Archive for the ‘Novels’ Category

In preparation for a project I have been wanting to write, I have delved into good articles and books on the subject of Horror. As in, “what makes horror ‘horror’?” Obviously, there’s a lot of debate on the subject, and elements that some say are absolutely integral to some aren’t even mentioned by others. But horror isn’t all subjective.

What I found was 1) on a personal level, it’s easy to find something horrifying but difficult to quantify why, and 2) we all have different fears so that fear we tap into for our writing may not be shared by another (think “public speaking”).

The only way I was going to write anything meaningful on the subject would be to relate it to myself. What do I fear and how can I make that palpable? These are aspects, not one defining element of Horror, but when taken as a whole comprise a terrifying situation. I’ll be going over a few different aspects over several posts, so welcome, and enjoy the ride.

Utter helplessness.

I’m sure I’m not alone in saying that we’ve all experienced utter helplessness at some point in our lives, either over our own selves or for others. You hear it all the time from parents when their children are sick or dying, “I felt so helpless.” There are people whose entire lives are there to help others: think first responders, military, doctors, etc. When faced with a situation where none of the skills or tools that they can employ will do a damn thing… that kind of dread of utter helplessness. In horror when you set the “monster” up as being impervious to the tools and weapons we have, give it a desire to keep going, to not stop, to churn up everything in its path and nothing has any effect on it… Horror. Yup.

Normalcy Eroded.

Every one of us has an expectation of normalcy in our lives, be it a routine, the people we encounter. But what would happen if that gentle little old man passed you with a smile, and that grin was filled with shiny black pointed teeth. Or the attractive soccer mom who leans closer to you and whispers, “Privileged one, the prince of darkness will fill your womb.” You might question your own sanity – did you see what you really thought you saw? Hear what you thought heard? And when you ask the soccer mom what she said she denies she said anything at all? Those moments of unsettling encounters, very brief, almost dismissible by you and rationalization by some third party you trust over what you REALLY saw or heard… until it’s too late, of course, and instead of little hints of it here and there, a full-blown invasion of the supernatural and normalcy-killers spilling over into our world.

Smallness.

This ties in somewhat with the utter helplessness as above, as it describes that sense of the “what can one person do?” mentality. H. P. Lovecraft’s works sometimes hit on the idea that man senses his miniscule existence in the vastness of space, which crushes him into death or insanity.

Unknown-Unknowable.

Another realm belonging to Lovecraftian fiction, the fear of the unknown, and encounters with the unknowable result in much the same – insanity and/or death. Brushes with alien, supernatural, looking into forbidden books of knowledge. This is really what makes a horror story that much better, when the entity causing all the chaos remains an unknown quantity. When you give it a face, it tends to go to the side of unintentional humor (Freddy Krueger and Chucky come to mind. I never thought they were all that scary to begin with, and over the decades they look more and more ridiculous. I did have a lot of fun watching them at sleepovers and laughing my head off). Keep something totally in the dark all the time, and you keep it in the realm of the psychological. Not so easy to walk away from that horror.

Lovecraft Horror

Oh, there’s so much more to go on this, and I will continue next week. Until then, is there anything you have discovered to be an essential element of horror?

Last week, I admitted that I am a full-blown world-building junkie. That post included my influences and some of the more valuable references I like to use (although I am always looking for more, so if you know of any, please let me–and my readers–know!). You can check it out here.

This week, I want to go over what I usually use as my “second step” to building the world: names.

To create names, you need LANGUAGE.

Just as much as building worlds, I love languages. I speak several well, and can read/translate a few more, so the next step was actually building one of my own. What I USED to do was just create a vocabulary, and used Excel spreadsheets to make dictionaries (I may even still have some of those, although that was several computer-hardware-iterations ago). I don’t recall exactly how I got to use the class I use now, but I somehow think it was tied into Karen Traviss’ research on her novels about the Mandalorians (what Boba Fett is supposed to be) and creating a language for the Mandalorians. If not, I apologize, but sending you on the proverbial wild-goose-chase is not what I intended. However I managed to get there, I found Holly Lisle’s Create a Language Clinic to be an awesome resource for going even deeper into language creation. (Disclaimer: if you click on that link and end up purchasing a copy of the clinic for yourself, I will get some compensated. But I recommend it even if you navigate away and find it on your own!).

