World Building: Story Fodder!

Many a time, I will “share” a story on Facebook using a header like “Story fodder!” or “Start your synopsis NOW!” There are sooo many news articles out there that just make the writer in me go, “Oh! Oh! I know where to go from there!” It is, apparently, a “writer thing”. I saw this story just today, and it melded so well into the topic, I’m including the link:

It’s all about a unique gold ring that was found in an English field…and an unusual curse found at nearby temple ruins that happen to mention a lost ring—and the writer who was intrigued by the local archeology dig and the potential links between the two. That author? J.R.R. Tolkein.

It doesn’t matter what the story is:

You’ll often hear writers trying to explain what they do talking about the “What if…?” Often followed by the, “And then what happened?” And I pause here in typing and wonder, “Do I need to explain this more? It seems pretty obvious to me.” THIS is what happens with writers. If it’s the start of the process, something triggers the “What if…?” A photo, a word, an overheard snippet of conversation, a desperate daydream during a really boring meeting or class can become the start of a story. A photo illustrating a news article provides a certain perfect thing for your characters already under development. A news story can provide the perfect “Ah ha!” moment for your plot…

…A glimpse of a impractical evening dress in your heroine’s favorite color makes you suddenly want a scene with her desperately wishing she could afford it or had a place she needed to wear it…and then wearing it…and the hero trying to seduce her out of it…or snatching her into adventure where she has to cope with being in it…

…Or the golden Roman coin with a lion etched on the back morphs into the griffin talisman worn by the young hero battling an evil magician on another planet…

…or the annoying lyrics of the song your daughter is playing over and over and over again makes you say, “HA! MY heroine wouldn’t put up with that—she’d sit her lover down and…” and suddenly you’ve got the best breakup fight scene you’ve ever written.

World building pulls from wherever it needs to pull to get the story told. More on that next time…

World Building: Names, Languages, and Mythos

Some of the most challenging world building for me is in the paranormal area. I have stories centered around a pack of shapeshifters who can move from human form to wolf form. “Oh, werewolves,” you say. Nope. Not quite. The term “werewolf” implies things in modern day…they were bitten by another werewolf. No, they weren’t. They lose control and rampage through the countryside at night. Nope. They can’t control when they change—and it’s under the full moon. Not so much. They’re basically a big, hairy person walking on two legs with a beast’s head. Oh, seriously not. So the question becomes: What do you call them?

Well…that’s where it gets complicated. Again, you don’t want to call them something someone else is already using. Or that has been used for a famous movie or something. And in werewolf/shapeshifter stories, that’s an extensive field to cover. I had a term I planned to use when I finally got these stories out of my head and onto paper. And someone else wrote a series of books using that term. *ARGH* Her characters are entirely different from mine, and it’s set on a different planet. Oh, well, doesn’t matter. So, I came up with another term. And it got used by a new author I hadn’t read yet as the name of her main Pack of werewolf-like shifters. Again, I was using it for the entire race of shifters…doesn’t matter. The next time that happened, I gave up—gave up on using a term in English.

Sure, I can just make something up, except that when I tried, they mostly just sounded stupid. I realized what I need was something believable…but, to be believable, there needs to be some sort of backstory to the word.

When I was first coming up with these stories, I had seen a special on the Falling Lakes in Croatia, and the wildlife there, and was fascinated. It’s on my short list of places to visit someday. I always thought it’d be a fascinating place to have my wolves come from in their background. HOWEVER, as I am terrible at making up my mind, I am also a huge fan of Celtic stuff, and have always had a strong interest/draw towards Scotland and Ireland. I was torn on which direction to go.

Luckily, research is fun and useful! I checked out some information on Celtic culture and discovered the Celts—and all their little foibles like Celtic knotwork—migrated well into middle Europe, through Hungary, and into what is today Croatia. Bwa ha ha—I can have BOTH!

The Web is a wonderful place. I found a handy translator site that had Irish (Gaelic), Croatian, and Hungarian options, another one that offered Old English, and a third that did Welsh, Scottish Gaelic, and Irish Gaelic. Let me first say how grateful I am that modern English doesn’t use all the freaking accent marks, carets, umlauts, etc., that other languages do! And I found websites that discuss ancient gods, goddesses, and folk tales that have all sorts of tie-ins to werewolves, shapeshifting, and intelligent wolves in general.

