Where Am I, Exactly?

I was engaging in one of my guilty pleasures, rewatching Conan the Barbarian, and got curious about Conan’s origin. So off I went, down the delightful rabbit hole of the history of Robert E. Howard and how he created Conan. I was particularly fascinated by his creation of maps as well as a history and cast of important characters for the Hyborian Age where the stories take place.

Who doesn’t love a map, especially when it’s attached to a great story? I have always spent time pouring over the maps for any book that has them, figuring out who is where and (because I’m that kind of girl) trying to figure out how the terrain would affect the local climate. My late brother, George, when he was reading Lord of the Rings, had a map of Middle Earth tacked to his bedroom wall with colored pins for each character as he traced their progress through the story. I love the opening sequences of Games of Thrones with the wonderful theme song and the maps that tell you where we are going in the episode. There is nothing like a map to keep a story organized and oriented.

It’s pretty obvious that anyone creating a fantasy world needs to have some idea of the layout of their world. But other fiction also can get murky if you don’t know who is where and whether or not it’s even possible to get from point A to point B in the time allotted. That’s not so difficult if you live where you’re writing and can pace it out, but it’s a little trickier in a place you haven’t been in a long time, or have never been, or that hasn’t existed for centuries, or has never existed.

In the story I’m working on at the moment, I found a slightly different version of the problem. Not only did I need a map–I needed a floor plan. For the mansion where some of the action takes place, I need to know, what are the grounds around it like? How do you get from one part of the house to another? Where are the stairs, the kitchen, and the library? So here I sit, with grid paper in hand, making a map so my characters and I won’t get lost. Hopefully my readers won’t either if I can stick to the (floor)plan.

Image: A plaque atop White Horse Hill, Oxfordshire, England, showing where things are in relation to the hill. By Jonathan Hutchins.

Side characters

Last week I attended a reading by my friend, Alan Proctor, for his book The Sweden File: Memoir of an American Expatriate. I hadn’t been to the National Archives building before, and it was an interesting visit. Alan’s reading was pretty great, and I scored a copy of the book that he graciously signed.

While we were standing around before the reading, nibbling on snacks and chatting, I spoke with a copy of people who had read my book, Beloved Lives. Both expressed an interest in knowing more about the main character’s best friend, Trish. I must concede that in many ways, Trish is more interesting than April, but I meant for her to be. April is supposed to be a bit ordinary, and therefore, more relatable. Anyway, that was what I was shooting for, and apparently, I was somewhat successful.

This seems to be recurring issue for me. In the book I’m currently writing, one of the side characters is more interesting than anyone else in the story. I kind of want to keep him that way, but I begin to wonder if maybe there are times when the most interesting character ought be the star of the show. Of course, that would make a very different story.

I once wrote a short story that was supposed to be lighthearted, a tale told from the point of view of a lawyer come to visit his old college buddy who had gotten rich through his talent with genetic engineering and proteomics. For a lark, the friend had populated his secured retreat with creatures of his own making–a griffin, a unicorn, and his own daughter who was a mermaid. It was meant to be fun, but I realized, the more I thought about it, the better story was the daughter’s. To be the only one of her kind, her human skin and fish skin each never comfortable or appropriate for the other’s environment. I imagined the rage she would have against her parents for having created her. Not the same story at all.

Many books and articles have advice regarding the creation of characters. They will tell you to write detailed descriptions, comprehensive backstories, recurring mannerisms and habits, and so forth. It’s all good advice, but some characters seem to grow on their own, to fully inhabit their story world and only let you borrow them for a while before they go off to live a life that you have only glimpsed and recorded to the best of your ability. I am very fond of those characters. Perhaps I should be writing their stories instead. I’ll get back to you on that.

Image: Left to right, me, Monique, and Chris, each a character in her own right. By Jonathan Hutchins.