So why all that fuss, you may ask?

Well, before I start giving anything on my map a name, I like to have the “available” characters (sounds) of the language in place. It keeps it pretty consistent, like a real place, which is essential to lending it any kind of credibility.

You know, unlike this unpronounceable garbage:

Mister Mxyzptlk

So I don’t end up with something like that, I work through some of the basic exercises until I get the sounds, consonant clusters, and eliminate at least one vowel from “availability”. I don’t go in neck-deep unless I just want to build a language. I don’t need–and don’t recommend– Tolkien-esque language creation. (But I recommend The Silmarillion if you want to see what a master at work.) Then I create a bunch of syllables from those words, and using the pool of syllables, start to build words and conventions for the language, kind of like the way “burg” in German denotes a town/city of some sort. Holly’s clinic (see link and disclaimer above) walks you through this. (That’s only the beginning of her book on creating a language. She takes you thoroughly through everything you ever loved (or hated) about English grammar classes in school.)

Does it preclude me from creating poetic names? Not at all – I just “translate” them. One example is that for one novel I have written (first draft, percolating in the background while I am working through the “How to Write a Novel” class), I had a place I called “Hummingbird Ridge” on my pre-language go-around. After I created the language that would include/refer to that region, I gave it a name in the language that the culture interpreted as “bee-bird ridge”. So while I wasn’t sure if I even wanted a hummingbird-type creature in my story to make it a reference, I ended up not only with the name for a creature that was essentially the same, but also a reason for it to have been named that. You can blame that on my muse.

I also like to refer to existing cultures to get a “feel” for their language and its construct, and also its concepts. But that, my friends, is a subject for next week’s blog.

So what references have you encountered? Maybe you threw a dart at a world map to get an idea for how a language would sound, or spun and globe and stopped it with a jab of the index finger? Maybe you just did a random search on Google or Bing or whatever search engine you prefer and ended up in a very weird spot.

Let us know below!

**Warning – Possible Spoilers**

Many, many years ago when Silence of the Lambs was a new Academy-Award-seizing film, I must have watched it about three dozen times. Knew it by heart, and it influenced my decision to take up criminalistics in college (but that came later). And finally, I decided to head to the library (those brick-and-mortar buildings that held hundreds, possibly thousands or tens of thousands of books, all to check out and read for FREE. Since it was, you know, when “kindle” was something you did to a fire to get it going) and grab Thomas Harris’ novel to see where the story came from. Of course, I had an expectation that what I found in those pages wouldn’t be much like the screen.

I was blown away. Hollywood had actually done a really good job interpreting the novel. The only real differences I can recall are the condensed determination that the moth was the much rarer Death’s Head (the entomologists made an initial mistake in identification), removed some of the scenes depicting Jame Gumb’s disgust with his male parts and they sprung the “girl suit” surprise a little earlier in the novel’s pacing. None of the passion and the story Harris put to page was really sacrificed.

Normally I cringe when I see there’s a movie being made from a novel I love, and I watch it with considerable reluctance and pretty low expectations. It can never be a total letdown when you expect it to be a total fail. In that department I’ve been surprised, when I took my sister to see The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. Except for missing one important addition to the line, which I KNEW they would omit from the script, and having the creepy man-like blonde play the Witch who was supposed to be stunningly gorgeous). I was blown away. I actually cried, seeing a movie I had waited my entire life to see (now if they would only make C.S. Lewis’s Space Trilogy… Peter Jackson, are you out there?).

 

And then there’s that classic dystopian novel, Harry Harrison’s Make Room, Make Room. Don’t know it? Sure you do. It’s where one of the most iconic movie lines came from: “Soylent green is people!” Well, maybe not the book, but the movie that bears the name. I loved the movie (I still love Charlton Heston films) and so when I found a copy of the book, I dove in. No “soylent green” is people. In fact, that whole idea of reconstituted people isn’t part of Make Room, Make Room at all, and the soylent only refers to soy/lentil “steaks.”

