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How to Create Realistic Characters

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No Demons, No Saints:
Creating Realistic Characters

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How to Watch a Movie to Become a Better Writer

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Children watching Charlie Chaplin film, 1951 (from photograph:21963)

In case you’ve never visited my blog before, you may not realize what a big fan I am of movies. I love films almost as much as I do books. When I was young, the concept of premium movie channels didn’t even exist, and there were only three networks, with commercials, and with heavy editing of any films they did air. Sometimes, when my newly divorced mother was first dating, my siblings and I got dropped off at a local movie theatre on Saturday afternoons, where the theatre showed many different films all day long, not just the same one all day, so we got to see at least two or three movies without leaving our seats.

We didn’t even have color television for the first decade of my life, so books became more important to me than films if only because I had easier access to books. There was a library in the school, and the Bookmobile came around to our neighborhood once a week, enabling me to get as many books as I could read. Still, I watched as many films as I could.

When I first became a writer, I wrote poetry. I’d fallen in love with TS Eliot’s poems when I was 6, although I certainly didn’t understand them. I loved the music of his language, and I wanted to write words like that myself. Gradually, over the years of writing and publishing poems, my poems began to get longer and more complex. More of my poems became narratives, with distinct storylines. Some had multiple protagonists and different perspectives. Editors at journals where I submitted my work began to write notes on the rejection slips, asking, “Are you sure you’re not writing fiction?” I thought the editors were just being obtuse. Eventually, though, I began to wonder if I should write fiction instead of poetry, if only because my poems were getting too long and complex for most poetry journals.

But how to write a novel? I got as many books as I could on novel writing technique, but they said things so simplistic that I wondered what pre-school class they’d been written for. Have a plot, have characters, make something happen. I knew all that from years of reading books, getting degrees in literature, and from teaching literature. But I was at a loss about how to move from writing poetry to writing fiction. Then, one of my favorite movies aired on Turner Classic Movies, without commercials — Gone with the Wind — and I wondered if I could learn to write fiction by watching a classic film.

Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh, Gone with the Wind ©

I hadn’t read Margaret Mitchell’s book at that point, but I was a huge fan of the film based on her book. I watched Gone with the Wind once again, but that time I tried to pay attention to what made the film a good story. In particular, I wondered how the film managed to tell its story – with the American Civil War and its Reconstruction period as its setting – without ever confusing its viewers. I first saw Gone with the Wind when I was 5 or 6, and though I’m certain I didn’t understand it all, I understood enough of the story to fall in love with the film.

Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh, Gone with the Wind ©

As an adult, and as a writer who wanted to move from poetry to fiction, I watched Gone with the Wind over and over, paying special attention to the storytelling techniques, and I learned enough to feel confident enough afterward to write my first novel. All writers can learn good storytelling from great films, and camera angles and acting techniques can also teach something about writing fiction, but you have to know how to watch a film in order to become a better writer.

Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck, Roman Holiday ©

The Plot
To learn good writing and storytelling techniques from a movie, re-watch a movie that you’ve seen several times. If you’ve never seen the movie or if you’ve only seen it once or twice, you’ll probably be paying attention to the plot only, which includes all the story’s conflict. Obviously, it’s imperative to have a strong plot in your story, whether you’re writing a short story, novella, or novel, but there’s more to fiction than plot. All good writing has Urgency, which keeps the reader turning pages, but plot Urgency has solely to do with what happens in the story, and that means conflict.

Traditionally, conflict has been divided into four major categories, and you should be familiar with these if you’re writing fiction. For details, you should see my post on Urgency, especially conflict in plot. An author can have as many categories of conflict in fiction as he wishes, but the first time most of us read a book or watch a film, we are most interested in what happens so we are only reading or watching for plot. To learn fiction-writing technique from any book or a film, you should already know what happens in the plot, i.e., you should be intimately familiar with all the conflicts, so that you can concentrate on storytelling technique.

James Dean and Natalie Wood, Rebel without a Cause, 1955 ©

The Protagonist
Once you know the plot of the film, pay attention to the character who is the focus of film. Who is most often on camera? Who has the most lines? Who do all other characters in the story congregate around? That is the protagonist. Now imitate that technique in your own story & writing by making sure that you view the protagonist as if you were the camera. Make sure you focus on your protagonist consistently.

If the film has more than one protagonist, notice which is the major protagonist around whom the minor protagonists rotate. The minor protagonists are satellites or moons to the planet that is the major protagonist. Notice how the camera and all the other actors concentrate on the major protagonist all the time. That is how you want to tell your story: around the major protagonist. Use that technique when writing your own fiction. Keep your own camera focused on your protagonist so your readers should find it easy to follow your protagonist through the book.

Watch the film at least once without sound while paying attention to the protagonist and his relationship with the camera. Notice how the camera is directed toward and focused on the protagonist. Note camera focus on the protagonist in every scene: you want that kind of focus in your own story. No matter what’s happening in the film, notice where the camera is in relation to the protagonist. Even in action sequences, the camera often returns to the protagonist to show his reaction, however brief, to the events around him. Learn from that. Use that technique to improve your own writing.

Joan Fontaine and Dame Judith Anderson in Rebecca, 1940 ©

The Antagonist
All characters in fiction need to be fully developed, not just your protagonist. Watch the film once more, concentrating on every person or thing that causes conflict for the protagonist. This could include the protagonist’s own behavior, doubt, hesitation, etc. Anything that causes conflict with the protagonist becomes an antagonist in the story, and, obviously, there can be lots of antagonists. Watch the film at least once listing every single conflict that happens. Identify antagonist(s) that are the cause of each conflict. Group all the conflicts that go with each antagonist together. This helps you become hyper-conscious of conflict, which is important in good storytelling.

Just as there can be more than one protagonist in any story, there can be multiple antagonists, though one is usually dominant. After you have listed all the conflicts and all the various antagonists, determine which is the major antagonist. In Moby-Dick and Jaws, for example, the whale and the shark are the major antagonists respectively in each book, but the sea is also an important antagonist in both stories, as are fellow sailors. In the Harry Potter series, Voldemort is the major antagonist, whom Harry encounters even before he is conscious of doing so, but Harry also has conflicts with family members, teachers, supernatural creatures, and himself throughout.

Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh, Gone with the Wind ©

The Dialogue
There’s more to writing effective dialogue than just the words characters say, and film can teach you what else to put in talking scenes. Take a few weeks or months off from watching the film because you need it to be fresh the next time you play it. Watch it again, but don’t look at the screen while the film is playing. Instead, listen to it closely, and try to recall what the actors are doing when they say their lines. Don’t worry if you can’t actually remember what each and every character is doing while you’re listening to the film: instead, try to imagine what each actor is doing if you can’t recall his actions. When you are writing your own story, you will have to imagine what your characters are doing without having any actors to provide the action that accompanies the dialogue, so this is good practice.

Next, watch the film against without looking at the screen. This time, pay attention to the inflections (stress or accent on words or their syllables) and intonations (rise and fall of the voice in speech) of everything the actors say. You will not be able to imitate this in a written story because they are attributes of spoken language, but you should still become aware of the role that inflection and intonation play in speech. Listen also to the pauses and to the silences. Think about these things in reference to your own writing. You may have to re-arrange sentences or choose your words more carefully to imitate inflection or intonation. You may have to insert dialogue tags to mimic pauses, like this: “Are you trying to tell me,” she said when her husband remained silent, “that you’re seeing someone else?”

But whatever you do in writing dialogue,

Do. Not. Do. Something. Like. This. In. An. Attempt. To. Imitate. What. Actors. Are. Doing. In. A. Film.


Don’t do this either.


Those are just examples of really bad writing.

Find more imaginative ways to imitate in writing how a character is speaking. Use silence and action as well as direct speech. You are not writing a screenplay. Even if you were, actors do not have every single movement and facial expression written out for them. They interpret. They ACT. But if you’re writing fiction, you need to supply this information to your readers. Don’t overdo it with bad writing or grotesquely incorrect punctuation.

You are not trying to slavishly imitate film by trying to write down every single thing the actors are doing with their voices: that would be impossible. You are trying to learn from the film’s storytelling and from the actors’ acting. You are learning what a visual art form does to tell a good story. You will have to learn how to translate those techniques into a different art form: a written art.

James Cagney and Mae Clarke in The Public Enemy, 1931 (Cagney added the grapefruit in the face) ©

The NonVerbals
After you’ve identified the major protagonist, any minor protagonists, all the antagonists, and all the conflicts, and you know the story well, it’s time to watch the film again, without sound, paying very close attention to the actors’ facial expressions and body language. You may have to do this several times, concentrating on different characters each time. This is where you get ideas for description and behavior in your story. Notice what the actors do with their hands, eyes, lips, mouths, eyebrows, feet, etc. whether they’re talking or not. (In the photo above, James Cagney improvised the grapefruit-in-the-face action during an argument with Mae Clarke’s character, so her intense frown and raised hands were honest surprise and outraged shock at his actions: they were not in the script.)

