Tag Archives: imagination

The End of Summer…


It really is the end of summer now.  In the Pagan/Wiccan calendar, Lunasagh marks the beginning of the harvest of foodstuffs to be stored and used through the fall and winter into Spring.  In the old days, when icehouses stored winter ice cut out of ponds, lakes and rivers for use in the summer, people would find themselves coming to the end of their supply of ice.  In truly hot, humid weather, that could become a burden.

If you pay attention to the rising and setting of the Sun and the Moon, then you will mark the Moon’s position in her relationship to the Sun through the seasons.  Why bring this up?  Partly because most of my life until I was an adult was spent on a farm or in farming country. I’m still conscious of the seasonal changes. The Farmer’s Almanac and the Old Farmer’s Almanac (two separate publications) have online presences as well as published print editions that give weather forecasts, tidal changes, the phases of the Moon, the planets in their various constellations, and all the other things that people who work in a ‘natural’ setting will notice more than those working indoors in an office.  There is an article in my local newspaper noting that fewer and fewer people, adults and children alike, are spending time outdoors in the fresh air and sunshine for various reasons, and it does have a very real affect on their emotional state when they shut themselves up in buildings.  They become more fractious, contentious and sometimes aggressive.

I love fantasy stories. Good fantasy storytelling is always something I look for.  The things I’ve already mentioned – seasonal awareness, the effects of being outdoors versus indoors all the time, noticing changes in the sky in daytime and at night – are essential to making your people believable to your readers.  This is what Tolkien did when he created the Universe of Middle-Earth.

I also love good science fiction.  When Anne McCaffrey invented the world of PERN, she paid attention to those very things. Her people had to do so, or suffer the consequences.  It’s as necessary to fantasy as it is to science fiction, both of which I grew up reading, and wondering if I could come close to telling tales that resonated with people the way the stories of J.R.R.Tolkien and C.S. Lewis and Robert Heinlein did.

If you are going to invent a Universe to populate with dragons and sea nymphs and Sea Kobolds (look that one up, it’s interesting), then I encourage you to fully understand that Universe yourselves.  If you are going to write fantastical tales of Knights lost in a wilderness, find out why they are there in the first place, and then tell us what happened and how they’ll get out of this dilemma.  How many will survive? What are they facing?

I have a good friend working on his first novel, trying to make it as good as he can, so my part in it is to ask him questions.  What? Who? Where? When? How? Why?  He will send me his chapters and I will send him mine. His is a world that is unique and has not been done before – or if it has been done, it did not last because it was not done very well by someone else and he’s found his stride in creating it.

I apologize for taking so long to write another post, but this is part of what happens when you do want to take your story from start to finish.  Your blog posts become unintentionally sporadic. You forget to fix lunch and you drink ice tea (when it’s hot) instead of having breakfast, and find that you’ve shrunk a full dress size without trying.  No harm in that. Just take your vitamins, get a ham and cheese sandwich and some grapes, and keep pecking the keys.  And if you get stuck, don’t worry about it.  Have something else you can turn to. And get outside in the fresh air occasionally. It will do you a world of good.

 

Storytelling ingredients… just like making cookies


If you’re human, you have a favorite dish.  Doesn’t matter what it is. It’s your comfort food, your go-to when you don’t want to be bothered with choosing, or what you remember the most often when you’re away from home and want something really good.  It may be simple and easy to fix, or complicated and time-consuming, but it’s the one thing you turn to when all other dishes fail.

This applies to creating stories, too. They have characters, places, narrative, beginnings, action, middles and endings.  Those are ingredients, and how you treat them determines how the story will proceed. You may have a favorite genre, such as steampunk or Regency romance or mystery. All have specific ingredients or qualities that make them part of a genre. You can make all these ingredients into something as complex as beef bourguignon (beef burgundy), or you can make your story as simple and familiar as mac and cheese.

