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?

Chatting With A Hero – A Video Interview of Therese Walsh

ThereseDefining “Hero”: So I was sitting here wondering how to title this post. I jotted the words: “Chatting With A Hero.” Then I wondered if I was overselling (I’m sure she’d humbly say as much). But a hero is someone admired for their courage or outstanding achievements. And, I would add, someone who inspires courage or the aspiration of others to strive for the outstanding. I was surprised when I googled “hero” to find the words “typically a man” in their definition. I consider quite a few women to be heroes, my wife first and foremost. So then I wondered if I should switch it to “heroine.” But that word seemed to relegate the subject to the pages of a story or the script of a movie. And Therese Walsh is definitely a real-life, flesh-and-blood person that I admire; for her courage, for her example in persevering to accomplish the outstanding, and for her inspiration. She fits the billing. So hero it is.

An “Interesting” Experiment: What (I hope) you are about to witness is an experiment. I’ve never really interviewed anyone, let alone in a video format. But when Therese and I stumbled across the idea, I thought that it would be a lot of fun, at the very least. And it was. But in hindsight, it also gave me a huge appreciation for those who interview writers they admire, and for those who do so on camera all the more. I hope you’ll forgive my inexperience but, as I said, at least it was a lot of fun. And although I’m not the most experienced moderator of such a discussion (we occasionally got a little carried away, enjoying our shared passion for writing), thankfully my subject is interesting and wise and her new book is wonderful. These things, I think, come clear throughout our occasionally rambling discussion. Besides, as I said, T inspires me. And I’m willing to bet she’ll inspire you, too.

So, without further ado, please enjoy my discussion of a new favorite book of mine, The Moon Sisters, with its author–my hero and friend, Therese Walsh.

(Side Note: The reason I’m laughing at the opening is that I couldn’t get our Skype session to record. My guest was not only gracious during my 20 minute technical struggle, she googled the problem and read the step-by-step solution to me as I fumbled to success.)

About The Moon Sisters:

“The night before the worst day of my life, I dreamed the sun went dark and ice cracked every mirror in the house, but I didn’t take it for a warning.”

After their mother’s probable suicide, sisters Olivia and Jazz are figuring out how to move on with their lives. Jazz, logical and forward-thinking, decides toThe Moon Sisters get a new job, but spirited, strong-willed Olivia, who can see sounds, taste words, and smell sights, is determined to travel to the remote setting of their mother’s unfinished novel to say her final goodbyes and lay their mother’s spirit to rest.

Already resentful of Olivia’s foolish quest and her family’s insistence upon her involvement, Jazz is further aggravated when they run into trouble along the way and Olivia latches on to a worldly train-hopper who warns he shouldn’t be trusted. As Jazz and Olivia make their way toward their destination, each hiding something from the other, their journey toward acceptance of their mother’s death becomes as important as their journey to understand each other and themselves.

Buy the book! (Yes, now, before you forget.) 

About Therese Walsh: 

Therese’s second novel, The Moon Sisters, was published in hard cover on March 4th, 2014 by Crown (Random House). Her debut, The Last Will of Moira Leahy, was named one of January Magazine’s Best Books of 2009, was nominated for a RITA award for Best First Book, and was a TARGET Breakout Book.

Therese is the co-founder of Writer Unboxed, a site that’s visited daily by thousands of writers interested in the craft and business of fiction.

Before turning to fiction, she was a researcher and writer for Prevention magazine, and then a freelance writer. She’s had hundreds of articles on nutrition and fitness published in consumer magazines and online. She has a master’s degree in psychology.

Aside from writing, her favorite things include music, art, crab legs, Whose Line is it Anyway?, dark chocolate, photography, unique movies and novels, people watching, strong Irish tea, and spending time with her husband, two kids and their Jack Russell.

Visit Therese: At Her Website, On Twitter, and On Facebook:

Your turn! What are the unique aspects of your writing process? Have you read either of Therese’s books? If not, what are you waiting for? Could there be a more gracious interview subject, or a more bumbling interviewer? Please share your thoughts in the comments. 

