My previous music post connected with quite a few genres of storytelling: mystery, horror, and adventure. I’d like to spend a touch more time on mystery, as I’m currently writing the third novel of the Fallen Princebornomnibus, whose plot is riddled with mysteries both solved and begun.
Finding the right atmosphere for mysteries is not always simple. Is this a murder mystery with a steady body count, death threats and chases galore? Or is this mystery more slow-burn style, a hunt for the conspiracy with little blood seen but destined to be found if the mystery isn’t solved?
I love both kinds, so of course my book’s a mix of both. While scores like Mad Max: Fury Road, Batman Begins, Bourne Supremacy, and others of heavy percussion help with action-heavy moments, it’s important to find the music to counter-balance that. Mychael Danna’s Breachhas some lovely tension-filled moments, but I’d like to highlight another score of beautiful, unsettling ambiance: Alexandre Desplat’s The Imitation Game.
Once again, Desplat’s use of the piano is superb. Those first few seconds of solo piano and a low running bass note immediately establish a sense of problem, of not-rightness. The repetitive run of four notes throughout the entire track also gives that feeling of mechanization, of clockwork not in our control. The strings that swell in around the 40-second mark bring a bittersweet air to them, harmonizing with the piano, but more often in a minor key than a traditional major one. Woodwinds are held off until the last minute of the track, and here, the oboe gets a chance to shine. I’m usually not a fan of the oboe (I blame one of my elementary school classmates in band who had one and NEVER learned to play it correctly. Honestly, nothing sounds worse than an awful oboe except maybe an awful violin played by me, ahem.), but when done right the oboe provides a strong yet light tragic air to a melody before it subtly fades into the quiet.
Even Desplat’s percussion is kept relatively light.
With another arpeggio, this time in a lower key, and a few percussion instruments like rhythm sticks, Desplat creates a menacing air fitting for the wartime conflict. This story is, after all, not one of the front lines and bomb raids, but the one fought out of sight, where coded words are as deadly as any missile strike. Even xylophones and chimes are put to use, but unlike Danna’s score for Breach, though here patterned melodies provide that feel of mechanization…but not the circuitry of some computer. Here it is time to follow the journeys of logic to decode nature and language.
Whether you are a reader or writer of mysteries, I heartily recommend Desplat’s The Imitation Game to create that air of hidden conflicts and pursuits for truth. Give characters the unspoken need to embrace the mystery.
Let’s talk first about reading awesome stuff. What is your favorite childhood book? C’mon, say Voyage of the Dawn Treader, you know you want to!
Haha, is that your favorite Narnia book? If I was to go with something from C.S. Lewis I’d say Out of the Silent Planet. I’m a big fan of Roald Dahl, it’s hard to pick one, maybe James and the Giant Peach. Also, I’ve been reading Calvin & Hobbes to my kids at night, and I’m always impressed by how much insight Bill Waterson has into the fundamental nature of childhood. Do other people identify that much with Calvin or is it just me?
OH MY GOSH YES! We found all our old Calvin & Hobbes collections when the basement flooded. The kids LOVE reading them, which is awesome…until one starts using some of Calvin’s vocabulary at school and winds up seeing the principal as a result. That’s not so awesome.
Anyway, what authors did you dislike at first but grew into?
I think that The Catcher in the Rye is one of those books where there’s a small window in your life where it really hits you like a punch in the face. I think high schools do it a disservice by teaching it in Sophomore years. I think you need to approach it a bit later. Sooner or later you’ll feel what Holden was feeling, and Catcher is magical if you pick it up at that moment. However, if you’re reading it against your will it becomes absolutely miserable…which is unfortunate.
I know just what you mean. I recall being forced to readThe Count of Monte Cristoin college and absolutely loathed it, but when I tried it again a few years ago, I was completely enraptured. It’s like there needs to be a shedding of expectations, an allowance to read for reading’s sake, and allow the story to dictate the pace rather than the reader.
