The Unreliable Narrator….

Brett: You could just call this “Ethan-is-full-of-shit.”

Ethan: Hey!

JM: *sigh*

This post is sorta kinda about unreliable narrators in horror. Sorta because it came down during the seemingly neverending edits of The Fishing Widow that the main narrator has, um, truth issues… Kinda because it’s also about what we remember and what we forget. Like, forgetting to post my second Coffin Hop offering and getting around to it in the mid-afternoon Alaska time, but at nearly 7pm for those on the East Coast…



Yeah, well, so, that doesn’t look like Ethan, but that was the vibe we all got off him when edits started, and the edits started the moment I first smiled and wrote, “THE END.” and Brett said, “He’s so full of shit.” Really? Really?? HOW FULL?? I spent months on this thing and he’s WHAT? Dragging a story out of an unreliable narrator or uncooperative character may be a pain in the butt at times, but it does lead to some pretty interesting conversations in your head….and sometimes, they’re conversations that you’re not even PART of. And, you have to be careful. Some readers HATE unreliable narrators to the point that they’ll toss down a book because they believe the WRITER is the unstable idiot who’s telling the story…not the idiot IN the story. And that can lead to some interesting conversations OUTSIDE your head that, in retrospect when the person you’re talking to backs…away…slowly … you WISH you hadn’t been part of.

“That part there.” She flips open the book. “Here.” She points. “That seems so out of character.”

“But, that’s what he said happened,” you say. You smile apologetically. “But, you, know, sometimes he IS a butt.”


Awkward silence.

It’s stretching…..

“Uh … huh…”


I wouldn’t change any of The Fishing Widow crew, but I wish I HAD known, before that first ending, that I was dealing with a guy who was desperate to not make himself look slightly more clueless than he is…

So … Comments? Do you LIKE unreliable narrators? Are they the type of people who add to the story or that should be the first against the wall when the zombie apocalypse comes? Leave a note below and you could win …. this…. (and I’m leaving the comments open until noon tomorrow because I was a forgetful blogger and should be flogged .. BUT NOT HARD! .. for that).

A handful of ceramic skull beads, ghost chile chocolate, and a Hei matau. A hey what-the-hell? It’ll protect you on the water. Yeah. It would come in handy, like, if we ever went, I dunno … fishing…. (bwa ha ha)

Adventures in Character Development

I don’t fish.  When I say that, I mean I don’t commercially fish.  I used to dive, but that was with a bunch of mercenary treasure hunters off the coast of Cape Cod in the 1980s.  I used to work with predominantly male archaeological crews in the field, and that was in the 90s.  I’ve work with construction crews, with restoration crews….  Let’s just say that I’ve been around a lot of guys.  I watch them.  I listen to them.  Sometimes, it’s like they’re a completely different species; not that I’m about to go all Jane Goodall on you, but I’m so not a guy that it behooved me to learn how to think like a guy if I wanted my characters to be even slightly believable.  So, I’ve worked on it.  Man … do you guys ever NOT think about sex?  Anyway….

If there’s one thing I’ve learned about characters, it’s this: don’t create them in a vacuum.  They’ll suck.  If you can find two or three other writers to feed you and your characters whom you, in turn, feed, the process can be amazing.  When I clawed my way through my first NaNoWriMo, I lived in a vacuum.  Now, in November 2009, I loved my characters, I thought they were great, and I really enjoyed the story they told.  But, in December 2009, we moved to the ROCK that is Prince of Wales Island and I didn’t know anybody here, so I retreated into the story and the characters.

