The World’s Largest Turkey

“Even serious art here tends to run toward the whimsical, and on the less serious side there is a frightening amount of large roadside sculpture in the state….” – Minnesota Curiosities

Frazee, Minnesota is home to Big Tom, the World’s Largest Turkey. The original Big Tom was built in 1985, fashioned out of fiberglass, styrofoam and cardboard over a metal frame. He stood 22 feet high and for 12 years delighted the sightseers of Frazee. As he was being cleaned in 1997, Big Tom caught on fire, the flames shooting up 30 feet in the air.

In this video, the two brothers responsible for setting Big Tom on fire demonstrate the true extent of Minnesota nice.

BONUS: in case you want to see another Midwestern roadside attraction going up in flames, here’s the great Touchdown Jesus fire of 2010:

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Norwegian dance is the new square dance (in Munchen)

As we build the world of Munchen, we keep making fun discoveries about the unusual real things that exist in this world. I especially love when this happens organically — when we’re writing out a particular scene, for example, or need to flesh out a character. Christine wrote last week about the strange case of lutefisk, and this week I made another find: The Norwegian Dancers of Stoughton High School.

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I discovered the Dancers as I was writing a scene for Meredith and Miles, our two teenage misfits. At first I had them doing a square-dancing unit, which I remember doing (and sometimes enjoying — though I’d never admit that!). Then I thought — but wait, Munchen is a Norwegian-settled town that still very much shows its Scandinavian roots. Maybe they don’t square dance. Maybe they… Well, is there such a thing as Norwegian dance? I Googled “high school norwegian dance” — and voila. There they were. The colorfully costumed kids of Stoughton High. Sometimes synchronicity seems to be on our side. I rewrote the scene to have Meredith and Miles doing the Norwegian springar dance, sometimes known as the pols dance, similar to the polka.

This Stoughton troupe is serious. They perform all over the country, and getting a spot on the team is competitive. Tryouts are in April, and the only open spots come about when a senior graduates. Another type of dance they perform is the halling dance, a wedding dance in which young Norwegian men compete to perform the most impressive acrobatics. Here’s a video of some of the troupe’s greatest hits:

All this gave me the idea that Miles — poor, picked-on Miles — has a strange knack for Norwegian dance. His exploration of this unusual skill will lead him to get into all kinds of adventure — and of course trouble — as the season goes on.

Here’s to strange regional high school activities!

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Literary TV?: How Friday Night Lights can make you emotionally smarter

You may have read about a study published in the journal Science last month. It showed that after reading “literary fiction” for just a few minutes, people scored higher on tests of emotional sensitivity than those who’d read popular fiction or straight nonfiction.

The reason, the study’s helmers explained, is that literary fiction leaves more to the imagination than other types of writing. Therefore, it prompts readers “to make inferences about characters and be sensitive to emotional nuance and complexity.”

The high-brow Lit world rejoiced. Here was justification for why literary authors such as Don DeLillo, Louise Erdrich and Wendell Berry (some of the writers used in the study) really were more worth reading than bestselling genre authors such as Gillian Flynn, Rosamunde Pilcher or Robert Heinlein.

The study got me wondering whether quality TV could accomplish the same kind of emotional smartening. I wondered this in particular about the now-defunct series Friday Night Lights, headed by writer Jason Katims. I’ve been watching and adoring the show on Netflix Instant.

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Ostensibly, Friday Night Lights (FNL) follows a high school football team that has become the locus of an entire Texas town’s hopes and dreams. Yet the playing of football receives barely a few minutes of screen time per episode. Mostly, the show is interested in the personal lives of its characters: the ways they honor and betray each other and themselves.

Episode for episode, this show has engaged and moved me more than just about any literary novel I’ve read in the past year. Give me those Science exams! Because when I’m done watching FNL, I feel like I’d ace them. I’m more compassionate toward family and friends. I’m more emotionally honest in my own writing, more willing to dig deep into my characters’ inner lives. It’s not just FNL that has this effect. Mad Men, Freaks & Geeks and Six Feet Under do, too.