I remember being pretty upset at the end of The Elfstones of Shannara. I also found the first 6 minutes of Transformers: The Movie completely devastating. I know it was just a big advertisement to get us to buy toy robots…but it meant something to me dang it!
Oh yeah, I made the mistake of showing this “kid’s movie” to my sons. Watch the opening if you dare, folks. This movie opens with an entire planet of living robots BEING EATEN. Kids love death on a planetary scale!
(Gotta say, though, that the theme song is totally metal.)
Bash sobbed for ages after it was done, and I don’t blame him–you’re watching beloved Robots in Disguise MELT TO DEATH throughout this movie! Biff thought it all amusing and wanted to watch it again. (Yes, we are watching him.)
I’m sure you get a lot of authors and/or stories recommended to you that you just don’t dig—a reader’s block, as it were. Do you fight your way through to finish the story, or do you shelve the story, never to be finished?
The main reason I don’t finish a book these days is just a lack of time. Endings don’t surprise me anymore so the main craft of a book is in the beginning I believe. If an astute reader hasn’t guessed the ending of a book then there are problems with the build up. It’s pretty rare to encounter a book so terrible I have to put it down. Whether a book is published by a small press, a major publisher, or independently, there is almost always a memorable line or scene. Everybody has a worthwhile story to tell.
Excellent point. In all my years I can’t think of more than a few books that I just couldn’t bring myself to finish. Have you read anything that made you think differently about fiction?
I like the onomatopoeic words that show interjections of simultaneous action during a dialogue, and the present tense portions create a sense of urgency. Janet Morris does something similar in her Beyondseries, although she slips out of it into a more traditional narrative voice. I might try doing a short story in your style just to see how it feels.
That’d be cool! It’s important to test different styles. Yeah, they might not work, but some other excellent character or plot idea may arise in that attempt, and that makes the experiment worth it.
How did publishing your first book change your process of writing?
I think you gain more confidence in the process as you go. Usually there’s a theme or an idea that I want to work through, and I come up with a lot of stories that surround that idea. Once you have a hundred pages of stories, you start to see how they connect in a storyline. I imagine that The Hobbit came as a result of Tolkien saying, “I’d like to daydream about a place called Middle-Earth for a while.” Writing a book is very much taking a journey. You take the journey because you’re curious what the scenery looks like.
You’re currently a member of the St. Croix Writers, a writing group based in the beautiful North Woods of Wisconsin. Can you share a bit about this group and its awesomeness?
I just met those folks as a result of a concerted effort I’m making in 2019 to be more active in writing groups. I found a web page that listed all the writing groups in the state of Wisconsin and I wrote all of them a message. Thomas Wayne King sent me his phone number and encouraged me to call for a chat which I thought was very nice. I plan on attending their next meeting. I think a lot of writing groups could come into the 20th century a little more. There are a lot of ways that writers can support each other and I think that needs to be encouraged.
Yes, indeed! Especially because it’s easy to feel a bit cut off where we are, the “backwaters” that “real writers” don’t live in.
So of course I have to ask about Wisconsin, too, being a “Cheesehead” myself (yet not a Packer fan. I know, I know, I’m lucky not to be banished to Illinois for that.) Do you feel there’s something about Wisconsin’s land, people, or culture that inspires your storytelling? How so?
I think a lot of stories from rural Wisconsin are overlooked or dismissed. There’s quite a bit of arrogance in the writing community, and an impulse to disregard certain stories, which is unfortunate. Everyone has a story to tell, and all of those stories are very important and deserve attention. Actually, if you want to read more about my thoughts on this matter, check out my article “Not Worthy of Study: The Catastrophic Arrogance of the Literary Community.” Go Packers!
Ugh, don’t even TALK to me about the Packers after this lousy excuse of a season!
It can be a huge struggle balancing the writing side of life with that of family. Does your family inspire your stories, or support you in your writing endeavors? In what way(s)?
