Back in October of 2015, in conjunction with the launch of The Sense of Reckoning, I provided a guest post for Omnimystery News titled "The Sense of Place - The Story Behind the Story." Making a story's location as much a character in the plot as the human participants has always been a goal of mine, and one that reviewers seem to feel I've delivered on in The Sense of Reckoning (set largely in the Bar Harbor / Acadia area of Maine) and The Sense of Death (set largely in the Philadelphia area, including my own home base of Chester County, PA).
When I read Robert Blake Whitehill's thriller Deadrise, I was struck by the vividness of his depiction of the setting of his story: Smith Island and the Chesapeake Bay. As the winner of screenwriting awards at the Hamptons International Film Festival and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Screenwriting Fellowship
(for UXO (Unexploded Ordnance)) and the Hudson Valley Film Festival (for Blue Rinse), and as a finalist in the Telluride IndieFest (Blue Rinse), Robert obviously knows a thing or two about setting a scene.
I asked Robert if he would be willing to share his thoughts on the setting as character, and he provided the wonderful post below. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did, and that it will inspire you to check out Robert's books!
Westworld. Big Two Hearted River. The cradle of action in fiction can be so integral to a work that the setting’s name becomes the title of the story. While my own titles are drawn from different sources for other reasons, the settings for the Ben Blackshaw series are no less crucial, both for their uniqueness to the Blackshaw world, and for their commonalities with the settings crafted by other writers.
Smith Island, in the Chesapeake Bay, is really a low-lying archipelago of stream-riven bluffs and sandy hummocks. The few hundred hardy souls living there in two small hamlets can communicate via walkways and footbridges. A third village can be reached only by boat. In between, the wild beauty of the marshes in fog might conjure a sense of misty English moors. Four hundred years ago, when the original Cornish settlers first arrived, they must have felt at home. And yet Smith Island’s bedrock is sinking, even as the waters of climate change rise. This beloved place is slowly trying to kill its people, or drive them off to safer elevations. This tells you something about the spirit of the folks who choose to live there. (Isn’t that the value of any hero’s hardship?)
I have made an effort to ensure that the settings of the Blackshaw thrillers are well-developed and intriguing in their own right. Reviewers have remarked that my take on the Chesapeake Bay makes it more like a character than a mere place where the business occurs. Certainly the Chesapeake’s weather is mercurial, moody. Its depths can obscure astounding truths and horrors lying on the muddy bottom. It can stretch mirror flat for miles, or it can hide an enemy just beyond the horse’s mane whipping off the crest of the next steep looming wave. The Chesapeake can feed an entire island, an entire nation, or drown every last soul biding there. Its salty alluvial scents can evoke memories of love, of childhood, of plenty, of home; its dark brackish depths can flood lungs and clog throats with suffocating bitterness; the watery chill of death.
In a thriller, the setting serves many turns. The most important characteristic of a locale for dynamic action is isolating the main characters the way a boxing ring contains the fighters, the way a stage helps us know where the actors will do their thing. This isolation on a closed stage also requires a character to work only with what he can forage or make from the immediate environment as in Apollo 13 scripted by William Broyles Jr. and Al Reinert. A writer can also carefully, plausibly trickle in outside influences according to her plot’s requirements. In the case of Apollo 13, the outside influence was just information and ideas from Ground Control about using foraged materials to help the heroes save themselves.
An island can sequester characters, preventing escape, as in Defoes’s Robinson Crusoe, and William Broyles Jr.’s script for Cast Away. Total containment can be guaranteed by reefs, sharks (as in Anthony Jaswinski’s script for The Shallows), or simple overwhelming distances that prevent one from being found, or which hinder rescue once found. James Bond villains love their island lairs because the isolation confers a naturally defensible perimeter, bolstered by man-eating crabs or armed guards who cannot shoot straight, but who can be relied upon to pitch screaming off a high palisade or cliff to a watery grave when they themselves are plugged.
