Welcome to July, friends around the world, and Happy 4th to my fellow Americans!
Yowza, July already! June whipped by thanks to summer school for the kiddos. Biff and Bash have been doing a class to help them get ready for 1st grade, which means time with the three R’s and some extra socialization. It also means me going through all their kindergarten work to pack up the most memorable bits, including their writing. After going through their pieces, I couldn’t help but ask Biff and Bash about their favorite work.
For a girl reticent about meeting new people and trying new things, it was a bit of a challenge getting Blondie to participate in summer school. With the bribe of a computer gaming class, I was able to sign her up for photography and geocaching. Lo and behold, she’s found those courses way cooler than playing ol’ computer games!
For some, summertime means going on adventures in far off places. But my experience with Blondie in the Horicon Marsh was a beautiful reminder that one doesn’t have to travel far to escape to other worlds.
So often we think we have to travel miles and miles to escape the humdrum.
We presume the truly fantastic is beyond the horizon, just out of reach.
But if we take a moment to step outside, we might just discover adventure awaits us in the here and now, be it in the nearby marshlands…
…or with the imaginations frolicking in our own backyard.
What are your imaginations up to this summer? Any recommendations of fun daytime-adventures with kids? Let’s chat!
Despite all the amassed resources and ideas all around, there seems to be an insurmountable physical obstacle. For Plankton, it’s his size. For me, it’s being a mom during the summer months in the United States, when kids are home nearly all day. Oh, I plan on getting them to read and write as much as possible (Bash is reading to me from the Owl Diaries as I type this very post). But there’s no denying the time crunch to cram whatever writing AND school work I can into the few morning hours they spend at the school. (More on their accomplishments in a future post, including a sample of Blondie’s photography!)
So this month’s world-building post is going to cheat, just a smidge. I’d like to compare how a classic novel and a more recent film each utilized words and/or visuals they felt the audience would understand to help engage them in the story’s world. One accomplishes this brilliantly.
The other, not so much. (To me, anyway. I get this is all subjective. Moving on!)
Let’s start with the beloved first paragraph of The Hobbit, including one of the best first lines in literature.
In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.
Consider that phrase “hole in the ground.” Lots of us know holes: rabbit holes, construction holes, water holes, badger holes, snake holes, buried treasure holes, etc etc etc.
But a “hobbit”? What the heck’s a hobbit? Considering what we know about holes, we imagine it to be some sort of digging creature, maybe a mole or some such beast. Certainly not one to wear clothes and enjoy afternoon tea.
(Unless, of course, you’re Mole from Wind in the Willows.)
The rest of the paragraph continues to lead readers away from their presumptions about holes and establishes that a hobbit hole is nothing like they we know as far as holes go. Once given the line “it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort,” readers immediately begin associating other things they know, this time the focus on familiar comfortable things, and building them into the hole.
Tolkien, of course, helps readers accomplish this with the second paragraph. No flying into adventure or action here; readers take their time entering the hobbit-hole and peering about.
It had a perfectly round door like a porthole, painted green, with a shiny yellow brass knob in the exact middle. The door opened on to a tube-shaped hall like a tunnel: a very comfortable tunnel without smoke, with panelled walls, and floors tiled and carpeted, provided with polished chairs, and lots and lots of pegs for hats and coats–the hobbit was fond of visitors….No going upstairs for the hobbit: bedrooms, bathrooms, cellars, pantries (lots of these), wardrobes (he had whole rooms devoted to clothes), kitchens, dining-rooms, all were on the same floor, and indeed on the same passage…
Readers, especially young readers, understand what halls are. They understand what kitchens are, bathrooms, all the rest. By providing the hobbit with rooms and possessions readers know from their own lives, readers can quickly and easily build the The Hobbit‘s setting in their own imaginations.
Another tactic Tolkien often utilizes in telling The Hobbit is directly addressing the readers.
This hobbit was a very well-to-do hobbit, and his name was Baggins. The Bagginses had lived in the neighbourhood of The Hill for time out of mind, and people considered them very respectable, not only because most of them were rich, but also because they never had any adventures or did anything unexpected: you could tell what a Baggins would say on any question without the bother of asking him. This is a story of how a Baggins has an adventure, and found himself doing and saying things altogether unexpected. He may have lost the neighbours’ respect, but he gained–well, you will see whether he gained anything in the end.
Readers have not even met this Baggins yet, but once again they can put their own knowledge to use: the humdrum uncle, for instance, that always plays life safe, or the old man down the street that goes through the same routine every gosh darn day.
In other words: boring. Kids know what boring looks like, and they’ll paint this Baggins fellow up with all the shades of boring they know. Tolkien starts readers on common ground so that when he’s ready to share the details of what they don’t know–like what a hobbit looks like–the readers can more easily integrate these details into their personal visualizations of the story.
