Story Research – Letting the Brain Assist the Heart

Research BooksAn Intricate Mess:

“If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, then what are we to think of an empty desk?” ~Albert Einstein

I’ve written about my approach to world-building before, in general here, and in regards to names and naming here. But my friend Heather Reed recently undertook a new historical fantasy project, and she asked me specifically about my approach to researching the Broken Oaths trilogy. In looking back at my notes, I’m both excited for her and amazed.

Excited because they remind me of the adventure of the hunt, and the thrill of discovery. But amazed by the wide and disparate variety of sources that I mined for my story elements. In wading through what can only be called a disorganized mess, it’s a wonder that I was able to arrive at anything coherent.

This is one of the reasons I subscribe to the notion of a story muse. I’m the antithesis of organized, which seems contrary to being a good researcher. And yet somehow I was able to pull a story out of my intricate mess.

As an example, I give you my namey-namer cheat-sheet (see photo). It’s a simple 81/2” x 11” sheet of plainLOBO Cheat-sheet white paper that started out as a short list of possible character names. It’s now covered, front and back, with hundreds of names and obscure references. Please note there is very little means of organization, other than a handful of breakdowns by character group. And yet it continues to serve me well. I’m not sure how I find such a crazy resource helpful, but every time I need to check a name, this is my go-to reference. Honestly, I rarely need it. It’s mostly in issues such as: “Now what’s that secondary character’s grandmother’s name again?” And somehow I know what part of which side to look to find gramma’s name. This from a guy who honestly can’t recall his own phone number. Go figure.

Getting Wet:

“Pearls do not lie on the seashore. He who desires one must dive.” ~Chinese Proverb

We’re in the information age, right? And with so much access to a mighty river of information, the toughest part is going to be finding the tributaries and offshoots that apply to your story. In order to do that, sticking your toe in will not do. You’re going to have to get wet.

JORDANES Origins & Deeds of the GothsAnd you never know where the currents will carry you. For example, my quest for original source material about the Goths swiftly revealed a scarcity. Which is why I was so excited to find one of the few existing documents about the Goths by a Goth—Jordanes’ The Origin and Deeds of the Goths. Although I quickly realized Jordanes was writing about previous generations with few specific references and an obvious quantity of bluster, one note caught my attention and held it. He claimed that the Greek myth of the Amazons originated with the Ancient Greeks’ discovery of a group of Goth women whose husbands and sons had left them on the north shore of the Black Sea to raid in Persia and Egypt. I was fascinated, and it led to months of study of the Amazons and related myths and topics. And ultimately, to my creation of the Skolani—an all-female warrior sect that plays a prominent role in all of my work. All from a paragraph in an ancient treatise. There were no kickass warrior women on my radar at the onset, but oh-how-glad I am that I was willing to dive and found my way to them. They are most certainly a pearl.

There’s a lot to take in, on most any subject. But it’s difficult to pick and choose your sources. I say dive in and let it wash over you. Go with the flow. You might end up somewhere you like.

Panning For Gold:

“The subconscious is a hundred times smarter than we are. We’re just taking dictation.” ~Steven Pressfield

In hindsight, I wish I’d worried less about delving for specifics. I wish I’d gone in with only the idea that I was going to educate myself and feed my enthusiasm, knowing the rest would more or less take care of itself. Because that’s what ended up happening.

