In the Family

For all its flaws and foibles, without her family, Elizabeth Bennet would never have fallen in love with and married Fitzwilliam Darcy. Pride and Prejudice is about family: Bingley’s, Darcy’s, and Elizabeth’s. And where would Game of Thrones be without the highly stressed and often dysfunctional Lannisters, Starks, Targarians, and the rest? Families define circumstances, characters, conflicts, and so much more.

About thirty five or so years ago, at the invitation of a friend, I attended a party where one of the guests was holding forth about “these kids today” and the demise of the American family or some such tripe. I found his thesis interesting but flawed. I jumped right in (I’m seldom shy at parties where I don’t know anyone and there is alcohol) with a comment that family is so important to “kids these days” that if their own family didn’t work for them, they’d create a family out of friends and fellow travelers. My utterly humiliated friend drug me aside and hissed, “Do you know who that is? He’s the professor (at the local college) of family studies!” Unabashed, I responded, “He’s still wrong.”

Everybody comes from somewhere, and even orphans, a la Charles Dickens, end up with someone close to care about or devil them. Even a nameless assassin with no past like Jason Bourne will claw his way back to being David Webb, a man who once had a family. Because you can pick your friends but not your family, kin folk can bring a story tension and conflict; allies, or rescue at the appropriate moment; insight into the protagonist and his actions; even insight into why the bad guys got the way they are.

My family has been, at various times, not fully functional, so when I went out into the world on my own, I figured I could do a better job of running my life without bothering with family interference. For the most part, that worked for me, but, as I said, family is so important that, in time, I made my own–my own community of friends, people with similar interests, drinking buddies, allies, and so forth. I also, in time, made peace with my family, or the fragmented bits of it that have presented themselves over the years.

When I started writing, I wanted my characters to be independent and self sufficient. But I found if I introduced some of their family as well as their friends, colleagues, and lovers, the story got richer, like the stories of many of my favorite fictional characters who have lovable or maddening or otherwise noteworthy family members.

Some of the family that show up in my stories are modeled after my own relatives. But I have had enough scrapes with other families that I think I’ll have a supply of notable characters for the rest of my writing career–enough to round out a lifetime’s worth of  work.

Image: A slice of my husband’s family. By Warren C. Hutchins, Sr.

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.