So the last week has been full of fun, as I type in terms to translate and come up with strings of unpronounceable things in two to five languages and then start massaging them. Unpronounceable isn’t going to work.  They need to sound good out loud. And be easy to say.  And not stop the reader’s eye as it crosses the page. And not sound stupid…

World Building: Basics

I wonder if non-writers get the process of world building. I know as a reader, I chalked it off as just “what writers did”. Writers make up worlds. Duh. But, there is more to it than that. World building establishes consistency and consistency adds to the believability of your setting. If you’re writing vampire novels, and in book 1, sunlight is deadly to them, but in book 2, they’re fine wandering around outside at high noon, there’s a problem–unless you provide a darn good reason for the change. Note: “I need it for the plot” is not a darn good reason. Throw in a witch who casts a spell on them. Fine. Or a magic item that protects them. Great. But you can’t just have it kill on Monday and not kill on Tuesday.

But that’s the bleeding obvious part of it. There’s more. And it’s what makes your story yours. There are a lot of books out there, and a lot of writers. Thankfully, all the books are different. If you like paranormal stories, you have a variety to choose from. Vampire books: Do you like them dark? Gory? Angst-y? An action-adventure with blood-suckers? Do you like the vampires to be the good guys or the bad guys—or a mix of each? Maybe you like them funny…or comedic…or even slapstick. You can find any of those, and each is a completely different kind of read.

One of my series features a government agency. Kind of like the CIA…but not. Kind of like the FBI…but not. But what I don’t want it to be is “just like” another author’s fictional agency. The name has to be different. The mission has to be at least a little different. We don’t want to just steal M from Ian Fleming to run the place. Or Moneypenny. Or Q. And yet…I need someone in charge. Someone consistent from book to book. And they need to look the same and talk the same from book 1 to book…whatever. If Sven is a six-foot-four blond Swede with an accent in book 1, he better not be easily blending with the pygmy aboriginal terrorists in book 4 unless he’s also one hell of a disguise expert.

Some of my books take place in a fictional town in the western United States. By book 3, I started losing track of the name of the school principal, the woman who ran the sewing shop, and the name of the hero’s sister’s best friend’s husband. I broke down and made the Dreaded Spreadsheet. (Note: I am NOT a plotter, organizer, index-carder, etc., when it comes to this. But I was desperate.) I started jotting down the basics…heroine, her kids. Hero, his sibling and parents. Heroine’s coworkers (which are cross-overs from their own books, so have the same basic framework of people around them). Hero’s coworkers. Various townfolk. The bad guy. The bad guy’s minions. I look down and I realize I have 92 different characters I’m juggling. No wonder I’m having issues! Yeah, most of them are minor characters and don’t even get names. But, you don’t want to have every secondary character in every book named “Charlie”. Or all of them be a blue-eyed blonde in jeans. Or have every child in every book be a 9-year-old. Readers notice these things.

Part of world building is innate. It’s the writer’s voice, preferences, and knowledge base. The other parts of world building involve interwoven layers of details and craft.

Habits, Conditioning, and Change

In the past year, I’ve been lucky enough to go from a commute-from-hell (nearly 55 miles each way, randomly taking between 1.25 hours and 3½ hours each way, depending on conditions, and usually involving either random carpoolers or public transportation issues) to working “locally” (okay, for me that was a 20-mile commute that was consistently less than ½ hour) to full-time work-from-home as of mid-November.  And I am VERY grateful.

The change in my daily/weekly schedule has been a bit harder to adjust to than I expected.  Writing has been sporadic, and focusing on plot issues has been difficult.  However, with all the changes in my life, combined with the holidays, I’ve been explaining it away.  (Well, when I haven’t been panicking over never being able to write again.)

My “commute” time is now simply taking the kids to school, so I have them with me in one direction, and use Bluetooth to check in with various family members in the other direction.  However, once a month, we have meetings at the office Headquarters.  In December, it was combined with the office holiday party, so driving home wasn’t like one of my old “normal” commutes.  However, January’s meeting was yesterday, and I ended up having to pick up riders to be able to use the carpool lanes and head home at the height of rush hour.

As I headed down the road, I suddenly realized I was working on plot points and reworking dialog in my head, trying to find ways to spice up the action in a section of one of my manuscripts.  Stuff I haven’t been able to PRY out of my brain for weeks.

It occurred to me that commuting had always been my brainstorming time.  For years, drive time was my only uninterrupted, nonwork, nonkid personal space/time.  With all the right ‘cues’ in place, the story started flowing again.  Hey, at least it proves my creative brain isn’t actually broken.  Now all I have to do is retrain myself to make use of new opportunities.

Sulking is Not the Same as Thinking

Okay, it’s not pretty, but I’m fairly sure the “holidays”–that would be the large chunk of time between Thanksgiving and MLK Day–can be chalked off to sulking.

I’d prefer saying I was pondering things.  Thinking about stuff.  Contemplating potential editorial actions.  Yeah, not so much.  In retrospect, sulking comes a whole lot closer.