I generally prefer the movies from Stephen King’s novels to the novels themselves, with few exceptions (The Shining being one, as I preferred the ending, making more sense). He wrote with so much fluff in his novels that we kids used to joke that you could skip the first five chapters of The Tommyknockers (or any of his novels of that period) and still have the core of the story.

I couldn’t sit through all of Forrest Gump, and didn’t read the book, but I’ve been told by many family members that the movie cuts out all of the crap.

TV shows can get in on the action too–though I am not really crazy about some of the plot changes from novel to show, Game of Thrones does a pretty darn good job of keeping to, and sometimes surpassing Martin’s stories (especially when he rambles for pages about what gross things his characters are devouring while talking about nothing of substance or doing anything of concern).

So, what books have you read that have been pleasantly surpassed by the movie version?

 

Perhaps you need to set a tone for a scene that’s a  little dark, a little hopeless. Maybe your characters are starting to feel each others’ chemistry, and you find yourself trying to write something subtle and seductive. Or is it a case of writer’s block, where nothing seems to stimulate your fingertips into their keyboard dance and light up the page?

How can you get there with a little help from your friends? In this case, make music your friend. But just how can they help?

Songs and music influence mood. Picking the right songs can get you into the right groove for whatever scene you happen to be writing.  Years ago when I was still in grade school (more years than I would prefer to admit), I played a computer game on my Commodore 64 called Wasteland. It was fantastic but, like many other games of its age, it lacked something that is so ubiquitous in games now you would miss it if it wasn’t there–a soundtrack. So I made my own: Alice in Chains’ Facelift, Nine Inch Nails’ Pretty Hate Machine and that gem-of-a-lifetime Pink Floyd’s The Wall. To this day, I can listen to The Wall and instead of seeing the movie (which is fantastic in its own right), I am right back there with my Desert Rangers in the warhead-riddled American Southwest.

Consequently, when I started writing my novel, Umbra: A Post-Apocalyptic Mystery, I turned back to my Wasteland staples and found the same gritty, dark influence I needed for certain scenes. That’s not to say I didn’t turn toward more modern music, and that was when I tripped over a serendipitous find.

Have you ever listened to a song that struck so close to the mark that you would swear the musician crawled into your head and took your own thoughts and feelings to turn into a song? That happened with the same novel, Umbra, when I was finishing up the revision. I’d already named my main character ‘Vera’ after the (real-life) woman in the Pink Floyd song from The Wall * (she’d been ‘Vera’ through about ten iterations of the lone woman in a post-apoc world until she finally emerged as the mystery-solving protagonist in Umbra), when I saw there was another song with the same name by Ebba Forsberg. I couldn’t believe how much the song’s theme hit on the same themes and happenings my character was going through. That impetus really helped me finish my revision and get it out there, and Forsberg’s song became Vera’s theme.

Sometimes the lyrics themselves can inspire the story. I have an as-yet-unpublished science fiction romance based on Cinderella-meets-Enemy Mine, which all stemmed from two dancing-themed songs: Celine Dion’s Refuse to Dance and macabre humor of Heads We’re Dancing written by the brilliant, quirky Kate Bush. (Apparently, Pink Floyd held some sway over Kate Bush too. I just looked up the wiki on her post-nuclear song Breathing and it says she cites The Wall as an influence! David Gilmour also did some production on her album The Kick Inside). The Omen-Eyes short story collection and The Opal Necklace (in revision) had Dead Can Dance and Lisa Gerard as their soundtrack. For the SHARC collection (also in revision), I listened to a lot of electronica, dubstep and Imogen Heap. For the current draft of my new Ennid the Havoc story, I discovered Thrice’s The Alchemy Index (particularly Volume II, covering the element Water).

Whatever your writing dilemma, try listening to some tunes to spur your creativity or set your mind at the right tone.

*There are quite a few Pink Floyd and popular culture references in my novel. I’d love to know which ones you found, so post them here (with spoiler alerts where necessary).

Or… How the Internet Killed the Intended Plot.