As another example, in my research of the Goths, I began by broadly perusing subjects pertaining to the Germanic Tribes at the height of the Roman Empire. I studied their social structure and kingship. I went on to study their laws and mores, settlement layouts, agriculture, games and amusements, clothing and jewelry, migration (causes and effects), and their weapons and warfare. What I really wanted was more specific information about how they governed themselves. Sadly, there is little information, and much of it is conflicting.

futhark ring hiltsBut in the course of my search, as I studied the last topic—weapons and warfare—I now see what became the roots of my solution. There is an entry in my notes from a book called Battle-ax People, by Olivia Vlahos. The note pertains to the expense and significance of swords, and how certain swords became important relics passed from father to son, occasionally symbolizing a legacy of chieftainship. From another book called The Everyday Life of Barbarians: Goths, Franks, and Vandals, by Malcom Todd, I note that some important swords are inscribed with oaths, and occasionally such oaths appeared in the form of rune rings, attached to the hilt. The two notes are only a few sentences each, and were taken several months apart. And yet they clearly led to the Futhark swords of the Gottari ruling clans—the symbolic relics which represent the leadership of my two ruling clans.

I don’t see any notation that I’d put the two together—inherited swords symbolic of leadership and rune rings on hilts—at the time. But when it came time to outline, a symbol was needed, and there they were: the Futhark swords. I invented much of the rest of the elements of their governance from other tidbits gleaned over the course of my research, and it all fell into place once I had the Futhark swords. So I’d advise you not to bother looking for bright baubles as you go. Just scoop it in. Your muse (or your subconscious) will sift through for the gems.

Take It From Me (Or Don’t):

It might seem silly, now that you’ve read this far, that a guy who admits he’s a disorganized and somewhat aimless researcher is now going to give you advice on researching. But I am (going to give advice, not silly—or is it both?). Take it or leave it. It’s all in good fun (as any research for fiction should be).

*Find your passion! As I say, this should be fun. If you’re passionate about your subject or era, your research will not only be easy, but a pleasure—something you’ll look forward to doing.

*Give yourself ENOUGH time, but not ENDLESS time. If you’re having fun researching, as you should, you might find a point of diminishing returns. At some point we all have to stop researching and start writing.

*Start online, but zero in with books. Nothing beats the internet for gaining a broader understanding of a topic or era. But you’ll soon realize that if you want any depth and citation, you need to go to books. I buy as many as I can, but for most of us, trips to the library become an indispensable part of any major research project.

*Don’t be afraid to follow the rabbit down the hole. I think I’ve pretty well illustrated this point. If you’re writing about Goths and Romans in the 4th Century AD, don’t be afraid to spend a few months chasing Amazons across Ancient Greece and beyond. Or something along those lines.LOBO Research Notes

 Let Your Brain Assist Your Heart:

“I’ve noticed this effect: When writers undertake to write a story, the insights and information they need to write it well tend to arrive unasked for. Those things arrive at the right moments, perfectly timed gifts from the story god.

Or, is it rather that an author’s brain, working on a story, begins to grab available information and synthesize it, which is to say bend, blend and meld it to the purposes of the story?

Is it magic, serendipity or synthesis? Whatever it is, I don’t think it’s accidental. I think authors make it happen. It’s the brain assisting the heart.” ~Donald Maass

Don’s quote above is from a comment he made on a wonderful WU post this week. The post is largely about the mysterious and seemingly random serendipity of the power of the brain, by Maureen Seaberg, the co-author of Struck by Genius. And, as he often does, for me Don took the post to a whole new level.

The Dreamer, by Caspar David Friedrich (1835)I allotted a year to research when I began my manuscript in earnest. And I ended up with a pile of notebooks even larger than the one pictured above. But once I started writing, I rarely dug through that disorganized mess (perhaps in part because it was disorganized). The insights and information I needed tended to arrive as perfectly timed gifts from the story god. Or did my brain somehow know better than my conscious self which bits to grasp and gather, to then “bend, blend and meld to the purposes of the story”? Either way, I’m glad I somehow found my way to allowing my brain to assist my heart.

Moving forward, I’m hoping I can repeat the process, but I’m not too worried. I’ve already stumbled onto streams that have led my subconscious to begin the bending, blending and melding all over again.

Now it’s your turn. Is your research organized? Do your notebooks have color-coded tabs and an index? Do you trust that your brain will know better than your conscious self, and will assist your heart?