I ventured, albeit tentatively, onto the Forums on the NaNoWriMo website.  In the Horror/Supernatural Forum, there was a game.  It was called “3 Questions For Your Character.”  When it started, it was people asking three questions of your main character–sometimes questions as simple as “favorite color” or “favorite movie”– and people would just answer the questions.  What it evolved into was nothing short of amazing.  When you play something like this with two or three characters, you can get whole conversations going.  When your characters interact with characters in other novels and WIPs, it can be astounding.  You’ll find out things you never knew about them and you’ll find they become more and more real the more you talk and interact with them.  Think of it like a script.  They’re the actors in your head, and you know they have distinct personalities.  You just need to capture that in their dialogue and mannerisms over and over until it translates into characters that “pop” from the page.  It’s also an exercise that takes your characters out of their story and places them in the real world with you.  Sound psychotic?  Probably, but there’s no denying the results.  The characters are no longer restricted to the pages of their book — they walk and breathe and have opinions … sometimes way too many opinions … about things outside their world.  Two months after I began playing the game with my NaNo ’09 characters, I knew I was on to something….

I pulled my three main characters from Cut Time to play in the game: Wisteria, a 30-something underemployed non-Alaskan living in a dry cabin just outside Fairbanks, Alaska; Raf, her 20-something weirder than weird raised-in-the-bush neighbor; and James, a physics professor from the local university who takes a shine to Wiz and he’s not exactly human… I mean, I knew he wasn’t human, I knew he was some kind of demon, I just didn’t know he was, well … this guy…(which came out in the game–and Wally is the character from Split who posed the question):

1. One thing…. (the question: name one thing the other characters in your story don’t really know about you)

James: Adam was my father.

Wiz: Your dad’s name was Adam?

Raf: No, Wiz, he means ADAM was his father.

Wiz (blinks): Adam…. Just how old ARE you, James? Does that mean Eve was your
mom? I don’t remember hearing about YOU in Sunday School….

James: No, Eve was dead by that point. Adam had…moved on…

Raf: Adam was married to Lilith….(grins) But that’s not mom, either…is it,

Wiz: Then who was your mom?

James (glaring at Raf): Her name was Naamah….wonderful woman–

Raf: Angel of Prostitution.

Wiz (BLINKS): Pardon….?

Raf (grins): Love this question, Wally.

Wiz: Raf–you’re KIDDING, right?

James: No, I’m afraid he’s not. Remember, you don’t really CHOOSE your

Raf (STILL GRINNING): But YOU did. Keep going, James…tell her the rest….

Wiz: UNHOLY HELL, there’s MORE?

James: One thing…Wally said one thing….

Raf (laughs): He married Lilith.

James (protesting): In Hell…


James (protesting) EX-wife–

Raf(grinning): Know that old expression about “Hell hath no fury like a
woman scorned?”

Wiz (weakly): Yeah….

James (rolling his eyes): That’s my wife.

Wiz: Your wife….

James: IN HELL. Besides, it’s not like we’re that….married anymore. She
pretty much does her own thing and I do mine….

Wiz (walking toward the door): I need time to think about this….

James: Wiz! Come back!

Raf: Geez, Wally, if you ever get to Alaska, I’ll buy you a beer. That was flat

Ringing silence.

Raf (quietly): Now she’s gone, I’ll tell you. I’M not who she thinks I am,
either. It’s been absolute HELL for me not being able to tell her, but I don’t
want to put her in any more danger than she’s already in. That’s the problem
with all this stuff we do…the memories get all screwed up. (sighs) I’m always
me. I wish she’d realize that…..

Sometimes, the questions are in a less serious vein.  One of my favorites was: What’s on the bottom of your shoe right now?

1. Bottom of my shoe….

James (stepping forward with a smile)

Raf: Ow! Damn it, James, get off!

James (grinning): Raf.

Raf: Jerk. Very funny.

Wiz (laughing): You have to admit, that WAS pretty funny.

Raf (moodily): I don’t have to admit anything, Wiz.

Wiz (lifting her foot): Snow on the bottom of my bunny boots at the moment.

Raf (lifting his foot): Bits of spruce bark. (grins) Out splitting wood again.
Geez, I’ll be glad when winter’s over.

I wondered if this was what Robert E. Howard meant when he described his writing process with all the Conan stories and his later fiction–how he would sit down with his characters, look across at them, and say, “Tell me a story.” … and it worked.

