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The Willing Suspension of Disbelief: A Literary Analysis from the Senior Editor

Suspending our disbelief—that’s what Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge said we have to be willing to do when we read fiction. Nowhere is that more clearly demonstrated than in British detective TV shows.

We stream and love them all: “Morse” “Lewis,” Inspector Lynley,” “Tennison,” “Prime Suspect,” and what is probably the best and not actually British, “Bosch.”

But at face value the settings are preposterous in terms of realism. The “Morse” series is set in Oxford in Britain. Here, as in all of the detective thrillers, a murder occurs every week or so.

It is dangerous to walk the towpath by the river in Oxford; fiends lurk in the bushes and there’s murder on their minds no matter what season of the year. Another towpath murder? Just can’t keep track.

Broken Mysteries – Detective Senior Sergeant Mike Shepherd

And nobody seems to say in “Inspector Lynley,” “Why is it there are so many murders in this area?” “Why is it wherever you go, even on vacation, there’s a killing happening?”

No, we suppress our rational self, subordinate it to the joys of following the interesting plot and gazing at the beautiful scenery of the British countryside, admiring the lovely country homes from the Edwardian period and getting engaged in the tangled and well-thought-out story-telling which often has disaffected employees, spouses, work associates you never dreamed with hurt a flea hiding their crimes and needing to be exposed to justice with only five minutes left in the show to wrap everything up.

The road to addiction with these detective stories has led us recently on Amazon Prime to Brokenwood Mysteries, a series set in a medium-sized country town in New Zealand about the size of Terre Haute twenty years ago.

It’s a laugh realistically. In the first place, why is any town called Brokenwood? How odd.

Brokenwood Mysteries – Detective Kristin Sims

Perhaps because it was a “break” in the woodlands of this part of New Zealand? And that flash shot of the town set in the hills by a river—there can’t be more than 1,000 homes and offices shown. How can such a small town generate so darn many murders—let alone all the fascinating (and I mean it) avocations and situations these people live in. Here in Brokenwood we have the following settings for the murders (which are usually not gruesome). A deer hunting club, drama group, a duck hunting club, a golf course, a tour based on Lords of the Rings sites, an Edwardian reenactment society, a carnival which winters over there, a gourmet cheese factory, a duck egg farm, a woman’s prison–and lots more. And why do the same people show up at every murder scene, participate in every interesting activity shown? The stock characters: the older lady who bakes things and takes them to every event, where she can background the detectives on the private life of the suspects—the little guy named Frodo who seems to have his food truck parked at every murder, the slick handsome suitor, the Maui vintner.

If these blatantly implausible things lurk around the edges of this series of mysteries, why is we are watching, avidly? Here’s why: because one gets the flavor of the countryside of New Zealand watching this series. We can search the horizon for maples and oaks. Not a one. Instead, Google tells us, those towering, scraggly looking evergreens and branchy, Halloween-looking soft or hardwoods, are called Kohai, Puriri, Cabbage Tree, Rimu and Kowri. Interesting!

And, more importantly, the characters are absolutely charming and compel repeated scrutinizing. Mike Shepherd, the lead detective with four ex-wives, Detective Sam Breen, the red-haired inspector whose clever, smarty repartee keeps everybody hopping and best of all, the female detective inspector Detective Kristin Sims, played by Fern Sutherland, one of New Zealand’s most talented actresses. Minor characters like Mrs. Marlowe, whom we mentioned before, turn up at every corner of the town with inside information that’s believable from her long career of town snooping and the town minister, who is a man of many talents and whose life is a mess.

Brokenwood Mysteries – Detective Constable Sam Breen

Following their private lives, sensing the inner dynamics, enjoying clever and intellectually stimulating plotting—all make for a drama worth seeing, streaming, and sitting enthralled to find out “Who Dunnit,” We are hooked and so, apparently, were the world-wide audience who watched 7 seasons of the small town with the many murders, set among those scraggly-looking trees of New Zealand.

You may order Nancy Baxter’s books by clicking back to the website or purchase her own “thriller” Charmed Circle, Indianapolis 1995 on Amazon.

Posted in Review, TV |

An interview with Sandra Hurt, author of our Priestess of Pompeii: The Initiate’s Journey.

Sandy’s book was released last fall and is featured in the “Winds of Change” division of Hawthorne Publishing. It is the result of twenty-five years of Sandy’s intensive research into learning about ancient Pompeii and the writing of a story of an historical figure there, a priestess who occupied the Villa of the Mysteries.

Q. You’re at work on the second book in this historical novel series. How was the first book received?

Sandy: I was surprised and overwhelmed at the initial deluge of orders from Amazon. We hadn’t been able because of Covid to have the opening at Eiteljorg Museum in Downtown Indianapolis where we’d planned to celebrate the book. But publicity, news, got around and there were many initial orders.