So what gives? FNL ain’t Don DeLillo. In many ways, it’s the opposite of much literary fiction. Its episodes follow a conventional setup-climax-epiphany structure. There is darkness, but little or no cynicism. And because it’s a drama about working class people, often with low levels of educational attainment, the dialogue is simple. There are no beautifully wrought sentences or bedazzling inner monologues.

But I think the common thread between quality TV and literary fiction is that each is willing to sit with ambiguity. When characters on FNL argue — and they do argue, often — each character in the scene makes valid points. No one is ever completely right, and no one is ever completely wrong. Contrast this with the typical crime procedural, where there is one truth. The detective or lawyer uncovers that truth while the criminal lies.

Also, the endings of the episodes — like literary novels — are open-ended. No crime is solved, no case decided, no romance tidily consummated. Lives become more complicated, not less. The trade-off, for the character and the viewer, is that those lives also become richer, more compassionate, more interconnected.

The best TV may be able to depict ambiguity even more efficiently than novels. That’s because TV doesn’t have to describe characters’ emotions: It can simply present them, leaving viewers to infer what’s going on behind the facade. And unlike movies, TV doesn’t have to wrap everything up after only 90 minutes. Shows go on year after year, evolving at a pace similar to real life.

One way in which FNL is exactly like literary novels? It was never a popular favorite. Its best year-end ranking in the Nielsen ratings was #114. This is also consistent with the Science study, in which subjects said they got more out of literary novels — but enjoyed reading non-literary ones more.

We’re not always in the mood to grow, it turns out. Sometimes we just want answers.

What about you? Which TV shows make you feel emotionally smarter? –Justin

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“They say it’s a fish…originally.”

Justin and I are finishing up the third episode of Welcome to Munchen this week. At this point in our story, fourteen-year-old Meredith Halvorsen is getting ready for the annual Lutefisk Championship. Meredith has a bunch of…unusual hobbies and is a bit of odd duck because instead of rebelling against her local culture like a normal teenager, she embraces every lye-soaked bit of it.

The fun of world-building is doing the research, and in this case doing the research involved me watching a bunch of tutorials on how to make lutefisk. In this video from Lakes Country TV, I learned what Nelson’s customers expect in a good lutefisk, and what will keep them from coming back.

TRIGGER WARNING: If Rick Steves gives you the spinny eyeballs, you’re going to get really excited watching the host of Lakes Country TV. (See this video of a baby tasting chocolate for the first time and you’ll get an idea of how I feel about Rick Steves.)

BONUS: there’s a really big hint in this video about the supernatural infestation that Munchen’s about to experience. Guess what it is, and you win 900 pounds of free lutefisk.*

*Not really. I mean, what would you even do with all that lutefisk.

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H.P. Lovecraft and the invention of world-building

The horror writer H.P. Lovecraft (1890-1937) has a huge contemporary following. Everyone who’s into scary writing knows that. There are scores of authors, both amateur and professional, who’ve continued to write stories in, or inspired by, the elaborate universe of monsters and secret cults and decrepitude he created.

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Lovecraft’s reputation has only grown since his death. His influence can be seen clearly in all the current masters of geeky horror and fantasy, including Joss Whedon, Steven Spielberg and J.J. Abrams.

Why has he stayed so popular? We certainly can’t credit his prose, which on a good day was overstuffed, on a bad  maddeningly pseudo-intellectual. (From The Call of Cthulu: “The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein…” etc. etc. etc.)

No, I’d wager it’s because Lovecraft was an early master — maybe even the inventor — of the storytelling technique known as world-building. Lovecraft was among the first authors to create a complex alternate reality and then revisit it over and over. Readers could follow him to this reality and escape their everyday concerns. All this without needing to get drunk or high — though I’m sure some people chose to do that, too!

