What’s your favorite Beach Read?

The other night I took part in an author panel for the ConTinual: the Con that Never Ends Facebook page and the topic was beach reads. Since it seems like we’ll actually be able to go to the beach this summer – even those who don’t live near one because travel is opening back up – I thought it would be fun to share ideas about what makes a good beach read and maybe suggest one or two.

When I say “beach read”, what kind of book do you think of?

Tbh, my own definition is fairly broad: books that have words strung together in sentences. (That’d be all books, lol.) Maybe it comes from having attended the University of Hawaii, where it’s possible I lugged nursing textbooks onto the sand to “study”, but I’ll read just about anything on the beach.

Elaine Pagels The Gnostic Gospels? Yup. Read that one on the beach. I’m weird.

Having done this panel, though, I know some of you have higher standards. The general theme of our discussion was that beach reads should be both low angst and escapist. Fluffy, if you will. Or if not fluffy, at least not so demanding that you can’t put it aside when it’s time to take a dip or to order another one of those little umbrella drinks.

Based on the (highly unscientific) panel, I can confidently say that the best Beach Reads fall into a handful of categories. Ymmv, but here’s what I learned, along with a suggestion or two for each one…

Romance!

My first suggestion in the Romance category is Totally Folked by Penny Reid. She’s a fantastic writer and a very cool person, and while I haven’t read all of her books, this one looks like fun. I’m always here for intelligent characters acting naughty and falling in love. (lol!) Totally Forked doesn’t come out until July 20th, which’ll be great timing for a late summer getaway!

For those of you who like historical romances, I can absolutely recommend The Labours of Lord Perry Cavendish by Joanna Chambers. It’s actually the 4th book in her Winterbourne series, but it’s the first featuring a pair of side characters from the earlier books, so it reads like a stand-alone. If you’re intrigued by the idea of a Regency cinnamon roll hero falling for a fussy artist, this is your book!

Urban fantasy!

Urban fantasy series make good beach reads because they definitely take you to an altered version of reality and they’re spooky but not too scary. Tbh I haven’t stumbled on a new UF series in a while, so I’m going to recommend a classic of the genre. The Hollows series by Kim Harrison features the witch Rachel Morgan and a whole host of other paranormal creatures. The worldbuilding for the series is complex and interesting, and I’m still angry about a certain death which tells you how real these characters are to me. Highly recommend!

And while we’re at it, my fellow Scribe Shauna Granger writes urban fantasy-adjacent stories. Check out her Elemental books or her Matilda Kavanaugh series, because girlfriend knows her way around the paranormal and her books are a whole lot of fun!

Mystery!

Are you into podcasts? One of my favorites is Shedunnit, by Caroline Crampton. She’s a huge fan of Golden Age mysteries, books that were written between WW1 and WW2. (Think Agatha Christie and Dorothy L Sayers and other authors of their era, and you’ll be right on.) The podcast slices and dices all angles of those Golden Age books, and I generally end up hitting Amazon or Powells Books after each episode. (lol!)

Somehow I managed to get to a fairly advanced age before reading my first Lord Peter Wimsey book, and I regret not having started before now! Whose Body is thoroughly entertaining, and an excellent introduction to both the character and to the Golden Age sub-genre. I also really liked Patricia Wentworth’s The Black Cabinet, because her language is so good and the characters are so vibrant. Spend your vacation getting busy with the classics!!

Horror!

Okay, so, is there a better time to read a Stephen King novel about a beach then when you’re actually on a beach? I don’t think so. (lol!) I’m too much of a wimp to read Stephen King any time, anywhere, but for those of you who are braver, Duma Key is an excellent choice…especially if you happen to be on a beach in Florida.

(And fwiw, my fear of SKing stems from having read The Shining while living in a big old house with lots of shadows and creaking floors and whatnot, during November when the sun sets before 5pm. This was in 1980. I promised myself I’d never do that again, and I’ve kept that promise!)

So there you have it! Books I’ve read, books I’m going to read, and books I’m terrified of reading. (lol!) I hope you have plans for a vacation this summer, and even if it’s not on the beach, that you’ll have some time for a relaxing read!

Leave me a comment with your favorite beach read. I’m always up for suggestion!!

And fyi, click HERE to check out the ConTinual Facebook page. There are all kinds of panels and discussions about books & reading, and while our beach reads panel isn’t up yet, there are lots of others worth watching.

