What Building My House Taught Me About Writing

Front porchIt’s been twelve years since my wife and I completed the building of our cottage in the woods, and it wasn’t long after finishing that I began writing. In looking at some of the pictures of the process, I can see our wide-eyed innocence in the early shots, and the knowing weariness of experience in the pictures toward the end of the process. I still love my house. And, although the trilogy won’t really be ‘done’ until it’s published, I still love my story and characters, too. There are lessons from house-building that helped, and will continue to help, with my writing.

Know where your heart longs to dwell: Building your own house is a long-term commitment. You’re going to spend a lot of time there, so it ought to be a place you love. The same goes for writing. You’re going to spend long hours in the setting and with the characters. It helps if they are dear to you. For me, in both cases, I knew my heart would be most at peace in a historical setting. I’ve always loved the craftsmanship, human scale, and form-follows-function aspects of Arts and Crafts architecture, and I’m fortunate that my wife feels the same. We spent years looking at style and plan books and magazines, and studying the aspects of existing houses we loved before drawing the plans for our house. In the case of my trilogy, my heart longed to dwell in an epic tale, set in an ancient world I can only experience though the written word. I spent years reading the genre before selecting the niche that would house my story.Solid framing

Start with a solid foundation and quality materials: In the case of the house, we didn’t cut corners, and went with a full masonry foundation, hearth and chimney. Since we were in the forest products business, top quality lumber went into solid framing techniques and authentic wood finishes and details. I know the house has a firm footing and good bones. The same goes for writing. I did several years worth of research, in my case on the Germanic tribes and the ancient Roman Empire. I had most of my character and place names picked out, and those names have meaning for me. I wrote out a backstory and an outline. Don’t get me wrong, there were surprises along the way, both in building the house and in writing the trilogy. I consider myself a pantser in writing, and now that I think about it, I’m also a bit of a pantser when it comes to carpentry. And many of those serendipitous surprises made both projects better. But you want to have a solid structure in place before you start the process of fleshing it out.

It’s the details that add the richness: There are certain elements I love about the A&C style that evoke the feelings I sought in our house. The glowing warmth of lacquered Douglas fir paneling, the impression of solidity offered by exposed beams and brackets, the reminiscence of subway tiling and bead-board, among many others. But you can go too far as well. We had to pick and chose the elements that complimented one another to create a unique whole. The same rules applied to story elements and research details for my writing. It took me a long time to understand that not every historically accurate detail can be added. A few well-chosen tidbits enhance the flavor. Likewise, too many subplots can detract from the primary thrust of the story. But I still prefer solid wood paneled wainscoting with matching crown, base, and casing to an unadorned drywalled square of a room. All the elements of the architecture, along with a few well-chosen authentic period accessories, all go a long way to evoking feeling for those who visit, making them want to return again and again.

Take it day by day: Undertaking such a large project can be daunting at first. I particularly remember the feeling after the first day of hand-hammering our cedar shingles. My wife and I started the roof with neither of us having ever nailed a single wood shingle. It was July, and we guessed that with the long weekend for Independence Day thrown in, we might be able to complete it in a month of weekends. We laughed about that as we nailed the ridge shingles on in a light swirling snow (yep—November!). After that first day, we only had about three courses on one side of one portion of the house. But we kept at it, every chance we got, dawn till dusk. And now, twelve years later, without a single leak, who cares how long it took? And each stage was more of the same—daunting but, through steady effort, finally done. Writing is the same. Day by day, word by word, sentence by sentence, you get to a draft. Then, step by step, you revise and polish. Some days it feels like it’ll never end. But afterward, when I see my books in print, I’ll look back and it won’t matter how long it took.    

Leap of Faith: Both the house and the trilogy were projects that required not only a willingness to work hard, but a leap of faith just to begin. I had to just dive into both. Both projects make me wonder whether I would’ve undertaken them if I’d known what I was in for along the way. It’s been nine years since the inception of the trilogy, and the revisions continue. Building the house is one lesson among many. Slow and steady has served me well in life. I know I’ve built my trilogy with good bones and a solid foundation. I think I can make it into the kind of world and story certain readers will want to visit again and again.

What about you? Do you ever feel daunted by the process? Have you done something that required a leap of faith? Are you better for having done it?

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?