I’ll often read my stories to my girls at night before they go to sleep. If they pay attention all the way to the end, I know I have something good. If they drift off, I know I have to rewrite. They’re very honest and that’s vital.
Aw, that’s so awesome! I haven’t dared share my writing with my kids. When I see them, the fear of disappointing them digs too deep.
You regularly travel between the United States and Peru to visit family. How amazing to be immersed in such different cultures! What kinds of inspiration do you draw from the Peruvian landscape, culture, and people?
I went to Peru when I was 26 and it was super helpful to me because it was so inexpensive to live there. As a writer, you need a lot of time, not just for writing, but for reflection. Also, you can go a lot time between pay days writing, so it’s nice not to have a lot of financial pressure. Being in a foreign country is great for anyone because it shows that whole societies are built on radically different ideas. This is useful to see in person if you’re one of those people who walks around thinking, “So many things in our society seem wrong to me.” People will tell you that you’re crazy if you point out an error. “That’s the way it’s always been,” they say. It’s a massive existential boost to see that, no, it HASN’T always been that way in other parts of the world.
As much as I love my kids, they can be my writing Kryptonite: nothing zaps the creative drive like a call from the principal or a kid waking waaaay too early for his own good. What is your writing Kryptonite?
I’m the first to admit I “Google as I go” as far as researching is concerned. How long do you spend researching before beginning a book?
I think research is more important to a tech type writer, somebody like Tom Clancy where historical items are far more important to the plot. I’m a character type writer, so research doesn’t play that big a role. However, my most recent release, Paperclip, required some research. We did it on the fly, and we found exactly what we were looking for. It turns out there were some documents that were supposed to be shredded by the government but got misfiled instead—you can’t make stuff like that up!
Oh, what a lucky find!
You and I are both published via small presses, which are different than self-publishing programs or the “traditional” publishing houses, so we see things a bit differently in the publishing industry. What do you think is the most unethical practice in the publishing industry, and what can be done to change it?
There are a lot of things I’d like to change in the publishing industry. One of the things I really dislike is that people seem to be afraid to express their own opinions. A narrative gets created about a book, and people fall in step with what the narrative states. I’ve been fortunate where I’ve felt the tidal effect of a positive narrative, but it still is a disquieting feeling. I used to get in trouble in college classes a lot because I like to offer nuanced opinions, but the mass of people want to reassign you to a larger, dumbed down narrative. “Well it sounds like you’re saying this…” they say, when you aren’t saying anything of the sort.
Oh yes, I’ve noticed that, these “narratives.” There’s hype that will lump the book into a certain group, and if you disagree than you’re an awful person. There’s no nuance anymore, no “I liked Element A in the book but not B, and here’s why.” It’s all or nothing.
Mostly, I’d like to see new authors get more of a fair shake, but part of advertising is to take customers away from the competition. The thing I’m doing to change it is to read and engage with as many new authors as I can. I’ve become pretty bored with major Hollywood releases, there are some fascinating works out there in small-press and independent publishing.
Kudos to you, Sir! There’s such a wealth of amazing tales out there that the mainstream media never touches. It’s up to us to dig them up!
Lastly, what are common traps for aspiring writers, and how can they avoid them?
A lot of the general beliefs about what it means to be a writer are just flat out wrong, and there are a lot of people giving bad advice. The big thing to remember is that the money is supposed to flow TO the writer, not FROM the writer. Even if it’s not a lot of money, it needs to be going TO you. The other thing to keep in mind is that your work will often be rejected without being read. There are some agents and publishers who send out really snooty form letters, and you’ll get these even from an email query that doesn’t even include an attachment of your work. It’s pretty much a rigged game with no chance of success, but play it anyway. Maybe we should all be thankful for that because I think too much attention is just as destructive to your ability to do important work as too little. Every story is important, and every story has an audience. Thanks for having me!
