Down the research rabbit hole

Even when you’re writing fiction, there’s a whole lot of research involved, and a simple question can send you down into some really weird places.

I’m sure that sometimes it can seem like I’ve given up on writing entirely, but I promise, I’m still working hard at it. It takes a long time to put a book together, and putting words on page are only a fraction of the work that goes into it. Even when you’re writing fiction, there’s a whole lot of research involved, and a simple question can send you down into some really weird places.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

For example:

I need to know how long it would take to properly clean and disassemble a gun, so I know how long the other character in the scene has to perform an action.

Turns out that time depends entirely on the kind of gun we’re talking about. It’s a trope at this point that a modern handgun can be disassembled and reassembled in a matter of seconds, typically while the petulant protagonist keeps eye contact with whoever just challenged them. But I’m not looking at a modern handgun, I’m looking at something significantly lower-tech than that.

So let’s look at rifles circa 1840.

Turns out that’s actually a turning point between flint-lock and modern weapons. And since our gun-wielding protagonist is lower-class, she’d probably be using an old gun rather than a shiny new one. So let’s look through the same database but back up a few decades, and search for guns in the first quarter of the 19th century.

I throw out the pistols and revolvers– I wanted this to be a rifle. Reading several paragraphs into the description of the first, I toss that one out as well: it’s a smooth-bore gun, meaning it’s about as accurate drunk as it is sober. I said this character is a pretty good shot, so that won’t do.
Which leads me to this one:

Picture from Militaryfactory.com

A rifled barrel, a little more than twenty years old at the time, but one of the first models to use interchangeable parts (and therefore relatively inexpensive and fairly easy to disassemble and reassemble for cleaning). And then I can start the process of watching Youtube videos of gun collectors talking about their favorite antiques.

That’s where I find out that in a pinch, the rifle can be converted into a smaller (and less accurate) handgun, and that it had an adjustable trigger to make it a good gun for sharpshooters (relevant to another character).
I also learned that the assembly of this gun requires a screwdriver, which would make it take significantly longer to assemble and disassemble than modern handguns. Plenty of time for the other character in the scene to get pretty far along his task.

And sure, I probably could have saved myself an hour or so of research by just making up a number and handwaving it as “it’s a fantasy story, don’t worry about it”, but from that I got a whole lot of detail that I never would have gotten otherwise.

It’s one of the things I really love about this job.

How to talk about your novel

Writers have entire worlds swimming around in our heads, and we often have a hard time condensing something so huge into less than 100,000 words. This is why one of the hardest parts of trying to get published is often said to be writing a query letter or a synopsis. Often, we see the grand scale, twisting plot, and intense worldbuilding as a major part of the charm of our stories, but these lose a lot of their effect when they’re presented in conversation.

Some writers respond to this by staying quiet and not talking about their stories at all. Others go to the opposite end of the spectrum and try to tell the entire thing in one sitting.

Now, don’t get me wrong– telling people about your story can be a great way to get other people excited to read it. However, presenting too much all at once can be overwhelming and off-putting.

Based on my experiences interacting with other writers, here are some common problems we have when talking about our stories, and tips on how to fix them.  Continue reading “How to talk about your novel”

Personal Archetypes

According to Wikipedia, an archetype is defined as:

  1. A statement, or pattern of behavior, a prototype upon which others are copied, patterned, or emulated.
  2. The Platonic philosophical idea, referring to pure forms which embody the fundamental characteristics of a thing.
  3. In Jungian psychology, archetypes refer to a collectively inherited unconscious idea, pattern of thought, image, etc., universally present in individual psyches.
  4. Archetypes can refer to a constantly recurring symbol or motif in literature, painting or mythology. This usage of the term draws from both comparative anthropology and Jungian archetypal theory.

In literature, The Mentor is an archetype (Gandalf, Obi Wan Kenobi, Dumlbedore, Giles from Buffy The Vampire Slayer, and so forth). So is the Everyman (Arthur Dent, Bilbo Baggins, John Watson… basically every character Martin Freeman has ever played). You can find twelve examples of them here— or spend the next two weeks of your life lost in the digital labyrinth that is TV Tropes. But while some archetypes are universal, every writer has a couple of tropes that are their personal favorites.

So here are two (three?) of mine:

Source: Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Tiger_in_South_India.jpg
Source: Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Tiger_in_South_India.jpg

The Pet Tiger

I began noticing these sorts of characters as a teenager. Izark/Izaac in From Far Away/Kanata Kara.  Vegeeta in Dragon Ball Z (to some degree). Sesshomaru in Inuyasha. Yes, I watched a lot of anime during that time of my life. Recently, I would refer to Spike from Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Castiel from Supernatural as Pet Tigers, as is Booker DeWitt in Bioshock Infinite... though he’s got the less common designation of being an anti-hero to start out with, rather than an outright villain.