The Day I Typed “The End”

Pheidippides collapses after finishing the first marathon run. By Luc-Olivier Merson (1869)

Pheidippides collapses after finishing the first marathon run. By Luc-Olivier Merson (1869)

Typical Me:

“I started something; Typical me, typical me, typical me;  And now I’m not too sure…” ~Johnny Marr & Morrissey (From: I Started Something I Couldn’t Finish, by The Smiths)

Sure, I’d spent thirty or so years threatening to write an epic fantasy. Seemed like stuff kept getting in the way. You know: life… and stuff.  I suppose a few decades of not starting something I’d been talking about since I was twelve eventually made me reticent about it. But with some of those close to me (read: my parents), I’d gained an ill-repute. First there was the writing thing, then came the guitar lessons I quit (I got blisters on my fingers!), and there was always the bedroom I wouldn’t clean, dishes I wouldn’t rinse, and so on. It also took me six years to work my way to a Bachelor’s degree. So yeah, I took some grief about my lack of resolve in finishing things.

Untypical Me: So from the time I left college until I left the business world in ’03, I worked hard to earn a can-do reputation. From product start-ups, to sales turnarounds, to remodeling projects, to building my own house—I became Mr. Stick-To-It-Till-Done. People looking for advice on how to tackle and accomplish difficult undertakings came to me. Me! The guy who never started writing, who switched his major four times, and who never cleaned his room. It took some time, but even I started to believe it about myself.

Then I started writing. At first it was a sideline to my carpentry gig—mostly for rainy days or between projects. I figured I’d knock my story out in, oh, say six to eight months. Yeah, right. That slid by, and I was still outlining. Woo-boy—Typical Me was back. Luckily, I kept my writing mostly secret. After all, I had a reputation to uphold.

The Blind Rush Forward:

 “For me, it’s always been a process of trying to convince myself that what I’m doing in a first draft isn’t important. One way you get through the wall is by convincing yourself that it doesn’t matter.” ~ Neil Gaiman

At some point I did just as Lord Gaiman describes in the quote: I self-deluded. It would just be a story for my niece and nephew (we’d long shared a love of fantasy stories). No one else had to see it. And it began to turn around for me. I made progress, and started to have fun, inventing names and researching Goths and Romans. As my story unfolded, I became fascinated by the revelations that seemed to come from nowhere. Characters took on personalities all their own, and the story expanded in startling and yet delightful ways. Nuances I’d never dreamed of including magically appeared. I’d been kissed by the muse, and I couldn’t get enough.

I no longer worried about showing it to others. I knew it was amateurish. I didn’t care. I just wanted to get through the story. The only thing I can compare it to is getting hooked on reading a book. A big, epic, unexpectedly mind-blowing book. I couldn’t wait to pick it back up and see what would happen next. From early on I had a vague idea for how the story would end. But the things that kept me going were the ongoing surprises and unexpected twists. Ah, the life of a newbie pantser. It was a real rush!

What, Me Worry? Then one day, two to three years into my little side-project, I came to a realization. I had no idea about word counts or story arcs, but at about 200K I realized my story was getting longish. I also knew, with absolute certainty, I was only a third of the way through the main story. But I was also at a seminal moment for my two main characters. Their lives were irrevocably changed. “Hey, this could be the end of a book,” I thought. And I suddenly knew the general shape of the two remaining arcs of the overall story. “Huh. It’s a trilogy! Who knew?”

I know every writer’s journey varies. Many writers would’ve stopped there, revised, polished and submitted book one, knowing they could write the rest later. That thought worried me. It messed with my aforementioned self-delusion. I told myself, “What’s the rush? Just finish the story. No one is going to see it anyway… For now.”