And thank you for taking the time to chat! Lord willing I can drive up to Chippewa Falls sometime for a chat. 🙂
If you’re in northern Midwest, Rhein and co-author Dan Woll are having a talk about writing and marketing thrillers.
Reverend Wesley Allen is a delightful friend and fellow indie writer with a new book,In the Land of the Penny Gnomes.Today we discuss our mutual love of writing fantasy, balancing family and the writing life, and more.
I love this line from your “about” page on your site, Painfully Hopeful: “I hope that I can be a decent pastor, geek, father, and husband. It’s just sometimes I’m painfully aware that I’m not quite all that I want to be.” Let’s address your family first. You have a wife, two teenagers, and a baby. Just…I cannot fathom having a baby at this point, let alone with teenagers in the house. Do you manage to squeak a little writing time in every day, or just on Sunday afternoons, or when? Does your family root you on in the writing process, or do you keep your stories to yourself?
I am also unable to fathom having an infant in the house. Still, he’s pretty cool and I’ve raised kids through adolescence so poopy diapers and crying isn’t as daunting as it used to be. When Bump doesn’t want to sleep at night, though, I get a bit cranky.
I do write a bit most days, but I’ve managed to write only one short fiction piece for my blog since Bump’s been born. I need to get into a mindset to write, and it’s been hard to find the space to get there. My imagination is still going strong, though, and I’ve got stories running around in my head. I also have to write a sermon every week, so there’s that.
And Sunday afternoons are not good writing days. My introverted brain is basically a bowl of oatmeal by Sunday afternoon. It’s all I can do to scream at the Eagles when they’re playing. (1)
My family really isn’t involved in my projects. My wife isn’t a fantasy fan, my daughter likes to pretend she doesn’t care (2), and my older son just kinda grunts at me when I mention I wrote something. Bump drools on my keyboard. I’m sure if I pushed things a bit more they’d show more interest, but I don’t feel compelled to do so. When I was growing up my family referred to my daydreaming state as “Wes World.” I could dive so deep into my imagination people could be screaming at me and I would barely notice — it was my place to be one my own with my thoughts. As my writing basically emerges from that space it continues to be a solitary endeavor.
As a child of a preacher m’self, I know how one’s life merges to be one with the church sometimes. Personally, I like when storytelling allows me to separate from that environment, but there are ways when faith weaves itself into the fantasy world-building whether intended or not. Do you consider your faith to be a major or minor influence in your writing? How so?
I’m not sure I’d categorized it as “major or minor,” as that would imply faith was merely a component of who I am. Faith is the core of my being, it’s who I am.
But, because I’m quite comfortable with faith being who I am I do not set out to write “Christian stories.” In fact, using the word “Christian” as an adjective to describe a particular set of pop-culture media makes me want to throw up. I guess I’m with Tolkien — too much of what I see in “Christian” pop-culture is reduced to a blunt allegory which has deluded itself into believing it’s subtle. It’s icky.
At the same time, because faith is what I am, of course there are aspects of my faith which can’t help but be seen in my writing. But I try to evoke them as applicable expressions. The idea that good exists, that there is always a larger narrative, and that a people’s story matters all spring into my work though my faith. But I hope they resonate with any reader, and not just “religious” ones.
Having said all that, I am working on a devotional which works around short fiction pieces, but even then the pieces are there to provoke thought and not just telling people what to believe.
About the Pictures
On top of all this, you still find time to get out with your camera! Do you find the images you capture to inspire your storytelling, or do you enjoy time with your camera as a break form words?
Since I love to take Bump for walks, I’ve been able to keep up my photography hobby throughout his early months. I don’t know if photography is a break from words so much as it is permission to pay attention. I live in my head, photography gives me a window to see the world. At the same time, I hate photographing people. I love landscape, as they don’t look at you funny.
And, yes, photography has inspired me to write. When I share photos on my blog they are accompanied by a short meditation, which helps me process what I’m seeing. And the third world I’ve created, The Kingdom of Parallel, was inspired by a photo I took at Sunset. The story has evolved away from the inspiration that photo provided, but the world wouldn’t exist without it.