I like making chocolate chip cookies.  I have the Tollhouse recipe memorized. I could make a batch in my sleep. But I have a secret ingredient that makes them more than just regular chocolate chip cookies. Well, I have two, but I’ll come to that.

The recipe itself is uncomplicated. The ingredients are simple: eggs, butter, sugar, brown sugar, vanilla, flour, baking soda, salt, chocolate chips.

But let’s dig into that list of ingredients. Instead of just brown sugar, I use dark brown sugar. Why? It has extra molasses, more than light brown sugar. More flavor. I use vanilla, a particular brand that seems to have a brighter flavor than regular vanilla. I use unbleached flour. The chocolate chips are heavier in cacao than the other chocolate chips, but they don’t cost any more than the others. I want some serious chocolate chip cookies, so I add a little more than just the usual ingredients.

There’s your story: a little more than just the usual ingredients.  You add bits and pieces of information here and there, like rich, dark chocolate chips scattered through cookie dough, that draw your readers into the story.  You describe neighborhoods and countryside and villages, cities and towns as if you’ve lived there half your life.  You know the people down the street and next door, because you invented them.

Oh, but wait! Your people don’t live on a street or in a neighborhood. They live on a large island with an inlet bay that nearly splits the island in two, and the two populated halves of the island have been fighting over fishing and sailing rights to that water body for longer than human memory.

The neighborhood and the island are the same thing as the cookie dough in my cookies. They hold the chocolate chips, vanilla, and sugars that enrich the story. They make it whole and believable.  You should be able to stand at the head of the inlet bay in the center of that island or in the middle of the park on the square in that neighborhood and give me, your reader, an idea of what it’s like to live there and who those other people are, just as you know the ingredients in your favorite recipe so well that you can recount them from memory.

Your cookbooks, to use a metaphor, are easy to find: the Chicago Manual of Style. Strunk & White’s Elements of Style.  The Oxford Dictionary. Roget’s Thesaurus. Since there is a wealth of material available online for reference, you can search by subject matter. Better yet, you can go to the library and find even more stuff in the stacks.  Do not ignore the work of people you never heard of. They may add more than just exotic flavor to your stories.

If you’re still in school, there should be an English teacher somewhere who may give you extra credit for work you do outside of class and who may be able to push you into doing better work than you ever thought you could.

Now, with any recipe or any story, there are requirements you have to meet. Recipes require specific ingredients and specific methods. If you don’t follow those guides, the recipe fails.  There’s nothing wrong with trying to vary the recipe, but the first few times you use it, follow the instructions.  Get familiar with it, and then make the variations to suit yourself.

The same holds true of a story, whether it’s one page, a novella, or a full-length novel in a series. It has to have a start, middle, and ending. The characters really do need a conflict of some kind, something that needs resolution, and the ending should satisfy the needs of the characters. This is how stories work.  It does your reader no good to have wonderful character descriptions (midnight-dark 80% cacao chocolate chips) if they don’t do anything.  Where’s the conflict, or the problem, for the characters to solve? What’s the ending? What’s the argument?

If you have all the cookie dough ingredients standing by, including that bottle of real Madagascar bourbon vanilla, but you never get around to mixing them into cookie dough, you’ll never have a batch of chocolate chip cookies.  But you can mix the dough, refrigerate or freeze it, and come back to it later, and you just might find that setting it aside for a while gives you a better batch of cookies.

If you create a catalog of characters, put them to work.  If you can’t figure out where the story goes, that’s fine. Set it aside. Do something else and come back to the story later. But don’t throw out what you’ve already created.  Let it ferment, and see what happens to those characters. Give them something to do.

Oh, the two secret ingredients in my cookies?  The classic recipe calls for one teaspoon of vanilla.  I use two teaspoons of vanilla, plus the dark brown sugar instead of light brown.  Go ahead:  Hand me a plate of chocolate chip cookies and put me into the middle of the story.  Draw me in.