Yet using common ground to engage the audience at story’s beginning can go wrong. Very wrong.
Enter 2018’s Robin Hood.
It’s an adventurous tale of heroes and villains, justice and evil. We all know the plot’s rhythm, the characters’ harmonies.
This film begins with a CGI book titled Robin Hood. The book opens to a stark black and white illustration of a town (and their artsy credits) an unseen narrator tells us: “So, I would tell you what year it was, but I can’t actually remember. I could bore you with the history, but you wouldn’t listen. What I can tell you is this is the story of a thief. But it doesn’t begin with the thief you know.”
So like The Hobbit, Robin Hood starts with a direct address to the audience. Unlike Tolkien’s narrator, who walks hand in hand with readers into the story, helping them find their footing in its fantasy world, the film’s narrator treats its audience with a bit of condescension–I’d explain things, but it’s not like you’d really listen, right? You think you know this story? Well you don’t! Ha!
The opening scene shows a lady in a buxom dress, sheer veil, and dolled-up face sneaking into a barn to steal a horse from the “toff” (ugh, the American accent takes all the fun out of that word) who lives there. The “toff” who catches her is–ta da! Rob. He gives her the horse for her name. Ta da! Marian.
In comes the narrator again, showing Marian and Robin being all cute and playful. “Seasons passed. They were young, in love, and that was all that mattered. Until the cold hand of fate reached out for them.”
The audience watches hands sign some curious paper, hands coming out some super-smooth grey leather sleeves.
The narrator continues to speak while a messenger takes all these ominous letters from Grey Sleeves and enters the town. Grey Sleeves stands up and whirls his giant Matrix-ish long coat around as he walks towards a balcony. The messenger continues into town; the town reminds me of something from a Renaissance Faire, a mix of periods for color, stone, and wood.
“He stole from the rich and gave to the poor. He became a bedtime story. But listen. Forget history. Forget what you’ve seen before. Forget what you think you know. This is no bedtime story.”
At long last, we are shown a huge metropolis that we can only presume is Nottingham, which is later called “the Bank of the Church, the beating heart of the Crusades“.
Not that viewers ever feel this depth of city, as they only experience one, maybe two streets the entire film.
All the curious papers are draft notices for the Crusades. So the audience is shuttled ahead four years to a stealthy unit of soldiers all dressed in sand-colored armor. It’s all sniper fire with arrows, complete with several repeating crossbows that act more like machine guns–yes, sound effects included.
The filmmakers have told viewers to “forget all you know,” removing the medieval style of warfare they’ve seen before so it can be replaced with scenes strongly eliciting scenes of modern-day conflict in the Middle East.
When Rob returns to Nottingham and finds Tuck, who’s ecstatic he’s alive even though viewers have never seen these two together before and therefore have no clue how deep or strong this friendship is, they learn ANOTHER two years have passed. Tuck dumps a bunch of exposition about the war tax and how the Sheriff has forced many townspeople to work in the mines.
You know, the mines that look like something out of Bladerunner, what with the towering exhausts of flames built into the endless frame of the mountain.
And at this point, I just had to give up trying to figure out this world.
The opening narration told me to forget what I knew. Yet the opening scenes of the film insisted on showing me characters in modernized dress and modern cosmetics. For all the exposition about war tax driving people into poverty, they show plenty of clean streets. Sure, the people are all sooty from the mines. Mining for what? How do John and Rob jury rig so many ropes and pulleys into a frickin’ firing range in the old manor? Where the heck does food come from around here? How is a Sheriff living in a frickin’ palace that makes the castle in Prince of Thieves look like a rat hole?
If Robin Hood really wanted its audience to “forget all they knew,” then MAKE THEM FORGET. You want all the modern flair in an olden time? Go all out in a sub-genre like steam punk. How awesome would it be to see Robin with an array of amazing crossbows, Little John with a clockwork arm, or the Sheriff’s stronghold as some air-fortress circling Nottingham?
But the filmmakers didn’t want viewers to forget, not really. They wanted people engaged in the story, but today’s audiences don’t understand the medieval period, right? So throw some modern music in, make even the poor commoners capable of dolling themselves up in velvet and smooth fitted leather. Sure, the coins can be old, and people can ride horses. The font on their draft notices can be printed in medieval font so they look old (seriously, those things look like they’re printed from a computer). But nothing in this world feels old. I kept waiting for the Sheriff to check his phone for a text from the Cardinal. Jeez, DC’s Green Arrow is more medieval than this Robin Hood.
Don’t even get me started on how Muslim John can move around Nottingham with ease even after the Sheriff’s fear-mongering speech. He is the ONLY man of color in the city, and nooooobody ever pays him any mind.