You’re also keen on using technological resources. I’m hoping to finally start using a program or two m’self, such as Scrivener. As a writer with multiple devices and obligations, which program do you find most useful for building and writing a fantasy world and why?
As you mentioned, Scrivener is huge. I’d be lost without that program, and version 3 on the Mac is superb. All my writing is done inside Scrivener.
For world-building Aeon Timeline is an application which helps me give context to my writing. I love visuals, and the character creation tools inside Aeon Timeline help me visualize how old the characters are at the time of the story. I have to imagine ahead of time, which takes out a lot of the guess work.
And then, interestingly enough, I love minecraft as a world builder. In fact, the first novel I completed, Welcome To The Valleys, was started because I wanted to write the story for the world I’d both explored and created. As I explored villages, terrain, and roadways I could visualize the world as a living space, which made it fun to write.
About the Book
Now let’s talk about your book, In the Land of the Penny Gnomes. Not only do you have an omniscient narrator to tell the story, but the Narrator himself is a character that interacts with the young hero, Will. Can you explain the process that brought you to this writing choice? What have been the challenges of such a choice? The payoffs?
The Narrator is a combination of techniques both Terry Pratchett and Jasper Fforde use in their work. Pratchett is famous for his footnotes, in which the Narrator issues an aside to the audience. So my use of footnotes is an homage to him. At the same time, Jasper Fforde uses footnotes so characters can communicate with one another (3). These two techniques became the genesis of the Narrator, a literal bridge between the reader and the characters in the story.
The main challenge was to not have the Narrator appear to fix everything on every other page. I’m not sure he’s Omniscient in the usual sense, because he’s on the journey with Will. He knows things, but there’s still things for him to discover, which is unusual for the Narrator. The biggest payoff is what Pratchett discovered, breaking the fourth wall to have the Narrator speak with the reader is a great way to add some weight to the connection.
One of my favorite elements in your book are the unique traits that go into the characters, like Professor Nobody, the gnome fixed upon the creation of the perfect snack chip. What on earth (or elsewhere, of course) did you find the inspiration to gather up such traits, let alone names?
Professor Nobody was named because I loved the gag his name creates. The Narrator can say things like “Nobody smiled,” and every time he did it would make me laugh. Nobody is my favorite character to write, there’s a lot of depth in that mad scientist.
Bug was named just because I wanted a name to match his personality. His last name is really bad Koine Greek, and means, “Not of me.” So Bug’s name, though Bug is actually a nickname, basically means, “Don’t bother me.” He’s unhelpful, grumpy, and points out the foibles of his own people group — which is something we are not supposed to do. Bug’s my hero.
Other names just… came to be. Though Grimby’s name is easy to confuse with “grimey,” which I enjoy.
The snack chip thing. I have no idea. I think Nobody pointed it out to me, if I’m honest, because it makes zero sense. I remember I liked the slogan “Snack Like Nobody’s Business,” which is a great pun on a number of levels, and ran with it.
While I have no idea how I came up with the whole snack chip think, their presence became a sign that he wasn’t giving up on The Realm. Nobody needed something to work toward, and what more ecould a deranged professor of Applied Imagination want than great snack chips?
Now I know you’ve got big plans for Realmian, what with saving imagination–and snack chip creation, and coffee, and Will–from pesky camouflaged lawyers in The Realm. Is there a sequel in the works with Bug, Professor Nobody, and the rest of the Penny Gnomes?
Yes, and I have you to thank for it, as you were the one who told me to keep exploring this world. In the second book the story will center around two the supporting characters I really enjoyed from the first book. It’ll follow Grimby the Dwarf and Fineflen the Darned Elf as they investigate a conspiracy to corrupt the Penny supply. The other characters will shift to supporting roles, with the exception of Sills.
