Trope Twisting: Something Familiar But Different

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Big thank you to Marc for letting me take over his blog today to talk about trope twisting, how to take something familiar and make it fresh again.

Trope Twisting: Something Familiar but Different by K.C. Tansley

After years of attending writing conferences, it has been drilled into my head that agents and editors want one thing: something familiar, but different.

Fantasy tropes—isolated castles, magic mirrors, ghosts, witches, curses, and spells—are incredibly familiar to readers, which means they have an understanding of what these things are. Because readers can immediately grasp and connect with these things, they can also border on boring.

Tropes, however, can be very useful. If I say castle, it stirs something inside you. It’s part of your symbolic memory. Ditto for magic mirror. You already have an idea of what that entails. It’s familiar. Your mind is comfortable with the concept and the meaning of it.

When I was building my story, I realized I had a bunch of tropes in it. Then I heard the advice from conferences running through my head: take the familiar and make it different.

So I set to work on trope twisting. It’s about taking a trope and adding your own twist to it. You have to take something familiar and find a way to make it feel fresh to the reader.

I had an isolated castle and the first thing people think is England or Europe. At least, that’s what I think of when I think castle. So I played the What If game. That’s where I ask what if and see where it takes me. So I asked myself, “What if I put the castle in New England?” That’s different. Yes, coastal New England. But which state? How about my home state? Connecticut.

That decision impacted the rest of the plot. Instead of time traveling to Victorian England, my characters went to Victorian New England. Something less common and less expected. Oh, I liked where this was headed.

I’ve always been fascinated by mirrors. I used to wonder what could happen if I stared at one long enough. What if my image wasn’t just a reflection? So, of course, my story included a magic mirror that acts as a portal. People falling or jumping through magic mirror portals is pretty common. How could I make this different? What if instead of falling through it, my heroine is yanked through it? Again, a slightly different take on things.

I kept going with this. Tweaking my world building to make it a little different than what you’d expect. Curses and spells are only cast by the living. But the dead, they can force the living to do their bidding. They can possess the living.

I had my own ideas about what happens when we die. I put my spin on what ghosts and spirits were. For me, death shatters souls. Ghosts are the big chunks that remain here and they seek reckonings. The largest part of the soul remains intact and it reincarnates. Spirits are tiny fragments of the ghost piece. They have no intentions, they simply recreate a moment.

Even my time travel had a twist, a body snatcher aspect to it that my publisher loved. It was something they felt made the book stand out.

So when you’re writing your story, look to the elements that have a universal appeal or meaning. Then find a way to put your own personal twist on them.

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About The Book

In The Girl Who Ignored Ghosts, prep school junior Kat Preston accidentally time travels to 1886 Connecticut, where she must share a body with a rebellious Victorian lady, prevent a gruesome wedding night murder, disprove a deadly family curse, and find a way back to her own time.

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K.C. Tansley lives with her warrior lapdog, Emerson, on a hill somewhere in Connecticut. She tends to believe in the unbelievables—spells, ghosts, time travel—and writes about them.

Never one to say no to a road trip, she’s climbed the Great Wall twice, hopped on the Sound of Music tour in Salzburg, and danced the night away in the dunes of Cape Hatteras. She loves the ocean and hates the sun, which makes for interesting beach days. The Girl Who Ignored Ghosts is the first book in her YA time-travel murder mystery series.

As Kourtney Heintz, she also writes award winning cross-genre fiction for adults.

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Christmas Before Christianity: How the Birthday of the “Sun” Became the Birthday of the “Son”

Christmas CoverIn Christmas Before Christianity, Lochlainn Seabrook presents a thoroughly researched examination of the “ingredients” that have, over centuries and millennia, contributed to our contemporary understanding of what many, right or wrong, consider the holiest day of the year. Early on, Seabrook discusses the paucity of historical evidence surrounding the figure of Jesus in order to subsequently demonstrate the ways in which the relative blank slate of his biography allowed early Christians to incorporate a myriad of other belief systems into what eventually came to be accepted as canon. Chief among these other systems, as the book’s subtitle suggests, was a firm belief that the sun was the center of all life. Indeed, the author points out that, in his words, “Jesus’ birth on December 25 specifically was not mentioned by any writer, scholar, or historian” during the time in which Jesus lived; what’s more, the date traditionally associated with the birth of Christ was not established until the year 534, “not because Jesus was born on that date, but rather because the Christian masses overwhelmingly identified Jesus with the Pagan Roman sun-god Mithras, as well as with other pre-Christian solar deities, all whose birthdays fell on December 25.” In addition to investigating the ways in which pre-Christian mythology fed into the story of the birth of Christ, Seabrook also examines the origins of the season’s accoutrements including the Christmas tree (a pagan fertility symbol originating in Egypt), the tale of the three wise men (an allusion to ancient astrology and the three stars that comprise Orion’s belt), and Santa Claus (an amalgam of Odin, Thor, and various maritime deities). Other topics Seabrook explores include the evolution of Christmas cards, plum pudding, Christmas wreaths, mistletoe, holly, and pantomime from their ancient forms to the ways in which we employ and enjoy them today. Altogether, a fascinating and meticulously detailed read for anyone curious about the origins of Christmas — or, for that matter, about the ways in which myths and legends evolve over time.