Of course writers shouldn’t just go and do what’s already been done. How boring that would be! But there’s a difference between building world-bridges and burning them. Tolkien took elements of modern life that the audience would know and used them to help readers connect to The Hobbit‘s world of fantasy. The crew behind Robin Hood wanted everything to look cool, but that’s all it could do–“look” cool. There’s no age to the sets, no life beyond what the camera shows us. Audiences are left wondering how these peasants can dress so elegantly, why the Crusades look more like the Iraq war, why NO CIVILIANS seem to actually LIVE anywhere (again, just…Loxley’s manor and the Middle Eastern town, apparently, are tooooooooooooooooootally uninhabited). They told us to forget what we know, yet took exactly what we know from the here and now and did their damndest to stuff the Robin Hood story into it.
Gah, now I’m just rambling.
I love the story of The Hobbit. I love the story of Robin Hood. As a reader, I’m always ready to run headlong into these fantastic adventures because I want that escape from the humdrum everyday of the here and now. I don’t want to see the here and now used as some sort of tape to patch the fantasy together. No audience wants to see the tape hanging over the edges, blurring what’s underneath.
Only the beautiful fantasy world built with love, with time, and with care.
Thanks for following me through this meandering post! Next month’s posts shall be a bit more whimsical, as I’ve got interviews, marshes, creativity, and point of view ponderings to share.
Oh! And hopefully I’ll have everything set with the free fiction of the month and a newsletter, too. Have anything you’d like to share and/or plug? Let me know!
Autumn washes over Wisconsin with gold, crimson, orange, and steel. Rain keeps the farmland cold and wet, turning three pumpkin pickers into wet whiners.
Still, we manage to pick pumpkins without kicking them at the tractor like soccer balls (don’t ask about that year). Bo stocks our freezer with delicious apple pies. Time to settle in with some hot spiced cider and a spooky read.
First of all, it was October, a rare month for boys. Not that all months aren’t rare. But there be bad and good, as the pirates say. Take September, a bad month: school begins. Consider August, a good month: school hasn’t begun yet. July, well, July’s really fine: there’s no chance in the world for school. June, no doubting it, June’s best of all, for the school doors spring wide and September’s a billion years away.
But you take October, now. School’s been on a month and you’re riding easier in the reins, jogging along. You got time to think of the garbage you’ll dump on old man Prickett’s porch, or the hairy-ape costume you’ll wear to the YMCA the last night of the month. And it it’s around October twentieth and everything smoky-smelling and the sky orange and ash gray at twilight, it seems Halloween will never come in a fall of broomsticks and a soft flap of bedsheets around corners.
But one strange wild dark long year, Halloween came early.
One year Halloween came on October 24, three hours after midnight.
The prologue goes on for just a little bit, but I want to focus on the setting here. The first paragraph establishes a unique focus: the autumn season through the eyes of a boy. Sure, we grown-ups might like the pretty colors. The little kids may be keen to jump into leaf piles. But we’re not talking about those age groups. We’re talking about boys, boys the age of 13, we learn. They’re not too old for pirate voices or costumes for Halloween, not too young for pranks about the town. Bradbury’s voice and choice in detail are going to reflect this “elder youth,” which come in a beautiful trio of sensory details in that second paragraph: “…everything smoky-smelling and the sky orange and ash gray at twilight, it seems Halloween will never come in a fall of broomsticks and a soft flap of bedsheets around corners.” In a single sentence, Bradbury moves us from the boyish plans of Halloween to the smell, sight, and sound of late October. We are on the streets as child-ghosts float by in the dusk, adults sitting round their fire-pits in drive ways with chili and beer…
…oh wait. That’s Wisconsin now.
Timeless details, I tell you!
But it doesn’t end there. Let’s keep going a bit. I want to show you how just a few drops of sensory detail in the first chapters fill readers—and our protagonists—with foreboding before Cooger and Dark’s Pandemonium Shadow Show even arrives.
Take the opening of Chapter 1:
The seller of lightning rods arrived just ahead of the storm. He came along the street of Green Town, Illinois, in the late cloudy October day, sneaking glances over his shoulder. Somewhere not so far back, vast lightnings stomped the earth. Somewhere, a storm like a great beast with terrible teeth could not be denied.
Firstly, one doesn’t come across a traveling lightning rod salesman every day. Already, we have a touch of not-normal coming into a typical small town, the kind of town that builds on the railroad in the middle of farming country. That the man “sneaks glances over his shoulder” gives readers that sense of foreboding and intimidation. Were this man unafraid, he’d simply look back. But no—he’s “sneaking” the looks, just like Bash sneaks looks out of his bedroom door when the scary owl flies towards the television screen at the beginning ofIt’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown.
Bradbury also instills a visual in readers of something not yet seen: the storm, a “great beast with terrible teeth.” A storm-sized monster “stomping” the earth surely cannot be stopped by mere mortals, can it?