The pet tiger is a person who is powerful– often insanely so, to the degree that they first appear as a small-scale villain. They’re big, they’re scary, they could snap you like a toothpick. But then they have one too many run-ins with the wrong person (TV Tropes refers to this person as a Morality Pet). They’re forced into prolonged exposure to that person, for some reason can’t kill them, and they start to appreciate them– as a friend, as a potential lover, as somebody to protect, it doesn’t matter. Somehow, usually completely by accident, they wind up tamed. They still growl, but they don’t bite nearly as often– unless somebody hurts the Tiger’s Morality Pet. At that point, there is no force on Hell or earth that can save you from their wrath.

In my writing, Pet Tigers tend to be associated with cats or dogs– predators that in their larger forms famously eat people, but which we keep as loving pets.

Yin_and_Yang.svgJara and Kya

If the name Kya is familiar, this is why. Once upon a time, my best friend and I started working on a story together. The two main characters were originally based on ourselves– and then stylized and exaggerated so many times so as to become something else entirely. My character’s name was Jara, hers was Kya.

The Kya is bright and bubbly, trusting and naiive– not because she’s stupid, but because she can afford to be. She’s nice to everyone and give them the benefit of the doubt, because if they betray that trust, she knows the Jara will royally mess them up. In comparison, the Jara is quiet, and usually only opens her mouth to be snide, snarky, or strategic. She naturally assumes the worst of others, and is ready with contingency plans for anything that could possibly go wrong. Usually violent ones. Often the Jara tries to experience joy vicariously through the Kya, usually by spoiling her rotten and letting her have her way, and tends to express anger on both of their behalf, so the Kya doesn’t have to deal with the consequences of such an outburst. They tend to be at least slightly codependent on one another, and stories tend to grind to a halt when they’re separated: the Jara is too practical to do anything adventure-worthy of her own volition (better to bunker down and fortify), and the Kya too whimsical and optimistic to stay alive very long without somebody to watch her back.

Will and Jem of The Infernal Devices are essentially poster children for the archetype. Supernatural‘s Sam and Dean sometimes reflect the Jara/Kya dynamic, but not nearly as much as do Flynn and Rapunzel from Tangled. Kyouya and Tamaki of Ouran High School Host Club also fit the mold to a degree.

I put a Jara/Kya pair in every work, even if they’re very minor characters. They’re easy enough to find: When I write them, the Jara of the pair always has ‘ara’ somewhere in her name. I like to think of it as a personal signature, not unlike the way Terry Pratchett always has Death make a cameo in the Discworld novels, even if he’s not part of the main plot line.

Admittedly, Pet Tigers and Jara/Kya pairs aren’t that far apart. A Jara could well be a Pet Tiger who’s had several years of practice. Generally Jara/Kya pairs have a longstanding history and tend to act as a unit rather than individually, while the Pet Tiger is more often seen grumbling alone in a corner until he’s needed.

Sensing a pattern here…?

I’m not shy about admitting that I’ve always had a thing for devotion that borders on the obsessive. Miss Pross is my favorite character from A Tale of Two Cities, as are Samwise Gamgee from The Lord of the Rings and Conseil from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea… and Lindy is eternally tied with Maladonis Bin for my favorite character in Kindar’s Cure. These are the kind of characters I like to read about, and therefore they keep winding up my writing.

Do you have any personal tropes or archetypes you go out of your way to include– or ones that keep cropping up in your writing by accident? Tell us about them in the comments!

Keeping on track

If there’s one thing that far too many of us have in common these days, it’s the simple words: “I am busy”.

At the moment I’m going to school to pursue a Masters of Library Science, I’m running a freelance editing service, I’m trying to fix up my own manuscript, I’m participating in the Speculative Fiction Critiquing Marathon on Agent Query Connect, I’m trying to keep on top of the cooking and cleaning and yard work…

My pumpkin patch is currently trying to declare its independence
My pumpkin patch is currently trying to declare its independence

And in a few days, I’ll be caring for and training our brand new puppy. (Yes, I’ll post pictures when I bring him in.)

These days, it feels like my catchphrase is “Give me one second!” as I’m scrambling to get everything done.

People are going to give you a billion tips and strategies for ways to streamline your life and make things more manageable. There are thousands of options and methods out there.

Me, though, I like keeping a list.20130731_224615

I like to consider myself a master procrastinator. If something’s making me anxious, then I’ll put off doing it until the last minute. That’s what makes a simple pen-and-paper to-do list so effective for me: usually, I don’t have to do the tasks in any particular order.

If I don’t want to do my homework, I can jump to something else on the list. I can procrastinate all I want with less intimidating tasks, and still feel like I’m being productive. Often, by the time I’ve gotten a bunch of other stuff done, I feel confident enough to tackle the scarier projects.

