The Travel Muse

Antique postcard of Bacharach, Germany“It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.” ~Bilbo Baggins (JRR Tolkien)

Getting Out There: Since most of you are writers, I’m guessing a few of you will identify with this: I dread going places. And the longer I write, the worse I get. Even an approaching dinner party can make me squirm with reluctance. Heck, I even dread going to the grocery store on a Saturday. I’ll take a non-crowded Tuesday morning, please.

And as exciting as vacation travel can be, as the departure date looms, I am filled with dread. You have the packing, the passports, the parking, and dealing with people. There are airports, security checks, and dealing with people. There are hotels, tour schedules, and dealing with people. Have I mentioned that you have to deal with people?

I guess I’m a bit like old Bilbo. “Sorry! I don’t want any adventures, thank you. Not Today. Good morning!” But once something (or someone) gets me out there (I don’t have a Gandalf, but I do have an adventure-loving wife), especially after a day or two on the road, my old curious, wandering soul tends to reemerge. The dread dissipates and is replaced by what darn near resembles an adventurous spirit.

Such was the case on our last trip—a river-cruise on the Rhine River, from Basel, Switzerland to Amsterdam. And get this: the ship even offered second breakfast! That’s what I call traveling in style.

Seeing is Believing:

“Travel makes you modest. You see what a tiny place you occupy in the world.” ~Gustave Flaubert

V Seeing is believingOne of the reasons we chose a Rhine River cruise was that part of my trilogy is set in the region (most of the first half of book three). Besides the second breakfasts, we also loved the idea of seeing such a vast swath of the heart of western Europe and only unpacking once. I’d done quite a bit of research in writing the segment set in the region. Traveling there let me know I’d mostly gotten it right; the slope of the river banks, the walls of the ancient cities, etcetera. But I knew from past experience, there’s nothing like actually being there and seeing it for yourself to sharpen your perceptions.

I’m actually looking forward to the inevitable rewrite of book three, just knowing I can imbue the prose with even more of the region’s atmosphere. Now I’ve actually stood on the banks of the mighty river, and contemplated a cold-weather crossing. I’ve gazed across to the far hilly shore, perfectly comprehending what it might feel like to know a hostile force was probably hidden in the trees overlooking the far bank (chilling). I’ve seen the old Roman arched gateway of Cologne—Colonia Claudia Ara Agrippinensium in those days—and walked the original square. Roman glassI’ve seen the ornately-decorated, colored wine glasses and flagons used by the colony’s merchants and administrators (seen while touring Cologne’s Römisch-Germanische Museum, which was one of the highlights of the trip for me). I know from experience that the infusion of carefully placed details can breathe new life into the work. As wonderful a tool as the internet can be, there’s nothing quite like being in a place to sense its history.

Guiding Lights: I used to disdain guided tours while traveling. I used to think I was better off discovering a place on my own. I was a traveler, not a tourist, damn it! Tour guides were for blue-haired ladies and multi-camera-toting, sunburnt nerds. Now that I’m older (and a multi-camera-toting, sunburnt nerd), I’ve grown an appreciation. Particularly for a really good tour guide.

One of the first times I realized what a resource a guide could be was on a tour of Pearl Harbor and the USS Missouri. Here was a man who could point at the ground to show us where he was standing, at the age of seven, when he realized the attack was on. He then pointed up to the mountainous horizon as he told us where dozens of Zero fighters and Val carrier bombers came into view. The emotion was still fresh on his face and in his voice as he described first seeing the Japanese rising suns on the wings, and hearing the first rattle of machinegun fire. I can still clearly recall the tour, over ten years later.

Jack the Welsh tour guide.

Jack the Welsh tour guide.

And good tour guides abound. Some better than others, but there is always something to be learned from each. This trip was no exception. To name a few, we had Jack in Colmar, Alsace—a Welsh expatriate, fluent in French and German, with a tremendous grasp on the region’s history and culture, delivered with passion and humor. Then there was Franco in Cologne, whose knowledge of the cathedral and its history seemed an expertise that could not be topped—until we went to the Roman museum and he warmed to the topic of the Roman colonial era in the region.

So when the opportunity arises, don’t be too cool for school. Take the tours. Listen up and ask questions. You are bound to learn from those passionate enough about their area to put up with the likes of us sunburnt nerds. And don’t forget to tip!