Note the actors’ bodies when they’re walking, sitting, standing. Become aware of how you determine what the actor is feeling without hearing what he’s saying. Use that knowledge to describe your own characters and reveal what they are feeling by showing what they are doing instead of always having them tell the readers (or other characters) how they feel.

Joan Crawford (in fur) in Mildred Pierce, 1945 ©

The Setting
After you’ve watched the film about a trillion times and think you’ve got absolutely everything you can get out of it, you have more to learn if you want to become a better writer. Watch the film again, without sound, and notice all the costumes, hairstyles, makeup, furniture, buildings, night, day, weather…

Setting is more than just a place: it is the time period of the story, the society, the government, the religious background, the environment, the weather, etc. Notice all of that in the film.

Look at the characters’ fingernails (something often overlooked, as when a poor sharecropper has finely manicured nails), the soles of their shoes, how their clothes move when the actors walk, fall, run, embrace. This may all affect what characters do, and you can learn character behavior and description from closely observing how the actors move in their costumes.

Roscoe (Fatty) Arbuckle and Joseph (Buster) Keaton in The Bellboy, 1918 ©

Watch carefully and note every single time an actor interacts with something in his environment, whether he’s sitting on the edge of a desk, clutching a handkerchief, picking up a coffee cup, turning away from another actor, holding onto someone’s arm, or petting a cat. Look at how they move across carpet, bare floor, a sandy beach, around bodies lying on the ground, up a steep hill. Learn from every single thing in the film’s setting with which the actors interact. Learn from the setting and how it affects the actors’ behavior. Use it in your own story.

Gary Cooper (in white shirt) and Barbara Stanwyck in Ball of Fire, 1942 ©

Keep in mind that you can’t learn to write a book from only watching movies. You also need to read, all the time, in your genre and outside of it, and you should read short stories and novellas, stand-alone novels and series. After all, writing is a job, not a holiday jaunt, and all sorts of fiction can help you learn to write better.

When you watch films to become a better writer, you’re not copying everything the film does: you’re learning from the actors, who inhabit the characters; from the director, who determines scene and camera focus; from the setting, especially if setting is an antagonist; from the conflicts, which are plot. Most good films can teach you how to become a better writer, but you have to become conscious of film techniques, and then learn how to translate those visiual cues into written languae.

You don’t have to worry that this exercise will make you hate your favorite movie. If anything, it will give you a greater appreciation for all the artistry involved in making a good film. You can learn from that to make art in your own way, by telling a good story. Learn how to become a better storyteller and writer by noticing all the fine details of your favorite movie(s). Learn to translate actors’ actions and camera angles into written language. Then go out and tell a good story, and tell your story better than anyone else could do it.

Related Posts

Creative Writing

Urgency in Fiction: Part One

Urgency in Fiction: Part Two

No Demons, No Saints:
Creating Realistic Characters

Writing Effective Dialogue

Who’s Afraid of Point of View?

Myths About Point of View

How to Write a Novel Without an Outline

Publishing & Writer’s Life

How to Pitch Your Book

Long Day’s Journey Into Publishing My Second Book

A Week in the Life of a Writer, and a Peek Inside my Office


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Filed under Actors, Authors, Books, Classics, Creative Writing, Films, Films/Movies, How to Write, How to Write a Book, Movies/Films, Movies/Television, Research, Stories, Storytelling, Writing

How to Write a Novel Without an Outline

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 When I first decided to write a novel, I didn’t have any idea how to do it. I’d written and published poems, articles, and essays, but never any fiction. To get ready for my first novel, I read lots of how-to books on writing novels, but they said some of the silliest things, including that I needed to have characters, plot, and dialogue. Anyone who’s ever read a novel knows those things, so I didn’t feel those books helped me when I was trying to figure out how to transition from poetry and non-fiction to fiction. My first novel was historical, so after I completed all the research, and after I knew who my protagonists (both narrators) were, I wrote a detailed outline. Then I began writing the novel.

Within a month, my characters started doing things that weren’t in my outline. I was shocked. Since I’d never written fiction, I hadn’t realized that characters could do such things. At that time, I also didn’t know any other fiction writers: all my writer-friends wrote poetry or non-fiction, as I did. None of them seemed to know how fiction worked when it was actually being written, so they told me that I must have “forgotten” to include those scenes in the outline.

I redid the outline, feeling pretty confident that no character would surprise me again. Less than two scenes later, another character did something unexpected. I redid my outline again. And, once more, my characters surprised me with something I’d “forgotten.”

As you can imagine, I was beginning to get annoyed with my own characters.

Instead of trying to force them to follow my outline, however, I ditched it.

Oh, I glanced at my original outline a few times after that, but instead of attempting to stick to it, I just waited for my characters to tell me what was supposed to happen next. To my surprise, that approach worked. In fact, my characters showed me scenes that I would never have consciously thought of, so I quickly learned to trust them to guide me in writing a novel.

I’ve never outlined a novel since that initial try. Though I realize that many writers feel more comfortable writing outlines for their novels, especially if they’re writing a series of novels, I think every writer can benefit from writing a novel without any outline. Yes, it’s challenging, but it’s also very artistically rewarding.

The Importance of Conflict

If you’re not familiar with the concept of Urgency, which keeps readers turning pages, then you should read my post on Urgency for additional explanation of the term since I am only going to be discussing plot Urgency in this post.

Most readers initially read a book for its plot: they turn pages to see how the story unfolds. There are many published authors who are master storytellers — i.e., their plots are so compelling that the reading audience cannot put the books down — without necessarily being brilliant writers: their characters may not be fully developed or their writing style may not be exceptional. Good storytellers who write successful books have mastered plot Urgency, however, and that is all that matters to their readers.

Urgency is somewhat easier to develop when it is part of the plot because you must have conflict in plot, and conflict readily lends itself to Urgency. All fiction must have conflict: without it, there is no reason for the audience to continue reading. You could almost say that stories exist so that the audience can see how the characters work through the conflicts they encounter.

Traditonal Categories of Conflict

The traditional divisions of conflict in fiction have typically been divided into these categories:

man vs. man
man vs. himself
man vs. nature
man vs. supernatural

Of course, many stories, novellas, and novels have many of these conflicts all at the same time. It doesn’t matter how an author classifies his conflict, only that he include conflict in his fiction.

You should increase the plot conflicts in importance and intensity throughout the novel to maintain your readers’ interest. Some writers call this the “dramatic arc,” while some critics call this the “rising action,” which simply means that it is a series of conflicts increasing in intensity until you arrive at the peak, which they call the “climax,” meaning it’s supposed to be the “ultimate conflict” of the work.


Historically, the  “falling action” or “the dénouement” (translation, “untying or unraveling the knot”) occurred after the ultimate conflict. In the dénouement,  all conflicts among characters were resolved, and all resolutions to the fictional world presented. The dénouement was meant to be a sort of catharsis for the reader, releasing any remaining anxiety and tension, while eliminating difficulties for any of the characters. In short, these were the days when readers had to be reassured that they were reading a story, and, in effect, the author had to inform them how everything turned out.

Although some authors still include a dénouement in the form of an epilogue, which ties up any loose ends in the characters’ stories and answers any remaining questions readers might have, much of contemporary fiction, especially books written in series, no longer include a dénouementInstead, authors who write book series typically end each book with plot Urgency in order to make the reader want to get the next book. In literary fiction, authors often end on Urgency because they want the endings to be ambiguous, morally questionable, or open to interpretation. As fiction itself has become more sophisticated, so has its readers — or perhaps it’s the other way around. In any event, readers no longer need an author’s reassuring dénouement at the end of a piece of fiction.

Conflict in a Series

If you are writing books in a series, remember that each book has to have its own increasing conflicts, and the series itself has to have its own separate, ever-increasing conflicts. Many authors make the mistake of writing an incredible first book in a series, with a tremendous plot, full of great conflict and Urgency, then write subsequent books in the same series where the plot slows down tremendously (the books also often get shorter) and the Urgency virtually disappears. Even if you’re using an outline, you need to keep plot Urgency in the forefront when writing your novels. Without an outline, plot Urgency is imperative.

Knock Your Protagonist’s World Off Its Axis

To begin your novel, especially if you’re trying to do it without an outline, you should write the one scene that knocks your protagonist’s world off its axis. That means you’re introducing both your protagonist and your antagonist (or, at least one of the antagonists) in your novel immediately, and that’s a good thing. Make sure that this earth-rocking event is described in detail. You want your readers to connect immediately with your protagonist: they should want to know how he will handle this event. Write it in sufficient detail to keep the readers wanting to continue your story.