There are all kinds of figurative islands in fiction. In Dov Simen’s Two Day Film School, he recommends making one’s first low budget film a horror movie by ‘locking a bunch of teenagers in a cabin in the woods and chopping them up.’ Isolation. No hope of escape or rescue. The clichéd, “No one will hear you scream” applies here. A science fiction setting on an alien planet, such as The Martian, or on a spacecraft, like Event Horizon, or on an underwater habitat, as in The Abyss, fulfills the same isolating function, with the added frustration that well-meaning rescuers might know exactly where the endangered protagonist is, but they cannot hope arrive in time across vast hostile distances.
What if a setting fails to offer enough dramatic isolation to match the tale’s stakes? In Deadrise, I added a hurricane to further jeopardize all the characters on the storm-tossed Chesapeake. The bad weather also reduced visibility to a claustrophobic minimum allowing characters to be nearly on top of one another, but still not see each other. Underwater, clouds overhead nulled sunlight, and conspired with curtains of silt to prevent Blackshaw from noticing important plot developments immediately in his vicinity until I chose the precise moment to let the silt clear just enough for the story to begin. Later, the eye-watering ammonia-guano stench of a great blue heron rookery serves to protect a cache of buried gold from discovery by casual trespassers.
In Nitro Express, I create an itinerary of international settings with darkness, distance, the heights of skyscraper rooftops, a field of steaming fumaroles and geysers in the high Chilean Atacama desert, as well as a labyrinthine cathedral of vaulted ice sheets on the bottom of Canada’s Wakeham Bay at low tide. Obscuring a character’s view, blocking any sensory input really, is key to keeping him ignorant of imminent dangers, allowing a writer to string the plot with near-misses and direct hits of fortuitous or catastrophic nature.
In Tap Rack Bang, Blackshaw is holed up on a man-made island of sorts; the wreck of a Liberty Ship in the Chesapeake Bay. There is a handy fog-bank in play as well. The story climaxes in the makeshift cells of a human trafficking ring in dark catacomb tunnels beneath a liquid natural gas facility.
In Geronimo Hotshot, the Arizona border wilderness offers hills to hide and fatigue footsore travelers, ravines for entrapping, handy crevasses for stashing corpses, and arroyos to block the sight of closer dangers. I added in a vast and dark cavern system below (complete with a fast-running subterranean river), as well as the obscuring, choking smoke plumes of a raging wildfire on the surface. The setting is as much a hero’s path as a place, and it must be strewn with obstacles.
My hat is off to Lee Child for his canny use of wide open space in his Jack Reacher novel, Worth Dying For. Like George Lucas in THX1138 and his agoraphobia-inducing featureless white rooms that seemingly have no walls, Child sets his action in Nebraska, a Great Plain State, and centers it in a remote small town built around a crossroads. One result of this setting is keeping law enforcement local, corrupt, cowed, or apathetic by turns. Child makes it clear that Reacher could walk out, or hitch-hike out, if he wished. Reacher’s moral enforcer conscience pins him to the locale until he sees the action through.
I must also salute my father, Joseph Whitehill, and his use of setting as the denouement of his short story entitled Marshmallow World, which appeared in the April, 1954 issue of Astounding Science Fiction. The world potentate was afraid of the strongest man in the world, who though peaceful, could burst steel ball bearings between thumb and forefinger. How to contain such a man if he turned traitorous? In the end, the threatened potentate marooned the strong man on an island surrounded by a marshmallow sea, a medium against which his mightiest swimming strokes would yield no distance in the fluff. To my mind, that setting is perfect.
As has been noted, there are many qualities of a setting. They can become clever devices for leaking information to readers and watchers. It is fine to let your audience learn things at the same time as a character. Let the audience see something before a character does, what’s just around the corner, and that’s getting interesting, building tension. Let the audience learn something after the character, that in simplest terms is your unreliable narrator, and all bets are off; the reader or viewer can trust nothing until the story’s end, and sometimes not even then.
The cell phone and setting. These devices, so helpful in real life, are the bane of any good thriller author. The mobile phone dispels tension too easily, makes the cavalry just a phone call away. That’s why, true to the real Smith Island, cell phone reception in Deadrise is anemic at best. Add a crippling storm, and the island’s few rickety cell towers come down. Likewise, the land lines are toast. No dialing for help, no data, no encouraging word or clue from a friend. Instead, Blackshaw eventually forages an enemy satellite phone, which does not need cell towers; but now Blackshaw can only gather intel from, or spread disinformation to, his enemy.