The Arts & Crafts of Writing Fiction – Writer Unboxed Redirect

Horseshoe Front door 1Having one of my essays featured on Writer Unboxed is always a thrill and a distinct honor for me. Since I always say this, may I attempt to explain? As most of you know, it’s the Mothership blog of my writing community. It’s so special for me because it’s the first place I found that I felt the empathy and specific, relevant instruction that one can only feel from others undergoing the same journey. It’s a special sense of belonging, and it’s ongoing. And I hold the founders and regular contributors in such high esteem.

This time around, I wanted to demonstrate how my love of all things Arts and Crafts fits into my philosophy on writing. Some of you might have read my post on what building our Arts & Crafts bungalow taught me about writing, which might give you some idea. This time I delve a little deeper into the A&C Writer’s lifestyle I strive to live. It’s about how beauty can be found in simplicity and functionality (like our front door and Pewabic pottery–a few of my favorite Arts & Crafts possessions). So please head over to Writer Unboxed and join the conversation. A&C Pottery

A Writerly Pilot Light – Writer Unboxed Redirect

Gas Flame in handsToday I have the honor of contributing to the Writer Unboxed blog. And it really is an honor. As most of you know, WU is the home-base of my writing community. I’m a moderator on the WU group page, and a contributor for Writer Inboxed, the WU newsetter. But it’s just such a special thrill for me to be a featured contributor to the main page–among some of my all-time favorite bloggers and mentors.

Today’s post is about dealing with writerly waiting. Which is hell. Sorry I haven’t offered anything here in a few weeks. I wrote the WU post a little while back, when I was just coming out of a waiting period. I’ve since finished another rewrite of book one of my trilogy, which is what’s kept me from blogging. It’s about to go back out into the world. Once again I’m banking my writerly embers for the long haul.  So rereading my own words on this is particularly helpful. I hope so for some of you, too.

So please join me over on WU for A Writerly Pilot Light.

Image credit: <a href=’http://www.123rf.com/photo_7708392_hands-holding-a-flame-gas.html’>pakhnyushchyy / 123RF Stock Photo</a>

Orchestrating Impact

The Concert, by Theodoor RomboutsGetting Under the Shell:

“…A story is about how the plot affects the protagonist. The good news is that protagonists… live and breathe and make decisions the same way we do. The bad news is that writers often tend to leave this crucial layer out, giving us only a beautifully written rendition of the story’s external shell – the plot, the surface, the “things that happen” — rather than what’s beneath the surface, where the real meaning lies.” ~ Lisa Cron

If you are a regular reader here you probably know I’m working on another rewrite of book one of my trilogy. Thanks to some amazing feedback and guidance from some fantastic mentors and beta-readers, I’m well into the project. I knew from the start that this rewrite was about adding internal meaning to mostly external events (plot). But even with the insight I’ve gained, I need consistent reminding to dig deeper, to get under the shell and seek the “real meaning” in each scene.

The Lisa Cron quote above came from a knockout of a post on Writer Unboxed. I highly recommend taking the time to read. But if you don’t mind, please don’t go till you’re done here. It’s so thought-provoking, you might never come back. To give you an idea, in his comment on the post, Don Maass said he was unplugging his computer for a week to process what she’d written. Anyway, Lisa provoked at least a full morning of deep thought on my part… so far.

Of Bones and Flesh and Suits of Armor: About a week ago, when I first came up with the idea for this post, on a slip of paper I wrote: “Stripped to bone by revision, now addingSuit of Armor flesh back.” My first draft of this story had good bones, but it was most definitely bloated. I knew it needed to be stripped down, focused on what really propelled the story. So in my revision last fall, I mercilessly cut. The final result in its last incarnation was pretty lean and mean, fairly tightly focused on my two primary protagonists. In the process I’d sacrificed much of my characters’ introspection. This was a big portion of the so-called flesh I’d stripped away. But it was more than liposuction. I know it needed to be done. The introspection was often indulgent and disruptive, occasionally clumsy or unnecessary to the issues at hand, and/or slowing to the pace.

So the metaphor didn’t seem quite right. I don’t believe my characters were mannequins or overly archetypal, or that their goals or conflicts felt contrived. I’m confident I’ve created a unique world populated with multidimensional characters. And I’ve been told the result of my last rewrite produced a competent and polished draft. It was Lisa’s use of the word “shell” that made me think of it. My story had become a suit of armor—and a fairly well-wrought one at that. It was tailored to fit reader expectations, flexible enough to handle the action at hand, even fairly shiny, if I do say so.