Feeding the Creative Beast

 

Beast (comics)
I imagine my beast like THIS Beast. (comics) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Most of us around these parts are here because we are, on some level, creative people.

 

That could mean making things with your hands, creating worlds from your mind, or any other number of avenues of expression. Or many of them.

 

This week as Kristin and I gear up to launch the Magetech RPG for my other lover website, Searching for SuperWomen, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about creativity. Being between projects with one out on submission has left me without a lot of fiction to work on. I wrote two and a half books in 2012, and it feels strange to not be frantically typing away at something.

 

I’ve also noticed a certain kind of ebb and flow when it comes to my fiction writing. I’ll go through periods where I don’t read much — and during those periods I don’t write much. When the itch to read comes along, I know I’m coming back up on a bout of writing. I’ve noticed, in the decade or so I’ve been writing seriously, that reading is almost a direct conduit to my writing. It’s like fuel.

 

Even if I’m reading a thriller and writing urban fantasy. Reading epic fantasy or classics. It doesn’t matter what I’m reading, only that when I read a lot, I write more.

 

Perhaps it’s the opening up of my mind to absorb new ideas. Maybe it’s actively engaging with another world and giving my brain permission and leeway to critically analyze what’s on the page and assess what it does for me. Either way, the synapses firing seem to spark others to carry on in their place once the pages are closed again.

 

I won’t rehash Stephen King’s famous admonition to writers. But I do think that consuming media in your field is the best way to get those creative juices flowing.

 

As we’ve been building the world for our Magetech RPG, I’ve felt that we’re dangling tidbits under our WordBeast’s nose. I can almost hear the saliva dribbling down its chin and the throaty purr that says it knows we’re about to give it a meal. Sometimes having guidelines within which to create a thing help free a character you might never have given life in the first place.

 

Bográcsgulyás, készült a fegyverneki gulyásfes...
(Ooh, this caption is in Hungarian) Bográcsgulyás, készült a fegyverneki gulyásfesztiválon (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If I had to write up a recipe to get your Beast’s engine revving, this might be it:

 

1. Gather ingredients. These could be books, movies, paintings, comics, sunsets, tree leaves, a splash in the pool, getting whacked on the head with a stick. Experiences, whether your own or those of fictional characters or those told through an artist’s lens — these are the meat of your recipe.

 

2. Engage. You can’t just throw whole carrots and hunks of onion (or a whole chicken, for that matter) into a pot and hope to have a good stew. You need to engage with each ingredient you have, wash it of dirt (or feathers and beaks), prune the inedible bits away, and season it until it sings.

 

3. Turn on the stove. You can have all your ingredients lined up and organized by color, but nothing will ever get started if you don’t start the pot boiling. Your creative beast needs to eat, and looking at prettily arranged, carefully chosen ingredients will do nothing but make it stagnate.

 

The Beast is hungry, and while it might feel like you’re losing something to put all that effort into feeding it, the output you get is worth the toil. And I’m not going to continue with the food and digestive metaphor with that, because erm…no crap is going to sound enticing unless it’s dipped in gold. And even then, it’s just gilded poo. So…let’s say that your Beast instead creates heat. That heat powers your creations.

 

Will there be elements of the initial ingredients? Probably. But if you engaged properly and trimmed, bathed, and de-beaked them from the get-go, they’ll look like you and not like the original chicken.

 

The best thing about feeding the creative beast is that you get more out the more you put in.

 

Some people like the idea of having a muse, but I’ve always thought of muses as a fickle, passive sort of thing. Makes a great excuse when you can blame your muse for not creating. But feeding a beast? It requires action. It requires agency.

 

And the whole basis of “creative” implies a creator.

 

That’s you.

 

Feed your beast.

 

Listening to Fear

I remember reading once that we are born with two innate fears: loud noises and falling.

Every other fear we have is learned behaviour.

Scary Mask 10-24-2009a
“Let’s go kiss some babies.” Scary Mask 10-24-2009a (Photo credit: Brendan O’s)

I’m not saying go test this out by dressing up as a grotesque monster dripping blood and cooing at some babies to see if they giggle or scream, but when I think about the things that scare me, they are things that I’ve learned.