By opening our first chapter with this storm, we already have a sense of “something wicked” coming—only the true wickedness is something else. Bradbury continues to use the storm, too, to crackle the setting and our senses: “Thunder sounded far off in the cloud-shadowed hills…The air smelled fresh and raw, on top of Jim Nightshade’s roof” (11, 12). Once more Bradbury touches our ears, eyes, and noses. The thunder may be “far off,” but the “cloud-shadowed hills” reveal its hiding place. We all love our “fresh” smells, so very pleasant and enjoyable, but “raw”? “Raw” immediately calls up bloody meat, yucky veg, skin cracked and bleeding beneath a dry cold.
These unsettling sensations follows protagonists Will and Jim to the library in Chapter 2. Now we’re in town, where something creeps along behind them, invisible yet…
Jim and Will grinned at each other. It was all so good, these blowing quiet October nights and the library waiting inside now with its green-shaded lamps and papyrus dust.
Jim listened. “What’s that?”
“What, the wind?”
“Like music…” Jim squinted at the horizon.
“Don’t hear no music.”
Jim shook his head. “Gone. Or it wasn’t even there. Come on!”(13)
Because only one ear catches it, both boys are quick to excuse this single-sense moment. But when the boys leave the library in Chapter 4, another single sense is touched again…
Mr. Crosetti, in front of his barber shop, his door key in his trembling fingers, did not see them stop.
What had stopped them?
It moved shining down Mr. Crosetti’s left cheek. He breathed heavily. … “Don’t you smell it?”
Jim and Will sniffed.
“Heck, no. Cotton candy! … Now, my nose tells me, breathe! And I’m crying. Why? Because I remember how a long time ago, boys ate that stuff. Why haven’t I stopped to think and smell the last thirty years?”
…And they left him behind in a wind that very faintly smelled of licorice and cotton candy. (21-22)
Now we know that the boys aren’t the only ones catching a whiff, as it were, of something peculiar in the wind. Not only is this adult moved to concentrate on a single smell, but he’s moved to tears. This speaks to a longing inside the character, a want for what was.
For what’s coming.
With lightning and licorice, Bradbury tangles our senses with intrigue. We need to see what lightnings stomp in the hills. We need to see what brings the cotton candy so sweet the very scent of it makes a grown man cry. As you write the first few chapters of your story, take a moment to drop setting details for a few senses, just enough to put the heroes–and readers–on edge.
Charlotte’s hand presses the pendant into her sternum as if to cover
whatever’s cracked open inside her. It’s all she can touch—Anna’s out of reach,
she and every other passenger, their bodies floating about behind dimmed
windows. Does no one else smell the old oil and neglect, like meat burned down
to nothing? The way Jamie stands by the door, hands clasped behind him,
grinning like a choir boy, all pleased with himself, Charlotte knows, freakin’ knows, someone’s pulled an Ed Gein and made the bus seats out of bodies.
“Sweetheart, you’ve got to board, okay?” Maisy calls from the coach. “You
can’t stay here with me. It’ll take days to get the bus fixed.”
And you know you’re oversmelling it, Charlie, just like earlier with the bears and shit. It’s just an old bus, is all. But Charlotte continues to hesitate.
“Hurry up, Charlie, let’s go!” her sister calls from a window. “They’ve got
food in here. And it’s all posh, come on!”
Jamie’s grin grows.
It’s just a bus. Charlotte decides, and tucks the necklace away.
~STILL SHOUTING FOR SHOUT OUTS!~
I can still take on a couple more plugs for my monthly newsletter From the Wilds of Jean Lee’s World.It’s a separate set of updates from that of WordPress. If you have a book coming out, a book to sell, music, art–any creative endeavor’s worth shouting about! Just email me at firstname.lastname@example.org to snag a slot in a future edition.
Often times writers are told to go people-watch for character inspiration. This is certainly all well and good if your senses are allowed to wander about the town, in the library, at the pub, and so on.
And then, there’s parenthood.
(Yes, both Biff and Bash are missing their top two front teeth. God has a sense of humor.)
I thought for sure a trip to the North Woods would give me at least some opportunity to catch a few interesting characters. After all, this is the land of the columned white arrow signs. You better keep your eyes open for these, or you’ll never know where stuff is.
This is the land of quiet waters, of river-kissing mists departing with dawn’s light.
Of eagle homes hidden among the oaks and evergreens.
Unfortunately, the only eagle we spotted all week was this one:
Still, the kids were all able to find their special little somethings. Blondie found snail shells.
Bash found his grumps.
Biff found his chainsaws.
No, he didn’t grab one (this time). Bo was able to keep the kids a safe distance away from the carving demonstrations at the Paul Bunyan festival.