If a setting is character, I first use the five senses to help readers to perceive it. How does a place look, smell, taste, sound, and feel to a character, and most importantly, what memories or emotions are evoked in a character by those sensory revelations? I tend to pick one impactful sense on which to focus, though I might eventually refer to all the others to round out a character’s—and therefore a reader’s—experience. The setting in a thriller is the very matrix in which the plot unfolds. Without a keen eye to developing a vivid sense of place, an author short-changes the audience, and fails to exploit one of the most subtle, yet powerful agents of progress and setbacks for the hero.
Robert Blake Whitehill is the critically-acclaimed, award-winning, bestselling author of the Ben Blackshaw Series, which is available in English and German. A proud native of Maryland’s Eastern Shore, he lives in New Jersey with his family.
#LeeChild #Castaway #BenBlackshaw #ChesapeakeBay #TheShallows #DovSimen
Do you love a novel with a strong sense of place? Then please click here to check out the Ann Kinnear Suspense Novels, The Sense of Death and The Sense of Reckoning, and click here to sign up for Matty's monthly-ish email newsletter to get updates on progress on her third novel, Rock Paper Scissors, and other author activities!
It’s been a busy couple of weeks! On October 22, I did a signing at the Midtown Scholar Bookstore in Harrisburg, where I was joined by Tory Gates. I chatted with customers, signed books, drank excellent coffee, and got the inside scoop from Tory about outreach via radio. Also had some fun with the store signage.
Then Wade and I traveled to Mt. Desert Island, Maine, the setting for much of The Sense of Reckoning, which has as its backstory a devastating fire that occurred there at the end of October, 1947. On October 27 of this year, historian Sean Cox and I gave a talk at the Jesup Memorial Library in Bar Harbor about the fire. The library set up a great display on the topic ...
... and Sean and I feigned casualness before the event ...
For the talk, I read two excerpts from The Sense of Reckoning--one scene that takes place during the fire, and one during the fire's aftermath. Sean, an MDI local and the person who helped me get the details of the fire right, provided a fascinating historical perspective using photos, old postcards, and clippings of newspaper articles and ads.
I was nervous about whether we would be able to draw a decent-sized audience during the MDI off-season, but people started coming in half an hour before the talk was scheduled to start ... and kept coming in, with the library staff pulling out extra chairs to accommodate the growing crowd. By the time we started the talk at 7:00, there were seventy people in the audience, including some watching from the balcony that surrounds the main floor!
The talk went well, and was made even more fun by a great audience. At the end, some people who had experienced the fire and its aftermath in person shared their memories of the event. One gentleman described seeing firefighters patrolling the area where the fire started during the day, guarding against flare-ups, but recalled that they went home each night. Another audience member told of being a four-year-old and finding all the excitement quite exhilarating, although she was upset when her mother covered her with a blanket during part of their escape; she found out only later that they had driven right through the fire to reach safety. I heard another audience member relate a relative's delight at having her first experience of macaroni and cheese at one of the canteens serving the fire victims.
The conversation with the audience members continued after the talk wrapped up. The attendees seemed appreciative of the evening of information and entertainment, the library mentioned having us back for another talk (maybe next October, which will be the seventieth anniversary of the fire), and I introduced The Sense of Reckoning to seventy potential readers who are obviously deeply interested in all things MDI-related.
Next year, Sean, Wade, and I are going to go to Bar Harbor's Blaze restaurant for our after-talk drink!
Happy haunted reading!
Last week Wade and I had a rejuvenating vacation on Mt. Desert Island, Maine, filled not only with R&R but also with many book-related activities! I had a signing of The Sense of Reckoning, which is set on MDI, at the venerable Sherman’s Books in Bar Harbor; restocked the Reckoning supply in the “gift niche” at The Claremont Hotel, which serves as the model for the fictional Lynams Point Hotel; checked out the venue for the talk I will be giving with MDI Fire of ’47 researcher Sean Cox at Bar Harbor’s Jesup Library on October 27; and snapped a photo of The Ann Kinnear Suspense Novels on a shelf in the Southwest Harbor Public Library, which also makes a brief appearance in The Sense of Reckoning.