Previously, some literature or creative writing instructors used to insist that the protagonist’s “backstory” had to be presented before any major conflict was shown. If these instructors drew this premise on the board, they showed it as a flat line before the “rising action” of the plot was presented. Visually, that flat line of the backstory was very symbolic: nothing important happened. The backstory was, literally, the history of the characters before any conflict began.

As fiction became more sophisticated, readers no longer wanted to plow through endless “backstory” in which nothing happened: they wanted to jump right into the action. Writers have learned to eliminate this flat plain of backstory and weave anything of importance in the characters’ history into the main story itself. Most successful fiction now starts with Urgency; thus it begins with conflict.

Starting with characters’ backstory, even if it’s the backstory of your protagonist, is a sure way to eliminate Urgency from your novel. Start with the event that knocks your protagonist’s world off its axis, and you’re more likely to engage your readers’ interest from the first page.

Additionally, no matter how much of your characters’ backstory you write for yourself — including lists of character education, skills, or physical description — you want to avoid large blocks of backstory anywhere in your novel, as these blocks of information, which do not move the plot forward, will slow your story down. Instead, put any pertinent information from your character’s backstory in as hints or, even better, simply let the backstory, which is the protagonist’s personal history, determine your protagonist’s behavior. You don’t ever need to write several chapters (or scenes) of backstory to explain why your protagonist is behaving as he does: readers can infer that it has something to do with his own backstory, or they can, alternately, interpret his behavior for themselves.

Ask “What Happens Next?”

Once you understand the importance of Urgency, especially plot Urgency, and once you have written the scene which details the event that knocks your protagonist’s world off its axis, then you only have one other “step” to keep in mind while writing a novel without an outline: ask What happens next?

When you know what happens next in the plot, which is the main story in your novel, make sure that you write that scene fully, including any other characters that are involved, as well as dialogue. Make sure that you write the second story-plot scene completely, and make sure that it has conflict.

Bear in mind that though this may be the second scene in the main story of the novel, i.e., the second scene in the plot-conflict, it may not end up being the second scene in the novel. You may decide, in subsequent drafts, that another scene may work better after the initial scene. You may have a flashback scene or a (brief) backstory scene; you might introduce the antagonist more fully.

The second scene in the plot-conflict of the story advances the story itself with Urgency, as should each scene which moves the story forward. If you were to put them one after the other, you would have the main plot of the novel. There may be other scenes in the novel, such as those which reveal backstory, other conflicts, relationships between the characters, sub-plots which have their own stories, etc., but the major plot-conflict story — the one which starts the novel itself — should always be clear to the readers so that they can follow what happens.

Now you should have at least two scenes, both involved in the major plot-conflict of the story, both with Urgency, fully written, both of which move the plot forward toward the eventual final conflict of the story.

Now ask again, What happens next?

Each time you ask this question, remember that you are thinking of the major plot story with its increasing conflicts, which lead to the ultimate (and final) conflict (in the stand-alone book or in the entire series) in order to “answer” this question.

Each time you get an answer to this question, write the scene completely, in as much detail as possible.

Repeat as necessary.

Other Scenes

Although many other scenes and plot events may appear to you, you should write these parts of the book separately since they may not appear in the final version of the novel: they may be backstory, for example, and though you may need to know these stories in great detail to write the novel, your readers may not need as much detail about the backstory.

Also, recall that this is your first draft — which should never be published as it is — and you will have plenty of time during revision and editing to change Point of View, re-arrange scenes, insert or delete sections, add or subtract characters, etc. Concentrate on conflict and plot Urgency when writing the first draft of a novel without an outline: that will keep your work focussed.

The Great Unknown

You do not have to know the entire story yourself when writing a novel without an outline in order to successfully enjoy the process itself. Some writers know the beginning and the end when they initially get the idea for the novel. They don’t know how to get from the beginning to the end, but they’ve learned that they don’t have to. Other writers do not get a vision of the story’s end along with their vision of the novel’s beginning, but they proceed with anyway, trusting that their artistic intuition will guide them.

That’s basically how you write an entire novel without an outline: concentrate on plot-Urgency, start with the single event that knocks your protagonist’s world off its axis, and discover each subsequent scene in the story by asking What happens next?

Does that seem too easy?

That’s because you’ve never done it yourself.

Does it seem to hard to write an entire novel like that?

Depends on whether you like the excitement and the challenge of discovering your own talent as you discover the story of your characters.

Obviously, writing without an outline isn’t the only way to write a novel, but it’s certainly a thrilling way for writers to attempt at least once in their careers.

Related Posts


Urgency in Fiction: Part One

Urgency in Fiction: Part Two

No Demons, No Saints:
Creating Realistic Characters

Writing Effective Dialogue

Who’s Afraid of Point of View?

Myths About Point of View


How to Pitch Your Book

Long Day’s Journey Into Publishing My Second Book

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Filed under Creative Writing, How to Write, How to Write a Book, Stories, Storytelling, Urgency, Writing, Writing & Revising


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Be not afeard.
The isle is full of noises.
Caliban (the monster)
The Tempest 3.2.148
William Shakespeare

Cast of PENNY DREADFUL, from L to R: Timothy Dalton as Sir Malcolm Murray, Reeve Carney as Dorian Gray, Eva Green as Vanessa Ives, Harry Treadaway as Victor Frankenstein, Josh Harnett as Ethan Chandler

Cast of PENNY DREADFUL, from L to R: Timothy Dalton as Sir Malcolm Murray, Reeve Carney as Dorian Gray, Eva Green as Vanessa Ives, Harry Treadaway as Victor Frankenstein, Josh Harnett as Ethan Chandler

Showtime’s new series Penny Dreadful has its origins in literature of the late 19th century, a time when men of all kinds were questioning the relationship of the supernatural to man, of God to man, and what was on the other side. Named after the contemporaneous tabloids, the Penny Dreadfuls, which listed all the gruesome details of crimes and atrocities, including those of Jack the Ripper, the show’s atmosphere is haunting and spooky.

Most of its characters seem to inhabit “The Demi-monde”: a half world of shadows and light. It is there that Sir Malcolm Murray (Timothy Dalton), with the help of his daughter’s childhood friend Vanessa Ives (Eva Green) and an American gun-for-hire Ethan Chandler (Josh Harnett) search for Murray’s missing daughter Mina. In their search, they also encounter Victor Frankenstein, Dorian Gray, and other fictional characters. Despite its flaws so far, the show is fascinating.

Cast of PENNY DREADFUL, from L to R: Timothy Dalton as Sir Malcolm Murray, Reeve Carney as Dorian Gray, Eva Green as Vanessa Ives, Harry Treadaway as Victor Frankenstein, Josh Harnett as Ethan Chandler

Penny Dreadful was created and is mostly written by John Logan, who, in the clip below, explains the literary origins of Penny Dreadful.

Despite the trailers, I found the first show a little slow, as did other viewers and reviewers. Till the end. So I watched the second. Then the third. The show does have some weaknesses, the most distracting of which is its disconnected storylines. I still haven’t figured out how Dr. Frankenstein is involved, though he was introduced in the first episode. His role in the “Searching for Mina” story seems mostly like a satellite, and his own story of his Creature, has been, at least temporarily, discarded.

How Dorian Gray fits in, I have no idea, I confess. And except for the fact that he has sex with a lot of people, I haven’t seen anything he’s done that he needs to hide. Unless he’s committing crimes we don’t know about. That’s the whole premise of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray: that the portrait becomes as gruesome and ugly on the outside as Dorian himself is morally, while he remains physically beautiful. (I had to explain that to my boyfriend, who kept asking where Jekyll and Hyde were, and didn’t know anything about Dorian Gray). Penny Dreadful Right Behind You Trailer.


  1. The stories of Dorian Gray and of Victor Frankenstein are not sufficiently integrated into the main story of Dracula (variously referred to as The Master and The Creature)
  2. In fact, Frankenstein and his creations are mostly shoved to the background, despite one entire episode devoted to him and them.
  3. Famous, or infamous, literary characters of the period, like Jekyll and Hyde, are missing, though I realize that they might show up later.

4. The most quirky flaw I’ve noticed so far is that every episode ends with a punch, a shock, an unexpected surprise. Now that could be considered a good thing, although it could end up making each episode seem like something from The Twilight Zone, where viewers just wait for the ending to get their fix, and make more sense of the story so far.

5. The most serious flaw in Penny Dreadful to date is that the story of Sir Malcolm Murray, his protegée Vanessa Ives, and their search for Sir Malcolm’s missing daughter Mina, who has been taken by Dracula (unnamed as yet) keeps getting interrupted by the vague appearances of Dorian Gray, Victor Frankenstein, and, frankly, Ethan Chandler, despite this final character’s being hired by Vanessa Ives to help in the search for Mina.