 

Every author, no matter if they write for profit or pleasure, faces that dreaded inky, seemingly-infinite darkness known as ‘Writer’s Block.’ We are under a great deal to come up with something new, something novel (pun intended) or we risk losing our readers for good. The pressure has only increased with the advent of self-publishing and everyone getting in on the game, on top of the literal millions of other things out there they could be reading besides fiction off of an e-book reader. Worse still are the forums.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Forums are a great place for readers to go gush about the latest book they read in a series, possibly winning over new readers for the author by word of mouth.

The problem is in the speculation.

And, yes, I was guilty of this at one time until I realized the potential damage it could cause. (This was not for A Song of Ice and Fire*, although I have my theories there, I keep them to myself and hope to be surprised by what happens in future books**…IF Martin ever gets them out).

That damage is this: So much speculation could rob the author of the plot.

Let’s show instead of tell, and use a ridiculous scenario of a couple of rabid ASOIAF fans on a forum with a fictional Sixth Book ending:

BILL: Ohmigosh, I got so mad when I read that end! I thought we were going to learn about Jon Snow’s parentage and then *poof*.

SAMMY: Yeah, man. I have my ideas about it, and wanted to see if I was right. See, I think Jon’s Snow’s mom is actually his “sister” Sansa who was sent back into the past and impregnated by the then-younger Hound!

DAN: Nah, that’s silly! I think his dad is actually Mance and Osha and…

 

Need I go on? And it’s not about the theories being “far out there” – it’s about them being out there at all. Now say Martin comes along, and he had an idea very similar to Sammy’s that involved some kind of weird time travel injected into the plot and he stumbled onto this particular threadnow… now he could face a myriad of problems.

#1:  Someone else already thought about it, and posted it, and it could look like Martin was ripping off the idea. If he publishes with this, yeah, it may make the poster feel good by affirming his theory, but it could open up Martin to accusations of theft/plagiarism/laziness/hackishness/etc.

#2:  Someone already thought of the idea and now Martin is forced to come up with something even more novel, which means that it will take that much longer.

There’s also the danger of fan fiction, which any author of the basis of the fan fiction should avoid reading at all costs. (Is that a litmus test for having “made it”, when others spend their own time doing horrible, unmentionable things to/between your characters?)

So, not cool for the author any way around. Now, most of us don’t have nearly the following for our worlds and characters that would engender the hours of thought put into what we think is going to happen, or think has happened and are waiting for it to be affirmed. Don’t get me wrong–guessing what happens is part of the fun, and shows that an author did a great job of creating an immersive world where the readers like us get so involved in the lives of completely fictional characters. It’s just that it can cause a lot of problems for the author when they are broadcast on so public and pervasive a forum as many of them devoted to such works as ASOIAF. Readers, please remember that if you really love the author and want them to keep writing, be kind.

 

Have you had theories about characters/plots of popular series and divulged them in a public forum? Did they pan out, or were your dreams for Heroine X and Hero Y getting together dashed beyond all hope? Please share only wins/losses, no speculations on as-yet-unresolved plot points.

 

*For the curious, my theories about plot were regarding Star Wars characters in their Knights of the Old Republic, not ASOIAF. But, like I said, I do have my theories about Jon Snow’s parentage…

**AND NO, I have not watched the series beyond Season 2. Maybe I will get to the rest of it, someday…

***Note: I don’t have secret access into his mind, so maybe he isn’t even suffering from this dilemma, and I just gave him another “out” for why his books take him so long to get out there. But he COULD be facing these dilemmas.

In case you wanted an update, I’m working through several revisions of differing genres, and one new novel in the Ennid the Havoc universe, but unfortunately I have no dates on them. Sign up for my newsletter and I will send updates, and you might even get a chance to do some beta reading.

This post continues my adventures in Self-Promotion. If you would like to read the first post on the subject, start here.

In case you were wondering, yes. I carry business cards. Some people may ask why, since I don’t provide a service or traditional product where I should need to be contacted directly. “Why not just do book signings?” I’ve been asked. Well, for one, I don’t have physical books on hand to do such. I’ve been researching print-on-demand through companies like Createspace or Lightningsource, but even then, carrying a ton of books around just to sign and hand out or sell isn’t feasible. What is? A business card.