Up With People (No, Really):

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men, places, and things cannot be acquired vegetating in one small corner of the earth.” ~Mark Twain

One of the things I dread about cruising is that there are bound to be other passengers. Have I mentioned my reluctance about dealing with people? And yet, I am always intrigued. For a writer, travel is a wonderful people-watching opportunity. And we met our fair share of interesting folks on this trip. For example, there were the sisters traveling with their mother, revisiting Germany for the first time since their German father passed. We’d gotten friendly onboard, and they already knew I was a writer. Over a traditional German meal (and quite a bit of German wine), it came out that their father had written a book—a memoir. Turns out he had been in the Wehrmacht during WW2. He was not a Nazi, and was forcibly drafted into service as a boy, toward the end of the war. The book was about not just his experiences in the war, but the aftermath—living in a postwar world as an ex-German soldier. It sounds fascinating, but I’d have never learned of it if we hadn’t spent a week, and several meals (and no few cocktail hours) with these interesting folks.

There are also the people you encounter at every stop and on every outing. Not just the guides, but the shopkeepers, hotel and museum workers, fellow diners, even waiters and waitresses. Even very brief conversations (often with the difficulty of language differences) enhance the experience of being abroad. It’s always fun to tell people that we are from Chicago while traveling abroad (we actually live in SW Michigan, but Chicago is the nearest city). I often get the sense their image of Chicago is one of heavy industry, gangsters, and corrupt machine-politics. Which gives me a better insight into my own worldview.

Broadening Horizons:

“One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of looking at things.” ~Henry Miller

There’s more to travel than the specific things you learn or the pictures you take. There is a gained sense of worldliness. It’s inspiring, and as exhausting as it can seem in the short run, it’s ultimately revitalizing. Travel renews our sense of wonder.

As author Bill Bryson says in his book, Neither Here Nor There: Travels in Europe: “[This is the] glory of foreign travel, as far as I am concerned. I can’t think of anything that excites a greater sense of childlike wonder than to be in a country where you are ignorant of almost everything. Suddenly you are five years old again. You can’t read anything, you have only the most rudimentary sense of how things work, you can’t even reliably cross a street without endangering your life. Your whole existence becomes a series of interesting guesses.” I can vouch for the danger of street crossing, particularly in France. Our Welsh tour-guide Jack warned us that the French used their brakes as if each application depleted a finite and precious resource.

Just like reading a good book, travel is an immersion experience, and is bound to broaden your perspective and your worldview—which can only be a good thing for us writers, right? So if you’re a reluctant traveler, like me, do yourself a favor, and step out onto that road. The odds of being swept off your feet are much better than if you stay holed up in your writerly den.V Black Forest

Your turn to embark. Has travel influenced or inspired your work? Where are you off to next? 

Re-Revision: Getting Messy

Henry John Yeend King, Victorian_gardenDon’t Tell Me: I’ve had my fingers crossed so long they ache. Do you know the feeling? Have you ever waited for feedback or through revisions, hoping against hope that this time was the charm? Anticipation rides high for a while. But time slides by and something changes. During the latter days of those fingers-crossed, hoping-against-hope waiting periods, I often begin to imagine the worst. They think it sucks. They weren’t drawn in. They can’t even force their way through my swamp of awful words. At some point a reversal occurs. I actually start to dread what I might hear.

Yet Again: So now I’ve actually heard, and lived to tell. I received some high-level critique of book one of my historical fantasy trilogy, The Bonds of Blood. There’s a lot to take in. Don’t get me wrong, much of it was good. I’ve been here before. I know I may be down, but I’m not out. And most of the advice I received this go-around rings true in my gut. Which means I am headed into revision…Yet again.

It’s not hugely shocking for me. But I must admit I’m disappointed. Of course after each round of revision, you hope your manuscript is finally ready. But even as I sent it out, deep down I had a feeling it wasn’t quite the book it could be. And it’s exciting to hear how close it is to ready, from several trusted sources.

The Labor Behind the Plot: I’m no gardener. But my dad was. My mom, too. When I was a boy, our family’s half-acre plot of land was lined with pristine garden beds, and there was always something in bloom. My mom had a real touch for it. In the early sixties, her gardens were featured in House & Garden Magazine. Neighbors would come and admire the gardens, as would passersby. My siblings and I were very proud of them, and her.

