Two authors collaborated to create our mystery novel The Clown Forest Murders. The younger A.C. Brooks drafted the tale of how psychedelic, mysterious, garish mushrooms in an upstate New York forest affect several characters. The older R.R. Brooks saw the Stephen King-ish story as a potential mystery. And that is what it became, with the mayhem in the small town (actually a city) of Norwich, New York. The novel unfolds from the viewpoint of Dave, who witnessed his brother’s killing but remembers nothing. His struggle to recover the memories that reveal the killer and allow him to function as a college student is the path to solving the mystery.
The authors of two different generations agreed on the major plot line and how to get there, but disagreed on character speech and reactions. Since much of the confrontation of the main character Dave with his emerging memories occurs at Princeton in the 90s, some issued may be due to different memories of, and sensibilities to, mores twenty years back. I argued for memorable speech and reactions, even if those were unusual and hyperbole.
Consider the Princeton roommate Colin. He is portrayed as a quick-witted, sarcastic student destined to go to medical school. His humor meshes with Dave’s. In the scene where Jennifer barges into the quad searching for the missing Dave, the quirky side of Colin’s personality is on display. Colin is in his underwear napping on the couch on a Sunday morning when …
Jennifer stomped into the room and growled, “Where is he?”
Colin focused. “Who might ye be seeking, fair maiden? A dragon-slayer? A king to grant your wish? A priest to hear your confession of debauchery?”
My co-author rejected the Colin response, but I voted for it, arguing it was consistent with the character’s wry nature, his humor, and his relationship with Jennifer. I liked the order of the questions, starting with the distant and moving to the intimate. The relationship between these two characters is further revealed later in the exchange:
She turned to the couch-burrowing Colin. “Speak. He’s made his getaway, so you can breach privilege. Where did he go?”
Colin murmured something. Jennifer picked a magazine from the coffee table, rolled it up, and swatted his shoulder as one would a misbehaving dog. Or pig.
Colin sat up. “That’s assault. There’s a University code against that.”
She rapped the magazine against her hand. “And that’s not an answer.”
“You are quite alluring when filled with righteousness,” Colin said.
Jennifer lifted the weapon. “Where?”
Jennifer’s swatting Colin is admittedly unlikely and hyperbole, but it reveals both personalities in a striking fashion. It stayed in the novel.
Later, Colin gives a medical opinion to his roommate Todd and says:
“He has a bloody whack on the back of his head, but his pulse is strong.”
“A bloody whack?” Todd said. “Is that the best medical term you can come up with?”
“I’m keeping it in simple layman terms. He’s been whacked and it’s bleeding. Thus, a bloody whack.”
Silly, but striking. So, being a co-author means having to resolve differences in vision about how a character acts and what he or she might say. The final judge of who is right rests with the reader.
Another point of disagreement between younger and older authors was the relationship between Jennifer and the hero Dave. Seen mostly from Dave’s point of view, what he has going with Jennifer is left undefined on the spectrum ranging from friends to lovers.
When Dave first meets Jennifer, he thinks she could be his “first college friend.” They share memories of growing up in Upstate New York, and Dave relates all his clue-revealing dreams to her and confesses his mental issues to her. So they continue to see each other and “hang out” during freshman year. At the end of the year, when Dave has academic problems, Jennifer concludes they are due to drinking, and she distances herself. Dave does not give up and tries to contact Jennifer unsuccessfully over the summer. Clearly they are at odds.
Early sophomore year, the pair keep their distance, and Dave wishes “Jennifer weren’t playing whatever game she had going with him.” When Dave finally seeks medical help, Jennifer invites him to have dinner with her.
After Colin overhears Dave hiding his trip to the murder site from Jennifer, Colin says, "So you can’t even tell your girlfriend.” Dave answers, “I’m not sure she’d my girlfriend.”
So what is the relationship, you ask. We mostly get Dave’s view of things, and his view of their status is uncertain and threatened by his shortcomings. He seems to want more. Only at the end of the book do we get an assessment from Jennifer.
Compromise is the key to dual authorship. Except where you cannot.
Photographer and writer Clancy Tucker has collected an amazing list of quotes from artists advising new writers how to proceed. from Anne Rice to Bertrand Russell to Tina Fey, the message comes through loud and clear: Just Do It. And, by the way, show it to someone. Comedian Tina Fey says:
"It's a great lesson about not being too precious about your writing. You have to try your hardest to be at the top of your game and improve every joke you can until the last possible second, and then you have to let it go. You can’t be that kid standing at the top of the waterslide, overthinking it…You have to let people see what you wrote.”