It wasn’t even on one particular front–that was the insidious part.  It was everything…writing, mommy stuff, the day job, bills, holiday coordinating…everything just added up.  Not enough self-sabotage to cause a change, just to irritate the daylights out of myself.

The worst part?  It was stealth sulking.  As in no one noticed.  Including me.  Had I realized it, I hope I would have done something about it, but nope, didn’t really notice.  So, neither did anyone else.  That didn’t help matters.  FYI, sulky people hate being ignored.  But, as sulking is juvenile, ineffective, and “unbecoming”, it’s not something I’m going to be pointing out at any level.

Sulking is also not particularly useful or productive.

Now, far too much time has passed, and I need to paste a smile on my face and start to slog back into the trenches…all the trenches.  Enough is enough, it’s time to start getting things done again.


The New Year’s Holiday Letter

No apocalypse, huh? Guess that means I actually DO have to consider New Year’s Resolutions sometime soon. (Not to mention actually getting those Christmas cards in the mail…)

I don’t really do resolutions any more. Honestly, I still go through stacks of stuff every once in a while and find some old notebook or scrap of paper or blank book with one page used, and on it is scrawled the New Year’s Resolution List from some unknown year. And yeah, they’re usually the same. Lose weight. Start exercising. Find time to write. A sad testament to my inability to accept the facts that 1) since I didn’t do it the previous year, I’m probably not going to do it this year, and 2) I can’t keep track of lists, so they don’t actually help anything.

A few years ago, a friend told me about the New Year’s Holiday Letter to Yourself, and I have to admit I love the concept—and it’s a WHOLE lot more effective than those resolutions. It’s kind of a combination of a story-form of resolutions and the whole “visualization” theory. Don’t worry—it’s easier than it sounds.

Pretend you’re doing a holiday letter talking about all the fabulous things that happened during the year—just pretend it is next December. The one caveat—the letter needs to be hand written. Not done on the computer, phone, tablet, or whatever. Break out the pen. Put everything in terms of success, not plans. Stay positive. Be enthusiastic. And specific. Whether it’s going somewhere exotic on vacation, or losing that weight, put it on the page.

Wow—2013 was an amazing year. As a special treat for getting that second manuscript to my agent, we decided to use some of our extra savings we built up courtesy of the new job to take the kids to EuroDisney! It was a fabulous trip that gave me some great ideas for the next book of the series. Everything went so smoothly, but I have to admit the best part was having to buy a new wardrobe before I left since my new dance classes have just been melting the weight off me.

Okay, that’s probably a bit condensed, but you get the idea… It’s not, “I wrote every day from 4:30 to 6:30, no matter what.” Or “I worked out for 45 minutes three times a week without ever missing a scheduled workout.” It’s the results you tout. The second finished manuscript. The extra money you’re comfortable spending. The weight being so easy to lose.

Then, put the letter in an envelope for yourself to open New Year’s Eve of next year.

The mind is an interesting and odd thing…and a very powerful one. It’s along the lines of the power of positive—or negative—thinking, mixed up with the “universal abundance” theory. If you tell yourself something, your brain, and the Universe, will work to make sure it is true. Especially if you’ve written it out long-hand. (It has something to do with the brain/hand connection.)

No, I’m not saying if you write, “Wow, I jumped out of bed and tripped over stacks of gold coins and large-denomination bills!” that will be what happens at 8 a.m. January 1st. But, I will say that things start happening. And for some reason, I don’t lose these letters. In fact, I don’t even forget what I wrote in the letters. Give it a try, and, next December 31st, let me know what happened.

Books, Family, and Reading

The Reading Mother

I had a mother who read to me
Sagas of pirates who scoured the sea.
Cutlasses clenched in their yellow teeth;
“Blackbirds” stowed in the hold beneath.

I had a Mother who read me lays
Of ancient and gallant and golden days;
Stories of Marmion and Ivanhoe,
Which every boy has a right to know.

I had a Mother who read me tales
Of Gelert the hound of the hills of Wales,
True to his trust till his tragic death,
Faithfulness lent with his final breath.

I had a Mother who read me the things
That wholesome life to the boy heart brings-
Stories that stir with an upward touch.
Oh, that each mother of boys were such!

You may have tangible wealth untold;
Caskets of jewels and coffers of gold.
Richer than I you can never be –
I had a Mother who read to me.

Strickland Gillilan (1869–1954)

Strickland Gillilan was an American poet and humorist. I had never heard of him, though they say he’s famous and his work (now public domain mostly) is on greeting cards, especially this poem, popular on Mother’s Day.

