Murder on the Orient Express

I know I’m late to the party, but I finally saw the new version of Murder on the Orient Express last weekend. I missed it during first run because I was so busy when it came out, but it started playing at the discount theater, so I went with a group of friends.

I read the book ages ago (I went through a massive Agatha Christie phase in junior high), and I’m pretty sure I’ve seen the earlier movie version, but I really liked this one. I got the sense that they went into it knowing that most of the audience was well aware of the big twist, so instead of focusing on surprise, they made it more about a character study, letting us see some of the psychological analysis going on.

Mostly, though, it was a chance to watch a lot of great actors doing some really nice acting while wearing fabulous costumes in a gorgeous setting, with a lovely soundtrack. I even found myself wanting to see what happens next for the various characters. They seemed to be setting up more Poirot movies, but what I’m curious about is the aftermath for the other people, who I’m pretty sure won’t appear in future movies. I’d be totally up for the continuing adventures of Daisy Ridley’s clever and logical governess character — I’m sure she’d be inspired by Poirot to start solving mysteries on her own.

And it makes me want to take a train trip, but Amtrak is nothing at all like the Orient Express. I’m not even sure the Orient Express now is anything like this Orient Express. When I took a long-distance Amtrak trip, we did have a long unplanned stop because of a death, but it was because the train hit a deer, not because a passenger was murdered.

At least, that’s what they told us, but no one came to question me, and no one gathered us into the lounge car to reveal who the killer was, so I guess I believe the story.

Anyway, I’d recommend this movie to those who like Kenneth Branagh movies, those who like old movies (it really felt like an old movie, like something that could have been made in the 1940s, only with improved technology), those who like trains, and even those who like mysteries. It’s fun to see actors get to disappear so deeply into their characters that you don’t realize who some of those people are until you see the credits.



Yesterday morning I was off returning all my cable equipment, and now for the first time in my adult life I don’t have cable TV. I also don’t have any means of recording something I want to watch later, since I’d need a digital converter box to use my VCR. I do have a DVR on order, but it won’t be shipped until April. However, things have changed since the last time I went without a VCR, which was 1990. Now there are all kinds of streaming options for watching online. We didn’t have the Internet in a consumer form in 1990, and what did exist was pretty much text-only.

It turns out that there are a lot of local stations that weren’t included in the cable service, so there seems to be plenty to watch, especially if you like Star Trek or Night Court. One of the stations seems to be running episodes of the late 90s version of The Magnificent Seven (aka Attractive Men Wearing Leather and Riding Horses — apparently one of the reasons it got canceled is that they sold it to advertisers as a good way to reach male viewers, but for reasons the network executives couldn’t fathom, it drew a large female audience instead). About the only thing I’m missing is a good way to get my documentary fix, since the PBS digital subchannel that they were using for PBS World (basically, lots of documentaries) got turned into PBS Kids, which is less interesting to me. However, they also have a Create channel, which seems to be 90 percent cooking shows with the occasional This Old House and travel show. Fortunately, my library offers a few streaming services that have documentaries, and then there are a lot of DVDs at the library. Walking over once a week or so to pick up new DVDs to watch will be good for me.

On my first cable-free night, I watched a little of the Olympics (using the antenna!) and found that the picture was actually sharper and brighter than I got with cable. Then I watched a livestream of a wind symphony concert from the University of North Texas, via the Roku. See, I’m already becoming a lot more cultured.

I really hope to spend more time reading and writing. My book count was down last year, though I did read some pretty big ones that I should have counted as two. My writing time was way up last year, but I need to get back in a groove because I haven’t been doing as well this year so far.

The strange thing that’s bothering me the most and that I’m missing the most from cable is the clock on the front of the box. It had brightly lit, tall numbers that I could see from across the room, even without my glasses, and since it was set by the system, it stayed on time. I keep glancing in that direction to see what time it is. I have an atomic clock in the living room, but it isn’t lit up and the numbers aren’t as big, and it isn’t near where the TV is for easy glancing. I guess I’ll have to set the VCR clock, which is what I used in the old days before we got the fancy cable boxes with the digital readout on the front, but those numbers are small enough that I’ll need my glasses even to see from the sofa.

It’s strange the little things you get used to. But I’m sure I’ll adapt.


RIP Once Upon a Time

It’s my last day of cable TV, and yesterday there was some news that somewhat justifies cutting the cord. They’re cancelling Once Upon a Time.