But I realize now it was also built to be protective. I’d inadvertently given my story a hardened, slick outer shell, seeking to make it impervious to external attack. Critique of the story could not hurt me, because it was all about external events. Nothing could really penetrate it and get to me, because I hadn’t exposed much.

Turns out it still hurts to be told that your work is indeed slick, but that it’s also too invulnerable to be as significant as it could be. So much for armor.

Digging Deeper to Get Vulnerable:

“What gives a story high impact is that which is most personal and passionate in its author. That includes your own fears. They are your compass. They’re pointing you to what unsettles. And also to what matters.” ~Donald Maass (From Writing 21st Century Fiction)

So a few months ago, in preparation for this rewrite, seeking to gain a better grasp on all of the feedback I’ve received, I scheduled a phone conference with my mentor Cathy Yardley. We talked about how the characters were affected by the events, about how backstory informed their mindsets and thereby their actions, about doing a chart to map the goals, motivations, and conflicts (GMC) for each scene, and so forth. It would’ve been a productive session with just those things. But Cathy took it a step further.

Turns out, besides being a wonderful editor and coach, she’s a pretty damn good psychotherapist (perhaps that goes with the territory?). She gently inquired again about what originally inspired my writing and what I’d hoped to capture (something we’ve discussed before). Then, in a flash, with surgical precision, she zeroed in on my fears regarding those passions. Before I knew it, I was wiping welling tears, unable to speak without a quaver in my voice. “Right there—capture that,” she said, “and your rewrite will succeed.”

Don is right, and Cathy showed me it was so. My most personal passions twined with my deepest fears about them guided me right to what matters, and to the beating heart of my trilogy.

Seeking Symphony: Being willing to reveal more of myself is not enough (and I still struggle with just willingness). It’s easier said than done. Adding the internal layers I’ll need in order to achieve higher impact will be an intricate operation. To take it to another level, I will need the internal and external, the backstory and the unfolding action, to work in symphony, building to a crescendo of emotional significance.

I was thinking about this in regards to a documentary I saw on the making of Bridge Over Troubled Water, the milestone 1969 album by Simon and Garfunkel. I was particularly struck by the evolution of the song of the same name. Paul had written the song quickly, and turned in an acoustic version, accompanying himself on guitar. You can listen to that early version here. He’d only written the first two verses, and he envisioned it as a simple, stripped-down gospel style song. Both Art and producer Roy Halee wanted it to be longer and to have more emotional impact. They implored Paul to write a third verse to bring the themes of the song home, so to speak.

If you’re like me, you’ve heard this song a zillion times (perhaps you’re thinking one too many?). But take a minute to listen to the final version again. After Art sings the original two verses over simple piano accompaniment, the song comes to a fitting climax, and that could’ve been a satisfactory end. In my opinion, it still would’ve been a hit song. But then comes the third, added, verse:

“Sail on silver girl, Sail on by
Your time has come to shine
All your dreams are on their way
See how they shine
Oh, if you need a friend
I’m sailing right behind
Like a bridge over troubled water
I will ease your mind
…” ~Paul Simon

Now, for the first time, Paul is harmonizing with Art. The lyrics speak to a definitive sacrifice for friendship. “Your time has come to shine, All your dreams are on their way.” Then, “I’m sailing right behind.” My interpretation: things have been tough along the way, but I know good things are coming for you, and I’ll be there for you—no matter what. That’s heady stuff by itself.

But along with the theme enhancement of the added verse we are introduced to subtle bass and drum, and then strings. The instrumentation builds and builds to a symphonic crescendo paired with Garfunkel’s soaring voice. It’s wonderfully powerful. They took what would’ve been a perfectly sound song, probably a minor hit and, in my opinion, made it one for the ages. I’m willing to bet people will know that song for generations to come. All because Simon and Garfunkel were willing to dig deeper, to take it to another level.

Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark: Please know I am not comparing myself to Paul Simon… nor even Art Garfunkel. I am inspired by such things. But most of the time I feel like I fumbling forward in the dark, hoping I won’t be tripped on my way to “The End.” And all without a suit of armor. I know it’s still up to me to orchestrate the changes that will take this book to the next level. But thanks to my mentors and my tribe, I feel like I’ve got some moonlight to guide me. Thanks to all of you who’ve supported me. Wish me luck!

What about you? Are you polishing your suit of armor? Are you willing to dig deep and get vulnerable? Or have you heard Bridge Over Troubled Water one too many times, and couldn’t care less about having that kind of impact?

Image credit: mg7 / 123RF Stock Photo

Community Revisited – Watching the Ripples Roll (WU Redirect)

Whitecaps at Hazelhurst 143I’ve noticed that in past redirects to Writer Unboxed, I always use the term “honored,” as in: “I’m honored to be on WU.” And with good reason. It is an honor. I consider everything I do for WU to be an not just an honor for me, but good writerly karma. My writing life has been so blessed by everything this community has offered me over the years. I really do wonder if I’d still be writing if I hadn’t found WU. After I finished a first draft of the trilogy, and submitted it (way too early) to agents and editors for a unanimous rejection, I spent a few months thinking that was it. I gave the writing thing a shot, and it didn’t work out. I’m not sure if I could’ve lived with the regret, but that shrugging sort of attitude prevailed for a time. Then I discovered WU, and I discovered my journey wasn’t over, it was just beginning. I caught the WU wave that day, and I’m still riding it.

So with that in mind, allow me to say I am honored to redirect you to the source of my writerly wave, Writer Unboxed, for my article: Community Revisited, Watching the Ripples Roll.

[Photo by Vaughn Roycroft]

Life’s Too Short

A Powerful Cliché: As writers we’re supposed to avoid clichés, but the title of this post happens to be a special one for me. There’s a lot of power in those three words. I’m living proof… for the moment. Allow me to explain by starting with a quote:

“Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back. Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamed would have come his way. Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it. Begin it now.” ~ William Hutchinson Murray

Unlike the title, that quote’s a bit long, but I still love it. I first read it in Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art in late 2003. It really resonated with me then and it’s only grown more meaningful for me since. If you’re wondering what the quote has to do with the title, I hope to show you in the next few paragraphs.

Mag Black and whiteMoment of Commitment: Over the past holiday weekend, I found myself retelling the tale of our life-change. My wife and I had been discussing the possibilities for a year or more before we committed to moving to our cottage in the woods and dedicated ourselves to living a more fulfilling life together. I’ve written about it before, but the retelling got me wondering which of the events was the one that tipped the scales and nudged us past hesitancy. I think there was one particular inciting incident, and it may sound strange to those who’ve never truly loved a pet. It was the death of our beloved Maggie, in September of ’02. Although we didn’t leave our business and move to our cottage for another year, Mag’s passing was the tipping point. More on that in a minute. For now, suffice to say it was the day my wife and I started routinely using that old clichéd phrase: Life’s too short. The more we said it, the more sense it made.

Tragic Impetus: As sad as our dog’s death was for us, it wasn’t the actual beginning of our life-change. There was an evolution of mindset. I think that evolution may have begun on September 11, 2001. Such a strange and tragic day. The earth seemed to tilt off of its axis that morning, and for so many it took a long while for it to return to spinning as it once had. I’m guessing for some, it still hasn’t fully righted itself. I don’t personally know anyone who was wounded or killed that day, but it was a definite mindset shift. I won’t trouble you to explain the details, as we each have our own personal version of it.

A Movie? Really? Shortly after that mindset shift came the next in a series of life-altering moments. Again, it may seem trivial for those who don’t share my lifelong ardor. This next moment came in the form of the release of a movie. Yep, a movie. And a movie based on a fantasy story, at that.

On December 19, 2001, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring debuted in theaters across the U.S. My brother-in-law and I went to the film’s first showing on Saturday the 20th. Beforehand I’d been skeptical. But I held a hope that the film would recapture my first favorite book. I remember sitting in the theater. The opening was a female narrator reading backstory. I still wasn’t convinced (although the footage of elves and men fighting orcs on the plains of Gorgoroth was pretty cool). But when the actual opening scene began, a panoramic view of the Shire, I was instantly spellbound. I whispered to my bro-in-law, “Does it look as good as you hoped?” He leaned over. “No,” he whispered. I turned and raised a brow. “It’s even better,” he added. We were grinning like idiots by the time Gandalf made his appearance.