Q. What kind of publicity? Have there been reviews?

Sandy: I was pleased with the review in Italian media, the April “Primo Magazine” as one example. The reviewer said “Priestess of Pompeii is that rare novel, both entertaining and educational. A Page turner to be relished.” I should show a little modesty—you can see others on the webpage “Sandra Hurt author of Priestess of Pompeii.”

Q. So now you are several chapters into Volume II, the continuing story of Ariana Estacidia, a strong but vulnerable woman with a disability (epilepsy ) who aspires to, and becomes, a revered priestess of Dionysius.

Sandy: I thought the book would be one volume—then realized that the full story must be told in two books.

Q. What’s different about writing the sequel?

Sandy:  It’s in some ways easier. I know the full story, the steps she must take along the way, the outcome. But there are other things to worry about: giving the Book I reader memory jogs about characters and happenings,  and bringing the new reader up to date, feeding pieces of information he/she needs to know from Book I.  I always think “the muse is already ahead of me.” And telling the story becomes relentless. I was in bed the other night and a new plot line began to come to me. Eventually I had to get up and write it out, put it into the book.

Q. How did the real happenings in Pompeii in Julius Caesar’s time, that’s before the famous eruption of Mount Vesuvius, affect you, or complicate the writing?

Sandy:  It happened a lot. I always had to see if Ariana was doing something, eating some food, she couldn’t have eaten at that time. For instance, I wanted her to read the poet Vergil, to put that into the narrative, but he was too young for this time-period. He wouldn’t have had his career flourishing yet.

Q. And of course it is too early in this book for the infamous volcanic destruction of this major city of Roman life and commerce.

Sandy: Yes, Ariana would have been gone by the time the eruption occurred, 44 A.D.

But there are small references in the book to the looming Mount Vesuvius beyond the city for Pompeii lore enthusiasts, and to the earthquakes which shake the ground in Ariana’s time.

Q. Faulkner had a clothesline strung in his dining room, on which he placed little pieces of paper which were his consecutive chapters, noting the plots in each chapter. How are you structuring the outline of the book into progressive chapters in the sequel?

Sandy: Really the situation I’d set up in the first book, which is an initiate’s journey, determine the plot’s progress. Research showed the development of young girls and boys and households, the structure of the male business society which dominated Rome and Pompeii at the time and to which the Estacidia family belonged, so those were wayposts for my chapters and story.

Q. The story is well known of the conceiving of the story of this book: visiting Pompeii you went off the tour route and discovered the Villa of the Mysteries, excavated decades ago. You saw on the wall a mosaic of a beautiful woman, a priestess, who seemed to call to you and take you back in time. You determined to recreate her life, about which nothing was known except her name. But how then, after research, put all of the many hundreds of possible steps in this woman’s life into a readable book, with chapters moving a story ahead?

Sandy: There was so much information. I couldn’t quite structure what I’d learned and imagined about Ariana’s probable life into a straight-forward story. Finally a friend sat me down and said, “Tell me about her life.” Make it simple. Then I could structure a story.

Q. We have read the poignant story in Book I of the death of Ariana’s betrothed, the young man she dearly loved, Titus. How did that narrative event come to you, and how important was it for the plot?

Sandy:  He drowns—a terribly upsetting incident in the young woman’s life.  It changes everything for her. Now instead of being the wife and head of a wealthy Roman’s household and mother of children, she is freed to follow her destiny, an unusual one in Roman society. Titus’s death deepened her life. She is a voracious learner and now must improve her education, expand her potential if she wishes to be a priestess. It is a key event in this story.

Q. When do you expect to complete Book II?

I’m progressing, taking the book through peer input at the Indiana Writers Center as I did for Book I, but basically being guided now by my own insights and what the characters are doing and telling me. It’s a two-year process.

You can buy Priestess of Pompeii by clicking back to our website.

Posted in Book Publishing, Winds of Change |

A Different Kind of Movie with a Little Inspiration. . .

Nancy Baxter, Senior Editor at Hawthorne

Emma Stone at the premiere of ‘Maniac’ in 2018.

In the last blog I complained about the dismal relativism in the arts recently. It was fine for Disney to produce a gorgeously produced and star-filled movie about how a villain got to be a villain and how we can follow her nefarious career with full understanding now. For many, most today, that would be a satisfactory underlying theme: villainy explained is nefariousness justified.

My granddaughter suggested we see a movie from 2006: “Stranger than Fiction,” to get another view of how the arts can steer us on a moral course, if, indeed it is supposed to do that.

“Stranger than Fiction” stars Will Ferrell as an Internal Revenue agent plugged into a job without much hope for the future or interaction with other people. One morning he begins to hear a voice in his head narrating his life, as if he is a character in a book.