A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum:

“When people come to me and say, ‘I want to be a writer. What should I do?’, I say, ‘You have to write.’ And sometimes they say, ‘I’m already doing that. What else should I do?’ I say, ‘You have to finish things.’ Because that’s where you learn from; you learn by finishing things.” ~Neil Gaiman

I blew out my shoulder in October of ’08. Don’t worry, it’s much better now. But at the time it was a fairly debilitating injury. I couldn’t even type for a month, and carpentry was out of the question for the foreseeable future. I had recently finished the second section of my story, and the final section was underway. Almost five years in, I had already changed my focus from mostly carpentry to mostly writing, but the injury was the universe’s final nudge. Time to go all-out and finish.

But that’s not the funny thing I allude to in the above subtitle. Something else was going on. My gut was telling me I might have a good story. I’d long since abandoned the idea it was for my niece and nephew. Heck, they were teenagers in high school by this time, not remotely interested. Plus it had clearly become an adult story by then.

I still tried not to allow myself to think too far ahead, but a tiny flame had been kindled in my heart. I started to believe my story could matter. I’d learned so much about myself along the way. I’d laughed and cried with my characters. I started to think that maybe it could be meaningful to others, too. I didn’t allow this hope into the front seat as I drove for the finish line, but I knew it was back there, hidden in the trunk. I wanted it to be published. I wanted to connect with others through my story.

Trudging Wrought Road: About halfway through book three, I decided to map out all of the things that needed to happen to pull all of my many story-threads back together. The story had sprawled on me, so it was going to be quite a feat. In the final few months, I knew each day what needed to happen to get me to the next step. It was a really rudimentary attempt at plotting, but it got me from day to day, week to week.

Even in writing this today, I have to remind myself that no one had read yet. My wife and sister both read the first draft, but not until it was completely done. I somehow trudged through these ‘plot steps’ I’d mapped out in a workmanlike fashion, and I marvel at my former self now. These were/are emotional scenes for me—the culmination of years of toil and systematic setup. I still laughed and cried at the appropriate points, but it was all in a day’s work. On to the next step.

And then I reached the last plot point on my list. And it was emotionally wrought. But I knew it wasn’t quite over.

Can You Say Catharsis? It needed an epilogue. I’m not even sure I knew the term then. But I knew there was one more scene. And I knew this one would be the one that got me. It did.

I remember telling my wife on our morning walk that I thought I would finish this last scene that day. But I kept it nebulous. Neither of us made too big of a deal out of it. Like the whole journey to that point, it was too uncertain.

I wrote the epilogue scene through the blur of stinging eyes. And I made a prominent point of typing the actual words. It felt so damn good typing “The End.” I wept. Do I admit that a lotJude-Law-in-the-Holiday-jude-law-5255540-399-223 in this space? I suppose like  Jude Law’s character Graham in The Holiday, “I’m a major weeper.” 

I instant messaged my wife and told her, and admitted I was crying. She messaged back: “Now I’m crying. So proud of you!”

The Beauty of The End:

“And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make.”  ~Lennon & McCartney (From The End, by The Beatles)

I’ve typed the words “The End” since, and aspire to many more times. But that first time was special. Neil’s right—there’s much to be learned from finishing. In many ways, typing “The End” is only the beginning. It’s the start of sharing what you’ve gained, and that’s where the real growth happens.

So in the end, typing “The End” was about more than the conclusion of my story. It wasn’t even about discipline, patience, or perseverance. I’ve learned much more about those things from the journey since.

Typing ‘the end’ was one of the most profoundly moving moments of my life. And I sometimes think it won’t be surpassed by getting an agent or a publishing deal. It was about knowing I’d found myself. It was about trusting my heart, and a willingness to reveal myself to seek human connection through story. I’ve found joy and healing, friendship and love through writing fiction. And that’s no small thing.

The Road Goes Ever On: Then, after my cathartic moment, I couldn’t resist. At the bottom of my manuscript’s word doc, I typed: (Stay tuned.). I knew my story would go on. And it will.

Now, tell me about “The End” of your story. 