I learned to fear spiders when I watched Arachnophobia at the age of four. I learned to fear clowns when I saw It at age eight, and I learned that dolls are creepy when I watched all the Child’s Play movies when I was six or seven. All of those things stuck with me because filmmakers and writers created something truly frightening.

creepy Chucky doll lashed to a bike
Yup. The little freak still creeps me out. Creepy Chucky doll lashed to a bike (Photo credit: massdistraction)

For years, I would read R.L. Stine’s Fear Street books before bed and sleep just fine. Rotting purple flesh, decomposing cheerleaders, bodies hanging like pendulums — none of that scarred me for life, but it taught me to respect fear.

Fear is an emotion that’s made out of many series of psychosomatic impulses. It’s mind and body, working together to give you a wiggins. It’s why the image of a foreign finger tracing an ice cold line down the back of your neck is probably creepier than a knife by itself. Fear is something that is built up in the mind and expressed in responses of the body.

The great writers of horror, like H.P. Lovecraft and Stephen King, understand that creepy is a state of mind. Before you can make an audience jump or shiver or perspire, you have to lure them into your world. Here are a few of the ways to do that.

Creepy House on Mill Dam Rd
Creepy House on Mill Dam Rd (Photo credit: vork22)

Isolation

Are the scariest scenes set in crowds of bodies? Not usually. Most real horror involves isolation. Most often this is physical, but sometimes it is mental isolation. One of the first films I remember truly terrifying me was The Blair Witch Project. In that film, the three protagonists are isolated in the Maryland forests. Once it becomes clear that something scary is going on, they can’t seem to find their way out. They are in almost total isolation, stuck with a malevolent force.

This theme is also true in one of my new favourite shows, American Horror Story. In the first season, you have a family isolated in a home filled with dead people. They can’t sell it, and they can’t afford to move. In the second season, the show bridges both the inherent physical isolation of an asylum, but also integrates the mental isolation of the asylum’s masters and those imprisoned within its walls. A great example of mental isolation is the film The Craft, where the protagonist isn’t necessarily physically isolated, but the tension between her and her coven gradually increases her mental isolation from her family, her classmates, and her love interest.

Baby socks
Baby socks (Photo credit: Being a Dilettante)

The Unexpected

Sure, the image above isn’t that creepy by itself. But what if I told you it was taken at a crime scene? That would bring to mind questions. Who arranged those socks like that, and why? Were babies harmed? The unexpected isn’t about startling people into jumping high enough to bonk their heads on the ceiling. The unexpected is about putting something safe and familiar in a hostile context.

Some of the most iconic moments in horror stem from something unexpected. A child twitching a finger and saying, “Red rum” over and over again — who doesn’t remember the first time they realised he was saying MURDER backward?

Museum Collections Centre - 25 Dollman Street ...
Museum Collections Centre – 25 Dollman Street – cages – grandfather clock (Photo credit: ell brown)

Toy With Time

Fear is closely tied to suspense. Both are an anticipation of something to come, though fear has a more negative connotation. As writers, we have the unique ability to slow time and stretch out moments. Where fear and suspense in film are often heightened by details and focus on one thing (a long dark hallway, or silence), in writing you have to tie together multiple elements to create a truly scary scene.

Time can be slowed by zooming in on one detail. A fluttering curtain when all the windows are meant to be closed. Or it can be slowed by concentrating on a protagonist’s emotion, like the slickness of sweat on the back of his neck. The real magic happens when you strike the balance of giving the reader just enough to pull them from sentence to sentence while drawing out the moment of reward as long as possible.

Military Cemetary

Repetition

When done with care, weaving in a repetitive detail to a narrative can increase suspense. It can provide a reader with clues about when it’s time to be scared. In cases where repetition is used with extreme subtlety, it can foster a sense of foreboding without the reader even being able to pinpoint the reason for it.

An example of using repetition is what was done in the film The Ring. By the time you first saw the video in the film all the way through, you already associated the phone ringing with death and violence. When I first watched that film with friends, the phone happened to ring at that exact moment. We all screeched — wouldn’t you? This is one of the more obvious examples of repetition, but it can be a very effective technique no matter where you aim on the spectrum of subtlety.

Creating fear in a reader is a daunting task. It takes drawing on your own experiences as well as an understanding that just about anything can be frightening if you give it the proper attention. As writers, our words and stories can take people beyond the simplicity of loud noises and falling to deep psychological disturbance and pulse-pounding terror. It’s all up to how you use them.

What are your first memories of fear? What experiences do you draw on when you write scary scenes? How do you twist the mundane to push the reader in uncomfortable territory and then over the line into fear?