That said, though, it’s not like I don’t do any research.  As a matter of fact, I was amazed when I pulled out my research notebooks and went through them not long ago.  For The Fishing Widow, the research focused on vessels, conditions, fishing techniques, weather, equipment, language (Tlingit), and then pages and pages of what constituted “interviews” with my characters.  “Interview” might be the wrong word… what’s the word…?  Rant.  That might be a better word.  Whole conversations that will never make it into print are in that book.  Ethan’s grandmother’s Blåbärspalt recipe (blueberry dumplings) is in there, Colin’s boyhood trips to Chitina are in there, and the time Mike and his brother got charged by a bear when they were kids is in there.  You won’t find that backstory in The Fishing Widow, but for the author to know it is to allow the author to better know the characters.  Our arguments are in there, too.  Only another writer will understand that last sentence, or won’t raise an eyebrow at it, but yes.  Our arguments are in there, too–every sarcastic comment, every dope-slap…. every apology … every frustration … every lie ….

The Fishing Widow had no outline.  The process was, basically, sitting down with these guys and asking them to tell the story.  All I did was write down what they said.   It was an exercise in stream of consciousness writing that surprised me and just about everyone who’s read it.  There was no plan.  Yes, there were plot twists that even I didn’t see coming.  That’s what made it such a joy to write.

And, just for fun, I’ll leave the conversation the boys and I had when we all sat down to go over 1835 and the situation aboard The Covenant, the Nantucket whaler that figures heavily into the story.  I don’t like Captain Priam Hartt.  I seriously don’t like Captain Priam Hartt.  He makes Wolf Larsen look like a guy you’d want dating your daughter by comparison….mostly because I started with The Sea Wolf‘s captain and went for ten shades more evil… But, I gave Hartt his voice (and the writing is different for 1835 than it is for 2010), and my favorite was when Hartt was pacing the deck aft of the helm and growls at Nathaniel Rawson, the Time-Keeper:

“What is the time?” Hartt demanded.

Rawson hesitated before he stepped out of the shadows. “It’s late, sir,” he whispered, his dark eyes shining.

Hartt turned toward him. At the wheel, Boyden fought the urge to turn as well. He inclined his head, listening.

Hartt bristled. “I asked you a question, Mr. Rawson!” he barked.

Rawson laughed quietly. “Aye, sir,” he continued darkly. “Being alone or being together… It’s late.”

“Contumacious mooncalf!” Hartt snarled suddenly. “Remove yourself from my deck!”

Ethan: A…what?

Colin: I’ve never heard of that —

Me: Me, neither –.

Ethan(quietly): Con.. conti… contimim… contimitious —

Colin: Stop it, Ethan, you’ll hurt yourself.

Ethan: Shut it, Col.  What the hell does that mean, JM?

Me(muttering): I don’t have a clue… let me look it up..




Illuminating the Backstory …. How Could This Have Happened?

If you’ve read any of the excerpts of The Fishing Widow posted at right, then you’re familiar with Ethan, Colin, Ellie, and Nan, along with the crew of the F/V The Case in Point homeported in Port Saint Anne, Alaska in 2010…. You’ve probably even figured out that there’s some kind of creeping evil thing stalking them–something that was aboard Revelation in September 2006 as was hinted at in The Prologue, but … where did this come from? How could this have happened? And… why does it KEEP happening?

In the course of the story based in 2010, Ethan has another encounter with whatever it is that is stalking him and his crew. This time, the shimmering skeletal form appears to him as a woman — described alternately as Nan … as Josh’s mermaid … as not Nan … after a rogue wave drives Ethan beneath the water during a man-overboard drill, she appears and breathes into his mouth, filling his lungs, keeping him alive until Brett and Tommy can pull him from the water. But, she leaves him something; when Ethan vomits water on the deck of The Case in Point, a ring falls out of his mouth and rings brightly on the deck. Inside the ring is a simple inscription… “Elizabeth.” “My Covenant.”