The Sound of My Own Voice

I’ve had the good fortune to take a few writing classes taught by Brian Shawver through The Writer’s Place. Either he is a fantastic teacher (very likely since he is now chair of English and Modern Languages at Park University), or I was lucky enough to have the teacher I needed at the time I needed him–maybe both. At any rate, one piece I worked on in one of his classes was Wasting Water. The story is told by a teenaged girl who lives on a farm with her mother and their animals in the near future when the rain has all but stopped. Brian noted that the voice of the character, Livie, is quite different from my own. That was the first time I realized my character’s voice was borrowed in large part from my father, the only person I knew well who had grown up on a farm during hard times and without one of his parents for much of that time.

Voice for a writer, so I am told, tends to be unique to that writer–his or her own way of using words and seeing the world, of interpreting that world and putting that interpretation down on paper. The voice used by Mark Twain in his many writings in unmistakable, as is the voice of Ernest Hemingway. The voice used by Jane Austen would never be mistaken for one of those other authors. Apparently, most editors in the universe are looking for writers with unique and distinctive voices.

I’ve just finished reading a chapter in one of my writing books about the use of voice. One of the things that struck me as good advise was to be sure your voice is consistent throughout any given book. Some writers may have a voice that comes through from the very first and remains constant throughout their career. Others may need to develop theirs over time. As a writer learns and grows, there is the possibility that how they express themselves may change, perhaps even within a single book. That is something I will be watching for in my own writing.

One might think it’s hard to write in anything but your own voice. However, I suspect a character that has a strong personality might be able to express themselves in spite of the author, just as my Livie did. I did not mean to write Wasting Water in my father’s voice, but his was the one I heard in my head. Livie spoke, and I just wrote down what she said.

Wasting Water will be appearing in Undeniable: Writers Respond to Climate Change to be published by Alternating Current Press. They still are open for submissions through April 30, so check it out if you have poetry, nonfiction, fiction, or hybrid pieces dealing with climate change.

Image: My father, John P. Evans; mother, Geneva; older brother, Paul; and me, on a farm my folks once owned. Photographer unknown.

From Where I Stand: POV

One of the things that writer’s should never, ever do, we are repeatedly told, is “head hop.” You must establish your point of view and stick to it. You can change POV if you make a solid break in the narrative, but the rule is, no head hopping, keep a consistent point of view throughout a scene or chapter. The thing is, one of the greatest of writers, one of my favorites, anyway, Jane Austen, can tell you within a few paragraphs and within the same chapter, what two different people are thinking or feeling. And when she does it, it does not disconcert the reader in any way.

But, but, you may sputter in protest, she didn’t know the rules, or those were different times, or she was a great writer so she could get away with it. Maybe those things are true, but the real reason she did it was because it served the story. Without knowing what her characters think and feel, there is no story. She does this even if it means the scene or chapter is not told entirely from one person’s point of view. Nor is she being god-like with the ability to know and see all, distant and omniscient; rather she can jump from person to person because what the people are feeling is immediate and important, and that is how the story must be told.

People will tell you the dead (with the exception of zombies or vampires) can’t be narrators, can’t have a point of view. That would be silly–they’re dead. But Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett wrote Sunset Boulevard with a dead man as the narrator. Alice Seabold in The Lovely Bones has a dead girl tell her own story from her personal Heaven. And in both cases, the story is told this way because it is the best way to tell the story.

Rules for writing are not made to be broken–they are made to keep us from looking like idiots when we write. Rules, however, are just rules, not laws carrying the death penalty if broken. It’s best to follow them when you’re a beginner, like I am, but if the story requires it, think long and hard, then break the rule without apology. After all, telling the story as it demands is not a rule–it’s the law.

Image: Stourhead, Wiltshire, England; view from the back. By Marilyn Evans.

Writing From the Well

I once thought my ideas for stories were like drawing water from a pond or tank. I thought I had just so many, and when those were exhausted, I would be done. The ideas I had, I hoarded and tried to keep close to me until they were written and polished. Only slowly, like a trickle from a tap, would I let them be released lest I dry up my source. I worried that writing exercises would deplete my pond. Of course, I was wrong. Ideas for stories and essays and books, writing in general, is much more like an endless flow from a river or a spring.