I have such a love/hate relationship with that series. It had so much potential, but most of that potential went unrealized, which was frustrating. This final season has been a real mess, with me transitioning from enjoying it but snarking about it to pretty much flat-out hate-watching. They got rid of most of the characters I liked, even including one whose actor is still on the show (playing a different character who’s a different version of his original character) and the new characters are weak. They’re not even trying to make any of the worldbuilding make sense.

For instance, the timeline. This is driving me nuts. The new central character is the kid from the first six seasons, now all grown up. There are flashbacks taking place about 9-10 years ago, in which he’s already an adult, and then in the present day he has an 8-9-year-old daughter. But the same actors as before are playing the people who were adults in his life when he was a child, and they aren’t doing anything to age them, but they haven’t explained why at least 15 or so years have passed since the end of the previous season and one character grew up but nobody else has changed at all. I’m aging weirdly so that no one believes how old I really am, but if I look at photos from 15 or 20 years ago, there is a difference. One of these characters is immortal, which explains the lack of aging, but it doesn’t explain the others.

Then there’s the new setting. The new curse moving the fairy tale characters to our world didn’t create an isolated small town like before. They’re in a neighborhood in Seattle (present-day Seattle, in spite of so much time passing, but I’m sure that will eventually be explained), where the fairy tale people are mixed in with “real world” people, and I’m not sure how that works because two of the characters are cops in their cursed identities, and that would require having a background that could be checked. Someone couldn’t just magically appear out of nowhere and become a cop, and since magic doesn’t work in our world, would it be able to alter memories so that “real world” people remembered having worked for years with someone who just arrived? That sort of thing needs to become clear for the world to work.

And the city is so blah. I do think you can make a city feel magical. Look at Neverwhere. Or Grimm. Or Enchanted, Inc. Or any urban fantasy. They just haven’t done anything to make their setting feel like a place where you might meet Cinderella or Rumpelstiltskin.

So, I’m curious to see how they wrap it up, but the series going away means I won’t have to find a better antenna that will bring in ABC for next season (unless ABC comes up with a new series that sounds good).

And, meanwhile, I may have come up with a way to play with some of the ideas and concepts I liked from the show that I felt like the show didn’t explore without it being super obvious where I got the ideas. That was a challenge because the concept was so unique that there wasn’t much of a way to file off the serial numbers.

My Books

The World of Rebel Mechanics

Since I’m losing my cable on Thursday, I’ve been frantically trying to watch all the stuff I’ve recorded on my DVR. When something came on that I thought might make good reference material for a book I might work on, I recorded it, and I was planning to watch those things when time came around to work on that book. But now I’m having to watch all of it and take notes, and hope I can still remember it all when it comes time to write that book (or hope I can get some of those programs through other means, like through the library or some streaming service).

And, wouldn’t you know, tonight something that would make an excellent reference for a Rebels book is going to be on PBS, and recording it would do me no good since I have to get rid of the recorder in a couple of days. So I guess I’ll be watching and taking notes.

The program is an American Experience episode about the Gilded Age, which is the period in which the Rebels books are set. I chose that period to base my steampunk world on because of all the things that it looks like this program will highlight. There was a massive inequality of resources, with a few extremely rich people, a small middle class, and a vast number of people barely getting by and pretty much being held back by the extremely rich people who owned most of the factories and other means of employment and who kept wages so ridiculously low that their employees didn’t stand a chance. Poor people lived in terrible slums that were breeding grounds for diseases while rich people owned mansions on Fifth Avenue and spent millions of dollars throwing parties. It’s actually kind of a miracle that there wasn’t a revolution during that time, since the number of poor people vastly outnumbered the wealthy.

I thought that made it a good setting for a book that moved the American Revolution to a later time. In my world, it’s magic that gives the upper class a monopoly on power and production, and the revolution is as much against the British Empire as it is against the economic inequality, but all of it comes into play.

I don’t know if I’ll learn that much from watching this show, since I did a ton of research before writing these books, but if you want some good visuals to go with the books and some broader info about the world that inspired the books — or if you’re a teacher or librarian wanting to work these books into your curriculum — this would be worth a watch tonight (and they usually have these episodes available on the PBS web site for a week or two).

writing life

Writing and Financial Security

Yesterday’s post turned out to be oddly prescient. Not long after I posted it, I got an e-mail from the HOA reminding us that they’d let us know our cable contract was running out, and saying it ended Feb. 8. So, I figured I needed to go out and get an antenna.