Fast forward to today: World-building is the defining technique of contemporary popular fiction. Think of just about any recent blockbuster book, movie or TV show. Chances are it’s set in a parallel fantasy world. The Hunger Games, Harry Potter, Game of Thrones, Ender’s Game, all the superhero stories — the list goes on. Like Lovecraft’s work, these stories all take place in made-up worlds. And like Lovecraft’s work, they’re all issued in installments, so that once people have learned about a world they can immerse themselves in it over and over again — deepening their understanding of that universe each time.

All this is not even to mention the wildly popular media of video games and comic books. These are the true paragons of world-building, incorporating visual and sometimes aural components. (Hmm, the idea of the “game,” or competition, is clearly also a strong theme in contemporary storytelling. Good idea for a future post.)

What do you think? Did Lovecraft invent world-building? Is that the main reason he remains so popular today? –Justin

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Writing Exercise: Cannery Row

If you can think of setting as character, then Cannery Row is one of my favorite character studies.

This is not a plot-heavy novel. If you ask someone who hasn’t read Cannery Row in a long time what it’s about, they’ll probably say something like “there were some hobos, and this scientist. I think there were frogs. Someone threw a party.”

John Steinbeck described Cannery Row as a love letter to Monterey, California, the fish canning town where he’d lived during the Great Depression. The Monterey Steinbeck depicts, full of hobos, flophouses, and prostitutes, disappeared after the fishing industry collapsed during the 1950s. If not for Cannery Row, this particular snapshot of culture might have been lost forever.

Exercise: Choose a place that you know well and write a description of that place in the style of the opening paragraph of Cannery Row.

Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream. Cannery Row is the gathered and scattered, tin and iron and rust and splintered wood, chipped pavement and weedy lots and junk heaps, sardine canneries of corrugated iron, honky tonks, restaurants and whore houses, and little crowded groceries, and laboratories and flophouses. Its inhabitants are, as the man once said, ‘whores, pimps, gamblers and sons of bitches,’ by which he meant Everybody. Had the man looked through another peephole he might have said, ‘Saints and angels and martyrs and holy men,’ and he would have meant the same thing.

 

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The Power of Reversal

As Christine and I have been writing the Munchen episodes, we’ve been doing some thinking about the storytelling concept of “reversal.”

Reversals are a key element of creating tension in narrative fiction. This has been the gospel going back to Aristotle, who wrote about dramatic reversals in his Poetics. (There’s a pretty good book that applies his ideas to contemporary wordcraft.)

What exactly is a reversal, and what does it accomplish?

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Aristotle says it’s “a change by which the action veers round to its opposite.” And you can see how entertainment uses this all the time. Oh, it looks like the football team is going to lose! But they win. Or the prosecuting attorney is going to trounce the defense! Only she flubs. In a longer piece, there may be many reversals back and forth. Triumph, defeat, bigger triumph, bigger defeat. Some movies or books (The Usual Suspects, The Sixth Sense) have a huge third-act twist — a type of mega-reversal that’s become almost cliché.

Reversal is even embedded in the very idea of storytelling “arc.” Protagonist starts out the story wanting one thing. By the end, she discovers she needed another all along.

That’s a Big Reversal across a whole movie or TV episode or novel. But then there are Small Reversals within scenes themselves. A couple starts out a scene on a fun date, but a few minutes later they’re fighting. A boss seems to be in control of his employee at the beginning of a scene — but by the end, the employee has taken charge.

The Script Lab has a nice list of classic movie reversal scenes. For example, there’s the one in The Silence of the Lambs where Clarice interviews Hannibal. She arrives thinking she’s in control, but it turns out Mr. Skin Eater is.

A lot of writers in Hollywood say every scene — every one! — should have a reversal of some kind.

So why are reversals so effective? I’m thinking two main reasons:

  • They keep the audience on its toes, building suspense, because outcomes are unpredictable
  • They engage us emotionally, making us think either “oh no!” (negative reversal) or “oh yay!” (positive reversal)

I think that second one’s the biggie. Daily life is full of reversals. We think we’re going to get a phone call but we don’t. We think we’re finished with a work project but we aren’t. We think we’re doing our significant other a great kindness and it makes them mad. So the reversal reflects our daily experience of life.