I’m not sure what was so Paul Bunyany about it–there was no blue ox, no giant lumberjacks. Plenty of beer and football signs, though. Nothing says Wisconsin like sports and alcohol!
Surely a festival drawing in a wide range of tourists and locals would provide SOME opportunity for characters, right? Bo knew I wanted to walk around with my camera, so he took advantage of the chainsaws and stuffed the kids with chocolate-covered graham crackers so I could take a quick look around.
Biff notices my absence all too soon, and jumps over to my side of the street. Despite the lumberjack quartet trying to strum banjos and harmonies, Biff belts the theme to “Ghostbusters”at the top of his lungs and dances down the walkway. I hold up my phone to take a video of him singing, but then…oh, but then…
Who in Sam Elliot is THIS? An older man–70s, I’ll say. Jeans and flannel despite summer warmth. Cowboy hat. Glasses, mustache. Baby carrier. Dog. A wide-eyed, scared-stiff, shaky little dog. In the baby carrier.
So don’t fret if you can’t get out much, writers, or you’re not able to let your eyes wander. Sometimes it’s when our focus is distracted from the hunt that we find what we’re hunting for, and then some.
Speaking of hunting, if you’re looking for a wicked read to welcome Autumn, then I do hope you’ll check out my debut dark fantasy YA novel, Fallen Princeborn: Stolen.
In rural Wisconsin, an old stone wall is all that separates the world of magic from the world of man—a wall that keeps the shifters inside. When something gets out, people disappear. Completely.
Escaping from an abusive uncle, eighteen-year-old Charlotte is running away with her younger sister Anna. Together they board a bus. Little do they know that they’re bound for River Vine—a shrouded hinterland where dark magic devours and ancient shapeshifters feed, and where the seed of love sets root among the ashes of the dying.
You can snatch up a paperback on Amazon today! If you’ve got an e-reader, the online edition can be FREE via Kindle Unlimited, too.
When there’s deadlines for two novels and six short stories, it can be pretty easy to forget about little things like family time or relaxation.
It’s bloody hard to write when the kids are home, but sometimes they manage to occupy themselves creatively while I work. Blondie works on her comic book starring Ruff Ruff and Stormfly…
…while Bash draws picture after picture of Star Wars droids. “Is that R2-D2?” I’ll ask. “No, that’s Q3-5A,” I’m corrected. Okie dokie!
Biff loves to read, but he’s not much for writing or drawing like his siblings. He gets his creativity on with Legos, which suits me find for this little engineer.
We’ve taken the kids to the North Woods a few times, and hope to do so once more before the school year starts. Princeton’s not far from the family cabin, and it hosts a weekly flea market throughout the summer. Bo has many treasured childhood memories of this market, so we always take care to visit it at least once a summer. He gets to dig through old comic tubs, and I get to take a gander at all the people.
The booths are filled with everything from liquidation buyouts, bottomless tubs of toys from the last fifty years, handmade doll clothes, or antler home decor. Who wouldn’t want a fireplace poker made of deer antler?
Plus there’s always a few tables laden with books–hooray! I didn’t know I needed a cookbook by the Dixie Diamond Baton Corps, but come on–you know there’s got to be good stuff in there.
I don’t know what qualifies as “antique” outside the US, but I just cannot consider ’90s nonsense as “antique.” (I went to elementary school with people who wore those buttons, for cryin’ out loud.)
Now I do not know how this guy does it. Poetry on demand? Brilliant! And he always had someone waiting for a poem. Either he’s that good a writer, or Wisconsinites are just that tired of all the booths selling crocheted Green Bay Packer hand towels and beer cozies.
Speaking of writing on demand, let’s see what could make for some awesome reading for August. I’ve added these to my TBR list–I hope you will, too!
George has been an amazing support over the years in the blogosphere, so when he announced he put a book together, I had to give it a shout-out! He shares pieces of life and inspiration that help him create his lyrics for his three published albums. Do check this out!
Zoolon, the alter ego of George Blamey-Steeden, is a musician & sound artist living in Dover. He has a number of albums to his name, ‘Liquid Truth’ (2012), a concept album themed around Plato’s ‘Allegory of The Cave’; ‘Cosa Nostra’ (2014) a sound art creation based upon ‘Romeo & Juliet’, plus his two latest albums displaying his songwriting skills, presently on sale via Bandcamp, namely ‘Dream Rescuer’ (2017) & ‘Rainbows End’ (2017). http://www./zoolon.bandcamp.com An accomplished musician, he has a BA (Hons) Creative Music Technology (1st Class Degree) and his passion for composing is only matched by his love of wildlife and his support of The Arsenal football club. http://www.zoolonhub.com
I saw this at the bookstore under “Local Authors” and became intrigued. There’s a supernatural element here, but a family drama at the heart. The allure of such a mix can’t be denied!