When the project is particularly big, I can divide it into smaller tasks, each of which I can check off when I get done with it. After all, there’s a feeling of satisfaction that comes when you cross an item off, even if it’s a small one.

If you like technology, here are some free digital to-do lists that I’ve found:

  • Subtask divides larger projects up into smaller tasks and tells you how far along you are as you check things off
  • Remember the Milk is a to-do list app that can connect to your phone and computer, and it can send you reminders via text and Skype messages
  • Astrid was an awesome program, but it has since shut down.
  • ToDo.ly — I haven’t tried this one yet… but I’m sure I’ll get around to it…
  • To Do (Tomorrow) advertises itself as a To-Do list for procrastinators. It’s Apple-based, but has options for Android as well.

Do to-do lists work for you? Why or why not? And do you have any software that you’re especially fond of for keeping productive? 

Feeling the strain

“It does not do to dwell in dreams and forget to live.”

–Albus Dumbledore, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

It’s been a rough summer for me. I recently started grad school, and between that, blogging, and the annual Spec Fic Marathon, I’ve ended up getting cloistered inside my office. I’ve gone weeks without seeing anybody besides my husband, and rarely left the house for anything but food and grocery shopping. Sometimes, Boxy got hit hard by work assignments, I’d go a couple of days without seeing him for more than a few minutes, too.

This isn’t healthy.

No matter what your venture, be it writing, school, starting a small business, what have you, isolation isn’t good for it. No matter how much you study theories and abstractions, there is so much to be learned and gained from simply going out and living life. Every time we interact with another human being, we’re picking up new variables, new insights, new perspectives.

And over the last month and a half, I’ve been neglecting to pick those up.

I’ll still be blogging daily until the end of July, but after that point I’ll be slowing down.

Writer Woes: An abundance of details

Sorry, needlessly complicated subplot. We're gonna have to let you go.
Sorry, needlessly complicated subplot. We’re gonna have to let you go. (creative commons, source: wikipedia)

This is the second part of my response to this blog post, asking about writing woes.

I write fantasy. And because it isn’t rooted in our world, that means I have spent a whole lot of time worldbuilding.

My current WIP deals with the interaction of three separate countries, as well as the influence of a fourth country that’s only mentioned in passing. Each of those countries has a dominant religion (or in Tarlam’s case, several dozen religions vying for dominance), creation myths, geography, technology, primary imports and exports, unique social structures, languages, taboos, dominant attitudes toward gender and sexuality, histories, virtues, vices, etc, etc, etc.

Each of the characters has their own backstory which shapes his or her attitudes and behaviors– and these actions have consequences. Some of those backstories overlap and influence other characters.

What’s frustrating is that many of these details will never see the light of day. I’ll know them, but they’re not relevant to the plot, so often they will sink beneath the surface, becoming little more than currents and subtexts. Sometimes one of the biggest writer woes is the struggle to know what to cut, especially when you really liked it.

Here’s an example from DREAMKEEPER:

Twenty years ago, one of the major characters helped send a ship full of refugees to a neutral country. While some of those refugees went into hiding, others banded together to form a resistance against the forces that drove them from their homes. The son of one of those resistance fighters grew up to become a spy, and planted himself as a footman in the same house as Aren, the protagonist. For years now, Aren’s been mistaking his attention for a crush, when in reality he’s been doing surveillance on her.

He’s still in her household, keeping watch– but in more than 100k words, he gets mentioned maybe twice. He doesn’t even have any lines. Because while he and the resistance are effective elsewhere, they don’t actually influence Aren’s story. And that means they got the ax.

Me, I like to think his story was interesting. But that’s what they’re talking about when they say to murder your darlings.

What about you? Have you had to cut any characters or subplots like these? Here’s a chance to share the darlings that might not get to see the light of day!

Writer Woes: The right path up the mountain

Zugspitze von der Alpspitze aus gesehen. Links...
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I was reading this blog post, which asked, “what are your biggest writer woes?”

One of my biggest– the one that’s currently got me beating my head against a wall– is what I like to think of as finding the right path up the mountain.

Our Hero has made her grand journey across perils unnumbered, and needs to find the next clue. It’s at the top of that ol’ mountain over there. I know it is. Seriously, it’s right there.

The problem is, I can’t figure out how to get my Hero up that slope. She could just skip on up there, but that rings false and shallow. She could go through endless harrowing experiences, dealing with avalanches and close encounters with cliffs… but this mountain is just one tiny obstacle, not the subject of the entire book. In the end, I just want my Hero to get up the damn thing so she can move on to the next plot point, but do so without it seeming too trite or too over-the-top.