Still, the show is very intriguing. It has a lot of strengths.


  1. Dalton & Green. The interconnected internet tubes and social media are a-buzz with predictions of Eva Green’s Golden Globe and Emmy nominations for her brilliantly nuanced and terrifying performance as Vanessa Ives. Her strong performance is matched by the great Timothy Dalton’s as Sir Malcolm Murray, who is beginning to appear more in the show. Their ambiguous relationship and the sexual tension between them could make an entire series itself, that’s how well they’re acting their intriguing and frightening roles.
  2. The rest of the Cast. Taken as an ensemble cast, the remaining actors are doing a fine job. None outshines either Dalton or Green, however, but as a group, an ensemble, they’re doing a good job around the two central figures played by Dalton and Green.
  3. The Characters. Whether literary or original to Penny Dreadful, the characters themselves are interesting, and I certainly want to know more about them. The twists the writers have added to the literary characters are great.
  4. Everybody has secrets. As those secrets are slowly being revealed, the show is improving. (The secrets we already know about the literary characters are not secrets to the audience, most of which has, no doubt, a passing familiarity with the books. Their secrets are only secrets to the other characters in Penny Dreadful.) Still, the writer(s) have managed a few surprises based on the original literary character of Frankenstein so far.
  5. Sexual tension abounds. Especially between Timothy Dalton’s Sir Malcolm and Eva Green’s Vanessa (whether or not Dalton likes to dismiss it in interviews).
  6. Atmospheric Costumes, Sets, and Makeup. Just wait till you see the episode “Closer Than Sisters”, devoted entirely to Sir Malcolm, Mina, and Vanessa.

7. Finally, the greatest strength in Penny Dreadful is its writing. The audience is not treated like a bunch of buffoons who have to be hit over the head with every piece of symbolism that appears. The plot is often moved forward by what the characters don’t (or won’t) reveal rather than by what they reveal. The characters are interesting and the actors have good lines to say: that comes from the writer(s). Based on that alone, I’m going to keep watching. Penny Dreadful: Behold Terrible Wonders Trailer.

In fact, I’m starting to look forward to Penny Dreadful, which means the show seems to have found its stride and is firmly centering itself, letting the strengths outweigh the minor weaknesses. Metro Entertainment’s blog called Penny Dreadful “elegantly scripted, with a dangerously handsome cast, enchanting cinematography, and an enigmatic storyline.” While I don’t agree with everything Metro Entertainment said about the show, I agree with most of its points.

If you haven’t had a chance to watch Penny Dreadful yet, you can watch Episode 1 free on its homepage on Showtime. You can catch up with the remaining episodes on ShowtimeAnytime. Then, at 10 p.m. ET on Sunday, you’ll be ready to join the rest of us #Dreadfuls (from Twitter) and buzz about the show.

If you want to read the books that the literary characters are based on, Showtime is offering them for sale on its site, but you can get them free as ebooks: Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, and Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s Frankenstein. And I’ve thrown in Robert Louis Stevenson’s  The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde simply because no exploration of that period would be complete without it, and I can’t believe he won’t show up, eventually, in Penny Dreadful.

And, note to the creator and writers: I want to be afeard. I want to be very afeard.

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Independent‘s article: Penny Dreadful Fails to Make a Gripping Start

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HBO’s neo-noir, intense, miniseries True Detective.

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Three Stories from Naked, with Glasses-2

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Naked, with Glasses

Naked, with Glasses

My journey from poet to novelist to short story writer
About Naked, with Glasses

Naked, with Glasses
St. Jerome Emiliani Comes to the Church Picnic
In the Path of the Juggernaut

I started my writing career as a poet — if you don’t count the stories I wrote and tried to sell when I was 12 — and eventually my poems became so long, with so many characters, dialogue, and plot, that editors of the journals where I submitted my poems began writing me notes on the rejection slips, asking, “Are you sure you’re not writing fiction?”

At first, I thought they just didn’t understand what I was trying to do in my poetry, but when I wrote my Holocaust poem “Little Birds,” a poem that was 35 single-spaced pages long, from several perspectives, with a very strong plot, and got those same kinds of comments, along with one that said, in red ink, “Our journal is only 50 pages long,” I began to think that perhaps I was starting to write poems that had more fictional elements than poetic ones.

Since “Little Birds” was already 35-single-spaced pages long, and stories are traditionally double-spaced when submitted to journals, I figured I was already beyond the “short story limit,” so I thought, “Maybe I should write a novel.” As soon as I let that idea even enter my head, I heard the voice of the Nazi Kommandant, from a story-then-poem that had been in my dissertation, say, “Tell my story.” At the same time, I heard the voice of the Jewish inmate with whom he becomes emotionally and sexually obsessed saying, “You can’t tell his story without telling mine.”

The premise of my first novel was born. I spent the next seven years researching the Holocaust again, then borrowed $18,000 (at 17 7/8% interest) from the bank to take a year off work and write my novel. After it was published, I found myself thinking of ideas for stories, though I hadn’t written any for 25 years.

The boyfriend I had at the time I wrote and published my first novel, though he was a mathematician, was extremely jealous of my success as a writer. While I’d been writing the novel, he told me that my chances of ever writing a novel that could actually get published were “less than 1 in a million, and closer to 0 than to 1.” (Needless to say, my feelings were unbelievably hurt by that remark.) After the New York Times Book Review of my first novel came out, he got into a fight with a complete stranger in a public place, then came home and screamed at me about how much “important work” he’d done in the world of mathematics, while I’d gotten all this “national and international attention when all [I’d] done was write a stupid little novel.” (Yes, I knew that was the end of the relationship, as I found myself staring at him, thinking, “Yes, I could kill this man.”)

Instead, I left the relationship, found a more supportive one a few years later, and continued my writing. Then I saw an advertisement for a contest, with 1st Prize as publication in the famed and reputable Story Magazine. The contest was called “The Seven Deadly Sins,” and the premise was to write a story that illustrated as many of the traditional seven deadly sins as possible: hatred, anger, murder, sloth, gluttony, envy… You get the idea. Within seconds, I had the opening line: “This is how the plan to kill your husband could begin.”

So I wrote the story, polished it up, and entered it, never expecting to hear anything from the magazine, but pleased that, as an adult, I’d written my first story.

Imagine my surprise when, several months later, I received a check for $100 and a box of books about the history of world literature. I had no idea what they were for: the letter had somehow gotten separated from the check and the box of books, so I called F&W Publications in Cincinnati — the address on the box of books — to ask if anyone knew why I’d gotten the books and the check. That’s when I found out that my story, “Naked, with Glasses,” had won 3rd Prize in Story Magazine’s “Seven Deadly Sins Contest.”

Though only the 1st Prize-winner also got published in Story, I still took it as a sign from the Universe that I’d improved greatly since those stories I’d written when I was 12, and continued to write stories when I took breaks from my novels.

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About Naked, with Glasses

Naked, with Glasses

Szeman began writing short stories at 12. A voracious reader who’d wanted to be an author since the age of 6, she knew all about books. She promptly began designing covers for her stories, stapling them into book format, and trying to sell them for the unbelievably incredible bargain-basement price of only 25¢. Though there were no buyers for these limited edition stories — now, unfortunately, all lost — Szeman was not discouraged. Only months later, she was writing love poetry, after having memorized Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet, and passing them out to anyone who’d accept them. Sort of like a street-vendor hawking a show in New York.

Eventually, her poetry became more sophisticated and she began getting acceptances and awards from literary journals. Though she published her first novel before she wrote her first successful short story, she’d mastered the craft. Her very first story (as an adult) was the title story of this collection, “Naked, with Glasses,” which was awarded Third Prize in Story Magazine‘s “Seven Deadly Sins Contest,” and begins with the crowd-pleasing line: “This is how the plan to kill your husband could begin.”

After her initial success, Szeman turned more often to short stories: whenever the subject matter was too long or inappropriate for poetry, or far too short for a novel-length treatment. Entertaining crowds at bookstore readings and writing conferences with her stories, she eventually had enough for a collection.

The same dark humor, morally ambiguous subject matter,and sophisticated treatment found in her novels and poetry collections are present in her stories. Quirky characters abound. “BusMan,” in the story of the same name, re-invents himself as a superhero after an unexpectedly frightening incident on his daily route.

Vincent, “Hunchback of the Midwest” and member of a traveling freak-show, regales his audience with tales of conquests over beautiful women, all the while longing for the one beauty he fears he will never possess.

Thirty years after the end of the violently protested 1960-70’s “conflict,” the Vietnam War comes to a small town’s Convenience Store in the surprisingly affecting and disturbing “VC in the USA.”

Biblical characters populate many of the tales. Wandering in the Wilderness after escaping Pharaoh’s enslavement in Egypt, the Hebrews begin to doubt their leaders, Moses and Aaron, as well as God Himself, in “Rebellion in the Promised Land.”