We also visited friends at their home on what we fondly refer to as Porkchop Island, which could make a great setting for the next Ann Kinnear book—what’s more suspenseful than an isolated locale complete with sand dunes and a backhoe appropriate for digging (and burying)?
Most of my time, though, was spent finishing up a draft of my next (non-Ann Kinnear) book to send off to my editor, Jen Blood. (Check out Jen’s Erin Solomon thriller series—highly recommended!) My next book features a child (and, later, teen) dealing with the physical and emotional consequences of her ability to affect others through the power of her mind. My working title for it was A Mind Diseased:
Canst thou not minister to a mind diseased,
Pluck from the memory a rooted sorrow,
Raze out the written troubles of the brain
And with some sweet oblivious antidote
Cleanse the stuffed bosom of that perilous stuff
Which weighs upon the heart?
That would have continued my practice of using Shakespeare quotes for titles (“the sense of death” is fromMeasure for Measure, and “the sense of reckoning” is from Henry V). However, when spoken out loud, it requires an oddly portentous delivery (“A Mind … Diseased”) to avoid having it sound like A Mine Diseased(perhaps the story of the Chilean miners?). Plus, since this was a different cast of characters, and, I hope, the start of a second series, it seemed as if a different title theme would be preferable.
Thanks to my creative and marketing-minded husband, Wade Walton, I now have the title for my next book:Rock Paper Scissors. (Possible sequel title: Hangman.)
I can’t wait for Walton Marketing to provide the blurb for RPS so I can share that with you!
Yes, it’s my annual Happy Independents (i.e., Independent Publishers) Day blog post!
It’s been a busy spring and summer, with author meet-and-greets at Levante Brewing Company, Galer Estate Winery, and Kildare’s Irish Pub; a talk at my alma mater, Dickinson College; a signing of The Sense of Reckoning at Sherman’s Books in Bar Harbor; and my first experience of having one of my books paired with a wine (Merlot) at The Vineyard at Hershey! (Click here for information on upcoming events.)
I also took the dive into podcasting, with my first experience as a podcast interviewee on Alexandra Amor’s wonderful It’s a Mystery Podcast: “Spirit Sensing Sleuths, Rockefellers, and Aviation with Matty Dalrymple.”
I love that Matty has created a character who is growing into her role as a sleuth, rather than arriving on the scene fully formed. It seems so true-to-life. When you hear her describe the scene on the battlefield you’ll know what I mean about why writers write. So beautiful!
I’m also excited to announce that July marks the launch of my own podcast, The Indy Author! You can listen to my introductory episode here (this is the interview I did with Channel 20 earlier this year). The podcast will be available to subscribe to on iTunes and other podcasting platforms soon! You can also check out my almost-ready-for-prime-time new web site for The Indy Author while you’re there (and please let me know if you run into any issues).
That brings me to the real theme of today’s Independents Day blog: the reason I refer to my venture as “independent publishing” and not “self-publishing.”
To me, “self-publishing” implies “going it alone,” whereas “independent publishing” means running one’s publishing endeavor like the business it is, and enlisting other experts to enable one to provide excellent products to one’s readers and followers. With the overhaul of the web site and launch of the podcast, I’ve added to my indy publishing “staff” of professional editor, proofreaders, and graphic designers by hiring an audio engineer, a transcriptionist, and a web site developer through Upwork (highly recommended).
I made this choice because, although I probably could have muddled my way through this work, I don’t want to present a muddled result to my readers and followers. More importantly, though, I want to maximize the time I can spend on the work that only I can do—writing my books.
On that front, I’m happy to report that as of this (very productive) Independents Day weekend, I have broken the 80K words mark with Book 3 (The Sense of Death is about 80K words, and The Sense of Reckoning is a little shorter than that). I’m thinking that the finished product will come in at 85K-90K words. This week I’m off to ThrillerFest in New York City, and plan to come home from that energized to finished up my polished draft and send it off to my editor, Jen Blood, at the beginning of August.