The Race – Review by Marc Schuster

RaceCoverJacke Wilson’s The Race is an incredibly astute novella about ego and politics that attempts to explain why anyone in their right mind might run for political office. The answer, it turns out, is that they wouldn’t, as the political arena is reserved for the eternally deluded and arguably insane.

The narrative focuses on Tom Olson, a fictional disgraced former Governor of Wisconsin who is attempting to revive his career by running for Congress. In a “ripped from the headlines” kind of way, Olson’s fall from grace is highly reminiscent of former South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford’s. Yet while Olson and Sanford both mysteriously vanished from their offices only to turn up at later dates in foreign love nests, there are hints of other political figures wrapped up in the novella’s central figure as well. Echoing Bill Clinton’s 1992 remark that Hillary would be so central to his presidency that he might as well adopt “buy one, get one free” as his campaign slogan, a common refrain surrounding Olson’s first bid for governor was “Vote for him and get the pair.” Likewise, something about Olson also harkens to Mitt Romney. He’s relatively handsome in the way many career politicians aspire to be, he’s idealistic in his own way, and he’s optimistic to a fault — so much so that his grand vision of the world completely eclipses reality.

There’s certainly plenty of dry humor to be had in the proceedings — particularly as Olson does his best to turn the rancid lemons of his tattered political career into saccharine-sweet lemonade — but the real strength of Wilson’s writing is in its Marxian critique of American politics. Early on, Olson’s biographer notes a key difference between himself and the politician: “He was bourgeois and I was proletariat.” He then goes on to muse, “Why don’t we use those words anymore? Too loaded with history?” Yes and no. The real problem isn’t history so much as substance in general. As Wilson depicts it, our political system is largely a popularity contest, and political platforms offer little more than trite platitudes and vitriol against the other side. As such, Olson is especially popular “with a certain kind of pundit who has overcome his or her natural ability to say anything interesting or accurate, or to have any personally appealing qualities, by instinctively taking the contrarian’s view of any issue.” Most of all, however, Olson demonstrates that what truly drives politicians is a desire to control the narratives of their own lives, as his tragically optimistic efforts at running for office are forever haunted by the specter of the good man he was before throwing his hat into the political arena.

Smart, well-written, and frequently funny, The Race offers some interesting speculation into the mind of the American politician.

Shoplandia – Review by Marc Schuster

shoplandiabookcover5_5x8_5_cream_290-copyWith a tone and style reminiscent of George Saunders and situations that would feel right at home in a Don DeLillo novel, the stories collected in Jim Breslin’s Shoplandia offer an engaging and informed behind-the-scenes look at the home shopping industry. Drawing on seventeen years of experience as a producer at QVC, Breslin gives readers an intimate view of everything that goes into producing a live television broadcast day in and day out, and he excels at bringing the lives behind the endeavor to life. Indeed, while the stories in Shoplandia are all ostensibly about home shopping, they’re also about humanity’s search for meaning in a consumer-driven world that’s more interested in appearances than substance.

Many of Breslin’s characters are jaded with respect to their jobs, but they still go about them with workmanlike dignity. The sense is that if they believe in the work they do, the viewers at home will buy into the illusion that what Shoplandia has to offer will make a difference in their lives. As one character remarks, “The secret? Run away from the pain and toward the pleasure. Make them feel like if they don’t have the next great thing, their lives will be hell and they will be ostracized, their lives meaningless… But if they attain it, if they purchase it, if they part with their hard earned money for a chunk of metal in some fancy design, then they will become a god. They will be desired, they will be loooooved. If you own this, you will be worthy!” That the rant is delivered by a disgraced show host only adds to its import, for here is a man who’s peeked behind the curtain and has realized the true logic behind the system.

Ultimately, it’s the author’s talent for using intimate portraits of his characters to interrogate contemporary values that makes Shoplandia so engaging. As in life, meaning emerges — often unexpectedly — in the minutia of the little picture even as the chaos of the big picture threatens to overwhelm Breslin’s characters with its apparent emptiness. To put it another way, Shoplandia insists that there’s a point to it all, even if it’s a different point than the one we’ve been sold.

The Last Policeman

250px-The_Last_Policeman_book_coverSet in a world painfully aware of its own impending demise, The Last Policeman, a novel by Ben H. Winters, is a philosophically astute page-turner that interrogates the most basic assumptions undergirding civil society. As an asteroid hurtles toward Earth, Detective Hank Palace does his best to maintain law and order in Cocord, New Hampshire, despite the fact that news of the impending apocalypse has triggered unparalleled social upheaval. When an apparent suicide turns up in a public restroom, common sense tells him to chalk it up to end-times hysteria, but—per the genre’s dictates—something about the case doesn’t sit right with Palace. Soon, he’s off on an investigation that pits him against survivalists, unscrupulous opportunists, and a wide range of conspiracy theories. Yet while the murder investigation provides the narrative with something of a MacGuffin, the real mystery at the heart of The Last Policeman is existential: What’s the point solving murders—or being good, or doing anything for that matter—when death is imminent? It’s the kind of question that can’t help leading to a slew of others, and one that Winters explores from multiple angles throughout this intelligent, suspenseful novel as the world he imagines spirals into chaos and all forms of human decency suddenly go up for grabs.