If you knew the date of your death, how would you live your life?
It’s 1969 in New York City’s Lower East Side, and word has spread of the arrival of a mystical woman, a traveling psychic who claims to be able to tell anyone the day they will die. The Gold children—four adolescents on the cusp of self-awareness—sneak out to hear their fortunes.
The prophecies inform their next five decades. Golden-boy Simon escapes to the West Coast, searching for love in ’80s San Francisco; dreamy Klara becomes a Las Vegas magician, obsessed with blurring reality and fantasy; eldest son Daniel seeks security as an army doctor post-9/11; and bookish Varya throws herself into longevity research, where she tests the boundary between science and immortality.
A sweeping novel of remarkable ambition and depth, The Immortalists probes the line between destiny and choice, reality and illusion, this world and the next. It is a deeply moving testament to the power of story, the nature of belief, and the unrelenting pull of familial bonds.
I am so stoked about Novik’s latest! Uprooted was a joy, reminiscent of Diana Wynne Jones’ quests and battles with quirky yet complete characters, so when I heard Novik’s got another fairy tale in bookstores, I had add it to my list.
Miryem is the daughter and granddaughter of moneylenders… but her father isn’t a very good one. Free to lend and reluctant to collect, he has loaned out most of his wife’s dowry and left the family on the edge of poverty–until Miryem steps in. Hardening her heart against her fellow villagers’ pleas, she sets out to collect what is owed–and finds herself more than up to the task. When her grandfather loans her a pouch of silver pennies, she brings it back full of gold.
But having the reputation of being able to change silver to gold can be more trouble than it’s worth–especially when her fate becomes tangled with the cold creatures that haunt the wood, and whose king has learned of her reputation and wants to exploit it for reasons Miryem cannot understand.
While it’s great getting perspective on strictly characters or strictly world-building, I want to study the art that is storytelling. Writing beautiful prose always a sweet endeavor, but to keep readers gripped, to keep them from putting down the book because they need to know what’s happening to characters they care about–now thatmakes me writer-proud. I’m looking forward to this one!
What do Luke Skywalker, John McClane, and a lonely dog on Ho‘okipa Beach have in common?
Simply put, we care about them.
Great storytelling is making readers care about your characters, the choices they make, and what happens to them. It’s making your audience feel the tension and emotion of a situation right alongside your protagonist. And to tell a damn fine story, you need to understand why and how that caring happens.
Using a mix of personal stories, pop fiction examples, and traditional storytelling terms, New York Times best-selling author Chuck Wendig will help you internalize the feel of powerful storytelling.
And of course, because I’m a writer…
If you’d like a little breather from your typical summer reading fare, try my serialized novel Middler’s Prideon Channillo or Fallen Princeborn: Stolen,FREE on KindleUnlimited! 2019 Update: Due to recent changes in the publishing relationship between Aionios Books and myself, Tales of the River Vine has been pulled from the market to be repackaged and distributed in fresh editions.
Many students and writing comrades have told me of their need for silence when they write. I’ve never been one for silence; my ears quickly become distracted by any noise, be it a plane overhead, some neighbor’s car door, the heater. This could just be due to the fact I’ve got a squirrel’s attention span.
Or, it could be due to the fact I’m a parent with kids who are always, ALWAYS noisy: cars crash, transformers explode, trains go off cliffs, animals eat each other–they are all of them dramatic, violent little buggers. If they’re quiet, then that just means they’re using stealth to accomplish something even more devious, like treating the oven dials as spaceship controls.
So quiet’s not exactly a writing option round these parts. I need to isolate my imagination’s internal senses with visuals and sounds.
It begins with snapshots, like slides on a projector. Just pictures at first, distant and untouchable, until more slides come, a photogenic click click click of a paperless book. The cassette player ka-chunks and music sneaks into the space, quiet and wary until it meets the beat of the slides and then maybe, if I time it just right, I can jump into the images like double-dutch and land, smack. I’m there. I’m in. And I can feel it all.
And with the kids on spring break for two long, LONG weeks, the time to focus my search was not coming. I’d dust off one snapshot of just a character’s arm, or some sort of shadow-blob in the background. The next day I just get a bruise-ish color, but no shapes.
It was so infuriating I even vented to Bo about it. I need something that looks alive, I said.
No, not alive, just looking alive.
And in the water. A dark place, but they gotta see where they’re going.
(Oh yes, he’s furrowing his brow through this entire exchange.) “Dark, but…there’s light?”
“And that’s supposed to be here, like, on Earth?”
Hopeless, I thought. I’m stuck forever.
An hour later, after the boys have read about outer space and trucks, and Blondie learned what Roald Dahl’s Mathilda will do to anyone who rips up a library book, Bo emails me a search result of images. Take a look here.Notice where they come from? Comic books.