Business cards are tiny. They’re just a sliver of card, they fit easily into a wallet or pocket. I can carry dozens of them at one time, and they don’t weigh me down.

Business cards make any encounter a potential for networking and sales. Never underestimate the power of networking–the person with whom you speak may not read your brand of fiction (or any fiction at all) but know someone who does. They could pass them along.

Business cards can make a sale even when you’re not around. I leave mine on community bulletin boards at work, at the grocery stores, with checks when I dine out.

Business cards can contain all the necessary information in a tiny package. While the front of the card has all the pretty colors and my brand (you know: “I’m In Your Universe, Exposing Your Brain.”), including a personal e-mail address and the address of my “publisher” Overlord M Press, the back is the real workhorse. It has the QR codes for Overlord M Press, and my author pages on Amazon and Smashwords.

Business cards are endlessly customizable. Use a little Google-fu and you can find hundreds of millions of places to get them. I used my own images (although I wasn’t terribly happy with the result, as the dark blue dropped out of the final printing) but overall they came out as I wanted them.

Business cards are cheap. They’re getting less and less expensive as more companies strive to print up a batch of quality-cardstock in order to secure your commerce for their other products.

What other products, you say? Well, T-shirts for one. I had one printed up that has my book cover on front and the aforementioned QR codes on the back. (This may not be an option if you’re paranoid about people following you with your camera, trying to scan the code. You are warned.) For me, my goal is to have a t-shirt for each of my books and novels and to choose the shirt to fit the venue. For example, if my stories about the American Revolution, In the Light of Liberty, were complete and published, I would make a shirt and wear it to the Gunmaker’s Fair I will be attending this weekend. Talk about networking without saying a word!

Don’t overlook the little powerhouse of the business card. You really can make it work for you if you are marketing on a budget.

 

From as early an age as I can recall, languages fascinated me. I grew up in a culturally-diverse corner of town—Italian, Korean, Spanish speakers all lived on the same block, within a few houses of one another, and my own family comes from a background that would make a mutt feel like a purebred. In high school, I took up Spanish and then later took German. In college, I took Russian courses. I had also spent considerable time in places, while serving in the Navy, where Spanish and Italian were the native tongues. Later, in college, Russian. For fun, I studied French, Gaelic, Tolkien’s Elvish and I even own a Klingon Dictionary.

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Then I began creating languages of my own to use in my stories—Omen-Eyes, Ennid the Havoc, the languages for the upcoming Dross* and alien races of the SHARC series of stories. In each of these, the language provides a “flavor” to differentiate the races/species and in just about every case, creates some type of conflict because of the limits of translation.

Here are a few things I learned about language while studying them:

Languages more often than not don’t feature a one-for-one translation. If it works out that way, you’re lucky. Some drop prepositions while others adopt gendered ones. Some (including English) drop implied verbs.

Example: There is a book on the table.

In Russian, their grammar prefers: On the table, there is a book. (Which, translated with the available words, would read: “On table, book.”)

In German, their sentence structure can be even more rigid. Subject-Verb-Everything Else for a statement, Verb-Subject-Everything Else for a question. Some throw their words all over the place, using inflection more than just structure to differentiate between a statement and a question (yes, that would be English. We English-speakers are language contortionists).

You went there.

Simple statement, although why someone would have to tell someone else where they went is beyond the scope of this blog.

You went there?

Connotes the idea of surprise that the subject “you” overstepped some boundary to get to that location, like the timid librarian stepping into a biker bar, where they clearly wouldn’t be wanted.

You went there?

This one is a little more snotty, and less of a question than pure derision. They don’t want an answer, they want to mock. The subject “you” ventured into some place that the one asking the question wouldn’t have set foot simply because it is beneath them.

(There’s a great episode of Jerry Seinfeld that uses this to great effect. Why would Jerry bring anything?)

Some have few words that can say a lot, and others use a lot of words for very little, and some languages encompass both. Russian is my favorite for this. On one hand, they can say “Tim tahm.” and mean “Tim is over there”, while to say “I like pets” they have to wrap their tongues around “Menay neravidtsa domoshnie zhivotniey.” (Bugs Bunny pokes fun at this concept too, in “Wackiki Wabbit”.)