Right now I’m mapping out the story in Aeon Timeline ahead of time, which will allow me to keep two separate story arcs in sync. This is fun, because it’ll be the first time I’ve tried to do this!
This is going to take a while. In the last six months I’ve managed to map out exactly two chapters!
If anyone wants to follow updates on The Realmian Adventures I encourage folks to follow @PennyGnomes on twitter. This is where I’ll be sharing updates, and where the characters sometimes decide they want to hijack the feed to add their own commentary.
1. And that’s if they’re winning. If they’re losing I get downright grumpy.
2. Which she sometimes forgets. She once told me she thinks Penny Gnomes should be a movie, but then remembered herself and shrugged with feigned nonchalance.
3. It’s complicated.
I love giving books for Christmas: they engage and inspire over and over again. My kids are getting books, my husband’s getting books–words for everyone!
Feel free to give my book to people, too, nudge nudge. 😉
Know what? Authors would love to receive YOUR words for Christmas, too. Book reviews help writers reach new readers on Amazon and Goodreads. So spread some cheer this season by sharing your love of your favorite stories online. We authors will love every word you say!
Celine Kiernan’s critically acclaimed work combines fantasy elements with the exploration of political, humanitarian and philosophical themes. She is best known for The Moorehawke Trilogy, a dark, complex trilogy of fantasy YA books set in an alternative renaissance Europe. In this second part of our interview, I ask Kiernan about writing characters and storytelling for a Middle Grade audience in her latest book, Begone the Raggedy Witches.
You created some amazing characters when you wrote The Moorehawke Trilogy. The trio of friends in the first book, The Poison Throne, are delightfully unique, genuine, and engaging. So much can happen in five years, especially when one changes from a child to a teen. What do you feel was the most challenging aspect of writing teenaged characters for The Poison Throne as opposed to writing them younger, or as fully-grown adults?
I didn’t find it a challenge. To be honest, I just write my characters as they are in my head. I make no conscious decisions re market or target audiences or anything. A book occurs to me and I write that book.
I think young characters can be tempting to write about, because it’s a time of life when you’re not too much tied down to the minutia of daily life (paying bills, feeding babies, getting to work on time) and so your mind can be better focused on big issues – and freer to physically engage with changing injustices. Everything is so new too – first love, first sex, first meaningful encounters with death, injustice, triumph, philosophy etc. In Resonance, however, the young characters are very much the working poor and so their minds are on how to get and keep work, how to pay the bills, how to survive in an unsympathetic society, while also battling the uncaring supernatural forces which want to use them up and discard them. In Moorehawke and also in Begone the Raggedy Witches, there are many older and middle-aged side characters which bring balance to the younger, innocent and more idealistic main characters.
Now the heroes of Into the Greycaught my attention for a different reason. Here, the protagonists are twin brothers. Being a mother of twin boys m’self, I find this particular bond both fascinating and exasperating. As a writer, what led you to select this specific kind of protagonist duo to head the story as opposed to, say, twin sisters?
Funnily enough there are a lot of twins in my books. Ashkr and Embla, the twin brother and sister, in Moorehawke; Dom and Pat, the twins in Into the Grey. Though it’s never made much of in the book I also always think of Aunty and the Queen in Begone the Raggedy Witches as being twins. I also have twins in two of my unpublished novels (brothers in one, sisters in the other) It had never occurred to me before to explore why, but I do think it’s probably because of my fascination with the different paths people take in life. What could be more interesting than two identical people, starting from an identical base-line, growing into individuals?
The twins in Into the Grey had to be boys as it was specifically a boy’s experience of war which I needed to explore in that narrative.
Now this year you published Begone the Raggedy Witches, the first book of a new trilogy. Unlike your previous works, this trilogy is geared for Middle-Grade readers. What are the benefits—and challenges—of writing this story for a slightly younger audience?