Just add a little more flavor.

 

To every season, there is a purpose….


My sunflower in bloom

My sunflower in bloom

Summer’s end is coming closer every day. We’ve had either too much rain or too little. The flowerbed I planted never sprouted and the ants ate the seedlings in the pots of flowers that I put out.

So I started over.

That’s what you do. I said in my last post that I will get stuck and have nothing to show for my time. It happens to all of us. Is there a solution to this problem? Of course there is! There’s always a solution!

Okay, but is the solution going to make you feel guilty somehow, when you think that maybe staring out at the distant blue horizon is less important and less valuable than doing something that everyone can see? I’m talking about brainstorming when you’re stuck.

I went to a restaurant on one of those boring, dull, off-and-on rainy days that had me feeling cooped up in my itty-bitty house and took pens and a small notebook along, with the intention of just making notes. Instead, I stared out one of the picture windows toward the west, toward the very pale, wimpy sun dropping lower through the rainy clouds toward the horizon, and did not put a single word on paper. Finally, I made a note: I have nothing important to say right now, with a big smiley face, and I paid the bill for my nice, crispy french fries, and went home.

And that’s it right there: sometimes brainstorming works, sometimes it doesn’t. Your brain goes blank. Your characters are taking naps in your mind. Your plotline has chosen a new path to follow without asking your permission. Your brainstorming session which was meant to refire the engine of your imagination petered out to a mere pop of backfiring noise and simply didn’t restart as you’d hoped. Gee whiz, even Chaucer and Shakespeare and Mark Twain and Charles Dickens had bad days, you know!

Normally, this is when people trash the story and delete it, but here is the solution: DON’T DELETE IT. Period.

Set it aside. Print it out. Put it in a 3-ring binder with the other stuff. Let it gestate. Go do something else. Make chocolate chip cookies with an extra splash of vanilla. Have a small notebook at your elbow and every time you put a sheet of cookies into the oven (10 minutes at 375F for chewy, 11 minutes for crisp), write a brief sentence about something.

Title this page ‘What if…’

See, this is when the notebook becomes your source for more stories. So you ran out of things to say about the story you were working on – so what? It happens. It’s part of the job, and yes, writing is a job, one that you chose to do, and one that you can do for the rest of your life if you want to.

If you inhabit the working world, you can carry that little notebook in your purse or briefcase and make notes on the train or the bus. You can write them up on your smartphone and mail them to yourself. I used to do that, with a pen and notebook. Then as soon as I got home, I’d put typing paper in the typewriter and copy my ‘what ifs’. They were all single sentences like ‘what if… your new neighbor next door never told you who he was or where he came from, but after he vacated his apartment, men with little plastic ID cards showed up and asked you lots of strange questions about him?’

Going through my 3-ring notebooks full of stuff that I started a L-O-N-G time ago, I found that particular story, which I started in 1989, reread what I had written, and decided I was glad I kept it because it was a good idea, after all. I just have to revise it here and there, and finish it. I don’t care if it turns into a novel or stays a short story or fits somewhere in between. If it was a good idea 24 years ago and it still works now, it’s worth the effort to finish it.

That’s my point.

Ditch the guilt and let your brain churn. This is not done for instant gratification. It takes time and persistence, and the more you do, the better a writer you will be.

I know people who will discard some bright idea because they can’t figure out how to make it work right away, or at least, they think they can’t. Well, if you come up with the idea, you put it into existence on a piece of paper and store it with the other ideas you had. Then go back and review it. You’ll most likely figure out how to make it work.

This is where you start over, replant the seeds and let her rip. Never mind if you run out of gas. Keep it. You can always do revisions later. You’ll be surprised how much is worth keeping and finishing.

Oh, yeah – my sunflower? Poor thing isn’t going to make it through the summer. The cardinals discovered it and they’ve been eating the seeds every morning. I can hear them around sunrise. They just think I don’t know. And there is another ‘what if….’