So how was the release of Fellowship so life-altering? It reminded me of my former self. It reawakened the boy who had wanted so fervently to connect with story that he dared to imagine himself as the storyteller. I went home and immediately dug out my old box-set of LOTR and started reading. It was the first fiction I’d read in many years. I instantly fell back under the spell of well-told story.

Regained Perspective: Rereading LOTR helped me to make sense of a world that didn’t seem to make sense anymore. It reminded me of the real meaning of friendship and loyalty, of Frodo_Aragornthe importance of finding one’s own definition of honor in the face of death. For the sake of employment, I lived in a place I did not love, devoting much of my time and energy to earning a secure financial status. The Lord of the Rings reminded me of the significance of beauty and the exploration of emotions. It reminded me to appreciate a shared love. And of what the true ideal of home meant to me.

Canine Life-lessons: I mentioned the death of our Maggie earlier. When the day came, I was almost a year into the reawakening of my former self through rediscovering fiction. Saying goodbye to our girl was one of the most difficult and moving moments of my life. My wife and I both immediately knew things would never be the same afterward. She left us on a sunny autumn Friday morning. We couldn’t face going to work, so we drove to our cottage in Michigan, still in shock. When we arrived, before we even got out of the car, we were reminiscing about how excited Mag would get on the days we came to Michigan. She had known even before us—this was home. This was where we belonged.

Maggie had been with us through most of our successes in business. The presence of her spirit in our lives had been such a blessing—vital to our wellbeing during difficult years of hard work. But her life was over, and it had seemed so damn fleeting. Looking back on them, those years had been a blur. Because of her, we knew. None of the rest of it mattered. We belonged at home, exploring what really mattered, and finding it together.

Maggie taught us the true meaning of the words: Life’s too short.

Providence Moves: It was a bold step, leaving a lucrative business and moving to a cottage. But every step since we committed ourselves has been providential. In other words: “A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamed would have come his way.”

The move home led to much more reading, including Steven Pressfield’s Gates of Fire. Which led me to his website, which led me to The War of Art, which led me to the above quote as well as this one: “Are you a born writer?… In the end the question can only be answered by action. Do it or don’t do it.” Which led to me scribbling the beginnings of a story in a notebook while I waited at a jobsite for the concrete subcontractor, about a Gothic boy who was a scion and the warrior-girl who was secretly his guardian.

The Providential Road Goes Ever On: From a tentative beginning, and through a mostly secret drafting of my trilogy, I was led to exploration of the craft and business of fiction. Which led to Writer Unboxed. Which led me to finding myself as a writer—and thereby as a person. As well as all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings. Including some of the most wonderful and meaningful friendships of my life.

Mag on PinehurstSo those three words, life’s too short, the real wisdom of which was only learned because we gave our hearts to a dog, has led to all manner of insight and opportunities, the likes of which I could never have dreamed would come my way. So thanks, Mag.

What about you? Have you committed to a bold step? If so, has Providence moved for you, too? 

[Black and white photo of Maggie by Mike Lanka, of Lanka Photo]

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>

Interview on Writing the Dream – Redirect

Walking Belle on the BeachHappy New Year, friends! Today we start with a fresh slate. It’s a time of year to contemplate change. I had the honor of being interviewed on the subject of life-change by Erika Liodice for her lovely blog Writing the Dream. Erika and I met through Writer Unboxed, but got to know one another when we were both book reviewers for the old Reader Unboxed site. Now we are both columnists for the WU newsletter, Writer Inboxed. If you’re not receiving your copy of Writer Inboxed, you can sign up here.

Erika really got me thinking about what compelled me to finally chase my writing dreams. It really takes a leap of faith, and much of that faith must be faith in yourself. It’s not easy, and I still struggle with self-belief today, almost ten years later. So I wish for you all to find your inner strength and the resolve to pursue your dreams in the year to come.  Please head on over. I hope you enjoy the interview, and if you have a minute, please give me your thoughts.

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!