Jesus, his followers, and the Romans who occupied Judaea during Jesus’ lifetime frequently appear, involved in encounters not mentioned in biblical stories. “Passion Play” recounts Judas’ and Mary Magdalene’s attraction to and avoidance of each other, as they struggle with their mutual love for Jesus.

Sleepless and agitated, Roman Prefect Pontius Pilate is plagued by nightmares, doubts, and crumbling self-confidence after his unsettling encounter with Jesus in “Slaying the Dragon.”

As in Szeman’s other work, the universal themes of family, love, loss, loyalty, and betrayal are visited in this collection as well. The narrator of “Me and Mom and JFK,” now a grown man, recalls his childhood, when he competed with President Kennedy, before and after his assassination, for his own mother’s love.

The spunky, unforgettable narrator of “St. Jerome Emiliani Comes to the Church Picnic” is reluctantly thrust into adulthood by a staggering “initiation.”

Equally mournful and outraged, the mother of a suspected serial killer makes the rounds of TV talk-shows in “Midwestern Madonna and Child,” trying to explain why she’s not to blame for whatever crimes her son’s accused of, despite the media’s incessant questions and insinuations.

Edgy, memorable, and engagingly written, these award-winning stories display another aspect of Szeman’s talent — that for short fiction. Filled with distinct voices, unique characters, surprising plot-twists, and successful experimental writing innovations (such as “Sorry, Wrong Number, Redux,” which is entirely in dialogue), this prize-winning collection secures the author’s critically acclaimed reputation in this genre as well, adding to the accolades she has already garnered for her novels, poetry, and non-fiction.

Grand Prize, UKA [United Kingdom Authors] Press’ Annual International Writing Competition (2007)

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Naked, with Glasses

Only with the Heart on Amazon

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United Kingdom

Don’t have a Kindle? Not to worry. Read Kindle e-books on any computer, Smartphone, or Tablet, with Amazon’s free Kindle Reading app, for every electronic device on earth, except your TV, maybe.

Here, then, is the first short story I wrote as an adult (two others follow, with brief introductions about how I got the ideas), for your reading pleasure. Enjoy, my Lovelies.

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Naked, with Glasses

This is how the plan to kill your husband could begin. You come home early from work. You have a headache. A terrible headache. The worst headache of your life. You have this grant proposal to write. It’s not finished, and it was due yesterday. Your boss is gone for a week, so you bring the proposal home with you. After you open the door, you hear a noise.

“George?” you say.

Head throbbing, you wander into the living room. No one’s there, but you hear another noise. Upstairs. You find your husband in the hallway which leads to the bedroom. He’s naked, but he’s wearing his glasses. To see you better. He’s pale. He’s sweating.

“George,” you say, genuine concern in your voice, “what are you doing home in the middle of the day? Are you ill?”

He makes a movement, backward, toward the door. Too late. A young woman steps from the bedroom. She’s also naked, but she’s not wearing glasses. She doesn’t have to: she can see you perfectly well. You can see her, too. She is young. Lovely. Thin. George introduces her.

“This is Monica,” he says. “My assistant.”

This is Monica. That is just like George. Naked, wearing glasses, saying to his wife, “This is my girlfriend.” You say nothing. Your headache, however, suddenly gets worse. That is how the plan to kill your husband could begin.

Or perhaps it begins like this:

You and George go to the family reunion. It’s his side of the family. It’s hot. George’s side of the family always insists on having reunions in the middle of July. In parks that have inadequate shelters. In parks that have no trees. George hates his family. He says this constantly.

“How I hate my family,” he says. “Such a stupid family.”

You hate his family, too. You, however, are not allowed to say this. Not to George. Not to your friends. Not even to yourself, alone, with no one else around. You aren’t even allowed to think this. To think bad thoughts about George’s family is bad. It’s worse than a sin. It’s worse than a crime. It’s so bad, they haven’t even invented a name for it yet. And George always knows when you’re thinking bad thoughts about his family.

“Don’t tell me you were trying to decide between the strawberry pie and the chocolate ice cream,” he says. “I know perfectly well you were thinking how fat and ugly Great Aunt Mabel has gotten, and that I’m getting just like her.”

You don’t even remember which one is Great Aunt Mabel. They’re all so fat and ugly, you can’t keep them straight. That doesn’t matter to George. He shoves both the ice cream and the pie off the concrete picnic table, into the grass. Everyone looks at him. The children cry. You look longingly at the knife.

There are no butcher knives at the picnic. After all, everyone eats sandwiches, cookies, snacks. They eat pie and ice cream. There’s no food here for sharp knives. You think of sharp knives anyway. Long, sharp, glittering knives. Heavy-handled, glittering, butcher knives. You think of these beautiful sharp knives in connection with George. In connection with George’s throat.

Or perhaps it starts like this:

You work late. On a project. It’s important to you and to your company. It’s important to your promotion. It’s vital to your self-esteem. To your self-fulfillment. This project is not important to George. It annoys him. He doesn’t like to cook his own dinner. He doesn’t like you to cook his dinner the night before, and leave it for him to warm up. And he hates it when you come home, cook dinner, set it on the table for him, and go back to work. George hates that most of all. It means you’re not a good wife.

He doesn’t care about your education, your degrees, your career. He doesn’t want to be liberated. He wants to be an old-fashioned man. A real man. He nags. He whines. He complains. He calls you every five minutes at work to ask questions. Stupid questions that a teacher shouldn’t be asking. Questions like, “Where’s the can opener?” or “What’s it mean when the microwave goes boom?”

You discuss these things with Charles. Charles is your co-worker. He’s writing the project with you. He sometimes answers the phone for you, so he recognizes George’s voice. Charles tells George you’re in the ladies’ room.

He offers to take a message, but George says, “Never mind. It isn’t important.”

George doesn’t call back the rest of the evening. You ask Charles to answer the phone every night for a week. He does. Charles is very understanding. He’s a few years younger than you, but he doesn’t act like it. He refuses to believe you when you tell him the year you were born. Charles is beautiful. When he leans forward over the desk, his hair falls over his forehead.

“How awful it must be for you,” he says. “How dreadful.”

You start to agree with this. Later, when Charles leans over the desk, your heart starts to pound. The office is air-conditioned, so it can’t be the heat. When you get home at night, George is lying on the couch. Naked except for his glasses. Reading the newspaper. George isn’t as young as Charles. He has no hair to fall over his forehead. He frowns at you, looks pointedly at the clock on the wall above the fireplace. His glasses glitter in the lamplight. His belly bulges under the paper. It is a decidedly un-pretty picture.

You think of Charles, his arms around you, his mouth open on yours. Naked, perhaps, but not wearing glasses. You decide killing George would be a pleasure. More than a pleasure. An absolute joy.

Time passes. Life continues much in the same way. Much as everyone else’s. Only worse. But you’ve changed. You’ve made a decision. You decide the ending will be different. You’ll choose the ending to this life of yours. You. Nobody else.

This is how it could end:

George and Monica think you’ve forgotten them. George says, “She means nothing to me.” Monica doesn’t get to say what she thinks of this remark. George weeps, falls on his knees, beats his breast, swears never to see her again. He swears on the Bible. He’s very good at this. But George and Monica meet three afternoons a week. You know because you’ve been watching them. Your girlfriends and their children have been helping you. You haven’t told this terrible story to your own children. No, that would upset them. But the others understand. They chart George’s movements for you. They discover Monica’s address, phone number, license plate, dress size. They discover that she has a fiancé. The fiancé’s name is Michael. And Michael doesn’t know about George.

So one of your friends calls the house. At 2:35 on Wednesday afternoon. 2:35 exactly. She’s very prompt. You know because you’re hiding in the kitchen. George and Monica don’t know you’re there, of course. They’re too busy with each other. The phone rings. Right on schedule. Your friend says she’s a nurse from the emergency room of the local hospital. She says she knows Monica’s there because Monica’s mother told her so. George gives the phone to Monica. What else can he do?

Your friend says, “I have terrible news for you, Monica.”

Monica holds her breath. Standing in the kitchen, crouched near the doorway, you hold your breath, too.

Your friend says, “Your fiancé Michael has been in a motorcycle accident. A terrible motorcycle accident. One of the worst motorcycle accidents I’ve ever seen.”

You know what she’s saying because you wrote it yourself.

As a final touch, your friend says, “Your fiancé Michael wasn’t wearing his helmet.”

He does this sometimes. You know because some of the others have seen him do it. Monica knows it, too. She cries out. She drops the phone. She grabs her clothes and runs out of the house. George follows, but she’s gone before he can get his clothes on. He stands in the doorway. Naked. Wearing his glasses. In the front doorway. Where everyone in the neighborhood can see him. He has no shame. You’ve suspected this for a long time, but now you know it for a fact.