It’s easy to say, “ah, this reversal thing is so lowbrow. Literary novels, or quality movies or plays, don’t need reversals.” But I was at a talk by literary novelist and essayist Ann Hood where she talked about her writing process. When she’s revising, she reviews each of her scenes and puts a “+” or “-” at the beginning to reflect the emotional state of the protagonist. Then she makes sure that each scene ends on the opposite sign. It’s hardly ever a Usual Suspects-style huge moment. It’s usually more subtle. But there needs to be a change.

Hood never once used the term “reversal” — but she said the “+/-” practice has amped up the emotional response readers have to her work. And that greater response has led to bigger sales and a more engaged following. –Justin

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Freaky Places: The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror 2012

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My favorite two stories in The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror 2012 (ed. Paula Guran) both involve what I think of as uncanny landscapes: places where time doesn’t work, and where something wants to suck you in and make you stay forever. 

In “Objects in Dreams May Be Closer Than They Appear” by Lisa Tuttle, a long-divorced couple reconnect via Google Street View:

This whole terrible thing began with a link [Michael] sent me by email with the comment, “Can you believe how much the old homestead has changed?”

Taken to a Google Earth map of the house they’d once owned together in the small English village of Tavistock, the nameless narrator remembers how draining the house-buying process had been, how they settled on a house that didn’t fit either of their needs (and ultimately contributed to the dissolution of their marriage). But she also recollects the house that got away:

And then one day, traveling between the viewing of one imperfect property to look at another which would doubtless be equally unsatisfactory in its own unique way…we came to an abrupt halt. Michael stopped the car at the top of a hill….

I saw immediately what he was looking at through a gap in the hedge: a distant view of an old-fashioned, white-washed, thatched-roofed cottage…. It was a pretty sight, like a Victorian painting you might get on a box of old-fashioned chocolates….

But try as they might, the couple can’t seem to find their way to the cottage. Michael becomes obsessed, buying map after map, completely unable to locate the cottage or the road that would take them there. Eventually they ask an elderly estate agent in a nearby village who immediately tries to shut down their inquiry: the house was not for sale, it didn’t exist, it was bad luck to try and talk to the owners.

Fast-forward twenty years: the narrator and her ex-husband are invited to an anniversary party for their friends back in Tavistock, who they haven’t seen for many years. After the party, the divorced couple decides to try and find the Victorian cottage again using the wizardry of GPS.

And of course, they find it. As our narrator winds up the path, she feels a creeping sense of dread:

I knew it was impossible, yet I remembered this visit… I’d peeked through that window on the right, and saw something that made me run away in terror.

I’m really drawn in by stories with a strong sense of place — doubly so if the place is weird, whimsical, or (even better) hell-bent on destroying whoever might wander in. What I love about this story is that there’s no clear villain. Tuttle tells just enough about the house and the landscape but stops short of explaining what’s really going on. She plays on that universal desire to belong someplace — and then suggests maybe that desire isn’t quite as wholesome as we think. –Christine

Next: “Near Zennor” by Elizabeth Hand

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Spooks, Character and Place: The Somewhat Lost Art of John Bellairs

blue_figurineGrowing up, my very favorite author was John Bellairs (1938-1991). He wrote middle-grade and young adult novels about hapless young protagonists (mostly boys) who end up trapped in supernatural adventures.

It saddens me that so few people remember Bellairs today. Oh sure, there’s an online fan community — a really great one. But he’s hardly a household name. He’s unknown even to many of my geek friends, the people who by all rights should have been salivating over his books right along with me during their awkward teen years.

Bellairs wrote great yarns. They always built to flashy climactic battles. In The House with a Clock in Its Walls, plump Lewis Barnavelt had to duke it out with the ghost of a dead sorceress in his basement. In The Curse of the Blue Figurine, the spirit of an insane priest possesses poor Johnny Dixon. Johnny ends up at the top of a mountain battling for control of his soul.

