy him as a plush. 

Best Place by the Fire: Some words on John Hurt and Storytelling

“Let me show you fate through the round of this ring—”

 

A poetic way to start a tale. Now, read it again, but this time, imagine a deep, warm voice with a slight gravely edge speaking to you.

Those words, written by Anthony Minghella, captured the short attention span of a five year old me. This was not simply because they were well-written words or the fact that they were a part of Jim Henson’s short run series “The Storyteller”. It was because the voice which spoke them mesmerized me. When John Hurt told a story, you listened.

In the wake of his passing, I re-watched this television series with a fresh sense of respect. The voice which sanctioned a hunt for the Black Cauldron, declared his humanity to a judgmental Victorian world, screamed in agony at the parasite within him (twice), raised Hellboy, helped a wand choose a wizard, and dared to tell the Time Lords “No more”, that was one of the first voices which made me want to write.

It’s a strange connection, yes, but it’s how it happened. Hurt brought Minghella’s versions old fairy tales to life by simply speaking in the way he always did. He filled each word with humor, tragedy, and adventure. It made me want to be able to put together words worthy of such a reading. And I will miss that voice.