I found this poem astonishingly moving, and it makes me think of my grandmothers–both of whom had December birthdays–but especially my grandmother on my mother’s side. She read to me and my sister whenever we were at her house. Winnie the Pooh. King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. Robin Hood. Mary Poppins. Poetry—this Gillilan poem reminded me instantly of Ogden Nash’s Tale of Custard the Dragon, one of our family favorites. When we were old enough to read on our own, the question was always, “So, what are you reading now?” I was an adult before I realized that the implication was “of course you are reading something at all times”.

My grandma and mom were always exchanging paperbacks—Nora Lofts, Georgette Heyer, Mary Stewart. (Yeah, notice a trend there? I come by the genre naturally!) I was excited when I got to be old enough to read “their” books, too. My grandmother on Dad’s side was always doing crossword puzzles, acrostics, word jumbles, or some other sort of word puzzle.

Not to be sexist in the discussion by any means—my grandfather (my dad’s dad) always had a history book by his chair. Civil war, usually. Dad preferred mysteries and the men’s adventure tales—John McDonald, Ian Fleming, and so forth—as well as the legal thrillers and history books.

I remember taking a survey in elementary school and one of the questions was “How many books are in your house?” My first reaction was “Oh, #($*@—I’m expected to count them all??” Then I realized the multiple choice answers only went to “more than 100”, which I knew as ludicrously low. It was years before I realized that meant they people to use the other four answers, too. As I got older, I met folks who threw paperback books away when they were done reading them. Turns out this isn’t actually a crime. Who knew?

And when I had kids of my own, I was always perplexed by the people who so earnestly suggested that I read aloud to them—what was next? Earnestly “suggesting” I feed them? From Chicka Chicka ABC to Percy Jackson, yeah, I read to my kids. No, they’re not toddlers any more, and yes, we still read together.

It never occurred to me growing up that any of this was odd. That reading wasn’t an important part of daily life of every family member in every family. That keeping and treasuring (okay, hording…) books was in any way unusual. That having a book—or two, if you’re nearly done with the first—in your purse wasn’t usual. (And this was seriously pre-e-reader!) To me, it’s just the way life is supposed to be.

And will be for my children, if I have any say in the matter.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Years ago, my son declared Thanksgiving was going to be his favorite holiday—because it always got ignored and lost between Halloween and Christmas. (He tries, but I’m thinking Christmas and his birthday still win out.) Stores skip it over entirely as they are now stocking Christmas ornaments in the back section of Halloween decorations and candy. There’s a big uproar this year over whether stores should open to entice shoppers in Thanksgiving evening at 6 p.m. rather than at 12:00:01 a.m. on Black Friday. Workers are picketing stores; some friends are signing petitions saying they’re opting out to stay home with family; other shoppers have been in tents in front of stores since Monday morning. It’s all a bit nuts.

Me, I’m trying to get back to some of the basics of holidays. Thanksgiving will be about what we are thankful for and good food for everyone to enjoy. There’s time enough for Christmas over the next 35 days or so.

Last year, there were issues around the holiday. A major sewer pipe collapsed the week before Thanksgiving, ruining plans for my son’s birthday and wreaking havoc for the next six weeks. The refrigerator gave out the following week, pretty much ruining Thanksgiving itself. I was just grateful we didn’t have plans for company. I realized things had been strange for a while when the kids announced they didn’t like holidays any more because bad things happened during them. *argh*

This year’s Thanksgiving season didn’t get off to a good start—I got laid off from my day job unexpectedly at the end of September. That was a shocker. The totally unanticipated loss of income heading into the holiday season, needing to find a new job in this economy, and trying to maintain my writing while intensively job hunting added instant stress. There was a real chance this year’s holiday season was going to actually be worse than last year’s, which I hadn’t thought was possible.

And yet, it’s not. I am so thankful for so many things going into this holiday season. Thanksgiving will be truly a time of grateful giving of thanks in my household for so many things:  My husband and children. The security of my house. That I found a wonderful new job that fits me perfectly, and it allows me to work from home. That I was able to pick up some freelance work. I am so thankful—and humbled—to have the opportunity to pursue my dream of writing. I give thanks pretty much daily for my wonderful agent. I have a new appreciation for wonderful friends around the world who keep in touch electronically and support me emotionally during trying times. And I’m also thankful for things that didn’t happen—no new disasters on the appliance/home front. [knock wood]

Fall is a transitional time—moving out of Summer, reaping the harvest of the hard work from the rest of the year, arranging things to do our version of hibernating, enjoying the quiet stillness of Winter until the new spring arrives. I look at Thanksgiving as an opportunity to reassess the bounty of our lives and remind myself to live up to the name of the day and give thanks for all that has come my way this year.

Wishing you and yours a very happy and heartfelt Thanksgiving!