Non-Blog | Channing Whitaker

What I've Been Reading, Watching, and Listening to: Jan. 2019

Reading:

Earlier this month I sat down and read Lovecraft's Herbert West - Reanimator stories. I'm working on a new story which has some similar themes, and I wanted to be sure I wasn't inadvertently overlapping with characters or plot. I'd seen the movie years ago but never read the original literature.

In short, I loved it. It was dark, mysterious and thought-provoking. I enjoyed the almost Dracula-esque point of view in the how Lovecraft told the story, which offers more of a second-hand accounting of the plot by the Herbert West's (the main character's) associate and frequent assistant in his work. The style made West's motives as mysterious as his actions. While that might have proven a shortfall for a full novel, in the short format, it added a compelling layer.

I also rather liked the cliffhangers and omitted plot points that came inherently through the short series format of the pros. Rather than one novella, the story was originally published as six novelettes. Between each, there is a lapse of time, sometimes it's short, other times its years. Again,  I don't think this would have worked well in a novel, or a more directly narrated story, but coming from West's peer, it is believable that he might only address the story when something new and noteworthy has arisen.

Finally, I found the literature much more serious than the movie. Now, don't get me wrong, I enjoyed the movie way back when. I loved Jeffrey Combs' performance and the interpretation of the re-animated creations, which were a little off-the-wall. However, in Lovecraft's original, the character is presented more seriously, and we see very little to nothing of the creatures he created. Instead, we see mostly the damage they have done and hearsay of the horrors. Altogether it is much more mysterious and again makes me think of Dracula. This is a wonderful difference between the movie and literature, as it gives both pretty unique reasons to be liked.

I have to admit that this was my first Lovecraft read (don't tell the Horror Writers Association), but I am likely to return to his ample body of eerie works.

Watching:

After over a year of trying to catch it, I finally watched Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri. I was not disappointed.

While it was a great, gut-wrenching movie, I think what I liked best about it was how many totally unforeseen elements and dynamics there was to the film. In fact, the movie probably spent as much time examining them as it did advancing any sort of plot. One example, which is a bit of a spoiler but one revealed in the first 10 to 20 minutes, is that while the main character (Frances McDormand) is putting heat on the town Sheriff (Woody Harrelson) to solve her daughter's murder, we find the Sheriff is dying from cancer.

Another is just the presence of Peter Dinklage's character as the town midget (the movie's words) who interacts with the main character, with her ex-husband, with the Barney-Fife-esque deputy (Sam Rockwell) all with profound character implications on both sides of the dynamics, and all without any particular consequence on where the story advances too.

This movie was almost a clinic on character development and diversity, and delightful refreshing as such.

Listening to:

When I'm really hitting my stride on the first draft of a new story, I have a few go-to artists or playlists which I believe to be perfect, creativity-propelling background music, and that is what I've found myself listening to this month, mostly to Frank Zappa.

Now let me explain a bit. The ideal music for jamming to while writing, for me, should move a bit but not too fast, get your head bobbing when you pay attention to it, but not demand attention. It has to be somewhat genre fitting, so eerie when one is writing horror, etc. However, most of all it has to be un-intrusive. One time I tried getting some writing done while listening to Rage Against the Machine and found my heart and body getting so pumped I was hitting the keys on my keyboard like I was going to poke them through the plastic if I could even keep my attention on what I was doing at all. On the other end of the spectrum, I wouldn't want something so chill, it might put me to sleep.

So now you might be thinking, Zappa?  Not exactly synonymous with "un-intrusive." That's true, and while I like to give an occasional listen to Zappa's definitive tracks, the album I have on standby for writing sessions is Shut Up and Play Your Guitar. It moves, but not with hard rock. It doesn't have any complex or outrageous Zappa lyrics to unpack and pull your attention, and yet, if you come to the end of a though and your attention does drift to the music, there will undoubtedly be an impressive guitar riff, showing off a superior artist's proficiency, basically every moment of each song. Give it a try.
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The Seed of a Story