There are a lot of ways to handle this, and each situation usually requires three or four coping mechanisms to chug through:

  • Rewrite the trek up the mountain. And then rewrite it again. And then rewrite it again. I have a single minor transition scene that has nearly a dozen completely different incarnations for this reason exactly, and my final draft ended up being a combination of several of them.
  • Talk to someone who’s unfamiliar with the story, or only passingly familiar. Kya is my go-to with this sort of thing, but there’s only one of her and I’ve got dibs. Sometimes just the act of explaining the problem is enough to get you thinking in the right direction.
  • Read a book. Watch some good TV (or hell, watch SharkNado). Take a break from your own efforts and try to absorb how other people handle story.
  • Act it out. It’ll look silly, but you and your best friends are going to have a grand ol’ time, and you’ll be amazed at what you find.
  • Ask a professional. If your character is trying to climb a mountain, then locate a mountaineer and interview them. If you’re trying to get through a cave, find yourself a spelunker, and so forth. They’ll have insights you couldn’t even dream of.
  • Crowdsource. Ask a whole group of people about the problem and see what they come up with.

Do you ever struggle with this sort of thing? What do you do to find your way up that mountain?

People Watching

People in the Bus for Public Transportation
The bus is a great place to sit back and observe. (Photo credit: epSos.de)

I was digging through some old notebooks this evening when I found a page of People Watching.

You can’t ever hear enough about this: writers, artists, filmmakers– no matter what your brand of creativity, it’s imperative that you go out and actually look at people.

I’m not talking about the standard stuff– you know, the way we usually get categorized:

  • Sex: Male/Female/Etc
  • Skin: Black/White/Brown/Beige
  • Eyes: Blue/Green/Brown
  • Hair: Long/short/bald
  • Body: Fat/Thin/Tall/Short

If you’ve ever got a spare moment– whether you’re waiting on the bus or enjoying a lunch break– take a second to look at people. Actually look at them. Listen to the way they speak. Watch the way they move and hold themselves. Observe what they look like. The features that catch your eyes. The mannerisms that make you take notice.

Even if you don’t think of it consciously, those descriptions will start to bleed into your work.

Here are a few from my list, written down while I was killing time between classes during my undergrad:

  • A small face on a small body, all mousy and pale, with radioactive pink lips glowing in the middle of her head
  • Thin, with dark hair like quills hidden under a crocheted cap
  • A Willy Wonka crooked grin (Gene Wilder, not Johnny Depp), with milk chocolate skin and sugared-coffee hair
  • Long, twiggy hands
  • He had a complexion like raspberry jam, flushed and pocked and all the more sweet because of it
  • A round face like an almost-full moon, encircled by night-black hair
  • Her confidence betrays a deeper self-consciousness. She uses too many big words, struggles never to smile or look too happy. Every action underlines a single message, bolded and underlined until the print of her face runs out of ink: THIS IS IMPORTANT! TAKE ME SERIOUSLY!

(That last person was talking about her classes. You get a cookie if you guess her major.)

Have you observed any interesting people lately? How do you feel about people watching? Tell us about it in the comments!

The thing about originality

I was just scrolling through my Reader on WordPress when I spotted this blog post, about a book called THE DREAM KEEPER, which involves a creature called a shifter.

In case you haven’t heard, my WIP is tentatively called DREAMKEEPER, and features a race of people called shifters. 

There was a time when this coincidence would have royally freaked me out. What if my idea really isn’t original after all? What if people confuse the two books? What if–

You get the picture. 

Image
I’m pretty sure that book doesn’t have one of these either… but that may have more to do with the fact that I can’t really draw.

These days, though, I just chuckle and take a closer look. Beyond the surface details, Mikey Brooks’ THE DREAM KEEPER has nothing to do with my story. One is a modern MG, the other is a NA that takes place in a pseudo-Edwardian war zone. They both spend a significant time dealing with dreams, but for completely different reasons, and with completely different rules attached. Though both may have some similar themes (like trusting your enemies), they’re entirely different interpretations on those themes.

I once took a writing class in college where three of us wrote stories to turn in on the same week, and completely independently we all came up with a story that revolved around a god masquerading as an elderly homeless man (okay, so in one story he was the patron deity of the homeless, but he still looked like one). But aside from sharing that detail (and a few other details that naturally accompany such subject matter) we all had overwhelmingly different stories. One was a reflection of Zen Buddhism, one was an epic adventure, one was more of a Hans Christian Andersen-style fairy tale.

And that’s the beauty of creativity.

 It’s said that there is no true originality– everything is just a rehash of something else. As Mark Twain said, “What a good thing Adam had–when he said a good thing, he knew nobody had said it before.”

But just because a subject has been tackled before doesn’t make it off limits. Nobody has every tackled that subject quite the way you will. And the more you study the works of others, the more you can learn which ways a thing has already been done, and which directions they haven’t yet thought to twist it.