In the backyard my dad had a two huge vegetable patches. And he kept a compost pile. In the fall my dad would spread the compost accumulation and the lawn clippings over the vegetable patch. Then in the spring, he would turn the whole thing. By hand. With a spade. It took him a week or more, all in his spare time—evenings after work and weekends. But, boy, were his tomatoes wonderful! The soil in that patch of garden was greasy-black and rich. Everything grew well there—cucumbers, squash, radishes, peppers, carrots. It was all delicious stuff.

Our house was a simple, middle-class, three-bedroom ranch. But that simple little house was situated on a pristinely tended plot. And, having seen my parents toiling, having been put to work weeding, mowing, sweeping, and shoveling snow through my childhood, I knew that well-tended look, that riot of blooms, and those juicy tomatoes came at a price.

Digging Deeper: As I said, I’m no gardener. Maybe it was all those days weeding and mowing rather than riding my bike or playing baseball, but I don’t enjoy the act of gardening. I do enjoy having a nice garden and grounds. And now that I have my own house, I’m willing to put in the necessary level of labor to achieve a modestly attractive landscape.Karen's flowers (Photo by Karen Halsted)

As I was tidying our yard today, I was contemplating my upcoming revision. As I weeded and trimmed last year’s dead growth from our modest gardens, I realized a few things. Our gardens are never going to garner attention and admiration. We’ll never grow the kind of tomatoes that make people light up when we dole out the extras. Our yard and gardens are tidy, but nothing special. If we really ever want to make them special, it would take some serious commitment to hard work. It would have to start with the soil. We’d have to remove the surface mulch and replant everything. We’d have to dig deep, add nutrient-rich compost and manure and peat. And turn it. By hand. With a spade. For days. Like my dad used to do it.

My Pristine Garden: I may have work to do on my manuscript, and it is far from perfect, but one thing noted by most who’ve read it: it’s clean. I’ve worked at making it tidy. I’m not saying it’s masterfully written, but there are very few mistakes. The paragraphs and scene breaks work well. The POV changes flow smoothly. Mechanically, it’s fairly well-tuned, by most accounts. I’ve weeded my typos, and carefully trimmed and edged the breaks. The pathway through is smoothly groomed.

And, much like my yard, it’s very nice—but not as special as it could be if I did some diligent work and deeper digging.

Getting Messy: The most daunting part of returning to revision is knowing how messy it will be. If I dig in like I need to, all of my work to make it pristine will go by the wayside. Rewritten scenes will have clunky sentences and typos. And the scene changes may not be smooth. It will take more feedback to be sure readers aren’t accidentally tripped up on my new pathway through the garden of my manuscript.

But I realize it must be done. And my work this year may not yield ripe fruit and gorgeous blooms before the season’s changing. Another summer of my journey may pass. But if I am willing to get messy, and to be diligent, the growth in seasons to come will inspire the impact and results I seek—the response from readers that I know my story has the potential to inspire.

Pristine is not memorable or moving. Unlike my yard, I believe my story is worthy of being memorable and moving. Unlike my yard, there is no choice. I owe it to my muse and to everyone who’s supported me to get this far. I’m ready to roll up my sleeves and take up my spade.

It’s time to get messy.

How about you? Ever had aching crossed fingers? Are you willing to dig into your pristine garden and get messy? 

Keeping the Faith (In Spite of All Contrary Evidence)

Planning to write is not writing. Outlining, researching, talking to people about what you’re doing, none of that is writing. Writing is writing. ~E. L. Doctorow

Painting of Thomas Paine writing at his desk by candle light.Writers Write, Right? So I’ve been remiss. For almost three months. Oh, I’ve dabbled, written a few posts and letters, etcetera. But I hadn’t composed any new prose since November—until last week. That’s when it hit me. I’ve been driving myself bonkers by avoiding actually writing. I’m not sure how many times I need to learn this lesson, but this was not the first time. Apparently I’m a slow learner.

As to how I came to renew the realization, suffice to say I found myself rewriting a chapter in book two that had been made redundant by book one revisions. The two days I spent doing the new chapter were amazing. I felt so alive—exhilarated even. I hadn’t had these particular characters in my head and my heart like that in a long while. But they sprang right back to life for me, their voices as clear as ever. I didn’t realize how I had been missing them. Finishing the scene was cathartic. I was quite moved, feeling like I was floating on the ether for hours afterward.