Will Ferrell: The Campaign – Australian Red Carpet Premiere at Fox Studios in Sydney 2012.

As this voice continues narrating what he is doing, he seeks help from a literature professor, Dustin Hoffman, who tells him he is hearing a famous author who is writing a book—and he is also hearing it in his head. She is trying to finish her latest book which will end when she kills him off. Seeking this author, played by Emma Stone in a different kind of roll from that of the Disney film, he begins to find out there are more things to life than his robotic job at the Internal Revenue headquarters. He meets an individualistic young woman and they fall in love.

As his life expands and he notices all the opportunities for getting to know and understand others, he is able by the end of the movie to reverse the ominous ending—that he will die in a traffic accident—and moves into a new sense of life and “marries the girl.”

The theme is of course Socrates’s saying at his trial: “The unexamined life is not worth living.” It is a slightly different variant of the famous “Groundhog Day.” “Shape up,” “Improve your life,” “Strive to be the best person you possibly can be,” seems to me to be a decent message from the arts. I’d like to see more of it again.

Nancy Niblack Baxter is the author of twelve books largely on Indiana history. Click back to the website to order them or obtain them from Amazon.

Posted in Movies |

A Tale of Two Movies

A Tale of Two Movies

Nancy Baxter, Senior Editor Hawthorne Publishing

Young members of our family recommended a new movie for streaming from home: Cruella.

It’s the story of how the villain in “One Hundred and One Dalmatians” animated film from 1961 got to be so bad. Cruella DeVil kidnapped baby dalmatians and held them captive: how could anybody be so bad?

Perhaps in today’s world there was an unrealized desire on the part of the American public to explore the psychological background of a villainess who would abuse puppies that way: what could make her hate black and white dogs? Who knew?

Disney this year did not go specifically for that particular psychological quandary, but instead focused on the larger question: what made Cruella so evil? 

We rented (or was it bought) the movie and it wasn’t cheap. I suppose I didn’t really register that instead of the cute animation of the black and white puppies and a dopey kidnap truck careening around, what we would get would be live action. Disney now does live action.

VENICE, ITALY – AUGUST 27: Actress Emma Stone attends the Opening Ceremony and ‘Birdman’ premiere during the 71st Venice Film Festival on August 27, 2014 in Venice, Italy. (Photo by Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images)

It was, indeed, the gorgeously produced saga of how Cruella as a child had been deprived of her mother by a fashion designer who, at an elegant evening party, called out the dogs on her as the mother stood by a high cliff. She fell off and was killed; the little girl then named Estella was forced to live on the London streets with two boys who became her buddies.

The plot goes on from there, revealing the design talent of that waif Estella, who grows up to be a PA in the fashion industry –and the depravity of the woman known as the Baroness, played by Emma Stone. Determined to avenge the death of her mother off the cliff, Estella determines to find out the details of the Baroness’s life and to punish her. 

In a series of cleverly manipulated machinations, Estella gets the best of the Barnoness and discovers this elegant fashion designer is, surprisingly, her own birth mother. The dear mother who was pushed off the cliff was an assistant of the fashion icon. Estella, now Cruella, will devote her life to punishing the Baroness and living a life of evil.

So that’s it. So that’s it??

The overwhelming beauty of the presentation, the fashion costumes, the events to promote them with fireworks flowing across starry skies, champagne sparkling at parties in elegant settings—all bewitch us as we watch. But when the fireworks die down and the heroine drifts off to plot her evil designs, we are left with an emptiness. What are we supposed to register here? What kind of lesson is there, if lesson there is? What comment on the human condition? That everything is a rat race with superficial splendor and elegant riches as the goal and—we should trample over everyone to get them no matter how depraved we have to be? And punish everybody who gets in our way? That’s it?

I had the apprehension, and taught my college English classes, that great literature made comments on the human condition, perhaps gave insights into how to live a little better, realize the one-ness with the human race or even spread a modicum of good. I shouldn’t expect Disney, I guess to be Sophocles, Chekov, Tennessee Williams or even Gilbert and Sullivan. And times have changed.

And these are fantasies, presenting themselves with the vestiges of the cartoons which fostered them still clinging around their garments. They are supposed to be broad-brushed and not believable. 

OK, but I miss Dumbo. I’d rather risk a little stupid stereotyping to get the great, sustained artistic message that it’s painful to watch the mocking of those who are different from us. 

Or better yet, take a look at the next film I’d like to explore: an earlier Emma Stone movie Stranger than Fiction.

Nancy Baxter is the Senior Editor at Hawthorne Publishing and the author of twelve books. Click back to purchase her books on the website or get them on

Posted in Movies |