What Women Read (on What Women Write)

Skolani Warrior, blade over shouldersToday I have the pleasure of being a guest on my good friend Kim Bullock‘s blog, What Women Write. Kim’s a very talented writer I met through Writer Unboxed, and she and I serve together on The WU Mod Squad–the moderating team for the WU group page. Kim is a talented writer, and I’ve had the opportunity to read her manuscript and sure-to-soon-be-a-hit-book, The Oak Lovers, based on the fascinating life and times of her great-grandfather, painter Carl Ahrens. She shares contributing duties on What Women Write with five other talented writers, so being invited to post there was a bit daunting. Being a guy was just a small part of it. But, since it’s almost Independence Day here in the US, I decided to take a bit of a gamble, and write my take on what women read. I figure this time of year, even with the chance it’ll be a dud, or worse, blow up in my face, it’s worth the risk. If it flies, it could be fun to watch the fireworks.

So please join me on What Women Write, for my take on What Women Read!

Image credit: <a href=’http://www.123rf.com/photo_9780536_blonde-girl-in-the-scandinavian-suit-on-a-blue-sky-background.html’>demian1975 / 123RF Stock Photo</a>

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? 

Backstory—Fiction’s Foundation

The Present, by Thomas Cole (1838)Ignorasphere: Know where it is? Trust me, if you’re trying to give life to a story, it’s not a good place to dwell. Your story won’t be able to breathe well there.

Very early in the process of outlining the story for my historical fantasy trilogy, I ran into a problem. I tried to ignore it, but turns out I couldn’t. I set out to write a story about a young man struggling to cope with his destiny, and a young warrior-woman assigned to be his guardian. But I kept tripping over the fact that his destiny, and the reasons for her assignation, were rooted in what had already happened. They were a product of their world, and its past. I kept telling myself it was simple stuff, which had to do with his father. I wanted to simply move ahead with the story, so I wrote side-notes like: “His father was a rogue chieftain—a raider who conquered a nearby port city.” And to fit the story as I progressed, I would add things like: “His father married his mother purely for political gain.” And, “His father’s followers are still living in the conquered city, and my protagonist has had no contact with them.” And so on. All in an effort to move on.

But notes like these only led to more questions, such as: Why was he a ‘rogue’ chieftain? Why was he raiding? Who originally lived in the port city? What would impede contact between the chieftain’s followers and the son? And on and on. The story just would not properly unfold without knowing more. It couldn’t breathe in the ignorasphere.

Turns out I couldn’t ignore the past.

Fomenting Forefathers: My muse demanded answers. So I started working backward. I named the father (as I explain here, I always start with the names). And I dug into researching my world, and began the process of world-building (which I’ve written about here). Fortunately, I’d already decided that I wanted to base my story in the world of the Germanic Tribe of the Goths during the fall of the Roman Empire. Since the Goths had two ruling clans, and basically split into two subgroups (the Visigoths and the Ostrogoths) during this era, I decided my MC’s father could’ve been the catalyst figure for the coming of this fracture. The son then quickly became ‘he who was born of both ruling clans.’ Of course prophesies are often wrapped around such figures, right? Wheels were spinning now. It was destiny! (Sorry, got carried away there, but such thoughts are good fodder for characters who believe in fate, right?)

Excavate and Lay the Footings First: Forgive the metaphor, but I’m a builder as well as a writer. And I knew I wanted to build something substantial with my story ideas. Every builder knows that to build something solid and lasting, you start with sound footings laid on good groundwork. The process of prepping the groundwork and laying the footings for my trilogy took about a year. I started with research and note-taking, and then named the people and places and drew my maps. Only then could I start laying the foundation, block by block. The backstory foundation took about another year, outlining and writing snippets of prose, often finding problems and going back to insert new elements or correct existing ones. And even though I knew these early blocks would be below the surface, they still had to be level and true. Only after I had a solid foundation could I begin to build my story.