Writers Obsess, Right? Then, as with any great high, I came crashing down. Reviewing book two brought me back to reality. It still needs work. I still have my editor’s notes. A big job awaits me there, which is both exciting and daunting. Like many writers, I both love and hate my own work. I know I will never be singled out as a poetic or masterful wordsmith. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not without confidence. I will always strive to be a better writer. I love my characters and my story. I feel good about my world-building and characterization. I aspire to be an improved wordsmith and a great storyteller. And I’m persistent.

I’ve experienced my share of self-doubt. I’ve even written a post admitting to (okay, whining about) my occasional lack of faith in myself. If you asked me when I last felt insecure about my abilities as a writer, I’d probably ask you what time it was, so I could tell you in hours rather than days or weeks. I’ve lain awake in deep despair, trying to convince myself I should shelve the trilogy and move on. But I can’t do it. I can’t because I still believe in my story (me, not always so much, but the story, oh yes). I know in time the story will find its place in the world. How do I know? That’s what last week’s experience led me to ponder, and why I am writing this post.

The (Abundant) Contrary Evidence: I admire and respect Jane Friedman. I consider her a gift to writers. And she’s been very kind to me over the years. A few months ago, she wrote a wonderful post titled: How Long Should You Keep Trying to Get Published? In the article, she singles out first manuscript attempts as problematic. I’m seeking to publish my first. She also says: “A writer who has been working on the same manuscript for years and years—and has written nothing else—might be tragically stuck.” Um, years and years? Yeah, nine of them. There is a caveat in regards to my work, as I have four complete manuscripts, but they are all set in the same world, and I can even make a case that they’re all essentially part of one large story. As I said, I respect Jane, and suspect her observations here are most often correct.

I’ve also been told that my work is too long, that series books by debut authors are ill-advised, that I should’ve limited the number of POV characters, that historical fantasies set in an alternate Europe are passé, and that fantasy fans want a well-defined system of magic. I’m on the losing side of each of those issues. Clearly I have a lot to overcome when I submit. And yet I still believe, and persevere.

“We who make stories know that we tell lies for a living. But they are good lies that say true things, and we owe it to our readers to build them as best we can. Because somewhere out there is someone who needs that story. Someone who will grow up with a different landscape, who without that story will be a different person. And who with that story may have hope, or wisdom, or kindness, or comfort. And that is why we write.” ~Neil Gaiman

safeIn the Vault: Over the years I’ve carved a niche in my heart for my belief in my story. It’s a lockbox, hidden away from the world and, sometimes, from my own self-doubt. Neil’s quote sits nicely in that niche. I believe there is someone out there who needs my story. And that belief only gets stronger as I forge ahead. I know I must strive to make it the story it’s worthy of being—to make sure it gets through to that someone who needs it.

Writerly Debt: Neil says we owe it to our readers to build our stories the best we can. Two years ago, in the comments of one of her Writer Unboxed posts, I asked the aforementioned Ms. Friedman if there was a way to know if I should shelve the trilogy and move on. She was not only kind in her reply, but wise. She told me to ask myself not how long I’d worked on it, but whether or not I was still growing as a writer. I knew that I was. In the two years since, I’ve have endeavored to strengthen my story, and I know I’ve grown in the process.

It’s through this growth, and with the help and guidance of my mentors and fellow writers, I’ve come to recognize mine as good lies, and to see that they say true things. I know by continuing to persevere I can make them not just more seamless but more powerful, and that my truth will resonate all the clearer.

Hidden In Plain Sight: Only in pondering this post and writing it have I come to realize that my vaulted belief is rooted right there in my story. I have two MCs who must keep the faith. They are striving for something that seems such a distant hope, against seemingly insurmountable odds. My male protagonist fears he hasn’t enough courage to face his destiny, but—step by step, in spite of the ever increasing odds against success—he endures. And in doing so, he finds there is courage just in continuing to strive.

True Lies: My story is about finding courage you didn’t suspect you had, facing your fears, making difficult choices—choices that lead to sacrifices for a belief, and for love. And inPortrait of Vera Malytina, by Sergei Malyutin making those brave choices comes the knowledge that you can live with the consequences of your decisions, because you were true to yourself and to those you love and who love you. These are my good lies, my true things.

Yes, I’ve kept my belief locked away, but by sharing it with you here I take a small step toward finding my own courage. And I’ll need courage to persevere, and to deliver my story to the someone who needs it. Only if I am brave on the page will that someone find hope, or wisdom, or kindness, or comfort there.

Feeling brave? How do you keep the faith? 