It’s a none-to-uncommon question for authors, “where did you get the idea for your book?” But it’s not always an easy question to answer. I wonder if we can do a little better?
For me, I have many ideas swimming around in my head. Sometimes it’s a character, but I’m not sure where I’ll use them. Other times it’s a setting, a plot twist, or just a moment of intensity all without corresponding context. Once in a while, with a little luck, a bunch of these ideas come together and form something bigger, a foundation. Who’s to say which of that cluster was first, or even where it came from?
With my recently released novel, “Until the Sun Rises – One Night in Drake Mansion,” I similarly can’t put my figure on any single element as having spawned the rest of my tangled web. However, I can recall the very first scene from the story I began developing.
The majority of the novel is set in the present, but a portion takes place in the past. The first past section involves a mysterious, secret, and very thematically dark magic show which adds to the mystery set in the present with a parallel mystery to unfold in the past. Essentially, it’s a tangential story line, a secondary mystery that draws the reader to learn about certain characters pertaining to the primary mystery and plot. It adds character depth, intrigue, and plot layers. Of course the two plotlines intersect explosively, but it’s interesting in retrospect for the secondary plotline to have been the genesis of the main story, converse to what one might expect.
This magic show moment and its characters were first. From there, I created scenes to give readers background on the characters, to get you acquainted. Next, I developed plot that puts the characters into that moment. After that, I developed additional scenes to give that moment direct consequence, and more to show readers what those characters do after that moment, how it impacted them.  With this thread woven, I stepped back and asked, “how can I make this even deeper, even more consequential, intriguing, captivating?” The answer came with adding what eventually became the primary plotline, which underwent it’s own similar development.
Returning to the question, “where did you get the idea?” It feels like I just had that first moment in my head. Did I see a weird magic show that made it dawn on me? Not that I recall? Did I base the characters on something I saw, read, or heard? I don’t think so. In fact, I believe I invented the scene and the character specifically because I’d never seen anything like that scene before. The rest was created to give others a chance to find it as interesting as I did.
Perhaps in the future I’ll read an article and it will directly inspire a new story. Certainly that occurs with non-fiction, and I can imagine the same for fiction - where a real life story inspires a similar, but even more intriguing scenario. That just hasn’t been my experience. In the mean time, perhaps a better go-to question for authors is, “what part of your story did you explore first?” This might cut to the desired incite into the creative process even faster.
Authors, what part of your story did you explore first?
Originally Posted at the "Omni Mystery Blog,"  June, 2015.
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Repetition of Story (It's Christmas)


Christmas is nearly here and with all of it’s activities, I find it also a unique time to analyze the repeating, or perhaps recycling of stories.  Of course story ideas are recycled all the time not just at Christmas, however as a lover or originality I find myself more forgiving this time of year, and I must wonder why.
Simply take a look at TV programing schedules around the holiday and you’ll see what I mean. Be it reshowing of holiday classics, like A Christmas Story (1983) being shown for 24 hours straight; remaking holiday classics, like A Christmas Carol every few years; or recycling a narrow field of storylines into new, slightly parodied, stories, like your standard made-for-TV Hallmark holiday movie, everywhere you look you stand to see the repletion of a story.
One could argue that most stories released, be they movie, book, or other, are derivative of earlier stories in some way, but to me, at Christmas time it is far more prevalent, and far more transparent than the rest of the year.
Christmas is a time when those of us who observe the holiday tend towards that which is familiar. We like to see the same plays, the same ballet, and yes the same movies as we have for years, decades even. Perhaps it is our desire to relive our childhood, to relive and recreate memorable moments from our lives that makes us, or at least me, particularly receptive to the rehashing of a familiar story.
It’s also a time when we’re short on time. After the presents are opened and when we have an hour to kill before heading off to Grandma’s, we flip on the TV, and there we find that oh-so-familiar story. Maybe we missed the first half hour, and maybe we’ll have to leave before it’s over, but that won’t matter. We know the story so well; we’ll enjoy it just the same.
While they’re arguably not high cinema, I must admit to taking in a holiday-esque, overindulgent sized portion of them. They’re perfect for throwing on while engaging in other Christmas perpetrations – baking cookies, decorating the tree, wrapping presents, addressing holiday cards, or if you’re like me and my family, assembling our Lego holiday village for prominent display.  
When it comes to story, they’re typically very simple. That’s what makes them perfect for uniting with other activities. They set the mood, but if you have to walk out of the room a dozen times, you still never fall behind in the story. I personally praise originality to a fault, and strive for originality in every nook of my own work but this observation comes without an ounce of criticism, that is honestly and truly why I like them.
It may be true that the storylines lack on variety. In my estimation, holiday films generally fall into about five basic storylines. With the most popular being the main character has lost the Christmas spirit due to prioritizing their high-power career, sales at a store, or simply making money, over family, friends, and Christmas, (e.g. A Christmas Carol) only to have a twist of fate, and often a new romance restore their priorities and their Christmas spirit. Also popular is the main character’s loss of a loved one having soured their Christmas spirit, but through a twist of fate and yes, a new romance, their Christmas spirit is revived. (Note, I’ll admit that the more basically you describe a story, naturally, the easier it is to group a wider range of stories together.)
Our familiarity as viewers with the core storyline is in fact what allows us to so easily digest the stories, even when only casually paying attention, which I mentioned before is paramount to the enjoyment.
Is it fine cinema? No. But tree shaped sugar cookies aren’t fine cuisine and I’m still going to eat a few dozen before the New Year. So to shall I indulge in recycled Christmas tales, and worry about my mental-waistline in January.
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