A long walk in the woods provides… clues


A hike along the river....

A hike along the river….

I spent about an hour yesterday taking a long hike on a path along
a river not too far from my house. The hike started on a cloudy afternoon, with the very possible prospect of rain. I needed to get out and get some fresh air. There is nothing worse than being cooped up indoors. Even if the promise of rain is likely to be kept, getting out for a walk, however brief it might be, is better than no walk at all. So I went.

...continuing along the path

…continuing along the path

I am not sorry I did, that I spent the time on it, that the sun finally came out of hiding or that when I got back to my car I was quite warm, tired and happy to have done a mere 3.5 miles roundtrip in a little under an hour. For me, that’s a slow pace but I took my camera along, as always, and disregarded the distance.
Showy trillium on DP river trail

The point is that we all have a very real need to step away from the short-range, close focus on our creative endeavors and get some fresh air, on a regular basis. We need to put down the electronic stuff occasionally and look around at the real world, the tangible world that we live in if we expect the worlds we create out of whole cloth to be believable. It’s the small things which need to be noticed, not the illuminated screen in front of you.

Showy trilliums on the hiking path

Showy trilliums on the hiking path

Paying attention to those little things, to something as small as a frog on a log in the sunshine, makes your worlds more real to your readers. There are pollinating insects as small as the head of a pin that most people don’t notice, but they inhabit their own tiny world. If a detective in a mystery novel notices these things, shouldn’t you, the person who created the detective, notice those small things, too?

In regard to characters


Geese doing morning yoga

Yes, geese do yoga at the start of the day.

Now I’m going to expand a little more on what I said last time.

This has to do with the characters you create if you are writing fiction. I think it’s a real good idea to spend a little time interviewing them, to see how much depth you can give them. What drives them?

I’ve said before that one of my favorite writers is the late Georgette Heyer. She wrote a long, long list of period romance novels set in the timeframe of the Regency Period in England, before and after the War of Independence. She does refer to specific military actions to set the stage for some of the male characters and why they say and do some of the things they do. I don’t know if she ever did anything like an interview for any of the people whose lives she made so real for her readers, but her perception of those people was bolstered by superb research into the Regency Period itself.

For example, in ‘The Toll Gate’, Captain John Staple gets bored silly if he doesn’t have an adventure on a regular basis. The fights with Napoleon gave him that, and then he was picked up at sea by smugglers and spent a week with them. His mother wants him to find the right girl, all the girls he’s met bore him silly, and he wants to join his friend Babbacombe for hunting, because it’s early fall and the scenting days will give them a few great runs. So he bails out of his cousin’s dinner party, goes off to find his way north, and gets lost in the rain and falls into a wonderful (by his words) mystery. Along the way, he does meet his dream girl. You can almost hear the fanfare when they see other for the first time.

Piled into all of this are Heyer’s skillful inclusions of character assessment for each of the people involved in this adventure. She made tons and tons of notes for her stories. This is the best kind of example to follow.

So how do you do something like that for people who live in a world created out of whole cloth, as in sword-and-sorcery stories, fantasies, and science fiction, or just plain old fiction?

When I said last time ‘make a lot of notes’, this is something that I do. It’s necessary for me, at least, to do this, because I find that these characters which I imagined into existence not only decide what THEY want to do and how the story should be told, but they also are grumpy, happy, angry, excited, quizzical, lost and completely bewildered in the ‘why is this happening?’ sense, and definitely more and more solid.

I don’t mean that I merely ask someone what annoys or excites him or her, or that I create a physical description of someone as a frame of reference. If I have a team of five people who were thrown together and left on their own, I want to find out what their quirks are, what makes them part of this team, what makes them laugh and cry and what their goals and desires are.

All your notes, and if you also want to do the Q&A thing, interviews with your characters to find their speech patterns and how they think, are worth every second of your time and effort. I’ve found in doing this that I’ve compiled many, many pages of information that gives my characters more depth.