Dragon-mistress Anne Rice puts it this way:
“On writing, my advice is the same to all. If you want to be a writer, write. Write and write and write. If you stop, start again. Save everything that you write. If you feel blocked, write through it until you feel your creative juices flowing again. Write. Writing is what makes a writer, nothing more and nothing less. — Ignore critics. Critics are a dime a dozen. Anybody can be a critic. Writers are priceless. —- Go where the pleasure is in your writing. Go where the pain is. Write the book you would like to read. Write the book you have been trying to find but have not found. But write. And remember, there are no rules for our profession. Ignore rules. Ignore what I say here if it doesn’t help you. Do it your own way. — Every writer knows fear and discouragement. Just write. — The world is crying for new writing. It is crying for fresh and original voices and new characters and new stories. If you won’t write the classics of tomorrow, well, we will not have any. Good luck.”
I have always had an affinity for the works of Dean Koontz and just finished listening to the audio version of his 2017 novel The Silent Corner (my rating of 10 on a 1-to-10 scale). This work, read excellently by Elisabeth Rodgers (who did a great job on The Night Ocean by Paul LaFarge), is one of Koontz’s better tales. The thriller sets up a sympathetic heroine in Jane Hawk who faces increasing tension and adversity as she fights to uncover and defeat an evil force embarked on mind control and culling of the herd. The author combines great pace and nice descriptions to keep my attention. And leaves open the door to a follow-up novel.
In a way this is a return to an earlier (1994) Koontz novel, Dark Rivers of the Heart (rating 8), where the author displays great control of technical details to hold his reader. That novel enmeshed me as a Koontz fan and accounts for use of Koontz’s name in The Clown Forest Murders. In the scene where Dave leaves Princeton to drive to Norwich, a guard in the Princeton traffic gazebo is reading a novel. Dave recognizes the book. Author Andrew had Tom Clancy as the writer. I changed it to Koontz. Just because.
I’ve kept track in a database the many Koontz novels I've read. I pulled that list up to discover there are nineteen works with ratings from 3 to 10 on my ten-scale. Koontz, of course, is a multi-genre writer with works in the thriller, fantasy, SciFi, horror, and mystery categories. These classifications are my own and therefore suspect. I was surprised to find that I put the Odd novels in several different categories, e.g., Odd Thomas (8) and Brother Odd (4) I called mysteries, but Odd Hours (6) and Odd Interlude (6) were fantasies, and Forever Odd (5) was a thriller. Genre is in the eye of the beholder.
My favorites in the list included two of the Frankenstein books, the Odd novels, and both Dark Rivers of the Heart and now The Silent Corner. I also liked 77 Shadow Street (SciFi work rated 9). I am amazed at Koontz’s ability to create such a diverse library and entertain me for decades. My mention of this author in The Clown Forest Murders is but meager payment of my debt.
Do fantasy authors have a problem? I’ve encountered readers of my novel Justi the Gifted who can’t deal with character names of any oddity. My sister read the book, an epic fantasy, liked it, but complained about the character names. She couldn’t pronounce them and couldn’t distinguish so many. Another person who received the novel as a gift said he couldn’t handle all the strange names. A third reader echoed this concern. None of these readers had ever read a fantasy book, which may have contributed to the problem. I now have a pronouncing list of characters I give to buyers. Even slipped them into the bookstore copies on consignment. I wish I had included it in the book and will do so in the next book.
To be fair I should mention that other readers, including my twelve-year-old granddaughter, did not mention names as a problem, but I wonder if the fantasy genre is prone to the character-name barrier. This seems true when the setting is an imagined world. Mark Lacy’s The Dreamtunnel Sequence uses names like Enkinor, Visylon, and Banshaer, which are tough (the author does have a glossary of names, but it is hidden in the back of the book). Renee Scattergood’s Shadow Stalker has characters named Cathnor, Cali, Kado, and Auren, different but short. Tolkien, the grand master of the epic fantasy tale, hits us with Frodo, Meriadoc, Gondalf, Legolas and dozens more in the Lord of the Rings. Yet readers embrace Tolkien even without having three movies with these characters.
Fantasy novels with imagined worlds entered from this world do get by with common names. Phillip Pullman uses Lyra and Will in His Dark Materials where is takes a subtle knife to cut into the imagined word.. J.M. Barrie’s Peter and Wendy uses ordinary names, but Neverland is entered from this world. Just close your eyes, imagine happy, and fly.