But in studying the Aquaman archive, I find my own shoulders hunching into a “meh” position. I don’t want to make yet another version of Atlantis.
Then two things happen at once: a happy accident, you could say.
First, I open a different file from Bo:
The blue. The cold darkness balanced with light. The living feel of the dome and rock…at last, a clear slide! In my mind’s projector I can finally sit on the bench, staring, waiting for the cassette player to come on, or another slide to click into place.
Oh, Imagination is shaking the box for the other slides. It’s crawling on hands and knees to search under benches and that sad excuse of a cart with rust on the bottom shelf and a cracked wheel.
Still not found. Not for three. Damn. Days.
On a borrowed computer, I find an album I haven’t listened to in ages:
As a kid, I only paid attention to the film when Captain Picard and all the good guys with the weird blue eyes rode on giant worms and blasted baddies into smithereens. The music was super dramatic with its drums, choir, guitar, orchestra. The first minute here should give you a sense of that (Ignore the second minute with the creepy kid):
Way, way back, in the corner of the storage room, Imagination digs up an old cassette tape. Something eerie. Distinctly awed. Cautious.
It was from Dune.
I start skimming the tracks, and by God, I find it.
Imagination turns up the volume. The slide deepens. I step forward, as cautious as the choir. The rhythm is slow, deceptive. Imagination nudges me into the minor harmonies and invisible currents. Will I tangle them, ruin their power? Will I fall, bloody the ground?
Winter’s a curious time in Wisconsin. As I mentioned in my post “War Against Writer’s Butt,” we can go from fifty degrees and mud to twenty below and ice-roads in a couple of days.
Capturing this transition is all the more difficult. Fortunately, good friend and professional photographer Emily Ebeling gave me permission to share some of her photos from a trip to Cedarburg Bridge.
Winter trees have such a sadness about them. Once I referred to them as “gravestones over their summer-selves.” The way their fingers bleed into the ice below turns the river into a portal, an other-world that I so often sense on solitary walks in my homeland.
The way they huddle together as if caught, and freeze, waiting for you to turn away.
The way a river calls to you, promising safe passage through nature’s spectral giants and their clawing bones.
The way a bridge impresses safety, dominance over nature. Sure, walk on water, I won’t let anything happen to you, for I was made by man.
As far as you know.
The way you stand at water’s edge, and peer down. Rocks both tall and flat, a mix of mashed teeth. Nothing stirs at the water’s surface, nothing peeks from the depths. Do you dare kneel, and cross the boundary?
Some winters will barricade you in your home, forcing you to find new worlds in “the solar system of the mind,” as Blondie once put it. Of course this isn’t a bad thing, but look at what curiosities await out there, like this covered bridge.
Where will this bridge take you at the break of dawn? At the dead of night? If you’re the tenth daughter walking on the tenth day of the tenth month in the tenth year?
Moments like this make me both envious and thankful for a friend like Emily; one who’s able to get out and document such beautiful portals, and does so with both the skill and equipment necessary to do these portals justice.
This is why I’ve always been a sucker for photography that captures both the intimate and epic scopes of landscape. I may never get back to Ireland. I may never return to the Dakotas, let alone travel farther west. Heck, I may never find this covered bridge right here in my state. We each of us live surrounded by beautiful portals to other worlds, many of which we may never get to find. But someone, like Emily, may stumble upon the portal before winter breathes the portal shut. She may steal it away in her camera, and share her findings with you. Then, when you are alone with your jumbled words and these borrowed photos, the magics may spark all on their own. Those sparks may burn open a new portal, and that portal may beckon to you, and you alone.
When Bo and I asked for his relations to watch the kids so we could go on a day-date, Bo mentioned Holy Hill. “Weather’s supposed to be nice, and no youth festivals.” He eyed my camera.
Woohoo! I didn’t need those pictures of the kids on vacation anyway.
Because I had already taken several pictures of the basilica itself, I planned to save memory space for the woods surrounding it. All was gold, rich, blinding. Despite the hundreds hiking and picnicking upon the slopes, a peaceful silence remained in the air, so much so that one could listen to the leaves rattle in the breeze and dance as they fell upon the Passion Walk.
Such a set-apart place. One wouldn’t think three minutes in the car would lead to a busy highway, to golf courses and suburbs. When we build our fictional worlds, we so often must condense a universe, grind out the spaces so that things build up up up upon each other so that there’s no chance for an absence of action, let alone finding Holy Water on tap for easy access.
Passion Walk finished, we wandered past the lower chapel, read upon the history of the shrine, and—The Scenic Tower is open!
Bo waves at me to join the line. “I had my fill of that twenty years ago.”
I don’t blame him for bowing out. The tower stairs are ridiculously narrow; well, it’s not like they were built with tourists in mind, let alone so many. But the world reaches up and touches at every window. I can’t click fast enough to just, absorb. Breathe. Smile with the sun.