The scene serves as a bridge to the beginning–back to 1835 aboard the Nantucket Whaler The Covenant lost off the coast of SE Alaska. Captain Priam Hartt, his wife, Elizabeth, First Mate Tobias St. John, Second Mate Mattias Boyden, Third Mate Nathaniel Rawson, and a Tlingit boy named Peter are the primary characters involved in the tragedy of 1835 that leads directly to the horror of 2010. How Could This Have Happened? The roots are deep, firmly planted in 1835 with what was believed, at first, to be simply a cultural misunderstanding:

Boyden and St. John watched as Peter cast the net from the whaleboat. It circled wildly for a moment before it crashed into the water. Elizabeth watched from the deck alongside others from among the crew.

“Excellent cast,” said a voice quietly beside Elizabeth. She turned toward Nathaniel Rawson. “And a beautiful day,” he continued, his voice dropping lower. He hesitated and cast a furtive glance behind him before he stepped closer, his voice softening, “Elizabeth.” Elizabeth smiled as his hand brushed against hers. He smiled awkwardly at Elizabeth before one of the men clapped him on the back and turned him back to the scene below.

The weather had calmed, and it seemed Peter had more than a few tricks at his disposal for catching fish. Peter, standing in the whaleboat, hauled in the line, hand over hand, and the net circled like a purse, trapping the fish within it. He smiled up at the assembled members of the crew of The Covenant who whooped their approval of his efforts.

“He’s a good boy,” Priam said, suddenly at Elizabeth’s side.

Rawson started, withdrawing his hand quickly before moving away down the rail. He glanced back at Elizabeth furtively before turning his attention back to Boyden, St. John, and Peter. Priam’s dark eyes followed his Third Mate’s progress down the rail.

“He is a good boy,” Elizabeth agreed quickly.

She smiled as Priam took her hand and raised it to his lips. “Someday we’ll have one like him, dearest,” Priam started. He laughed and patted her hand. “Maybe not quite like him.” Elizabeth laughed as Priam bent to kiss her cheek, his lips lingering against her skin, before turning away from the rail.

Below, Matthias and Tobias were helping Peter haul the net into the boat. A mass of fish writhed within the whaleboat.

“Excellent, Peter,” Tobias said approvingly.

“One more cast?” Peter asked. The men laughed.

“One more cast,” Tobias agreed.

The net spun from Peter’s hand and landed in the water. Quickly, he began to haul in on the line and the net began to close again. Something large pulled, and a look of alarm spread across Peter’s face. He wrapped the line around his arm and tugged.

“Sir–” he started nervously.

St. John’s brow furrowed as he stood and grabbed hold of the line, helping Peter haul in the net that pitched and pulled wildly against them.

“Perhaps you’ve caught a whale,” Boyden joked as he rose to help them.

Elizabeth and several men leaned over the rail, watching as the two men and the Tlingit boy struggled to pull in the net. Elizabeth smiled as the men yelled and called out their encouragement to the three. She watched as Tobias nodded toward the oarlocks. Matthias sat and began to pull back to The Covenant. Tobias and Peter struggled to hold the net as Matthias rowed back to the ship.

“What’s the matter?” called down Nathaniel, laughing, as Tobias and Matthias looked up at him.

“We need the hoist,” Boyden called back.

Nathaniel laughed again. “Netted a whale?”

“Feels like it, sir,” Peter replied enthusiastically, and the men at the rail roared with laughter.

Rawson shook his head and ran a hook and line down to the three. Elizabeth watched as Tobias secured the line to the hook and looked up once more. “Haul away!” he called.

Nathaniel chuckled as the men began to haul up the net.

It broke the water.


Elizabeth’s smile faded suddenly. She stared down at the three in the whaleboat. Peter had wrenched a knife from his belt and lunged for the net, but Boyden had grabbed at him and pulled him back.

“What are you doing, boy?” he started.

“Cut the net! Let it go!” The boy’s voice was frantic.

One creature in the net.

“Give me that knife, you’ll hurt yourself,” Matthias said grimly as he took the strange knife from Peter. “What kind of knife is this anyway?”