Justi the Gifted is entirely a story about the Kingdom of the Zell, an imagined place where names are not the same as in this world. Epic fantasy by definition involves different groups and different locales, which contribute to the number of strange names. Name confusion is not confined to fantasy books, of course. Harry Bingham’s Talking to the Dead, a delightful British mystery, has two characters named Brydon and Bryony who I did not glean were different persons of different genders until well into the book.
I continue to wonder if the veteran fantasy reader has trained him/herself to deal with strange names. Regardless, part of the solution to removing this barrier is to choose different names, maybe shorter and quite distinct and starting with different letters and sounds. The real solution is to so establish the character by description, action, dialog, and quirks that only a stone would fail to know who they are. Scrooge and Marley have strange names, but who could confuse them? What’s your thought?
I recently posted on Goodreads a trivia question about The Clown Forest Murders. The reader is asked to answer how many characters have mental problems. I believe the choices ranged up to seven characters. The key is, of course, to define what is meant by "mental problems," with different answers if you require a diagnosis or consultation with a professional or are willing to accept your own diagnosis based on behavior. I expect I'll elaborate in a blog to come.
The Big Thrill caught up to the author duo of A. C. Brooks and R. R. Brooks to discuss their latest mystery, THE CLOWN FOREST MURDERS:
What do you hope readers will take away from this book? This novel was written in memory of a son and brother who committed suicide and is dedicated to all those who endure mental illness. THE CLOWN FOREST MURDERS is truly a collaborative work that relies on the original story by A.C. Brooks and its subsequent crafting into a compelling mystery by R.R. Brooks. Elements of an attractive but flawed hero, a heroine who holds a secret, and a hidden killer make the book a great read.
How does this book make a contribution to the genre? The tale is focused on the survivor of a horrible crime who must fight to regain his mental health by finding the unexpected killer.
Was there anything new you discovered, or that surprised you, as you wrote this book? Collaborating authors have different visions of what is reasonable behavior, believable dialog, and humor. Mutual teaching becomes part of the novel-writing process.
No spoilers, but what can you tell us about your book that we won’t find in the jacket copy or the PR material? There can be explanations for bizarre behavior that do not involve the supernatural.
What authors or books have influenced your career as a writer, and why? David Eddings’ The Belgariad inspired the first fantasy book of R.R. Brooks. Martha Grimes and Dean Koontz are favorites of both authors. Creation of a consistent world with sympathetic characters is accomplished by these authors.
The review includes shots of the book cover and the authors.
There is still time to give a lasting gift to celebrate the day of love. Try a copy of The Clown Forest Murders inscribed with "I love you" as a gift that will be remembered as a unique and personal expression of love. The candy will be long eaten and the flowers long decayed when the book sits still on the shelf.
David Edding’s novel The Belgariad entertained and inspired me to write my epic fantasy, Justi the Gifted. I thoroughly enjoyed the adventures of Belgarion as he prepared for his confrontation with a god. In 2012 Eddings commented on his successful series of fantasy books:
The story itself is fairly elemental—Good vs. Evil, Nice Guys vs. Nasty Guys (or Them vs. Us). It has the usual Quest, the Magic (or Holy) Thingamajig, the Mighty sorcerer, the Innocent Hero, and the Not Quite so Innocent Heroine—along with a widely varied group of Mighty Warriors with assorted character faults. It wanders around for five books until it finally climaxes with the traditional duel between “Our Hero” and the “Bad Guy.”
Justi has some of these features. The protagonists Justi and Garion struggle to come to terms with their unexpected and unwanted power. Both act as if they were teenagers told to get a job. My readers will, of course, find Good vs. Evil and Nice vs. Nasty, but I really don’t have a Magic Thingamajig, a Mighty Sorcerer, and an Innocent Hero. Heroine Mercerio is quite innocent, although she can be pushy, outspoken, and critical. The closest I come to magic is a focus stone that directs Justi toward Mercerio. The interference in the world of men by the gods does allows tinkering with the minds of animals—dogs, wolves, a bear, a boar, and a cat. That is a sort of magic. My seers or wise men are the closest I get to sorcerers, and they are more likely to be buffoonish than mighty. As for the traditional duel between hero and bad guy, the reader must await a future book for that satisfying, resolving tidbit.
As book readers, we know what we like and gravitate to read that type of book again. The same thing works with writers. We tend to emulate what attracts us in other writers. I like Eddings as a fantasy writer and I like Grimes as a mystery writer.