World Without Beginning: You might be wondering how far back one must delve. I suppose it depends on the story. It might only require knowing a protagonist’s childhood. For my purposes, I went back and hashed out my protagonists’ parents’ generation, and their doings and deeds. Much later, after I finished a draft of my trilogy, and while I was going through a first round of submissions, I decided to start another project. I was really interested in further exploring the backstory, particularly the story of the father of the trilogy’s protagonist. How did he become a rouge raider? Sort of like how George Lucas Anakin Darth morphwent back to explore Darth Vader, but without any annoying Gungans or (hopefully) any wooden dialog.

Know what I found out? That’s right—I had to dig back even further. Turns out my protagonist’s grandfather had a sketchy past. There was a love-triangle, an accidental death, accusations of murder. Yep, the angst between my Goth’s two ruling clans has a long, tangled, and bloody history. Just goes to show, no story can exist in the ignorasphere. I’m glad I did it, as I feel it only added richness and depth to subsequent revision work on the trilogy.

What’s It Worth? Besides freeing your work from the ignorasphere, allowing it to breathe and grow, there are a lot of other advantages to a thorough exploration of backstory. For example:

*Enhanced Ambiance—For me, writing epic historical fantasy, I was interested in creating a legendary feel for the world of my story. Careful placement of historical tidbits throughout not only added shading, but color and mood to my story. For other genres and types of stories, backstory might add another ambiance, such as one of technological advancement for science fiction, or desolate isolation for a dystopian.

*Instinctual Context—If you know your world and its past inside and out, you more instinctively sense how your characters will react to situations. This is something WU contributor Lisa Cron refers to as avoiding character amnesia in a great post here. Having an understanding of each character’s beliefs and cultural mores gives you a firmer grasp on their internal and external motivations. Knowing the context of the conflicts, from all angles, gives your scenes a natural tendency toward authenticity.

*Elevated Stakes—A comprehensive exploration of backstory often reveals an enhancement of the stakes. Your protagonists have immediate conflicts, but these may impinge upon the larger picture in ways that raise the stakes. For example, my two Gothic clans are in conflict, which affects my protagonist in an immediate way. But by knowing the backstory I realized the bigger picture, that the Goths faced annihilation at the hands of a looming Roman military behemoth. If my protagonist fails to solve this inter-clan conflict, his people may face enslavement or extinction.

*Bigness—The concept is from a Donald Maass WU post, here. And I believe knowing the backstory gives you a leg up on achieving it. In the post, Don says, “In big fiction the main protagonist generally has several big things going on (plot layers, in my terminology), and a couple of minor problems too. One or more of the major POV characters also is on a personal journey. Think of this as an emotional sub-plot, such as a wound that needs healing. This inner need can generate as much plot as external problems.” Several of my secondary characters’ personal journeys came to light through backstory exploration. I also gleaned much of the nature of my protagonist’s inner journey, as well as the motivations and goals of my antagonists, through that exploration. If I achieved any level of bigness at all, it came largely through grasp of backstory.

IcebergIceberg Warning: A writing friend told me about Hemingway’s Iceberg Theory–the analogy of backstory being like an iceberg, with only the tip visible from the surface. In other words, you can’t show it all to the reader. I like that, but perhaps my iceberg would be magically levitating as the reader progresses, with more and more readily apparent as they go. Much of what you discover and know may never break the surface, but it will have given your story buoyancy nonetheless.

I believe backstory will give your story context, complexity, and authenticity, making it a richer and more deeply involving experience for your readers. But care must be taken. Reveal backstory only as it becomes necessary. Lay the proper foundation, but always keep your story front and center. Stay out of the ignorasphere. Use backstory to shade and add nuance to your characters’ goals, motivations, and conflicts.

Whether you’re building an epic trilogy like me, or a contemporary standalone, through the thorough grasp and judicious use of backstory, we can build a substantial story and strive for Bigness.