Here's wishing you a festive 4th!
On Memorial Day, I achieved one of my personal goals by having a signing of The Sense of Reckoning at Sherman’s Books in Bar Harbor (“The Oldest Bookstore in Maine”). Sherman’s is just what you want in an indy bookstore: a curated selection of books (with plenty of offerings by local authors and on local topics), knowledgeable staff, and creaking wooden floors. Plus I now know where the hidden door is that leads to the spooky basement and the employee restroom!
I was joined at Sherman's by Sean Cox, who provided his historical expertise to ensure the details of the Fire of 1947 and mid-century MDI I used in Reckoning were accurate. (I'm looking forward to catching up with Sean again on October 27 when we will be giving a talk at Bar Harbor’s Jesup Library on “Fact and Fiction: The Fire of ’47.”)
In fact, the whole weekend on Mt. Desert Island, was a tour of Ann Kinnear’s world. Wade and I stayed at The Claremont Hotel in Southwest Harbor, which is the inspiration for Lynam’s Point Hotel (minus the deteriorating conditions and, one assumes, the criminal goings-on), and strolled down to the boathouse where Ann meets Chip Lynam’s spirit.
Photo by Wade Walton
We had breakfast in the room overlooking Somes Sound (Lynam Narrows in the book) where Garrick Masser speaks with Loring Lynam. We examined the infamous elevator. (With the hotel itself not yet open to guests, it’s currently being used for storage.)
We drove on the road that Chip took between Lynam’s Point and the grand “cottage,” Jardin d’Eden, and that cuts through one of the parts of the island that was burned by the fire. We walked the streets that Ann and Scott walked and admired the view of the harbor that they enjoyed during their visit to MDI. We even stopped in Cool as a Moose, the (unnamed) store where Ann and Scott purchase some moose-themed souvenirs of their visit.
I love visiting places that are the settings for stories that have captured my imagination—what is a place you’ve visited after reading a book, or a book you’ve read after visiting a certain place?
On April 29, I was one of three speakers at an event at my alma mater, Dickinson College; the student group Idea Fund hosted a TED Talk-esque event as part of their Our Community Their Ideas series, the theme of which was “Alter Ego: Who’s the Other You?” Below is the fleshed-out version of my notes for my talk.
My husband is a pilot and flies a 1979 Piper Arrow, which is suspiciously like the one the character Walt Federman flies in my first novel, The Sense of Death. I travel as a passenger in the Arrow quite frequently, and a couple of years ago I decided to take a "pinch hitter" course which teaches a non-pilot passenger how to control and land a plane in case the pilot is incapacitated. I took my first lesson in a Piper Warrior—a sort of baby Arrow—at Brandywine Airport in West Chester, Pennsylvania (which also makes an appearance in The Sense of Death) and I was hooked, and I continued taking lessons.
On the surface that sounds like classic Superman—after all, what’s more Superman-like than flying?
In addition, I started learning about how the engine works and doing the calculations necessary to plan for fuel consumption during a flight, despite the fact that I never thought of myself as particularly mechanically- or mathematically-inclined. And those Clark Kent parts contributed just as much as the Superman parts to my belief that I could do this thing that at one point I might have thought was beyond my abilities.
The fact that I was able to do all those things—the flying and the taxiing, the landing and the flight plan calculations—made me believe that I could take on the creative right-brain challenge of writing a novel, and then that I could take on the practical left-brain challenge of publishing and promoting it.
Or, to paraphrase another “superhero”—Dr. Frank-N-Furter from Rocky Horror Picture Show …
This past week I spent three days in Philadelphia for the jury selection process for a federal trial—yes, that’s right, three days on jury selection, and we’re still not done! The wheels of justice turn exceedingly slowly (if I may adjust the quote to fit the circumstances).
My trips in and out of Philadelphia via Amtrak did give me an opportunity to do a little fact-checking for my third book, which has a scene that takes place at 30th Street Station. I’ve provided the current draft of that scene below. Take a look and see if you can tell where the error is—and maybe you’ll identify some other errors I’m not aware of! Post your comments here!