You don’t say anything to George as you come up behind him. You say absolutely nothing as you aim the gun. As you squeeze the trigger. George says nothing as he falls. His hands grasp at the empty air. His glasses shatter as his body hits the concrete of the front walk.

You smile. Your friends and the neighbor women gather around, nodding their approval. No one calls the police. There’s no need to: the police chief’s wife is your best friend. She’s the one who gave you the gun.

Or it could end like this:

You’re packing your suitcase. Your heart is pounding and your face is flushed. You’re so happy. George comes home. Your heart thuds. What’s he doing home in the middle of the day? He comes into the bedroom. He looks at the suitcase. He looks around the room. The closets and bureau drawers are almost empty. The suitcase is filled with your clothes. George takes off his glasses, cleans them, puts them back on.

“What are you doing?” he says.

Charles is waiting for you at the airport, but you think it best not to tell George this. Not at this time. Not in this way. Besides, you’ve left a letter for him on his desk. You look at your watch. George stands in the doorway.

“Please let me go, George,” you say.

“Not till you answer me,” says George. “Not till you tell me exactly what’s going on.”

You try to push him aside but he’s bigger than you. Heavier.

“Please, George,” you say, “I’ll explain everything to you later. But first I have to catch this plane.”

George isn’t listening to any of this. He walks in front of you as you go to the stairs. George is walking in front of you, but he’s walking backward. So he can see you better.

“Tell me tell me tell me,” he keeps saying.

You look at your watch. You should’ve been there long ago. What if Charles thinks you’re not coming? You push George out of the way. A slight push. Against the chest. Not even a shove, really. You’re a small woman and he’s such a big man, after all. But he’s standing at the top of the stairs. Right on the edge of the top step. Your push takes him by surprise. He falls. Backward. Down the whole flight of stairs.

His glasses glint in the light as his big body tumbles down the steps. His neck is broken.

It’s not your fault. Everyone agrees about that. Of course, you’ll have to change your flight. But Charles will understand.

Or perhaps it ends like this:

You’re tired. It’s been a long day. You know George didn’t mean to ruin the microwave oven, but he’s a teacher and you’d think that someone like that would know that you cannot put certain kinds of dishes into the oven.

George complains about his teaching assistant, whose name is Michael. Michael has a fiancée named Monica. George thinks Monica’s a twit. She fell off her bicycle today and sprained her little finger. She called Michael away from the lab, just when George needed him. You don’t care about Michael. You care even less for Monica, whom you’ve never met.

The proposal you wrote for the new project didn’t get accepted. It didn’t get rejected, but it didn’t get accepted either.

“Let me think about this,” your boss said. “Let me have Charles look it over.”

Charles is younger than you. He’s just graduated from college. You feel depressed. Angry. Hurt. Do you cry? Shout? Stomp your feet? No. You smile.

“That would be just fine,” you say.

Charles is the boss’ nephew.

Your head is throbbing by the time you get off work. You decide not to cook dinner. You’ll warm up some food in the microwave. No, you’ll try one of those new frozen meals that you just pop into the oven. You’ll pour yourself a glass of wine, put your feet up, and relax. You smile, and your head starts to hurt a little less.

But when you get home, you find that George has broken the microwave. He didn’t mean to, but he’s not as smart as everyone else thinks he is. You throw something. Not at him, exactly. At the wall. He doesn’t like how close the bowl comes to his head. You say three feet away isn’t close. George doesn’t agree. And after all, it’s his head.

You run out of the house. You get into the car and drive away. You drive for hours. You think of all the terrible things you’ll do to George. All the terrible, slow, painful things you’ll do to George. To Charles. To your boss.

No: to yourself. Yes. that’s it. You’ll kill yourself. You’ll deprive them of your existence. That’ll show them.

You’ll drive your car right over the edge of some cliff. A high, steep cliff, with jagged rocks and crashing waves at the bottom. They’ll find you at the last second. They’ll beg you to hang on, just for one… more… minute. But it’ll be too late. Oh, how they’ll grieve. Oh, how they’ll suffer. You drive and drive, looking for cliffs. You can’t find any. That’s because you live in Ohio. You curse yourself for moving with George to Ohio.

You think of an alternate plan to punish George and the rest of them. You’ll drive into a tree. A big, old, oak tree. There are plenty of those in Ohio. They’ll have to dig the car’s twisted metal out of the tree. They’ll have to use Jaws-of-Life to get you out of the twisted metal of the car. What’s left of you will be almost unrecognizable. Except for your face, which will be untouched, and even more beautiful in death than it was in life. Yes. That’ll show them. Oh, what weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth. How they deserve it.

You drive and drive and drive, looking for just the right oak tree. You drive until you realize you’re tired. Until you realize you’re hungry. Then you go home.

A cold dinner’s sitting on the dining room table: salad, cheese, bread, wine.

There’s a note from George.

“I’m sorry I ruined the microwave,” it says.

You don’t cry. You’re too tired.

You go upstairs. George is in bed. He’s lying on top of the covers, naked, reading student papers. He looks up when you come in. He puts down his pen and the student essays.

You sit on the side of the bed. You say nothing. Tears blur your vision. George takes off his glasses. Now his vision is the same as yours. He puts his hand on yours. Your fingers tighten.

This is how it could end.


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One of my next stories came from the fact that I have a Southern Appalachian accent (unless you’re from the areas mentioned below, or are a Linguistics scholar, you won’t understand the difference between a Southern accent and a Southern Appalachian accent, but let me assure you, that the population of Southern Ohio, Indiana, and Pennsylvania have the Southern Appalachian accent — as opposed to the Mountain Appalachian accent — and others in the area recognize it. They also consider it as an indication that the speaker is illiterate, stupid, uneducated, dirty, nasty, and stupid.

All my life I tried to get rid of that accent — to no avail, since my “Southern accent” is constantly remarked upon — and so, for my next story, I decided to make use of that accent (and when I read it aloud, I read it in the accent that I grew up with: I have gotten rid of all the illiterate aspects of it, since I saw education as the only way to escape the poverty, incest, and having multiple children starting at around age 12, as my mother had, and as I was being pressured to do. In fact, most of my family was horrified that, as a girl, I went to high school in the first place: I was the first in my family to graduate from the 8th grade, and the only one to graduate from high school, let alone to continue my education by going on to college).

When I wrote “St. Jerome Emiliani Comes to the Church Picnic,” I decided to explore my Southern Appalachian accent, and fell in love with the little girl narrator who emerged. (Eventually, I plan to video myself reading it aloud, so you’ll get to hear the accent I was born to, and which I’ve tried to eliminate, albeit not completely successfully, it appears, since everyone [including Patrick Stewart, who imitated me mercilessly at our first dinner together until he had perfected it] always remarks on my “Southern accent” and my “drawl”, though I honestly don’t hear it.)

St. Jerome Emiliani Comes to the Church Picnic

When I was little, Mama and Daddy tole me nobody but old folks died. Before I was even growed, I found out my Mama and Daddy lied. Anybody cain die. Even folks young as me. Folks cain die right smack in the middle a playing with they doll babies, right smack in the middle a eating mashed potatoes at supper, right smack in the middle a Saturday night bath. Folks cain die right smack in the middle a anything at all. Ain’t no way to stop it neither.

The day I found out my Mama and Daddy done lied to me was the day of the church picnic. Mama done went off early in the morning, to be with her pies and her lady friends. Daddy carried us there later, just before lunch. He pulled right up to the front gate, and give us each a quarter.

“Y’all get on out now,” he says. “Go say ‘Hey’ to the Reverend. I’ll be in directly.”

Annabelle Lee and Clyde Junior they just jumps right outta the car, before he even finishes talking. You sure cain tell they’s twins. Even though they’s boy and girl, they’s identical selfish. To the very bone. My own self, I am more polite. I waits till he finishes before I opens the door.

‘Course Annabelle Lee and Clyde Junior don’t pay him no never mind. They’s already at the gate, jumping up and down in fronta the preacher, almost wetting they own selves in they excitement. I act more dignified. More growed-up. Lotsa folks is pushing through the gate. Some of them boys ’bout run me down, and don’t even say ‘scuse me neither: they’s just like the twins. Lotsa folks knows Mama and Daddy, and they all says, “Hey.”

“Hey, MaryLouise, where’s your Ma?”

“Over at the pies.”

“Where’s your Pa, MaryLouise?”

“Parking the car.”

“Where’s your Ma?”

“At the pies.”

“Where’s your Pa?”

“Parking the car.”

After ’bout three-billion-trillion “parking the car’s,” I starts to wonder what in tarnation is taking Daddy so long. Don’t take that long to park no car, even if it is a big brand new one that he parks real far from all the resta the cars so it don’t get no dings nor dents nor scratches in its brand spanking new $25 paint job. Annabelle Lee and Clyde Junior starts in whining and crying like dogs got they tails stepped on, and says they gotta go find Mama.