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This may arise from the need to define the concept within the sentence that you are introducing it. We could say “The clear sky” but if the one listening is not familiar with the concept of “clear”, it may have to be expressed as: “It was a sky through which light may pass so objects on the other side or within the volume of the object may be seen without hindrance.” Now imagine that some of the words in the definition had to be defined, as those concepts were unfamiliar. See where the conflict in trying to explain things can arise? (Oppressive regimes might condone destruction or redefinition of terms and concepts to prevent someone from speaking about things that the government doesn’t want discussed. Sadly, a fairly recent phenomenon in our own history is to cripple free speech, open debate and discussion by hurling the invective “racist!” or “bigot!”–the equivalent of the playground “your mom!”– when no intelligent argument can be formed or respectfully conveyed.)

Then there are the concepts. We speakers of English are all familiar with hyperbole, exaggeration, metaphors. Imagine telling someone that your heart leapt for joy when you saw them coming. If they have no experience outside of the literal realm, they may start looking around their feet for a bloody organ bouncing around in the grass.

English uses very little of the mouth. We blow air out through our lips, puff out our cheeks, touch our tongue to the roof of our mouths but we tend to use so little of it. Other languages, like Russian, use all of those and add different “depths” of the mouth and throat to create their sounds. Some, like the fascinating Khoison family of tongues from Africa even feature pops and clicks. We have a couple of equivalents in English—you’ve probably heard it as “tsk-tsk” or when someone “clucks” their tongue.

And finally, some of the translations can be… funny… when brought over into English and vice versa. A “Nova” was a car model that didn’t do well in Spanish-speaking countries because, while it’s an astrological term in English, in Spanish it translates to “no-go.” And some names are pronounced the same way as some Russian terms. I’m not sure “The Queen of Country” would want to be known as “Fish” McEntire, and that jedi-in-training would be far less heroic if he’d been known as “Onion Skywalker.”

*Title subject to change

Two weeks ago I brought up several stories which I call my favorites, and that naturally brought me to the idea of influence. You hear the phrases bandied about often by any creative types–“I consider such-and-such my greatest influence”, as in “As a composer, I find Mozart and John Williams to be my greatest influences” for an example, or directors cite earlier movies that formed their interest in the silver screen.

Certainly, as a writer, I count many, many authors and stories among my influences. All writers generally do–after all, that initial exposure to tales that transport us to other worlds or realities far from our own personal experiences engender the desire in some readers to craft our own. Fredrik Pohl, Harlan Ellison, Harry Harrison, John Haldeman, Doyle, Tolkien, Lewis, Shakespeare etc. all count high on my list of literary inspirations.

But… what about other influences, such as music? Take my first example, with music above. I frequently listen to music while writing, matching the mood/tone with whatever I am trying to write. Umbra (and all of its previous iterations) came flying from my fingertips with an ample dose of Alice in Chains, early Nine Inch Nails and Soundgarden pounding in my ears. For my darker fantasy stories like “The Falconer and the Wolf“, one of my favorite bands to get me in the right atmosphere is Dead Can Dance. When sketching notes for The Light of Liberty, I turned to Barry Phillips and his version of “The World Turned Upside Down” along with other American Colonial period tunes.

Are there any more? Of course there are. Many people have incorporated their likes and hobbies into their writing. Some cozy mysteries, for example, are based around knitting. My character Ennid the Havoc and his escapades are influenced by my love of MMA (that’s Mixed Martial Arts for those not yet initiated into its primal awesomeness). My interest in genetics features heavily in Clones are People Two. Even if the things we like aren’t at the forfront, we sometimes insert it in small ways. I love goats (Casey, from Umbra), I think rhinos are awesome and I smith silver (both of which will appear in The Opal Necklace, release date TBD) and I’ve an interest in raptors and falconry.

It’s all very simple–EVERYTHING can be an influence on our creativity, and EVERYTHING should be. It’s from these somewhat disparate ideas and influences that some of our richest “juices” flow.