How do you chart backstory? Have you ever experienced epiphanies or story enhancements through exploring backstory? Do tell. 

Image credit: <a href=’http://www.123rf.com/photo_14533949_iceberg-floating-in-blue-ocean-global-warming-concept.html’>anterovium / 123RF Stock Photo</a>

Redirect to Hugs & Chocolate – Headswerving (Mulitple POVs)

man-of-a-thousand-facesToday I have the honor of standing in for Heather Reid, taking her slot on Hugs & Chocolate, the wonderful writing craft blogging home of six talented writers. In the post I confess to headswerving. If you don’t know what that is, I’m afraid you’ll have to go and see for yourself. I’ll give you a big hint: It has to do with multiple POVs, a subject near and dear to my heart. I’m not quite the writing equivalent of Lon Chaney (or Sybil), but there are a quite a few characters running around in the ole noggin. Are you scared yet? Head over to my post for the frightening truth.

Getting Lost In History

The Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog, By David Friedrich Caspar (1818)“I believe that imagination is stronger than knowledge – myth is more potent than history – dreams are more powerful than facts – hope always triumphs over experience – laughter is the cure for grief – love is stronger than death” ~ Robert Fulghum

Lost and Found: I’m a sucker for a good historical fantasy, but I’d been feeling like I hadn’t read a good one in a long while. That all changed in the last few weeks, since I found a series of books, The Farseer Trilogy, by Robin Hobb. I’m on book three, and I’ve been told there is another trilogy in the same world, featuring some of the same characters. Huzzah! As each book ends, I take a look at my existing TBR pile, consider what to read next, then download the next edition of Hobb’s work. I’m totally lost in her historical fantasy world, and I’m delighted.

It’s more like wandering than being lost, I suppose (and remember, “Not all who wander are lost.” ~JRRT). In reading Hobb, I am wandering through the recesses of imagination, exploring ideas of my own. Her writing is so compelling, her characters so well-realized, that I have mostly been able to turn off my writerly internal editor. Her work still makes me think, not just about my own work, but life in general—probing my perception of the world. I’m more than entertained, I’m enlightened and stimulated to further and deeper examination of my thoughts and feelings. By getting lost in her historical world, I find myself anew. Now that’s powerful writing!

The History Behind the Historiography: One of the things the series provoked me to ponder is the why behind my love of historicals. As far back as I can remember I’ve loved imagining myself living in another time. One recollection of the early kindling of my ardor was a trip my family took to Mackinac Island (in Northern Lake Huron), and my first tour of the restored British fort there. I must’ve been about seven or eight. I stood on the wall walk, sighting down a cannon barrel across green hillsides to the blue straits beyond, imagining being surrounded by hostile French and Indians.

In the fort’s bookstore (yeah, pretty sure that’s a modern addition), my mom bought me a copy of Young Voyageur, by Dirk Gringhuis. I tore through the Shooting the Rapids (1879), By Frances Anne Hopkinsaccount of a young British boy sold into indentured service to a crew of French-Canadian voyageurs. My heart raced as Danny hid in an attic during the famous massacre at the fort, begun under the guise of a La Crosse match between Ottawa and Chippewa braves. I could picture the very spot! Pure preteen exhilaration. From 18th Century Michilimackinac, I was on to Middle Earth, Narnia, Arthurian Britain, and 19th Century India. And my love lives on, unabated.

The Legend of the Legend-Makers: One of the things Hobb points out about her quasi-medieval world is the importance of minstrels and scribes. Since the small folk of our not-too-distant past were mostly illiterate, and there were no other sources for news, the job of passing along important cultural information fell to traveling singers and mummers. And all that was put into record, from a noble’s vainglorious accounting of his deeds, to the land deeds and marriage agreements of freemen, had to be written by hiring a scribe. Wherever folk gathered, from the courts of the mighty to the neighborhood taverns to the wayside inns, minstrels and scribes were welcomed and heeded. Storytelling and publishing for the masses were born. Just as does our news of the day, the singers sang of what had happened, in part to pass it along and in part to help make sense of it—to show the audience how the stories affected them. But, of course, minstrels had an overriding goal–to entertain.