“Don’t you be going nowheres,” I says. “Daddy done tole us to wait by the front gate.”

They turns up they ugly little twin faces at me, and squinches they ugly little twin eyes.

“We going over to be with our own Mama,” they says.

And they runs theyselves off before I cain even grab aholt of they collars. ‘Course they don’t come back. Didn’t I tell you they’s selfish? Ain’t got no respect, them two. Why if I’d done that kinda disrespecting when I was they age, I’d been whupped for certain. Them, they’ll probably get no more’n a mean look and a “I tole you two don’t you do that no more.” But you cain bet that ain’t gonna stop them two none.

After a while, I get kinda tired of waiting on Daddy.

“How long’s it take to park a car?” I asks my own self, and I decide it don’t take near as long as he’s been gone. I reckon I best go look for him and fetch him into the church yard.

The parking lot is little rocks in some places and dried-up grass in others. Daddy didn’t tell us where he’s gonna park, so I gotta look up and down, up and down, up and down every row. There’s lotsa cars here today, I cain tell you. I ain’t never seen so many cars in one place in all my life. I keeps on walking, looking for the car. Sometimes I am walking in dried-up grass. Sometimes I am walking on little rocks. It is fun to throw these little rocks. They’s just the right size for throwing. Wait: I ain’t here to throw no little rocks. I am looking for my Daddy. I drop them little rocks.

Finally I finds the car. Daddy ain’t there, but the door is open. Now this is mighty particular. Daddy don’t never go nowhere away from the car and leave the door open. I figures he gotta be standing somewhere, jawing with the fellas, but I sure ain’t seeing him nowheres.

I reckon he done forgot about us standing by the front gate like he done tole us to his very own self. I reckon by this much time past he’s over to the pies where Mama is. ‘Course Annabelle Lee and Clyde Junior done tole him by now how I was the one who run off and left them by they own selves so they was forced to come find Mama so they’d not be all alone just the two of them just them two little twins all by they own selves in the middle of the church picnic all by they lonesomes. I cain just hear it now. I closes the car door, drags my feet, kicks at some of them little rocks that is so nice for throwing, and walks my self on back to the church yard gate.

All a sudden, folks is running. Men-folk mostly, but some women-folk, too. Running past me, in the direction I just come from. Funny looks on they chalk-pale faces. So I runs, too.

They runs they selves back toward the very furtherest side of the church parking lot. Where it is all grass, and none of them little rocks at all. They’s all running to the little boys’ room. And they’s all going right in, too, all of them: they just running they selves right in to the little boys’ room. Even the girls and the growed women who I knows cain read. So I goes on in, too.

Right away, sure as I’m born, without nobody saying nuthin at all to me, I knows something powerful bad’s done happened. The looks on they faces is something awful. And it’s real quiet in there. But it ain’t quiet like church-quiet come Sunday morning. No, it ain’t like that. It’s bad-quiet. Some of the women-folk is shaking they heads. They got they hands over they mouths. In they hands which is over they mouths, they got they flower-stitched handkerchiefs. The men-folk is shaking they heads, too. They’s talking real low to they selves. And everybody that done run they selves over here is all standing in front of this here one stall.

One of the more growed boys wearing tore overalls is holding the door open. So everybody cain look right in. Now that don’t seem at all right to me, but then Mama and Daddy done always tole me I ain’t even allowed to go into the little boys’ room, but here I am, clear as daylight, nobody not a single person on God’s green earth stopping me. That’s ’cause they’s all too busy with they eyes looking in the stall where the boy in the tore overalls is holding open the door. So I looks, too.

You cain knock me over with a chicken feather. You cain knock me over with the breath outta you mouth. You cain knock me over without nuthin at all. What they was all looking at was a man.

A growed man was there, with his pants full on, kneeling on the floor, his backside sticking out at all of us, his head down in the toilet. For the life of me I cain’t figure what he’s doing like that. ‘Specially with everybody in the whole entire world in the universe standing there gawking at him. Don’t he hear all of us? Don’t he notice that the door is being held wide open?

“He’s dead,” says one of the men-folk to another.

“You reckon?”

“Like a doornail.”

“How can y’all be so disrespectful?”

“Shouldn’t we do something?”

“Sheriff’s on his way.”

“Cain’t we at least lay him down?”

All the men-folk looks at each other but nobody moves.

Nobody moves ‘cepting me, and I am staring at the patch on the back of the man’s jeans. It’s a blue patch. Blue with little white stars on it. Blue with little white stars in the shape of hearts. Blue with little white stars in the shape of hearts from my old jumper that I am too growed to wear anymore and which Annabelle Lee cut on with a scissors because she is such a stupid selfish little twin. The blue patch with the little white stars in the shape of a heart is on the back of the man’s jeans.

That man is my Daddy.

‘Course I don’t say nuthin to nobody. I cain’t say nuthin to nobody even if I was to try. My mouth’s hanging open and all, but no words is coming out. No words is coming outta my mouth which is open to the ground, but them words is in my brain all right. And them words is running ’round and ’round and ’round, bashing into my head bones, and them words is saying, “No, no, only old folks die.”

But my Daddy is in the little boys’ room on the other side of the parking lot at the church picnic. My own Daddy is kneeling on the floor with his head stuck in the toilet and some boy with tore overalls is holding the door wide open so everybody and his brother cain see and all the folks is standing ’round shaking they heads and whispering “how sad how awful dreadful sad” while my own Daddy is kneeling there not moving nary a little finger and I my own self am standing there with my mouth hung open wide enough for a bird to build its self a nest in not saying no word not no single word at all.

I reckon it must be for a fact, what they been saying about him being dead.

When Mama gets her self there, she screams and starts to crying. Then somebody gets to noticing that children is in the little boys’ room, and some of them children is little girls, and one of them children which is little girls is me.

“Oh, my God, oh, sweet baby Jesus,” they says as they kinda push-pulls me out of the little boys’ room, out into the parking lot where the grass is all tramped down from all the folks running they selves over here, out where the dried-up grass turns its brown self into them little rocks which is just the right size for throwing, out where the sun is shining hot enough to fry a egg without no skillet.

But I cain’t feel nuthin. Not even the sun beating down on my head.

I cain’t see nuthin neither. ‘Cept that little blue patch with white stars in the shape of a heart.

And I cain’t hear nuthin ‘cept big words and Mama crying hard enough to choke her self and Annabelle Lee and Clyde Junior crying even harder till somebody finally done picks the twins up and takes them over to a neighbor’s house which is nearby the church yard.

I cain’t hear nuthin but weeping and wailing and growed doctor words like “mass-of-corn-airy” and “corn-airy-fail-your” and “They’s St. Jerome Miliani’s widow and orphans now,” but they all means the same thing.


And dead means forever. Dead means forever and ever till the end of the world. Dead means no cake on your birthday with one more candle than you done had last year, and no powder-smelling Mama to kiss both your cheeks and your forehead at night so’s you can sleep with pretty pictures, and no rides up to your own warm bed at night on Daddy’s shoulders, the Daddy you love more’n anything else in the whole wide world around and who you want to marry your own self when you’s all growed up.

Dead means till Jesus his own sweet self comes back to raise you up from the ground where you’s laid for hundreds or thousands of years and takes your sweet lonely old bones up to heaven to match them with your skin. Dead means darkness and coldness and shivering and loneliness. Dead means never ever again. Dead means nuthin at all for the rest of your whole entire life on earth.

Dead means you done found out your very own Daddy lied to you.

‘Course, I coulda forgive him for that.

But he ain’t never give me no chance to.


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The final story I’m sharing from the collection was originally one of the chapters of my newest novel (not yet published), about Jesus of Nazareth. Anything that ended up not in the final draft of the novel, I re-worked into stories. Many of the character development and plot-lines have changed over the several years it has taken me to write the novel, so the stories simply didn’t fit my final vision of Jesus of Nazareth. Still, I liked the original stories and characters, even if they had changed in the novel version. Here is one of the stories involving Pontius Pilate and Jesus of Nazareth, “In the Path of the Juggernaut,” which is narrated by Pilate.

In the Path of the Juggernaut

A belief to which people sacrifice themselves or others.

“When, in all the years I’ve been stationed in this hideous desert province, when have you known me to actually hear one of these cases?”

“Yes, I know, my Lord, but the local dignitaries are in quite an uproar…”

“What local dignitaries?”

“The Priests, of course.”

“I buy the Priests, you idiot. They can’t be in an uproar against me.”

I indicate to my slave the three bags I’m taking back home with me. To another, I point out the wrapped package on the bed. A gift for my wife. Silk scarves with elaborate embroidery and beading. From some far-off land by way of the Parthians, the vendor told me. My wife will be pleased.