 

 

Quite recently, a writer friend who comes to me for advice told me that he is glad I have standards. I laughed, but denied that the standards were necessarily mine. They’re not, in fact, but the culmination of millennia of oral tradition and tales of heroes. Good stories hit on touchpoints, on lows and highs as they run their characters through the wringers of conflict, and games of emotional tug-of-war.

Stories that are stories have a basic skeleton, or hangar upon which they hang. I can liken this to fashion design. At the minimum, stories consist of words strung into sentences, piled into paragraphs. Think of the words/paragraphs as the fabric. If you are making a dress, for example, you have to follow a certain format—essentially a long garment that covers some fraction of the torso with some type of bodice or halter, of varying lengths of beyond-the-ankles to just covering the crotch.1 That statement itself implies that even though there is a basic structure, the format can encompass many shapes subject only to the designer’s imagination.2 Fashion designers learn the basics of dress construction and then learn how to play with the rules and create bizarre monstrosities only appealing to Lady Gaga… but it’s still a dress. irisvanherpencapriole-0780-682x1024[1].jpg

The writer is no different. He must know the rules and know them well before he can break them.

What is the framework, or hangar, for a story? Well, they have to have beginnings, middles and ends. All good stories have them. But just having these does not a story make. I can tell you about my day, which begins with me waking up, brushing my teeth, continues to the middle where I have lunch (sometimes by myself and sometimes I go out with my co-workers), or the end where I brush my teeth and go to bed. Is that a story? Not really. Nothing exciting happens, nothing that would make anyone feel that their time wasn’t wasted by me relating nothing more than a series of events.

So what else does it need? I hinted at it already—something exciting. Let’s say that instead of waking up and continuing my routine as normal, I had to stop at the bank and on that very day, the bank was robbed while I was in it. That’s exciting, sure (not that I ever want that to happen while I am at the bank, although I couldn’t tell you the last time I was actually in one). But okay, there was a bank robbery and I was there.

The story needs something else. It needs something unexpected to happen. That element, if nothing else, can become the whole reason the story exists, the single point on which the whole story hangs. Let’s keep the above scenario and set it up. Say I am someone of strict routine, who is never late and never varies from that safe, comfortable routine. Only this morning I realized I forgot to deposit the paycheck in the bank and I wrote a check for the mortgage and mailed it yesterday, so if I don’t get funds in the account it will mess everything up. So I am irritated, because I’ve got to stop at the bank (which further messes up my routine and ticks me off even more), and then the customer in front of me is taking a while and leaning in to talk to a distraught-looking teller, and I just have to get moving, and when I vent my frustration uncharacteristically, the customer in front of me turns around just enough to show me his gun, and instead of running or screaming like a frightened little social justice snowflake at the sight of a firearm, I pick up the teller’s ten pound marble nameplate, whack the guy on the head and step over his unconscious body so I can deposit my check with the flabbergasted teller and get on my way.

Where does a story like that get started? It could start with the routine, to establish that I am a creature of habit who is likely to fly off the handle and do odd things when I experience disruptions, reiterating that the routine is tantamount to my happiness, and therefore the desire is to remain in it.3 It could start with my discovery of that item that changes the direction of my day. It has a middle where the tension builds as I come across the bank robber, which also lends itself to a hint at what the twist will be like—something going on with the money in the bank. It ends when I’ve dealt with him and taken steps to repair the normalcy I crave.

Plenty of writers and those who teach creative writing will tell me I am wrong, or I haven’t covered all of the criteria. That’s okay, we all have different ways of seeing the same thing. I will recommend several of these learned individuals who have published good frameworks for stories. They are:

  • Joseph Campbell’s works. Must-reads, all of them, for any writer.campbell-joseph-the-hero-with-a-thousand-faces[1].jpg
  • Victoria Lynn Schmidt’s 45 Master Characters. Not so much for the characters, but the priceless section in the second half of the book on the Masculine (based heavily on Campbell) and Feminine Journeys.thN6LAS0EA.jpg
  • Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat! Yes, it’s a book on screenwriting, but a quick, fun and informative read.save-the-cat[1].jpg

The last two especially have been priceless tools for me. I don’t necessarily write to their format, but when I’ve hit a slump or something feels like it’s missing in my story, I will hold up the scenes to their framework and I usually see that they are skewed to one end or the other (or both!) and ask myself if the “stages” they spell out lend any ideas to new scenes that would help tie the bookends together. I’ve never come away not having a new scene or two that move the story more coherently. Next time you write or read a story (or watch a movie) that seems to drag, or be too talky, or seems incoherent, it could be because it’s missing something from the framework that helps to make it a true story and not just a series of loosely-related or random events.