Image credit: jgroup / 123RF Stock Photo

Sailing Through a Critique–Redirect to Christi Craig’s Writing Under Pressure

Stormy Sea with Sailing Boats, by Jacob Van RuisdaelI am honored to be guest-posting again on another really beautiful blog. This time it’s Christi Craig’s Writing Under Pressure. Christi and I met through Writer Unboxed (I know, I say that a lot–WU has truly been a blessing). We connected on the WU Facebook group page back when there were a lot fewer of us there. I started reading Christi’s posts long before I started blogging myself, so she is one of my mentors for the form. I’m really looking forward to having her here, as well.

Christi wanted me to discuss having a full manuscript professionally critiqued, which I have now been through three times. Writing the piece is a nice reminder. I doubt being critiqued ever really gets easier, but we as writers can continue to become more adept at responding to them. With that in mind, head on over. If you get a minute, share your thoughts. Hope to see you there!

A Gothic Identity Crisis

My mom doesn’t like Goths. Not that she’s ever really known one. But she seemed confused and displeased when I first told her my trilogy was rooted in the conflict between the Goths and Rome. I know I have really well-informed readers here, but on the remote chance you share her confusion (or displeasure), I thought I’d clear a few things up—as I tried to do for Mom. Hopefully, confused or not, you’ll find it interesting.

A Tale of Two Goths: Turns out my mom’s confusion was what led to her displeasure. I was talking about the Germanic Tribe of the Goths, and their cultural and sometimes violent clashes with the civilized world, represented at the time (during the first five or so centuries AD) by the Roman Empire. Meanwhile, my mom had conjured images of pasty-faced youths with blue lipstick and multiple body piercings, rolling out of bed at midday after a night of crazed dancing to industrial techno music to voice their opposition to the Roman Catholic Church.

I wrote an article for the homepage of my website called The Origin of Epic. In it, I reveal that my interest in the Goths began early, when I read that Tolkien’s Riders of Rohan were based on the Goths. When my school history courses covered the fall of the Roman Empire, the Goths, being the first to sack the city of Rome, were always among the featured antagonists. The seemingly divergent viewpoints (cool horse-warrior good guys vs. evil horde that helps to extinguish the light of the civilized world) led to an ongoing curiosity.

So when I mention the Goths, I’m thinking of Éomer son of Éomund, bearer of the sword Guthwine. Mom, on the other hand, is thinking more along the lines of Edward, wielder of Scissorhands.

Roman Disdain/Admiration: One of the challenges I faced in featuring the Goths in my story was the lack of literary sources. Although roughly the same percentage of Goths were literate as Roman citizens (around 15%), alas the Goths left few surviving writings. The writings of Romans such as Tacitus and Marcellinus demonstrate a sort of love/hate fascination with the Germanics generally and the Goths particularly. Tacitus says they “…all have fierce blue eyes, long red or yellow hair, and huge frames apt for sudden exertion.”  Grave site analysis has borne him out on their size. Goth males were, on average, four inches taller than their Roman soldier counterparts. And as for the red or yellow hair, it was greatly admired back in the homeland’s cities. Blond wigs and hair dyes were all the rage in imperial Roman high society.

Although Roman authors speak admiringly of the Goths’ physical beauty, battlefield fierceness and valor, and chaste marital bonds, they also speak of their impulsiveness, lack of capacity for reason, and proclivity to sloth, drink, and gambling. Hmm, that last part sounds a bit like… just about every powerful group of humans speaking of their foe.

Goth as Pejorative: So I explained all this to Mom, and she was still confused. “If that’s true,” she wondered, “why then do these young goth kids whiten their faces, darken their lips, and blacken their hair?”

The answer, as it so often does, lies in literature—or, in this case, in a literary movement. But in order to understand the origin of Gothic literature, we’ve got to take a quick look at Gothic architecture. Gothic describes the architectural style of the middle to late medieval period. But the term was attached to the previous era’s style by the new architects of the Renaissance. They meant it as a pejorative—archaic, outmoded, severe and ungainly.

It’s Alive! By most accounts, the Gothic movement in literature started with a single book: Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto: A Gothic Story (1765). Contemporary readers were enthralled by the book’s suspenseful weaving of the medieval setting and the supernatural trappings of the plot. So much so that the book instantly spawned hosts of imitators. And so a thriving genre was born, and Europe’s aging and ungainly gothic castles, manor houses, and monasteries became the setting for ghosts, monsters and the undead. Flash forward a couple hundred years, and fans of the creepiness still dress to suit the macabre underpinnings Walpole established. These fans are my mom’s preconceived Goths.