And, as everyone loves a good story, and stories are often made all the better by ever-so-slight modification—adjustments that with time and frequent retelling turn into outright embellishment—so too are legends born. If a warrior won the day, soon enough he had won the day nigh alone, and with one injured arm tied in a sling. We have a hero, ladies and gentlemen! And of course all would then love to hear the details of his motives, including the smoldering eye contact he made with that besieged nobleman’s wife after the battle. You get the idea. Thank goodness our modern mass news sources have gotten away from such sensationalism and puffery.

“To know the truth of history is to realize its ultimate myth and its inevitable ambiguity.”
~Roy P. Basler

To Yore Place, Then to Mine: It’s said that myths and legends exist to explain the unexplainable, that they cement the basic structures of societal belief, and reconcile difficult dichotomies, such as good versus evil and existence versus nothingness. What better way to illustrate such difficult subjects than to see what has gone before? “How did our hero fare in this difficult circumstance? What happened to our heroine when she dared to go to that strange place?” Seeing the hero through dire straits makes facing our own circumstance seem a bit less difficult, which is comforting and alluring. “Well, if they can get through that. Our lot is jolly when laid out beside theirs.”  Give me more. I want to get lost in the days of yore.

I have always been comforted by stories from the past, but nothing could compare to what I felt when I started to dig through history, mining for details for the creation of my fictional world. As some of you may know, my work leans toward the historical rather than the fantastic. Once I had picked out my era and setting—a place and time that sent a shiver down my neck in imaging living there—I couldn’t get enough. One of my biggest writing hurdles has been to refrain from piling on the world-building details. I want so badly to convey my tingling feeling over being immersed in my setting, but too much and I’ve cluttered up the story. It’s a delicate balance.

“Whoever wishes to foresee the future must consult the past; for human events ever resemble those of preceding times. This arises from the fact that they are produced by men who ever have been, and ever shall be, animated by the same passions, and thus they necessarily have the same results.” ~Machiavelli

Stripping To Be Romantic: There is a lot of romanticism in historical fiction and fantasy. We are offered a safe distance from which we can view a familiar world, but as it once was–dangerous and exotic. Legend and myth evoke a sense of mystery, often tinged with a sacred aura. We view well-known archetypes on a glorious stage, our preconceptions lushly painted by history’s continuum of minstrels and scribes, painters and poets. Not that a legendary feeling can’t be created in other genres. There is, for example, often such an atmosphere created in sci-fi or in dystopian fantasy. Heck, Star Wars is a perfect exemplar of  legendary romanticism.

In many ways, starting with a historical setting strips the process of story craft down to fundimentals, to be built on an existing foundation. Also, utilizing the window of history creates a safe distance and a legendary atmosphere for my tales. But for me there is more. I wanted the glorious painting but without the constraints of the existing stage. It’s why I write historical fantasy. Of course all history is fantasy–seen as we wish it to have been, and distorted by the lens of legendary storytelling. But I bent it a bit further. By building my own world, I was freed from history’s confinement, but (hopefully) left with our fond collective reminiscence. My setting is stripped of technology, modern convenience, and of our minute division of expertise; a place where safety is an uncommon luxury. I sought to build a world where the characters’ roles and conflicts are at once familiar and foreign, exotic and relatable.

By using history as a lever, I aspire to create an ease of passage into story. I’m hoping to take readers to a place that offers both comfort and exhilaration. A place that might even throw an occasional shiver down their neck.Arbo

What say you? Do you feel the romance of the past? Do you think history is a help or a hindrance to being transported into story? Does historical fantasy convey a legendary feel to you, or do you roll your eyes at us geeks?