The one I got picks up 69 stations, but not the ABC affiliate, which is annoying because that’s the one I watch the most. However, I only watch one program on it. Otherwise, it’s the news, which I can stream live via their app.

And then I realized I was being very all or nothing about the whole thing, resisting any kind of monthly fee. I think that’s one of the bits of emotional fallout from those lean years between the time I was laid off and the time I started selling novels again. I survived those years by being frugal and not spending additional money on things that weren’t absolutely necessary, and it seems that mindset has held over. Even though I’ve been making more money than I did with my old day job, my mind approaches everything as though I might not make any money at all this year. That’s unlikely, but big ups and downs are possible, so I could earn less than I need to live on if things go badly for me. I’ll probably earn most of this year’s income in the latter half of the year, which makes me feel a bit stressed earlier in the year. I’m not sure if I’ll ever feel totally secure and like the next year won’t rip everything away from me. Maybe if I’ve got a five-book contract for six figures for each book and a TV series in development, but otherwise, I’ll probably worry and be afraid to spend money.

But I figured out that there are other possible solutions. I’m going to look into something like Sling TV that will allow me to watch ABC programming in real time, as well as giving me the cable channels for shows I’m currently watching, along with a DVR-like service, and I can drop it after the TV season ends. Then I can figure out what to do next season, depending on what’s going to be on TV. I may be able to bring in that additional channel with an external tuner, by finding a way to place the antenna higher in my house, or by getting a more powerful antenna that I can put on the second floor. Or it may not matter to me then.

In the meantime, I should be thinking more about writing books or I’ll never reach that point of a five-book contract for six figures a book (it’s very unlikely that I’ll ever be at that level, but I can’t get to that level without actually writing the book). But first, I guess this weekend I’ll be watching everything I have saved up on the DVR before I have to return it. Most of it is reference material for books, so it kind of counts as work. I’ll be taking notes.


Television Options

I’ve spent the last couple of months learning way too much about television service and the various ways of getting it. I’ve pretty much always had cable during my adult life because it was provided as part of every apartment I had, and then when I bought a house, it was provided as part of the HOA fees. I did finally break down and get a DVR, which cost extra, a couple of years ago, but otherwise, I didn’t think much about it. I just watched it.

Then in December, buried in the HOA board meeting minutes that were e-mailed, it was mentioned that our contract with the cable company was expiring in February, and they had voted not to renew it. They listed what it would cost for each homeowner to get the same service — and they weren’t lowering the HOA fees. I was a bit astonished at the cost. I’m lucky that I could afford it, if I wanted it, but then I started thinking about how much (or little) I watch TV. I did a calculation of the things I regularly watch on cable that I would actually miss, and it would come to more than $10 an hour. I don’t want to watch more to make it worthwhile. I could take a lower-tier package, but the cable networks I watch most are only on the high-level tier, and it’s not that there are any particular shows I’m invested in there. That’s just my best sources of history documentaries that I tend to use as background noise or something to watch when there’s nothing else on. Almost everything else I watch is on regular broadcast TV.

So I started researching antennas. It seems I’m in a tricky area where I’m not too terribly far from the transmission towers, but I’m under a hill, so I don’t get line of sight. That means I’ll need a more powerful antenna. I tried a cheap “rabbit ears” and managed to get in the PBS stations fine, and a couple more, depending on the angle, but I didn’t get the station I watch most, especially for local news. Apparently, that station is more difficult to get.

My first real cord-cutting purchase was a Roku stick, and that may solve a lot of my dilemmas, as my local station has an app that allows you to stream the news live. Since a decent antenna should give me all the other local stations, that just leaves my ability to snark about Once Upon a Time in real time up in the air. ABC is weird about allowing streaming of their shows. Even though it’s a broadcast network, you have to have an account with certain cable companies to stream new episodes for the first week. Almost everything else, I should be able to either bring in with an antenna or stream. I’ll miss some of the stuff I watch on SyFy and the various Disney channels, but my library gets the DVDs when they come out, or there’s Amazon Instant Video, where it’s cheaper to buy a full season of a show than to get one month of cable service. I may eventually get Amazon Prime, which has a lot of video available in addition to the shipping, and they get Doctor Who, plus you can add an HBO subscription.