When Goths Were Still Cool: In 451, as the western Roman Empire slowly crumbled and at the urging of Emperor Valentinian III, a confederation led by the Visigoth king, Theodoric I, defeated Attila the Hun and his Vandal allies at Chalons, France. The Gothic kings had become central to the inner workings of empire. I mention this because, however you heard it in history class, the empire did not fall when Rome was sacked by the Goths under Alaric in 410 (also, did you know Alaric considered himself a member of the imperial military, and marched on Rome to demand his rightful status and pay for his men after fighting to defeat a Frankish usurper at the Battle of the Frigidus?).

Kings of a Score of Kingdoms for a Thousand Years: In tribute for their service to a failing empire, the Visigoth kings were ceded large tracts of imperial territory in Spain, southern France, and southwestern Germany. Shortly thereafter, the Ostrogoth Kings of the east were grabbing territory on the Italian peninsula and in the Balkans. For many centuries, the Spanish nobility self-identified by laying claim to being of the blood of the Goths. Because the Goths supposedly originated in Götaland, Sweden, until 1973 that nation’s monarch’s title was King of the Swedes, the Goths and the Vends.

At the Papal Council of Basel in 1434, the Spanish and Swedish delegations of cardinals clashed over the rights to sit closest to the Papal seat. It’s said the Swedes argued that since their forefathers founded all of the Visigoth and Ostrogoth kingdoms, they should sit closest to the holy seat. The Spanish delegation supposedly retorted that only the lazy and unadventurous Goths remained in Sweden while the heroic Goths conquered an empire and established their highest seat in Spain.

I’m pretty sure my mom’s preconceived Goths would never vie for such a spot.

Éomer of the Riddermark or Dracula of Transylvania? So what’s your first thought when you hear the word Goth? How ‘bout your mom? Do you think Goths will ever be cool again, or did I pick a (twice) doomed subject?

My First Time Being Interviewed – Redirect

I know I haven’t posted in a while. Summer’s here, and the living is… well, hectic. But I have several ideas in the hopper, so stay tuned.

In the meantime, I am honored to have been chosen as the victim, er, subject of Lara Schiffbauer’s first interview for her wonderful blog Motivation for Creation. It’s a first for me, too. If you haven’t been to Lara’s blog, you’re in for a treat. Lara and I first bonded when I blindly followed the words ‘The Magic of Star Wars and Writing’ from one of her comments on a Writer Unboxed post to her site. Hence, once again, Star Wars and Writer Unboxed render their magical way of bringing people together, and a long-lasting friendship ensued. Head over and dig through her great articles… and if you can possibly manage the time after that, stay and read the interview.

Epic Impatience

Sonically Epic: I received an email alerting me to the upcoming release of a new Sigur Rós album. I’m excited by the news, and I’ve been playing their older albums almost nonstop since. Whether you’re familiar with the Icelandic art-rock band or not, you’ve probably heard their music. It’s often featured in film soundtracks, and rightfully so. Their music is lush and atmospheric. Even though their songs lyrics are never sung in English, powerful emotions are conveyed to the listener with a language that is beyond mere words.

Many of Sigur Rós’s songs are like miniature epics. Hoppípolla, one of their best known pieces, is a good example. It starts with a restrained but subtle urgency and builds to dramatic and joyous crescendo before fading with a cathartic sorrow. It leaves you feeling… something. I’m sure that something is different for every listener.

Epic Pondering: And so it was that I spent the week considering the next steps on my journey toward publication to a backing soundtrack of Sigur Rós. The music got me thinking in a new light. Like a Sigur Rós piece, my trilogy is designed to be an epic. An epic, by definition, is a long-form narrative about the life and deeds of a hero(ine) or heroes. Because of a series of helpful rejections from literary agents, and advice from my editor (the fabulous Cathy Yardley) and my writer-friend/beta readers (thanks WU Mod Squad!), I am considering lopping off the front quarter of book one of the trilogy. This in the service of getting the reader into the action sooner, closer to the inciting incident. I understand the whys of the advice, and I’m grateful for it. The whole thing just has me wondering about patience in this immediate gratification world.

