Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Heroes and Villains

Part II: Bad Guys Don't Need to be Human

Stories pit an antagonist against a protagonist. The conflict can be anything from an everyday struggle against life’s travails to a battle to the death. Whatever the scale of the clash, there is always tension in a good story. Edge-of-your-seat page-turners are often about a heroic figure fighting against a ruthless and capable villain.  Villains come in limitless varieties, but they must always be formidable. If you write an action/adventure story, you need an intimidating antagonist who can fill your hero with self-doubt. Whatever the physical or mental capabilities of your hero, the villain must present an insurmountable challenge. Superheroes need super villains. That’s why Lex Luthor always has a handy stash of Kryptonite.

A great villain can have unnatural powers, a gang of allies, or simply be crazed, but they do not need to be human. In fact, some of the most interesting villains have been animals. Herman Melville set a whale up as the supposed antagonist in Moby Dick, a good dog gone rabid made Stephen King’s Cujo a terrifying story, and Daphne du Maurier choose seagulls in his short story The Birds, which Alfred Hitchcock made into an iconic movie. King Kong, Godzilla, the Alien in the Sigourney Weaver thrillers, and the raptors in Jurassic Park are on the other side of the scale from commonplace seagulls. Personally, the lions in The Ghost and the Darkness were the most nerve racking protagonists I ever encounter in a darkened theater.

So when you plot out your next story and you need a really scary bad guy, don’t forget it doesn’t need to be a guy … and it doesn’t need to be human. Or even alive in a biological sense. Next post we’ll look at some ornery machines that scared the bejesus out of breathing characters.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Faith Friese Nelson Reviews The Shut Mouth Society

The Shut Mouth Society by James D. Best is the kind of book I like best.
It starts with a rich collector who has discovered an early Abraham Lincoln document. The collector asks two people to authenticate the manuscript: Greg Evarts, a detective, and Patricia Baldwin, a professor. The professor, of course, is not only smart but stinking rich and beautiful. The novel has everything from intrigue and murder to romance.
The story begins in California and progresses to the historical east coast where the reader is introduced to private libraries, secret apartments, and shown how rich and powerful civil war descendants live. Conspiracies and secret societies from the Civil War era are unveiled in such a realistic manner that, when I finished the book, I actually did some research to separate fact from fiction.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Mr. Know-it-All Lauds the Steve Dancy Series

Mr. Know-it-All (Gary Clothier) is a columnist for the Star Democrat in Maryland. Nice answer to a reader's question. At least I liked it.

Q: A friend showed me a list of old-time cowboy movie stars, including pictures. On the list was James Best. I recently finished reading a Western novel by James Best. Was the movie star also a writer? The novel was excellent. F.T.N., Bangor, Maine

A: James Best the actor also lists accomplishments of being an artist and director. He was born in 1926 as Jules Guy, and is probably best known for his role as Sheriff Rosco P. Coltrane in the popular TV series "The Dukes of Hazzard." According to publicity material, he claims to have appeared in more than 600 television shows and appeared in more than 80 films.

James D. Best the author has written at least six books, including the Steve Dancy Western novels: "The Shopkeeper," "Leadville" and "Murder at Thumb Butte." I couldn't agree with you more about the series. I read them and enjoyed them immensely.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Heroes and Villains

Part 1: Heroes Need an Antagonist

Protagonists come in three basic groupings—the wholesome hero, the flawed hero, and the anti-hero. The level of heroics may be all over the map—from resolving an inner conflict to saving the galaxy—but the three types remain relatively constant. Examples of wholesome heroes include; Roy Rogers, Frodo Baggins, and Atticus Finch. John Wayne often played a flawed hero, as did Clint Eastwood. Other examples of flawed heroes include Sherlock Holmes, Oskar Schindler, and Huckleberry Finn. 

Nowadays, the anti-hero has risen to prominence in storytelling. For pure nastiness, Chigurh in No Country for Old Men gives Alex DeLarge in Clockwork Orange a run for the money. (Cormac McCarthy and Anthony Burgess certainly knew how to carve out a sympathetic sociopath.) Victor Frankenstein, Macbeth, and Hannibal Lecter provide additional examples of antiheroes.