In Ireland there are holy wells fed by springs that flow year round. Originally they were sacred to Brigit or Boann or some other form of earth goddess. Nowadays they are sacred to various saints. My favorite is Saint Dymphna, patron saint of the mentally ill. One well in Ireland that is dedicated to her is a lovely place with a statue that people decorate, and where gifts and offerings are regularly left.

Ireland gets a lot of rain. The water percolates through the earth and emerges again in the springs. Some spring-fed wells have existed for hundreds and perhaps thousands of years, and the water always flows. But in County Galway, I saw a well that had once been dedicated to Saint Brigit that no longer had water and instead was full of trash. Perhaps the town had grown around Bridget’s well in such a way that the underground water course was blocked and could no longer supply it. Perhaps the saint had just been neglected for so long that she moved her blessings elsewhere.

Writing is nothing like a pond or tank but rather like those rain-renewed wells. And the rain that renews writing is the practice of writing. The flow is endless, but must be tended. Writing begets writing.

I once thought I could never come up with enough ideas for a blog, but I have been surprised how easily the ideas keep coming–at least so far. I thought I’d have maybe three books in me at most, yet now I find five, six, more waiting their turn. I tend my well of ideas by writing more, not less. I have begun to collect writing prompts, exercises, and inspirations from other writers. Once I get going, my brain won’t shut up at night and let me sleep until I at least make a few notes to work from in the morning.

My well may run dry some day, but I will keep tending it. I will make my offerings of time and study and whatever else it takes to keep my saints or goddesses happy. And surely they will let the words keep flowing.

Image: Marilyn at St. Dympna’s Well (note the different spelling), County Galway, Ireland. By Jonathan Hutchins.

J. D. Salinger Got Edited

For a time, I had the privilege of serving as editor of a little magazine called The Rune. I pretty much had no idea what I was doing, but I seldom let that slow me down. The previous editor, Lane Lambert, taught me a lot and kept me from making too big a mess of it. Because we were always looking for good content, we were happy to accept some pretty rough stuff if the authors were willing to make recommended changes to improve their material. Over time, I watched some beginners become much better writers and, in at least one case, a very nearly great writer. But there was this one guy–you know the type–who was too good to be edited.

This fellow had previously published a piece in another magazine, and he submitted that same article to The Rune. The content was pretty good, but the writing needed work. When I recommended some changes, he was incensed. It had been good enough to be published as it was before, he insisted. How dare I suggest changes? He eventually withdrew his submission relieving us of having to commit to publishing something that wasn’t up to our standards.

One of the comments I’ve gotten about my novel is that the editing is really good. My guess is these reviewers are used to self-published books. My book is as well edited as it is because I had an editor.

If you’re going to be a good writer, you need an editor. You may be lucky enough to be able to do it for yourself, but that’s not the way to bet. My friends are willing to help, but they know me too well. Folks who don’t know me won’t always understand what I’m trying to say and will need more detail or clearer explanations to get my drift.

A good editor doesn’t get so caught up in the story that they slide over the typos and dropped words, and can see inconsistencies in the plot line. An great editor can tell you One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest should be told from the Chief’s point of view.

Shannon O’Cork wrote in How to Write Mysteries, “Only amateurs and gods write their words in concrete.” She almost had it right. Some of the other people who write their words in concrete are bad and mediocre writers, or writers who would be without editing. The worst crap I’ve ever read was written by a really good author who got so big and famous that no one dared to edit her work any more. Everybody needs to be edited. J. D. Salinger got edited.

If you find that everyone loves everything you write, without any changes or revisions, please, become my editor, because I can’t do that. I know I’m not a god, and I hope I’m past being an amateur.

Image: Words written in concrete. Cardiff Castle, Wales. By Marilyn Evans.

Spring!

It’s spring! Okay, not on the calendar. And not according to the roller coaster that is the temperature. Not even according to sane people. But gardeners aren’t necessarily sane. The bare root strawberries and seed displays are in the hardware stores! And the Old Farmer’s Almanac says it’s time to start tomato seeds indoors! So, spring, for certain values of spring.