I don’t go up the last stair; tempting as it was, the congestion of people was driving even me into a claustrophobic fit. The plus side of going solo is that you feel no need to move as a group up and down stairs barely a foot wide.
But when I wasn’t thinking of the elderly man on the verge of losing his dentures onto the basilica roof, or the huddle of nuns (congregation of nuns? choir of nuns? pew of nuns?) with fanny packs determined to get group pictures on every landing, I was thinking about the land. The sky. How a world, even this small little bit of world, can seem so very vast with the right point of view.
Writers don’t need to create entire worlds for a story. We need only a place cradled by the horizon. Look down: there, among the trees and fields, the towns and roads, are countless hiding places where possibilities giggle and whisper in wait. Let’s count to ten.
An Indian Summer gripped Wisconsin for far too long this September. Mosquitos rejoiced, trees clutched their green leaves. It was even hot enough to go to the beach for my mother’s birthday. But no heat wave would thwart me this year. I would have my fall foliage pictures no matter what Mother Nature said, dammit!
So when Bo suggested getting one more weekend at the family cabin up north, I gave an emphatic “YES!” Trees galore, beautiful lake, a well-timed cold-snap. Awesome, right?
Just look at that gorgeous blue water. Surrounded by green leaves. Grumble grumble.
But there was no denying the joy of a lakeshore littered by wee rocks. Bo and Blondie worked on skipping stones. Biff and Bash enjoyed their “fireworks”–aka, throwing clumps of sand into the air over the water.
Bo knew I was disappointed. “Did you want take pictures of the fish hatchery for your blog?”
(Insert irritated glare here.) “No.”
The weekend over, we stopped at a nearby town for gas, coffee, and a playground before heading home. We passed something we pass so often when visiting this town, and an idea hit me:
“Can you handle the kids at the park for a little while?”
“I guess. What’s up?”
“I want to take some pictures.”
Many immigrants of German descent came to Wisconsin, which is why this state had such a large number of breweries for a while. Unlike the others, however, the Tiger Brewery has never been torn down, even though it’s been out of use since the 1930s.
It’s not for public entry. It’s not a museum. It’s just…a monument? That requires power lines, and blinds in the windows?
I take care with my camera when I near the occupied house next to the brewery. Perhaps they’re the caretakers, or neighbors who loathe snoopers.
But I can’t help but wonder about this place. It’s not falling apart, it’s not technically in use. In this town, it doesn’t seem to be anything. Why leave it alone? Why not enter it, and invite others to do the same? What’s in there people can’t look at? What’s hiding in there? What is this town protecting? Even the apples hang forgotten, rotten, from its trees.
One window board upon the tower flaps open. Bet there’s a stairwell in there to the top, and even to the underground. Deep, deep into the earth, beneath the river running behind this ignored place, deeper still where another forgotten world awaits, where eyes blink in darkness and long nails dig through stone, hunting…
Perhaps your own town has a similar street, where life hums at sunrise and sunset, but is otherwise left to a breezy quiet. What hides among the normal? What is the price this world pays to ignore its presence? What…where…when…who…why, why, why….These questions fly by us as leaves caught up in the wind.
Except some days I just want to get out of the damn house.
Yesterday was such a day. I had just finished another chapter of Beauty’s Price, saw the clock, and thought, Screw it. I am going to investigate those trees even if only for ten minutes.
You see, one of the beauties of Wisconsin comes with its trees.
They cluster, they watch, they stand steadfast behind the encroaching subdivisions. They erupt amidst the farmland, and farmers never seem to touch them. They hold together like a Roman phalanx, and like Hell will you take them down. Ever since I was a girl I’d look upon them and wonder: What lives in them? Hides in them? They’re a sanctuary, a prison, protecting a secret, protecting us from a secret…
One such cluster is near my daughter’s school. I parked, and entered.
Such a difference a tree-lined path can make for the soul! Sunlight in leaves will forever be Nature’s stained glass to me. A forest is divine, a place where the soul breathes deep that which has always been, and always will be. Churches rise and fall. Their air grows cold and stale as the outdated hymnals in their pews. But the birdsong heard since Creation, the leaves’ processional in the wind–that is always.
I had time for only one path; no concerns, I knew I’d be back for autumn’s transformation. One tree caught my attention:
A vine of some sort? Its roots jutted out like centipede legs.
My fantasy mind turned immediately to roots of dark magic. Possibilities blossomed.
Why else does a writer need sanctuary away from words? Not all stories come to us in the spoken word, but in the whisper of a leaf, the chatter of the twigs, the dance of light upon the stones in the bottom of a stream. Some stories hide among the brush, eyes invisible to the ignorant, waiting for the right imagination on which to pounce.