The icing on the cake? Edward Gorey drew the covers and frontispieces of all of his books. Yeah, Edward Gorey! I get chills even now, thinking about those spindly drawings of skeletons and creeps and swirling leaves.

Joyful were the days I’d go to my local library and see Bellairs’ latest book on the shelves, all crisp and shiny in its plastic jacket cover.

Looking back now, I think the appeal of the books for me lay not just in their exciting plots but in their characters and impeccable sense of setting.

My favorite Bellairs character was Professor Childermass, Johnny’s neighbor and ally on most of his adventures. Professor Childermass was so cranky and curmudgeonly that he kept a Fuss Closet in his house — a room where he retreated during dark moods to bellow obscenities and beat the padded walls.

Bellairs’ heroes and heroines were often displaced misfits — actual or practical orphans who lived far from their parents. Lewis Barnavelt lived with his uncle and Johnny Dixon lived with his grandparents. These living situations made literal the isolation and loneliness of adolescence — especially the kind of adolescence experienced by many young book readers. J. K. Rowling would take a lesson years later.

And then there were the aging, cozy-but-spooky small towns where the novels took place. Bellairs himself had lived in both the Midwest and New England, and he used his memories of both regions to great atmospheric effect.

Lewis Barnavelt and his best friend Rose Rita Pottinger lived in New Zebedee, Michigan; Johnny Dixon in Duston Heights, Massachusetts; and Anthony Monday in Hoosac, Minnesota.

All three towns were fictional but based on real places. They all featured the shabby churches, factories, echoey Victorian houses and sepulchral autumns that so dominate the memories of anyone who’s grown up in the American East or Midwest. Of course ghosts and black magic existed in these places. How could they not? And in many ways, the settings were more haunting than the supernatural events themselves.

Bellairs was heavily influenced by the work of early 20th century horror writer M.R. James. James invented the “antiquarian ghost story,” in which the inciting incident was often the discovery of some ancient and mysterious object.

In turn, he was a pioneer of the “supernatural realism” so popular in film, TV and novels today. He’s well overdue for a reconsideration. And please, when that happens: Get rid of the cartoon covers on the current editions of his books and bring back Edward Gorey!

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Welcome to Munchen, Minnesota!

Hello, and Welcome to Munchen, Minnesota!

Like a lot of older industrial cities in the Midwest, Munchen (pronounced “Munchin'”) has fallen on hard economic times. As people and businesses have moved away, many of the town’s neighborhoods have emptied, leaving old houses vacant and crumbling. Crime is rampant. The public schools are in disarray.

But Munchen’s got an even more serious problem: It’s on the verge of a supernatural invasion. The threat seems to loom ever larger as the town declines. And the only people with the power to save it are a geeky teenage girl, her gay librarian father, and an ambitious city planner who didn’t have a clue what he was in for when he transferred from the East Coast.

This blog is a platform that Christine and Justin developed for launching our series about Munchen and its unlikely heroes. It is our Sunnydale, if Sunnydale were in flyover country and overcast 267 days of the year. We’re both attracted to the mystique that place holds for certain people – whether for good or ill. Munchen is as much a character in our story as any of our humans (or non-humans).

We developed Munchen after deciding to try our hand at writing a TV pilot. After a couple months crafting characters over feta omelets at My Friends Restaurant in Cleveland, we enrolled in Wendy Riss‘s class, Writing the TV Pilot, to learn how shows are plotted and structured.

We’re planning to launch Munchen as a serial, though right now we’re still experimenting with format. Will it be a web comic? A series of e-books? A full-cast audio production? Surely the answer will come to us in a dream, or leap out from behind a door when we least expect it.

Meanwhile, we’re going to chatter at you about writing, weird fiction, creatures with sharp teeth, and the forgotten places at the far corners of the psyche. Oh and also TV.

–Justin and Christine

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