My Epic Reading History: Many of my favorite books are sweeping historical epics. They introduce you to the hero(ine) or heroes early in life, and build with a restrained urgency. They incorporate lush atmospherics. Many don’t offer up an inciting incident for many long chapters. I’m thinking of books like the Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley, in which we meet Morgaine’s mother, Igraine first. We learn all about the atmosphere of Cornwall and the vacuum in the politics of the Britons caused by the withdrawal of the Romans. The first of the story from the primary protagonist’s (Morgaine’s) point of view comes in chapter nine.

Another that comes to mind is Kushiel’s Dart, by Jacqueline Carey. We are introduced to Carey’s heroine basically at birth. Phèdre narrates (in an incredibly powerful and unique first person voice) her own life’s story as she’s raised in the Night Court and introduced to the ways of Service to Naamah. Phèdre doesn’t move into the home of her patron Anafiel Delaunay until chapter six. And her introduction to the intrigues of the royal court, and her introduction to and involvement with her nemesis Melisande, proceeds from there. Many other books spring to mind—The Far Pavilions, The Thorn Birds, to name a few more—but I’m sure you get the idea.

Write What You Want to Read: It’s all I set out to do. I can’t get enough of epic historicals, fantasy or otherwise. And I still feel good that in the epic culture clash of the Germanic Tribes versus the Roman Empire, I have a unique setting and conflict foundation. But, in light of my situation, I’m questioning whether there is still room in the world for epics. Don’t get me wrong, I understand that the story must be compelling from the first page. Every note of a Sigur Rós song draws you in, leads you on the journey. Every sentence uttered by Phèdre no Delaunay delivers intriguing atmosphere. This is the type of story I wanted to tell in Legacy of Broken Oaths. I wanted to begin with the meeting of my hero and heroine, hoping their being forced together, entwined by a destiny foreseen by their grandsires, who died long before they were born, would be intriguing to readers. I had hoped that I could create an atmosphere that drew readers in to a world of mysticism, political posturing, and looming war.

It’s on me: Then again, perhaps it’s not that the patience for epics is gone. Sigur Rós may never sell as many records as Lady Gaga, or even Adele, but they are internationally renowned. Jacqueline Carey’s historical fantasies may not always make the NYT bestseller list, but she had success with a whole new epic trilogy (Naamah’s Kiss, Blessing & Curse) set in Phèdre’s  world of Terre d’Ange, but which tells the tale of a new heroine (Moirin mac Fainche) who lives several generations later. And one has only to go to her facebook page to see that her fan-base is loyal and vocal.

It’s worth it: Perhaps I simply have yet to create the necessary intrigue. I understand that atmospherics aren’t enough. Perhaps I just haven’t struck the resonant notes needed to draw readers in quickly enough. I’m honored by the praise of many beta readers who have read on past the opening, and who have told me of their fondness for my characters and for the story. But I realize, whether I lop off the front or not, I’ve got to get them there. I’ve realized that it’s me who needs to be patient.

I’ve decided I’m up for the challenge. I’ve decided the trilogy is worth the effort. I’ve come this far, and I’m willing to continue to strive, for as long as it takes. I have the patience to read and listen to epics. Now I need to strive for the patience to perfect my own epic.

What about you? Do you have any favorite epic historicals? Is there still room in your reading or listening life for the longer form?

Lucky 7 Meme

As Sam Cooke famously sang, “It’s been a long time coming.” For several things, actually. It seems like ages ago that Therese Walsh tagged me for the Lucky 7 Meme. And it’s been even longer since I did a blog post. I was just out of the box on blogging, and…Boom! Had a relapse of my radial tunnel syndrome. But I’m not here to whine, and I am feeling much better. Thanks to all of you who’ve sent me well-wishes through the last few weeks.

Anyway, if you aren’t already familiar, the rules are as follows:

  1. Go to page 7 or 77 in your current manuscript
  2. Go to line 7
  3. Copy down the next seven lines/sentences as they are – no cheating
  4. Tag 7 other authors

Mine are from my most recent manuscript, The Severing Son, which is a prequel to my trilogy.  It’s the story of the trilogy’s primary protagonist Thaedan’s father, Vahldan. Here Vahldan is meeting Thaedan’s maternal grandfather–Thadmeir, the Wulthus clan chieftain–for the first time:

“My Lord, it is not my place to question my queen. I care only that she bid us to seek you, and you alone.” Icannes tilted her head and waited. The others cast their eyes to the floor as well; all but the eldest boy, whose defiant eyes remained locked on his.