Whether our protagonist comes from a background as common as dirt, or is a cerebral solver of Einsteinian puzzles, or a bigger-than-life champion of the downtrodden; the hero of our story must eventually overcome a tougher-than-nails antagonist. Protagonists may fight with wits or brawn, but win they must. And they can’t win easily—otherwise it’s not much of a story. After all, a hero cannot be heroic without a scary antagonist. The great news for writers is that unlike protagonists, the varieties and variations in antagonists are beyond imagination. Antagonists can be an inner conflict, an animal, time, a place, a villain, a machine, or even a child. Antagonists make writing fun. And it’s the antagonist that keeps our readers turning the page. More on this in another blog post. Stay tuned.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Arizona Centennial Conference

The official Arizona Centennial Conference will be held April 18-21, 2012 at Pointe Hilton Tapatio Cliffs Resort, Phoenix. On February 14, 1912, Arizona became the last continental territory to be admitted as a state. Delaware, the first state, had already been in the union one hundred and twenty-five years. Trains, planes, and automobiles had shrunk wide-open spaces and generated the kind of enthusiasm we now see for iProducts. The telephone was starting to supplant the telegraph, so the year before, American Telephone & Telegraph took control of Western Union Telegraph Company, to create "Ma Bell." The University of Arizona had already existed for twenty-seven years. In the same year, Oreo cookies would be introduced, and the Titanic would sink.

Some blame the gunfight at the OK Corral in 1881 for Arizona's late statehood. The national notoriety gave the rest of the country the impression that Arizona was an unruly remnant of the Wild West.

Perhaps they were right. After all, if it doesn't bite, and it's not posionous, it's not native to Arizona.

This ought to be a fun and enlightening conference. Check out the Arizona Centennial Conference website. You might also want to read Murder at Thumb Butte before the conference. It will put you in the mood to learn more about Arizona territorial history.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Steve Dancy Tales Promoted in True West Magazine

The Steve Dancy Tales are being promoted in True West magazine with a full page advertisement. The collector issue celebrates the Arizona Centennial, and also recognizes Prescott, Arizona the Top Western Town for 2012. This is a great connection with a great magazine because the latest Steve Dancy adventure, Murder at Thumb Butte, occurs in 1880 in Prescott. Pick up a copy. It's filled with little known facts about Arizona's road to statehood, the gunfight at the OK corral, the 12 guns that tamed Arizona, and the Top Ten True Western Towns of the year.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Murder at Thumb Butte reviewed at Bookviews

Alan Caruba at Bookviews writes: 

"When it comes to westerns, novels that evoke a fabled period, few do it better than Jim Best. His latest is Murder at Thumb Butte ($12.95, Wheatmark, Tucson, AZ, softcover) and I guarantee that you will also want to read The Shopkeeper and Leadville. These are part of a “Steve Dancy” series and, in the case of Murder at Thumb Butte, it is the spring of 1880 and Dancy has traveled to Prescott, Arizona to gain control of a remarkable invention. He has barely unpacked when he learns that his friend, Jeff Sharp, has been arrested for a midnight murder and Dancy launches an investigation to find who really did it. The problem is, the whole town of Prescott wanted him dead! He turns to another old friend, Captain Joseph McAllen of the Pinkerton National Detective Agency to sort out the suspects and find the real killer before Sharp ends up swinging from the gallows. Best is best at dialogue and his novels move along at a swift pace with some of the best dialogue you’ll find. Nothing fancy, but it reflects real people in real situations. Treat yourself to one or all three of the series."

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Here comes 2012, ready or not!

Mostly not. We returned to our home in Arizona late last night, and have been lazing about trying to recover from a week with all of our grandchildren. Right after Christmas, we flew to Florida to meet up with our son and daughter's families in Orlando. We had six adults to handle six kids, so we figured we had an even chance. Wrong. Nothing energizes a young child more than waking to the promise of another trip to Disney World or one of the other fun parks in Orlando. What ensued for the rest of the day would unduly age any grandparent ... especially one used to quiet days of writing. My back hurts, I'm tired, and my wallet's thinner, but I don't regret a single second.

In quiet moments, mostly in air terminals, I read Steve Jobs, by Walter Isaacson. My favorite part so far is the chapter on the development of Toy Story. It's a perfect case study in characterization and storytelling. Every writer should read it.

Anyway, lots to get done, including a few New Year's resolutions. I won't share these because they are too revealing of my flaws.

First up for 2012 is publication of Principled Action, Lessons From the Origins of the American Republic. This non-fiction history book should be available in February.

I'm also starting work on the next Steve Dancy Tale. No title yet, but I've worked out the broad plot line and a suitable title will pop to mind as I continue the research.

Another big, immediate task is recovering my Macintosh computer. The disc drive went belly-up with 25,000 photos, and lots of iMovie files. I suspect I won't get a full day of writing for a week or so.

Here's wishing you and yours a magnificent 2012. We all deserve it.