3/16/16 I got several good guesses as to the error in the scene, but not the one I was thinking of ... I describe there being a line of cabs outside the station, but not the line of customers that would be waiting for them! If Patrick and Holly ran out of 30th Street Station and jumped in the first cab without a little negotiating with the people in the line they were jumping, it would probably have quite a different outcome. : )
The article below appears in the Winter 2016 issue of Dickinson Magazine, along with a blurb in the "Fine Print" section about indy publishing and the second Ann Kinnear Suspense Novel, The Sense of Reckoning.
"Trading One Craft for Another"
by Matty Dalrymple
What do you do when two passions in your life vie for your time and energy? Is it possible to do justice to both? Must one eventually win out over the other?
For me those two passions are writing and flying.
My husband is a pilot and flies a 1979 Piper Arrow, which is suspiciously like the one the character Walt Federman flies in my novel The Sense of Death. As a frequent passenger in the Arrow, I decided to take a “pinch hitter” course, which teaches a non-pilot how to control and land a plane in case athe pilot is incapacitated. I took my first lesson in a Piper Warrior—a sort of baby Arrow—at Brandywine Airport in West Chester, Pa. (which also makes an appearance in The Sense of Death). I was hooked.
I continued my lessons, and went from being nervous about even taxiing the plane to being so blasé about it that my instructor once asked me if I planned to take off from the taxiway—ah, yes, never taxi faster than a fast walk. I went from slewing all over the runway on landing to doing a fairly decent job of staying on the centerline. I even started learning about how the engine works and doing the calculations necessary to plan for fuel consumption during a flight, despite the fact that I never thought of myself as particularly mechanically—or mathematically—inclined.
I experienced such elation when I did something well, and such frustration when I did something badly, but gradually the elation started to gain on the frustration and I began to anticipate the thrill of actually becoming a licensed pilot.
But there was another consideration—my writing.
I found that when I took a lesson, my brain was on aerodynamics and radio communications and best glide speed long after the lesson was over. It would take me several days to clear my head of aviation to make room for writing and publishing. So in the fall of 2013, as I was getting ready for the publication of The Sense of Death, I decided to take a hiatus from flying.
I intended to return to lessons once the book was published, but then I discovered the truth that promoting a book is just as time-consuming as writing one.
Furthermore, I was working on the sequel, The Sense of Reckoning, and doing both of these things on top of my job as a project manager at QVC. Months went by and there were no new entries in my log book. I realized that trying and failing to fit in a flying lesson was even more distracting than the lessons themselves. I had embarked on the lessons because I loved flying, but it was becoming just another responsibility to discharge (and an expensive one at that). The hiatus soon became a sabbatical.
So here I am, grounded and rapidly forgetting all that hard-won aviation knowledge I had been packing into my reluctant brain. Do I regret my adventure in aviation?
Not at all. I believe that if it hadn’t been for my aviation experiences, the idea that I could actually write a novel, establish a business through which to publish it, and then manage its promotion to wider and wider audiences might never have occurred to me.
If I hadn’t taken that first pinch-hitter course I would have missed out on that feeling of pride when a landing won a high-five from my instructor, or when I felt that little bump on the completion of a turn around a point that meant I had completed the circuit at exactly the same point I had entered it.
But I believe I also would have missed out on the thrill of seeing my book on the shelves of a bookstore or of hearing someone talk about my characters as if they were real people. I believe that my experience with aircraft enabled my experience with my writing craft.
And I look forward to a day when I can resume my lessons and fly myself to a signing for my latest, aviation-themed novel.
I celebrated the new year by coming up with a working title for my third book … read to the end to find out what it is!
Much to my surprise, my third book is turning out NOT to be an Ann Kinnear Suspense Novel! I have a start on Ann Kinnear Book 3 (stay tuned for more news on that front), but I had another story rattling around in my head. The main character in this story, like Ann, has an extraordinary ability but, unlike Ann, it is one that poses a danger to others. Being a fan of Shakespeare (Google “the sense of death” and “the sense of reckoning”), the working title I gave the book was “A Furnace for Your Foe.” (Not one that trips off the tongue but, hey, it gave me something to name the file.)