The other thing I’m looking at is what to do about a DVR. For a truly cheap option, I can get a digital converter box and hook it to the antenna and to a VCR, but you can also apparently hook a hard drive up to one and use it as a DVR. You just have to program it like a VCR in the old days rather than clicking on a program guide. There’s a fancier thing that’s supposed to be available a little later this year that seems to be a midpoint between the Tivo and this thing. And there’s an over-the-air Tivo, which might be overkill for me. I can’t imagine needing to record four things at once. I mostly use the DVR for time shifting when something is on late, recording something that will be on while I’m out, or for archiving a series that I’d like to binge watch or rewatch. My local PBS station often shows interesting things in odd time periods, and it’s nice to be able to record it. I’m not sure the Tivo is worth that. Then again, it costs what about a year of the DVR and DVR service from the cable company costs.

And I’ve probably more time to researching all this than I spent actually watching TV in the last couple of months. I don’t watch that much these days, and I’d like to either watch less or focus on watching things that are worthwhile, that I choose to watch rather than just looking for something that’s on. I’d rather spend the time reading or writing or doing other things.

Then I need to come up with ways to force myself not to waste so much time online goofing off or obsessively researching things that aren’t immediately critical.

writing life

Liberation Day

This is my Liberation Anniversary. Sixteen years ago today, I was laid off from my last “real” job. I’ve worked for myself ever since, which is longer than the time I’ve spent working for someone else.

Looking back on the time, I had very mixed feelings then. I was unhappy at work, so unhappy that a week or so earlier I found myself hoping that I’d have a miraculous, magical job offer in my e-mail (the first spark of the idea that became Enchanted, Inc.). I was actually just working part-time — 30 hours a week — and telecommuting, which had been an ideal situation for trying to fit in my writing, but after the bosses who made that possible left and after quite a bit of turmoil in the company, my job had become a lot less fun. My new supervisor seemed to see me as a threat, shutting me out of things. Her shutting me out of a major client meeting resulted in us losing that client, which was what led to me being laid off (that client then hired me as a freelancer). I was already planning to maybe take the plunge and quit my job to freelance, but later in the year when I’d had a chance to get things like insurance lined up. Since I knew we were losing that account, I already suspected what was going on and had already pulled all my files off my office laptop so I’d have work samples. I wasn’t surprised when I got the call to bring my computer and all company property to the office, that that didn’t ease the sting of the way they went about it.

But by about noon that day, I was suddenly unemployed. I’d already planned a reading binge that weekend, starting on Friday (my 30 hours a week were flexible, which meant if I worked a full day Monday through Thursday, I could take Friday off). I’d just started reading the Harry Potter series the previous fall, and had read the first three books, the ones I’d bought in England. The fourth book was only out in hardcover at the time, and my library hold for it had finally come in. I was planning to devote the weekend to reading it. I had the soundtrack for the first movie and appropriate snacks ready to go. But since I suddenly didn’t have to work, I moved my reading marathon up a day.

It proved nicely cathartic. The events toward the end of that book made me sob hysterically, and I think I needed a good cry. I’d been so numb up to that point, so determined to look on the bright side, but there were a lot of hurt feelings from the way I’d been treated. That book also helped with the ongoing development of that idea I’d had about a magical job. I so related to what was going on with Hermione in that book because it was much like my school experience, with the guys I hung out with as friends not even thinking of me as someone they might invite to a big dance because they didn’t think of me as a girl (unfortunately, I didn’t have the star jock from another school to swoop in and ask me). That made me think that I would love to read something like these books, but about adult life, with jobs, friends, etc.

I was putting off actually dealing with thinking about what to do next. I figured I’d get through the weekend and then think. But my former clients who’d heard the news started calling me the next day, offering some freelance work (one benefit of working from home: my clients all had my home number). I’d saved up a lot of money in preparing to someday make the leap, and I decided to wait before trying to get a new job to see if I could get by as a freelancer so I could focus on my fiction writing. That was a bit risky, as I was in the middle of a huge career lull as a novelist, but I had other forms of income and several years worth of living expenses saved up, so I thought it was worth a try.

I still haven’t gone in search of a new regular job. I’m not sure I could find one right now, given that it’s been so long. I wouldn’t want to go back to what I was doing, but I don’t know what else I could do. I guess that means I’d better keep making the writing work.


Sympathy for the Villain

As I mentioned a few days ago, I’ve been writing bits of the story I’m working on from the perspective of other characters in the story. I’ve gone back to just before the story opens and written up to certain turning points, and I must say, it’s been really eye-opening as I figure out what each character thinks about the other characters.