My garden is likely to yield what my husband joyfully refers to as $50 tomatoes. That’s because, by the time I buy potting soil, plants, fertilizer, materials for raised beds, and so on and so forth, what we get from the garden is likely to be really expensive. And that doesn’t include labor. But wait, you say. Don’t you get your horse manure for free? Sure, the manure is free, but we have to pay for stable boarding, the farrier, feed, vet bills, wormer. Need I go on? So, free manure? Sure.

None of that matters. Gardening has nothing to do with sanity. It’s about watching a seemingly dead thing, a seed, come out of the ground and become a full grown plant that bears fruit. It’s about the miracle of life and growth and food coming from dirt. When you go out each day and find a new green bean or wrestle a tomato from the clutches of a squirrel, you have a tiny miracle. Toss it into the freezer, and you have the essence of summertime in the dead of winter. A garden seldom pays for itself, except in joy and awe.

Of course, you knew I’d have to compare writing to gardening, and so I shall. I’ve spent a lot of time and money on classes, conferences, and books learning how to write. There’s very little chance I’ll ever make back these costs from selling what I’ve written. That does not concern me in the least. Most likely, my stories and novels will be the print version of a $50 tomato. So be it.

In the past, I’ve made my addictions pay for themselves. When I sewed more than was healthy, I sold costumes and clothing to support my habit. But not every hobby can be made to pay its way. Some are simply a labor of love. If they pay for themselves, that is a bonus, but not a requirement. And so, I will write, and I will garden, because I choose to embrace the spring and the creative process, no matter the cost, and whatever the calendar says.

Image: Periwinkles, yellow tulips, grape hyacinths. By Marilyn Evans.

 

A Wild Ride

Welcome to the writer’s life, Marilyn! This is the wild ride, the ups and downs, the agony and joy of writing, or so it would seem.

When I went to Planet Comicon, I had a wonderful time talking to writers, hearing them speak about writing, getting tips, and being inspired. The Cosplayers were great, the guests were awesome, the pop culture was thorough fun. It was an inspiration and a joy.

Then I did my first reading and book signing at 3 Wishes, another wonderful time. I saw a lot of old friends I hadn’t seen in ages. I met people I’d never met before. I didn’t flub the reading too badly, and we sold some books. It was, in all, a really good.

Then I read some of my on-line reviews. Some are great, all praise and love. Some are less wonderful, but fair and honest. I agree with the criticisms and know that those are the sorts of things I hope to improve in my next books. And then there was the one review.

I can understand not liking the main character. I can understand hating the plot. I know this book isn’t for everyone. But I have to take exception with the criticism of Winston, the cat. The reviewer, in her bio, claims to be a cat person. If that is so, I feel sorry for her cats.

The character, Winston, a very large cat with some interesting character traits, is based on several cats I have been privileged to know over the years. To describe their behavior as uncatlike might distress them, if they weren’t cats and therefore don’t give a crap what people think.

Bad reviews happen. It’s part of the ride. Not everyone will like every book. There are highly touted classics I can’t abide. And because people have different tastes, we have available to us a vast array of authors and genres and books–something for everyone, we hope. The thing is, I can’t let the bad reviews steal the joy from my writing. I can’t let someone not loving me or my writing or my cat keep me from the fun, the thrill of creation, the daily process of working at what I love.

I will have more bad reviews. I will encounter people who don’t get my jokes, who don’t like the created people I’ve come to love, and who will take exception to my interpretation of the world. But that’s all right. If I don’t get on the horse and ride, I’ll never experience the inevitable ups that follow close behind the downs. I can’t please everyone, but I must please myself, and I must keep writing.

Image: Jonathan Hutchins riding Crystal Perfection, Fort Leavenworth Hunt, spring fox hunt, 2003. Picture by Marilyn J. Evans.

Quo Vadis?