I want to know what it is that will cause a character like Walter White (Bryan Cranston) in ‘Breaking Bad’ to go from being just a man who left his job to being a dark, ruthless criminal. And why did he leave Gray Matter Tech in the first place? The depth of that fall into darkness was fascinating, because he could have done just the opposite and become a crusader like Jack Bauer played by Kiefer Sutherland in ’24’

It’s being willing to look at these things and put them into play that gives invented characters depth and makes them more real to people.

Clearing the cobwebs….


Showy trilliums

Showy trilliums

Okay, no excuses. There are times when life simply gets in the way. It isn’t neglect that kept me away, I was actually cranking out copy for several books. Yes – several. And while it seems vainglorious to me to say “I busted my butt to get this done”, well, frankly, I did just that. I neglected my blog here unintentionally while I focused on my stories.

So I’ll give you all a pump-up about yourselves and what you do, if I can.

In fiction, any writer’s desire and responsiblity are to create and firmly establish the characters and events in those stories which he or she is creating for you, the readers, to enjoy.

I do know people who want desperately to write something – anything – and have a good start, but come to a grinding halt because they asked someone to read the starts they’ve made and are – well, disappointed, maybe even a little hurt, maybe even a teensy bit teary-eyed that the incomplete piece which they wrote, they labored over, they gave life to isn’t viewed as Pulitzer material. So, they quit before they even get a start.

Don’t do that.

If someone says ‘you got typos!’, deal with it. Fix them. Fix the punctuation mistakes. Get a spelling dictionary or find one online. Make yourself look as smart as you are. Most of the time, when people say ‘you got booboos’, it’s merely pointing out simple errors that you didn’t catch in your draft. No one is trying to hurt your feelings.

There are people who like to engage in flamewars toward everyone, because it makes them feel good about themselves. That is not the same thing as being told ‘you got typos’. Not remotely. It is just bad manners.

These are your steps in writing a piece of fiction.
1 – Decide if it’s a short/long story or a novel.
2 – Ask yourself if there is more than one story for this idea, i.e., can this become a series of stories?
3 – Are you serious enough to finish what you wrote, or are you just dabbling with ideas? If it is just ideas, keep them for later use.
4 – Write the first draft, set it aside, write a brief draft or even a long summary of another story, set it aside and go back to your first story.
5 – Make notes. Make a LOT of notes. Keep them with your story. Review them regularly. You’ll find your original idea has wandered off in a new direction.

You will be pleasantly surprised to find that, not only has your story taken on a life and will of its own, but your original idea may show distinct signs of growing larger than you had thought it would, and may even start splitting into various parts on its own.

For example, that hot chick who cast her eye on the hero might just be a spy looking for easy prey. Not finding it, she just may ditch that resource and start looking again. In other words, the guy she thought was the ship’s engineer turns out to the the guy who serves baked beans in the mess line, and the only thing he’s good for is relieving the tension in her… uh, her shoulders. Yeah, that’s it! Her shoulders. Got it. So is she a spy? Or is she up to something else?

I posted the picture of the trilliums partly because it’s spring at long last, and partly because that wildflower has a brief period of above-ground existence, putting out a floral head to attract pollinators until the rhizomes at its roots have started to grow and it can split off into new plants. When it’s done for the season, it dies back and disappears to gestate underground until next spring.

Consider the trillium as an analogy to writing. You have great ideas. They need to grow into mature and complete stories. That dieback to prepare for next spring is the same thing that you do when you come up with an idea for a story. You make notes about it, you do some research on the subject, and you start the first draft.

The ideas are what you record and expand on with notes, research to support your storyline, and possibly discovering that maybe your subject really has not had much attention because everyone else is following a different trend. And this is why I say don’t ask someone to review a partially-written draft. The wrong words, a misunderstood comment, a snort of derisive laughter and ‘no one writes about this’ may stop you before you even get started.