The character who has surprised me the most is one of the villains. I’m not a villain-centered writer and have very little patience for the “poor, sad villain who had a sad life” narrative. Lots of people have sad lives, and it doesn’t excuse being a villain. But I seem to be edging toward a little more sympathy toward this villain now that I’ve been inside his head. It helps that he’s a secondary villain and is actually one of those shadowy characters who teeters on that line between good and bad. The bad stuff isn’t his plan, and he’s mostly a pawn in all of it. His problem is that he doesn’t resist when he realizes how bad what he’s caught up in is, and he makes the wrong choices at pivotal times, up to a point when I think I’m going to let him make the right choice (we’ll see when I get there). I found in writing from his perspective that I had changed my view about how much he knew, and that changes a lot (including a key conversation the viewpoint character partially overhears).

Now that I feel a bit sorry for this guy, it may change the way I write him, but then I don’t want readers to like him too much. I’ve seen how readers in general can glom onto the poor, sad villain. I want readers to prefer another character. But that means I need to make the other character more interesting. Strangely, although he’s a major character, he’s still a bit of an enigma to me, so I need to do more work on him. I like him, but I don’t think the reasons I like him are making it onto the page.

So, I have more work to do!


Finding Things to Do

Part of my weekend was spent at a convention planning meeting. I’m part of the group that puts on FenCon, a science fiction convention in the Dallas area. The convention is in September, but we start work on it far earlier than that. My main role is with publicity, and something we’re looking at is how to get information to a broader group of people.

I used to work in public relations, but I haven’t had a job in that field since 2002. I’ve done some marketing communications stuff since then, but that was mostly things like writing sales materials and articles. Social media didn’t exist when I was doing PR. Blogs were just barely getting started. Public relations mostly meant trying to get stories into newspapers and magazines, on television and radio. That’s what I know how to do. But I don’t think a lot of people get their news that way anymore, especially younger people. That means I have no idea how to get information out to people in a way that they’ll see it. I guess that also applies to the way I market my books.

So, how do you find out about events that you might want to go to? Is there a place (online or otherwise) you go to when you’re looking for things to do?

And while I’m at it, have you heard about science fiction conventions? Do you know the difference between the “literary” fan-run conventions and the conventions like ComicCon, where the focus is on actors and autograph/photo opportunities?

When TV series have episodes involving the characters going to a convention, it bears no resemblance to what I’ve actually experienced, which makes me wonder how many people who aren’t already involved in that community have a sense of what it’s really about. Of course, each one is different and has its own character, but the Hollywood image is more of the media conventions, and not even entirely accurate about those.

I have dialed my participation in conventions back lately, mostly because they’re expensive and draining and I’m trying to look at new ways of doing things, but I do want to make the one I help run better and want to help more people learn about it because it is wonderful to find yourself among other people who like the same sort of stuff you do.


Looking from the Other Side

Writing from the other character’s perspective has been really eye-opening. I mostly write from first-person perspective because I enjoy the deep dive into the character’s head and the way that allows me to play with narrative voice. I find it quicker to write that way, as well, most of the time. It’s like writing a diary entry.

But there are times when it comes with challenges. You can only write what the viewpoint character knows. If something happens and the viewpoint character isn’t there, she can’t know about it. She has to learn about it some other way — someone tells her, she sees security video footage, she reads about it. You also don’t get into other characters’ heads, and that’s where you can end up with plot problems, if you let the other characters do things you need them to do rather than what they actually would do in that situation.

In the book I’m working on, the viewpoint character isn’t in the know for much of anything. In one respect, that’s good because it means that all the discovery happens on the page. There’s no info-dumping of information she already knows because she doesn’t know anything and has to get information and figure things out. But it makes things a bit challenging because I have to figure out what everyone else around her knows, what their agendas are, and what they might say or do.

In a lot of scenes, the narrator is driving the action because she’s investigating, but there are scenes in which she thinks she’s driving things because she’s investigating and asking the questions, after having tracked down that person, but the other person is actually driving the action because they know what’s going on and have an agenda, so they have reasons for what they do and don’t tell the narrator. That’s where I’m having to go back and write the scene from the other person’s perspective, to see what they’d say, what they’d tell and what they’d withhold, and why. After I write it that way, I can go back and put it in the perspective of the narrator. The dialogue I can just copy and paste, but I have to take the thoughts and figure out how that would affect that character’s nonverbals — body language, expressions, tone of voice — and how much the narrator would notice of those nonverbals.

In the scene I was working on, looking at what the other character knows and what this person wants totally changed the scene. And now I’m at a point where I need to figure out what’s up with some of the other characters.