Thadmeir rose, stepping down from the dais to stand before the son of his brother’s killer. He was chagrinned to see that the young man was already as tall as he, and perhaps even outweighed him. Has it really been so long, that the product of that despicable union is nigh a man already?


So now I’ve got to find seven to tag who haven’t already been through this. My apologies if you have. Everyone else, please check these guys out. They’re all wonderful tribe-mates.

The next victims are:

*Kim Downes Bullock

*Valerie P. Chandler

*Denise Falvo

*Susannah Friis

*Bernadette Phipps Lincke

*Kathryn Magendie

*Jeannine Walls Thibodeau

No pressure to play. You can do your own post, but I know some of those I’m tagging don’t blog. So you can put your seven lines in the comments here, put them in the comments to the facebook link, or keep your seven to yourself until release day. It’s up to you. Whatever you choose, may the odds be ever in your favor. I do plan on posting a few blogs in the near future, so please stay tuned.

Rooting for Romance

I recently finished reading my friend Kristina McMorris’s beautiful, page-turning second novel, Bridge of Scarlet Leaves. I told Kris I wanted to write a review to post on Goodreads and Amazon. The book is powerful and really left me thinking, so I thought I’d go a bit deeper here.

It would’ve been easy for any author to lose sight of the importance of characters when dealing with a setting so monumental as World War II, and plot elements such as interracial relationships and the internment of Japanese-Americans during the war. These are topics that would’ve consumed the focus of many a fine writer. The temptation would be to use a broad brush, to put the readers’ wide-lens focus on the issues, and the result would often be to have wooden characters enacting formulaic plotting to demonstrate the horrors/injustices/tragedy of war and its repercussions.

Kris has a deft touch when it comes to WWII, and the depth of her research and her compassion for the topic come through in her every description of the home front, war zones, and even intense combat action sequences. She knows her stuff, and it shows. But in Bridge her historical acumen serves as shading and nuance for what is a genuinely human story, played out by well-developed characters.

At its core, Bridge is a love story. It’s the story of Maddie—a young Caucasian woman—and Lane—the son of immigrant Japanese-Americans—and what they are willing to sacrifice, not only for their love for one another, but for their love of their families, their country, and for honor. Kris not only provides a tight focus on her believable characters, she makes Lane’s and Maddie’s love for one another believable by giving each of them depth of experience—their own set of skills, achievement, strengths and weaknesses.

All too often in stories we are asked to believe in a deep romantic attraction and its resulting bond without any reason given for us to do so. All too often we are only shown one side of a literary romance, with all the requisite longing and angst deriving just from the main character’s physical attraction or stated love of their counterpart. Often the love interest has few or no qualities we can imagine would warrant the main character’s interest or longing. When obstacles to romance occur, often they are based on flimsy misunderstandings, or one character’s sudden bout of shallowness or newly obtuse viewpoint.

None of this occurs with Lane and Maddie. Each of them is capable. Each of them shows remarkable resilience, loyalty, and dedication—not only to one another, but to big picture issues, like family and community. We come to know and respect each of them, and therefore not only applaud their love but root for it. We can see for ourselves why they would love each other so, and why they would sacrifice as they each do throughout the tale.

This is something I strive for in my own work. A lot of historical fantasy is painted with that same broad brush, so eager to show off the world-building or big picture elements of the protagonists’ war with some overwhelming evil. I have a big picture conflict, but I wanted a tighter focus on character. I came to realize my own story would hinge on the believability of my two primary protagonists’ love for one another. When you are building something as big as a trilogy, brick by brick, laying a story that spans decades and traverses empires, you’d better be sure you have a strong foundation. I know now my foundation is the bond between Ainsela and Thaedan. I’ve tried to make each of them capable and yet fallible in order to be believable, for their love to be believable. I’ll need readers to come to know and care about them as individuals in order to have them rooting for their love. Without the believability of their loyalty, dedication, and willingness to sacrifice, not only for their love for one another, but for family, nation, and honor, my story becomes just another broad-brush fantasy–just a sequence of related events. No matter how spectacular those events are, it’s the characters and their interrelationships that give them significance and make them memorable.

I can only continue to strive and hope I prove worthy of the example set by Kristina McMorris in Bridge of Scarlet Leaves. Bravo, Kris! You are an inspiration.

What about you? What character traits and elements do you need to make a romantic relationship believable? What makes you root for a romance?