Now, how will you know whether or not you can do this thing called writing unless you stop asking for permission to do it?

There is nothing wrong with establishing your own subject line of stories. People do it all the time. Have enough confidence in yourself to choose to follow your own path. You do not need permission to do that, any more than the trilliums need permission to poke their way above ground and blossom.

Well, what are you waiting for? You don’t need anyone’s permission to write!

Apocalypse? I think not


The end of Winter, beginning of Spring

The end of Winter, beginning of Spring

Everything seems to be real dicey right now, doesn’t it? Terrible things are being done to innocents, to people who just want to live their lives and raise their families. They’ve done nothing bad to anyone, just led peaceful lives. And then, out of nowhere, everything they took for granted has been torn from them and their families are dead or missing. And then while War gallops through Ukraine and the Middle East, Pestilence in the form of ebola invades our consciousness and offers another form of terror in the form of death that rots you from the inside out.

I’ve been distracted just like everyone else, by events that are literally beyond my control. The hideous slaughter of innocents in the Middle East and the rebellion in Ukraine were suddenly overshadowed by a lethal, horrifying disease caused by an organism which has no other purpose than its own survival, at any cost whatsoever.

We are all distracted by this, but there are so many parallels to these things in history that I spent some time researching them, just to set my own mind at ease.

In the Middle Ages, great armies formed at the behest of Pope Urban II, after a potboiler speech on an auspicious day, armies whose sole purpose was to take control of lands in the Middle East, wresting that control away from the Moors and other Middle Eastern tribes and clans that held it. This was the start of the Crusades, land wars which lasted for several centuries of continuous warfare. Kingdoms and empires rose and fell during this time, and over those many, many centuries the wars continued in one way or another.

Once the Crusades were underway, trade began with the Far East and the unknown country Cathay, which we now call China. The known world began to expand. With foreign trade came the trading ships in the Black Sea loading goods from caravans crossing the Gobi Desert, following the oldest trading route in the world, the Old Silk Road. One item gave that road its name: silk, cloth made from fiber spun by silkworms into cocoons in which they would gestate while they became silk moths. With those trading ships, loaded to the gunwales with cargo, came rats infested with fleas that carried the Plague. The Plague did not kill everyone who got it, but it did empty entire villages in many places. They became ghost towns. It did not differentiate between peasant and potentate. It did not care about anything but finding a host and expanding. Yet other villages and cities survived unscathed.

What do we face now? War in the Middle East which started when some of you reading this were barely in the first grade and are now reaching adulthood, warfare that looks as though it may follow the same pattern as the Crusades as it runs its course; and the ebola virus, a pestilence in the form of an aggressive, lethal disease that has no cure and lives on after its host has died, or is defeated only by the robust immune system of its host.

While it’s easy enough to slip into the mindset of dystopia, which is the setting in which everything has gone bad and survival is chancy at best, as in the “Mad Max’ movies, “The Hunger Games” and “The Children Of Men”, among many, many other stories, books and movies that have followed this ‘end of days’ theme, somehow humans have managed to survive, rebuild and prosper, and then move onward, despite Plagues and apocalyptic events.

We have survived, regrouped, prospered and moved on.

The future is always uncertain. There is no way to avoid surprises like this, but rather to try to be prepared for them. And with this, rather than take the view that we are all doomed to extinction, something I do not believe to be true, I have chosen to use these events as historic parallels in my stories, and to allow us mere humans to find ways to overcome those kinds of threats that say ‘doom on you, doom on you’.

This is partly because, as I said, we mere mortals have somehow survived, rebuilt and moved on over many thousands of years. We aren’t dead yet. A thousand years from now, we will be looking back at this time and wondering how anyone survived it. And we will still look at the stars and wonder if there is someone else out there looking back at us.

Perhaps some day, we’ll find that we are looking back at ourselves.