“The Priests did get into an uproar about those Standards. Got nearly half the city’s population into an uproar about it…”

“Do you want to be whipped?” I say.

“I’m… I’m your aide, sir.”

“Do you think that means I can’t have you whipped?”

“I’m not a slave, my Lord. I’m a citizen.”

“Weren’t you a slave at one time?” I say, rubbing my chin slowly and narrowing my eyes.

“Your lordship gave me my freedom.”

“How long ago?”

“Ten years, sir.”

“Very well, then, I suppose I won’t have you whipped.”

“Gratitude, my Lord.”

One of the slaves ties my sandals while another adjusts my traveling cloak. As I glance around the room to see if I’ve forgotten anything, I hold out my wrists and hands so that the female slaves may put my bracelets and rings in place. When they’re finished, they bow before slowly walking backward from my bedroom. The large Carthaginian who adjusted my cloak picks up my golden necklace which holds my great seal of office, lifts it over my head, puts it around my neck, and settles it against my chest. He’s the only one tall enough to do it so that I don’t have to bend my head. I give him his daily coin. As always, he closes his eyes as he slightly bows his head and leaves the room.

“The Priests are quite insistent that you hear these charges…”

“Which means the charges demand the death penalty?”

“Yes, sir.”

“And the only death penalty the Priests can issue is ‘death by stoning’ for religious and moral issues such as blasphemy and adultery.”

“Yes, sir.”

“That means this is a case dealing with insurrection or rebellion against the Roman Empire?”

“It concerns a disturbance at the Temple… They say he disrupted the entire monetary system and made threats.”

“Against Rome?”

“I’m not quite sure, my Lord.”

“Why aren’t you quite sure, Lucius?”

“He’s one of the silent ones.”

“One of the suicides, you mean.”

“Yes, sir.”

“I don’t see any reason to stay in the city for that,” I say. “I have to get back to Caesarea Maritima and the Mediterranean. You know I simply can’t breathe here.”

“The Priests know you haven’t left the city yet…”

“Guilty as charged. Crucify him.”

“They say he’s scheming to set himself up as the new head of state…”

I laugh aloud.

“…that he commands thousands, tens of thousands — all willing to martyr themselves to his fanatical cause. They say if you don’t destroy him now, chaos and rebellion…”

“Who is ‘they’?”

“The Priests. Caiphas, most particularly.”

“Where is he?”

“Caiphas or the prisoner?”

“I’m going to exile you to Germania when this is all over, Lucius.”

“They’re downstairs, my Lord. Both of them. All the others are with them.”

All the Priests bow, as do the guards, when I sweep into the Great Hall. Immediately I notice that despite their reputed terror of the man, he’s not bound in any way. He’s no Rebel, at least not the kind they’re accusing him of being. All the Priests want to speak. And they don’t even shut up despite the fact that there’s no translator present.

I send for one of the guards who speaks koinē, the common Greek language left by Alexander’s soldiers that the soldiers and the shopkeepers still use to communicate. None of the Priests speak it. One of the shopkeepers does, though, and he begs my permission to come forward and translate with the guard.

At once the Priests start babbling that the prisoner is a healer, a magician, an exorcist, while some of the others present insist he’s only a teacher, until finally the two translators can’t keep up, and they both look at me, shrugging. The Priests say the prisoner caused a disturbance in the Temple, calling them traitors and collaborators —which, of course, they are — claiming they had desecrated the “house of The Lord God, his Father,” whatever that means.

I gaze at the prisoner. I can see his anger about the High Priests, but they’re useful to us. He must actually believe they should be devoted solely to the service of their god. A fanatic, then, but not of the sort they claim. I can see from where I sit that his own hands haven’t labored over weapons or munitions. His long, slender fingers and alabaster skin are more like a woman’s; his hands are more suitable for holding pen and ink — though I doubt he can read and write — than for assembling the swords, shields, and spears necessary for an army. He doesn’t look like a warrior or Rebel or Zealot or a Freedom-Fighter. No, he looks like the teacher his followers and some of the others claim him to be.

A teacher, trying to return his people to their god.

But those eyes of his — oh, yes, I do see the spark that frightens them, the smoldering passion that makes them tremble.

That passion burning in his eyes is a fire for his god.

Yes, he burns, but not against the Roman Empire.

Perhaps he did attack some vendors in the Temple and claim the Priests have desecrated the “house of his Father.” And so they have, with Roman collaboration.

All he did was speak the truth.

With one look he reduces them to a quivering mass because he forces them to see themselves. With one look from him, they fall against each other, their limbs jerking and twitching, their eyes rolling back, their lips frothing. Even my own legionnaires turn pale and tremble though he says not a word.

Brave man.

Foolish man.

Should I execute a man because he frightens others by making them see the truth about themselves?

If I look at him, will he make me see some truth about myself?

I wave the guard and the shopkeeper over to me.

“Ask him if he’s plotting rebellion against the government?” I say to the guard in Roman, who asks the shopkeeper in koinē, who repeats the question to the prisoner in his own tongue.

He says nothing as his eyes continue to burn with that fire. But he does look up at me. It feels as if his hand is clenched around my heart. I glance down at the charges until I can catch my breath.

Rebellion, Treason, Tax Evasion, Terrorism, Inciting Riots.

“Have they so angered you by violating your god’s temple that you would allow them to charge you with treason against the Roman Empire, though you’ve committed no such crime?”

That look comes back to his face, that pressure to my chest, and while the shopkeeper and the guard wait for his answer, which I know will never come, I realize that he’s committed to throw himself under the hooves, to be crushed under the wheels, as if that will somehow stop the desecration, as if somehow he’s been born to it, as if somehow his death will change things, and that — above all — what I do matters little to him.

It’s a pity. But what can I do to stop him? We cannot even speak to each other. He wants me to sign. His eyes tell me that. I pick up the pen, dip it into the ink, and sign the death warrant.

So. There it is.

When I push aside the document, I see that there is a mark, a stain of some sort on my palm, and I rub my hand against my robe as they lead him away to the same end as all the others. I send one of the boys for water and towels. When he returns, I wash my hands. The water is cool and clear.

After I leave the palace and board my litter, I notice that my hand is still stained. I rub it against my robe, over and over. Lucius has left documents for me. I’ll whip him when I see him next. I kick the documents out of my way, each headed with the traditional and usual notation: To Our Most Honorable and Noble Prefect, Pontius Pilatus.

Just as his was before I signed it.

And after.

His eyes are there when I close mine in the litter, leaving the city. His silence is heavy on my skin. A savage cry rips at me from the place they call Golgotha Hill of Skulls — outside the city walls. Chosen by us long ago so every one of them can see the consequences of resisting us. A hill covered with crosses. Covered with the bones of their leaders. I let the litter-curtain fall into place.

A cloud passes, for a moment, in front of the sun.

The mark in my hand burns and burns.


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After I submitted the collection in a contest just to get a critique of them as a whole, I was warned that I would have no chance of winning since the publisher, UKA Press [United Kingdom Authors Press] had never done a collection of short stories, so mine couldn’t “win” the Annual International Contest. I thanked the publisher for her honesty, but assured her that I just wanted the critique of the stories from the outside readers — all publishers, editors, authors, professors, etc. The contest entry fee is rather expensive (between $40-50 for 35 pages), but the critique is very insightful and detailed: I’d entered it before and gotten excellent feedback on my work, which helped me improve it.

Since no one had ever read my entire group of stories as a collection, I went ahead and entered it into the contest — the 35 pages, at least. Later, the publisher contacted me and asked if I had any more stories: she said that the outside readers had enjoyed my submission so much that they wanted to read more. I sent the entire collection. For months I heard nothing from them, and, more important to me, I had never received the critique which I was anticipating. When I contacted the publisher a few months after the contest ended, she said she’d check on the entry, telling me that it must’ve gotten lost in the mails.

About a week later, I received what appeared to be a copy-edited version of Naked, with Glasses — all my stories arranged in what looked like a book format, with comments from an editor named Don. I was confused, to say the least. When I contacted the publisher to ask what was going on, I was informed that the outside readers had been so impressed with my 35-page contest submission, that they had wanted to see the remaining stories in my collection. They then insisted that the Grand Prize be given to my manuscript, though UKA Press had never published a collection of short stories before.

I was stunned.

“What about the critique?” I said.

“We don’t publish short stories,” said the publisher, with a laugh, “and you just got awarded the Grand Prize: how much more of a critique do you need?”

None, I guess…

but it might have been nice…

Hope you enjoyed the stories, and please remember that they can’t be distributed without copyright info and all that jazz (all stories from Naked, with Glasses © by Alexandria Constantinova Szeman 1995, 2012-2013).

Naked, with Glasses

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