The boy was silent, his eyes fixed on the rising net, on the eye of the creature trapped within it. The eye, as blue as the sea, gazed back at the boy.

“Please, sir,” Peter started desperately, “you have to let it go–”

“We don’t even know what it is, boy,” Nathaniel Rawson called down to him. They hauled the net up to the level of the deck and swung it in. The tangled creature landed on the deck with a thud. The crew backed away from it.

Peter grabbed hold of the rope that dangled over the side of The Covenant and scrambled to the deck. “Please–” he started breathlessly as the creature turned an eye toward him. “It’s,” Peter hesitated, aware that the eyes of the entire crew were upon him, “important.”

“What do you mean, ‘sea monster?’” Priam chuckled as he walked forward from the aft deck. He stopped and stared at the tangled creature on his deck.

Its body swirled with color, through the smooth skin stretched across it, like a seal’s skin or the skin of a killer whale. Its head was large, elongated, a protruding mouth set with rows of interlocking teeth. Priam’s gaze fell to the animal’s claws that glinted, the color of copper, against his deck. The claws curled, tangled in the net.

Captain Hartt’s eyes snapped to Peter who drew back fearfully.

“Sir,” St. John started as he reached the top of the rope and set his feet on the deck.

“What devil have you brought aboard, St. John?” Priam growled suddenly.

The creature’s eyes blinked up at the captain. Priam’s eyes darkened as he gazed into the depths of its eye. The creature’s eye rolled, taking in the crew, it hesitated on Elizabeth, on Rawson, on St. John, before it rolled back to settle on Captain Priam Hartt. St. John opened his mouth and closed it again without saying anything. He felt Boyden reach the top of the rope behind him.

“Sir–” Peter’s voice was pleading.

Priam turned abruptly toward the rail and pulled a harpoon from its place in the rack. He turned back to the creature, and before Tobias could protest, Priam struck.

“No!” Peter wailed, dropping to his knees as the creature’s blue eyes rolled and it let out a terrifying whimper.

The sound of water rushing…

The creature’s mouth opened suddenly. “Yan yeené!”

Elizabeth stumbled back, startled, as Peter lunged for the creature. “Chía aadei yei x•t neey.oo!” Peter wailed, grabbing wildly, desperately, at the net.

The crew drew back, glancing nervously at one another. Captain Hartt’s eyes narrowed. “You would speak with the devil,” his voice was dangerously low.

Peter sank to the deck, covering his head with his arms, shaking and sobbing. “Please…,” Peter’s voice trembled, “forgive me…”

Captain Hartt wrenched the harpoon free of the thing and kicked at it until it went over the side. It landed in the water with a sickening splash and quickly sank from view. He thrust the harpoon into Rawson’s startled hand as he turned his dark gaze on St. John. “A devil,” he hissed suddenly.

St. John quickly bowed his head and closed his eyes. He heard the wind blow a little more strongly against the sheets above him. “Sir,” he said, his voice nearly lost in the sound of the wind that began to blow more fiercely.

“On your feet, boy,” Hartt growled at Peter as he turned to walk back to the aft deck.

Elizabeth stared at the blood on the deck, the smear of red that had followed the creature over the side. The men slowly drifted away, some climbing into the rigging that began to buckle and strain under the growing wind. Elizabeth looked back at Priam for a moment before she moved forward and sank beside Peter on the deck.

“It’s all right,” she soothed him as she took him in her arms and rocked him back and forth.

Peter shook his head, his hands grasping at Elizabeth. “Yan yeené…” His hand caught in her necklace, and he broke the chain accidently. “Be ready,” he breathed, his voice filled with terror. He shook his head as he looked down at the ornate locket warm against his hand. “No,” he said, his voice shaking as he cast the broken chain away from him as if holding it burned him. “It’s Captain Hartt.” Peter took a shuddering breath and finally met Elizabeth’s eyes, his voice, racked with despair. “He has brought Hell down upon us….”