One evening over dinner with Wade and a friend, I gave them an overview of the plot. Our friend suggested I read one of Stephen King’s novels … yup, I had just written a synopsis of Firestarter. (My main character even had a name similar to King’s main character.) I must have read Firestarter a couple of decades ago, because every once in a while I would encounter a passage that seemed familiar—the plot as a whole felt new to me, but there must have been a brain cell storing the details. Hey, if you’re going to subconsciously plagiarize, Stephen King is a good source to choose!
So I reworked the story—among other changes, giving the main character a different skill than firestarting (and a different name). It’s coming along nicely—I already have 23,000 drafty words. (The Sense of Death and The Sense of Reckoning were each about 80,000—I think this one is going to end up being quite a bit longer.)
And I have the working title: A Mind Diseased.
Canst thou not minister to a mind diseased;
Pluck from the memory a rooted sorrow;
Raze out the written troubles of the brain;
And, with some sweet oblivious antidote,
Cleanse the stuffed bosom of that perilous stuff
Which weighs upon the heart?
Macbeth - Act v. Sc. 3.
I just signed up for a promotion through The Fussy Librarian, which proved to be an eye-opening experience.
The Fussy Librarian has an interesting spin on the business of providing readers with book recommendations—readers can sign up to receive email notifications of ebooks based not only on genres of interest to them (à la BookBub), but also based on content preferences for language, violence, and sexual content, rated as None, Mild, or Extensive / Extreme.
Before you read further, if you’re a reader, think of a book you read recently and decide how you would assess the content based on these ratings; if you’re an author, consider one of your own books.
Based just on the terms None, Mild, and Extensive / Extreme, I filled out a form submitting The Sense of Death for consideration (it will be featured for $0.99 on 1/1/16!). Then I started questioning my responses. The assessment seemed so contextual—for example, an assessment of the level of violence will differ depending on whether one is using Arthur Conan Doyle or Thomas Harris as the point of comparison. So I wrote to the Fussy Librarian asking for guidance, and got this:
Extensive profanity. Frequent use of the f-word or any use of the c-word (either of them) or mother-******. R.
Mild profanity. Occasional use of hell, damn. The f-word once or twice. PG-13.
No profanity. G or PG.
So I had to change my rating from “Mild profanity” to “Extensive profanity” since I use the f-word 17 times in The Sense of Death. I’ve only ever gotten one complaint about the language in my books, and that was from a friend who, I think, was wishing I would be a little more lady-like in my language. (That said, it did take me a minute to figure out what the second c-word was.)
Explicit descriptions of violence. Reserved for deeply unsettling scenes, including scenes of torture, rape. or incest. Think “American Psycho,” "Hannibal," or most of Chuck Palahniuk’s work.
Extensive violence. If a character dies a violent death, it should get this rating. Suicides also merit this rating. R.
Mild violence. A little gunfire is okay (includes setting below). Fistfights, some gunfire. PG-13.
No violence. G or PG.
So I had to change my rating from “Mild violence” to “Extensive violence” since a character dies a violent death.
Explicit descriptions of sexual acts. Scenes that describe a couple having sex. All erotic romance automatically gets this rating. R or unrated.
Mild sexual content. Non-explicit scenes of sex are fine. Characters have sex but it’s off the page. PG-13.
No sexual content. Kissing and affection but nothing steamy. G or PG-13.
(I did wonder about them specifying that the Explicit rating applies to couples having sex. If it’s a threesome, does that somehow merit a different rating?)
I got to keep my rating at “Mild sexual content.” I once had a potential reader ask me if my book had a lot of sex in it. I told her, “Only one passing reference,” and she said, “Then I’m not interested.” Hoping I’m not discouraging any potential readers with that admission!
I thought the exercise was an interesting illustration of the different expectations a book’s author and its readers bring to a book! (Plus it made me think that The Fussy Librarian needed a “Moderate” rating between “Mild” and “Explicit / Extensive.” And that maybe there’s a space in the market for the Slovenly Hedonist site with a different rating scale!)
Did your assessment of your book’s ratings match up with The Fussy Librarian’s guidelines?