None really, to be honest. I just approached it as I always do. There was no historical research to these books, though, I guess that’s one difference. I was writing purely to explore personal and sociological themes within a pure fantasy set up. But the books didn’t feel easier to write than the more historically based ones. In fact, they’ve taken me longer than most of my other books to complete. (Mind you, this is happening more and more – I think it’s because I’m better aware of the craft now. My first draft takes longer to produce, but nowadays they’re more complete and better polished than previously.)
Okay, I just have to end on the first line of Begone the Raggedy Witches, because it is KILLER:
“The moon was strange the night the witches came and Aunty died.”
Ye gods, we’ve got time, intrigue, magic, and doom all packed into one sentence! How on earth did you create this first sentence, and do you have any tips for other writers in creating that killer hook of an opening line?
The first chapter is nearly always the last thing I write. That’s not to say I have written a first chapter ( I write liner narrative, so I work from the start to the finish of every book) It’s just to say that I always go back to the first chapter and refocus it so that it better leads into the narrative. By the time you get to the end of your novel you’re always so much better tuned in to what the themes are, what the characters’ motivations and personalities are etc. etc., the first chapter should evoke or foreshadow these things, I think. Make a promise to the reader as to what journey this novel will bring them on. Often you can’t do that properly until you’ve taken the journey yourself. Funnily enough though, the first lines of most of my books have stayed the same through all the drafts. I can’t explain why. I think it might be because they’ve always been the point from which I enthusiastically dived into the process of starting a new novel. That excitement and enthusiasm doesn’t always last for the whole long, siege-like process, but its almost always there for the first line.
“The moon was strange the night the witches came and Aunty died.”
“We were watching telly, the night Nana burnt the house down.’
‘The sentry would not let them pass.’
‘For a moment, the Angel looked directly at him, and Cornelius’s heart leapt with joy and dread.’
All these lines were bringing me somewhere. All of them were promising me something – I had no choice but to follow them onwards.
My deepest thanks to Celine Kiernan for sharing her stories and experience in the writing craft. It’s an honor to speak with one whose creativity has influenced my own imagination for decades. Please check out her books & her site at https://celinekiernan.wordpress.com/. Be sure to share a review when you read her, too!
It’s still hard to believe my debut novel is out in the world. This story was born the same year as my daughter. Like Blondie, Stolen has gone through many growing pains before setting out to forge its way through the world (or elementary school–that’s epic enough for Blondie). Every time I see a purchase or read a review, my soul goes runnin’ through the clouds. If you haven’t yet, please share your thoughts with me on Amazon or Goodreads. Your reflections mean all the world to new writers like me!
Shouting for Shout-Outs Again!
Now that we’re halfway through November, I’d like to start gathering up kudos and plugs from fellow creators to share on my newsletteron the 1st of the month. If you’ve a book, an album, a site, or all of the above you’d like to share with new readers, please email meand I’ll hook you up. 😉
Born in Dublin, Ireland, 1967, Celine has spent the majority of her working life in the film business, and her career as a classical feature character animator spanned over seventeen years, before she became a full-time writer. I am honored to spend this week and next sharing her thoughts on world-building, research, character, audience, and hooks.
First, let’s talk about the imagination behind the worlds. I see on your biography you spent years in film and animation. What drew you to visual storytelling as a profession before written storytelling? How does your work as an animator influence the way you write today?
From the moment I could hold a pencil I was always either drawing or writing. In terms of satisfaction, I don’t think there’s a dividing line between the two disciplines for me. But at different stages in my life one has dominated the other by the simple fact of making me a living. At the age of nineteen I left college for an apprenticeship with the brilliant Sullivan Bluth Studios, and as a consequence of that went on to a 25 year career as a classical character animator (Land Before Time, All Dogs Go to Heaven,Anastasia, etc.). Animation is a great love of mine ( I animated the book trailer for Raggedy Witches and it was tremendous fun)–
–but it’s not really ‘story telling’ for me. It’s more akin to acting or dancing, where you’re using your skill to enhance or express someone else’s story. To me writing is my true story-telling outlet. You’re god of your own universe in writing. You get to explore the themes you want to explore, with the characters you most want to be with, in a world entirely of your own invention. Its purity has no equal. (I am a compete sucker for graphic novels, though. The combination of pure story telling and visual representation there is intoxicating. One day someone will offer to pay me to sit down and draw up one of my own scripts, at which stage I may just implode with happiness. Until then I get great joy in drawing bookplates and small illustrations for readers who contact me about my stories.)