Quo Vadis is a Latin phrase that was used as the title of a book and later, a movie based on the book. I didn’t like the book much and wasn’t fond of the movie, but I’ve always liked the phrase. Quo vadis is usually translated “whither goest thou?”

Whence and whither are not much used in English these days, and I’m a little sad about that. They would make it so much easier to ask “where did you come from” and “where are you going to” without leaving you with that awkward preposition stranding–that is, when a preposition is far from its intended object. We do it all the time in spoken English: what are you talking about; what is he up to; this bed looks slept in.

Editors can get touchy about stranding, which can lead to authors getting touchy in return. In response to a zealous editor who tried to remove all the dangling prepositions, an author (it is attributed to Winston Churchill) wrote, “This is the sort of tedious nonsense up with which I will not put.” This response clearly demonstrates that getting too crazy about rearranging sentences to avoid stranding can make them sound pretty silly.

In trying to minimize the use of dangling prepositions, I’ve discovered that often my preposition is hanging out there because I’m using the wrong words. By using a different word or words, the problem goes away, and the writing gets better. Instead of saying “where did I come from,” my character might actually be asking, who were my parents or what was my country of origin or something else entirely. When I find myself using one of these terms that strands my proposition, I ask myself what am I really trying to say? Is there a better word or phrase that removes the problem and says more clearly what I’m trying to convey? Did I really mean “this is nonsense I won’t put up with”, or did I want to say “this is nonsense I won’t tolerate”?

I am not likely to be using whither and whence in my writing any time soon (unless I’m writing something historical), but I will be trying to keep my sentences undangly at the same time avoiding rearranging them into silliness. But sometimes, you just have  to let your prepositions hang out.

Image: Quo Vadis, Jonathan? Jonathan Hutchins at Danebury Hill Fort, Hampshire, England. By Marilyn Evans

You’ve Got to Call It Something

The first thing someone asks when they find out you’ve written novel is “What genre?” Readers, publishers, book sellers, everyone wants to know what kind of book it is. It’s got to have a label. Beloved Lives was a reboot of a horror story but ended up being classified as paranormal romance with some suspense thrown in for good measure.

Some writers resist the pigeon holes they are slotted into. Margaret Atwood long insisted she did not write science fiction. Certainly Cat’s Eye is fiction, plain and simple. The Handmaid’s Tale could fairly be called dystopian future fiction, but she insisted,  “Oryx and Crake is a speculative fiction, not a science fiction proper. It contains no intergalactic space travel, no teleportation, no Martians.” She seems to have accepted the label in the end as she has accepted so many awards for her superb writing.

When you write in a genre, you are expected to at least try to stick with it. It is apparently literary suicide to follow a paranormal, romantic suspense novel with, say, a Regency romance, a historical fiction, a mystery, or a space opera. Sadly, those are the novels that are currently agitating to be written in my poor, beleaguered brain. In fact, I’ve already written the space opera although it needs a lot of rewriting and editing. The research for the Regency romance is done, and the book itself is about a fourth drafted. The historical fiction has caused a mountain of research documents to clutter my life. The mystery is about half done.

My husband, bless him, said he reads novels by people who write three or more a year. He was right, of course. Why couldn’t I go ahead and write a paranormal romance to follow my first one? Trouble is, I didn’t have a single idea for the plot, the characters, or the location. Or did I?

I had this idea some time back for a story about a couple–but why did it have to be a couple? What if they became a couple during the course of the story? Suddenly, I was mugged by ideas, hijacked by locations, pestered by characters. The words started falling out of my brain and into my computer as fast as my little fingers could type. I wake up every morning eager to write instead of struggling as I had on some of my recent projects. Almost as quickly as problems come up with the story, the solutions present themselves. I’m really enjoying writing this thing. It may not be a good book, but, like Beloved Lives, it’s being fun to write. And best of all, it’s a paranormal romance with elements of mystery. Or at least that’s how I’ll label it. Because, you’ve got to call it something.

Image: Tamara experimenting with the horror genre.

Tamara J. Sanchez at Powell Gardens.  Photograph by Jonathan Hutchins.