(By the way, years ago I ran my tied-for-first favorite movie of all time,4 The Road Warrior, through Schmidt’s/Campbell’s Masculine Journey and the story rocks it, dead on. Can’t get any better than that.)

1Originally I wanted to say that reached to the thighs but modern fashions have shortened the dress to some fairly revealing lengths… or not to length, as the case would be.

2I have to wonder from where some of their imaginations spring…

3For the record, I am not OCD. At least not most of the time. My closet is about the only place where I have standards. No wire hangers. Nothing but black hangers, all the same shape and size. Call me ‘hangerist’ if you like.

4What’s the other? Fury Road, of course. George Miller is a master director, and a lot can be learned about storytelling from him.

I’ve been far too long away from my entries, but my recent experiences with muzzleloaders merits a mention or two.

Among my myriad projects is the series I am planning and outlining based on the late American Colonial period, from the French and Indian War all the way up to the Treaty of Paris in 1783. Anyone who knows me knows that I love to write from experience–granted, I am NOT hoping that the world will collapse in an apocalypse so I can work through all of the situations I have and am putting Vera, Shaw and the rest of the Umbra crew through, but I’ve put plenty of r0unds through the firearms or similar arms that I mention in the novel.

So… working on Light of Liberty impressed upon me to fill a void. If I’m going to have Emory, Lucas and Seth setting the British Regulars in their (primitive) sights, I’m going to have to try this myself.

Luckily for me, I live very close to a few black powder enthusiasts, some willing to part with a little time and expertise with an author eager to listen and absorb.

The black powder beauty I got to fire was a 54 caliber double trigger model, similar to the one in the photograph:

Hawken54Cal

With proper instruction in the safety measures and steps to load and fire, I have to say I’ve got a much deeper appreciation for our Founding Fathers going through the steps to do so. All the accoutrement needed, like a full “possibles bag”, powder horns or flasks, cartridge boxes, the heft of the rifle itself could take a toll on men marching through the woods (not to mention their subsistence gear!). After all that, it was a bear to load up and fire.

Anyone who has fired modern weapons may not understand that loading and firing is a relatively simple set of actions. For flintlock, not so much. Some may say they’re simple, but there are a lot of them, and messing up a step is easy to do! For example, there is a tool for removing the ball just in case you forget to add the powder[1]. Adding too much/too little powder isn’t catastrophic, but wasteful, especially when you consider the value and difficulty in obtaining quantities of black powder.

And… it’s messy and stinky. VERY stinky. Along with any proper firearms instruction, there is a session on cleaning. Black powder firearms seem to get filthy quickly. By my fifth shot, ramming the ball and wadding home took a lot of shoulder-power to get it through the yuck that was filling up the lands and grooves[2]. Lit black powder is also quite corrosive, and a good firearm can be rendered wonky (that’s MY term) by even a short period of neglect. So cleaning is essentially. Those who couldn’t stop and clean their weapons often, such as Continental soldiers, might use smaller balls and slightly thicker wadding to compensate.

As my instructor put it, “One has to wonder how the Indians lost, considering how long it took for the militia and British regulars to reload.”

So again, I reiterate how much more respect I have for those who relied on these weapons, especially those who could load and fire 3-4 times a minute!

(In case you were wondering, I made a few decent shots at 100 yards, including on the line between the 10 and the X. Not bad for someone who never shot a black powder rifle before.)

[1] Shockingly enough, I did NOT do this, although I fully expected to do so after my instructor warned me that this could happen. Because, you know, that’s what happens.

[2] Lands and grooves make up the rifling that gives the rifle their names. If they don’t have rifling, they are smoothbores.