I love utilizing the world around me as a foundation for world-building, which means Wisconsin’s landscape is a heavy influence in my work. Into the Greyand Resonanceare both set in different historical periods of Ireland: the former in the 1970s, and the latter in the 1890s. What logic led you to choose these particular periods for these stories? Are there any pieces of the Ireland around you that helped inspire the settings?
Both Into the Grey and Resonance are set in very specific time periods due to the long and involved back stories which feed into the protagonists’ experiences. Although they are both readable simply as supernatural adventures (Into the Grey is a haunted house tale of ghostly possession; Resonance a story of inter-dimensional aliens and ‘vampiric’ immortal humans) there are deep historical roots to both that not only feed the story, but also the themes that I was exploring as a writer. For instance, Into the Grey explores the divided nature of Ireland’s history and the way our view of our selves and our lives is warped by the stories history tells about us. Resonance explores the value human beings place on themselves and on others, what does it mean to be alive, to be ‘worthy’ in other peoples eyes, etc. These underlying themes are the reason I write in the first place – I write in order to explore the world around me. But I love the stories to be readable as adventures too, to be scary and fun and exciting (in as far as you can ever anticipate what others will find scary and fun and exciting. I’ve found it’s best to just please myself in that respect and hope at least some others will enjoy them too.).
The mansion in Resonance was deeply influenced by the exterior of Belvedere House in Co Meath and the fabulous interior of Bantry House in Cork, in which my son shot the linked video. (Bantry House is not at all spooky, but this video was shot as a specific tribute to Italian horror movies, so it gives the place the exact frantic, off kilter vibe that the I wanted for the later scenes of the book. It even has a dollhouse – though, admittedly, this one lacking a blood soaked four-poster bed!)
Question about your Moorehawke Trilogy: research. Clearly you did your share of research on medieval life to transport readers into the castle’s kitchens and secret passages. Ugh, that research! I know some writers love the research—friend and author Shehanne Moore does a ton of research for her historical romances, whereas I only research when I have absolutely no other choice. Now granted, that’s partly because I just want to write and work out the nitpicky things later, but the other part is that I get so overwhelmed in the data I can’t decide what details are necessary for the narrative’s clarity and what’s minutiae. Can you share some tips on how to research productively and selecting the best details to ground your readers in the setting?
I usually have a book in my head for a long time before I start writing it. For example, when my first agent took me on I was just finishing up writing The Poison Throne, the first of the Moorehawke trilogy. I still had to clean up draft one of Crowded Shadowsand still had to write all of Rebel Prince. There was years of work ahead of me on Moorehawke (taking into account editing etc.) but I arrived at the agent’s with a biography of Harry Houdini in my hand, my reading material at the time. I’d already consumed many books on the history of the American slave trade and was nibbling away at websites and articles about the history of Jewish persecution in Europe. I knew that all of these things would feed into the characters and setting of Resonance, which was the book I planned to write after Moorehawke.
If memory serves me, it would be at least two years before I started draft one of Resonance, but at that stage I would have had over three years of historical research floating around in my head. I do this with all my books, this years of reading before writing. It means that when I start to write, my story and characters are already pretty firmly grounded in a time, place and setting. They live for me already. So, in a way, it feels like I’m writing about contemporaries. I’m used to the world they live in, and the relevant details settle naturally into the narrative. As I write then, it will be small things that need clarifying – was that type of knife available then? Did they eat that kind of bread? Would they have had access to carriages, to time pieces etc. etc. – and those things only crop up in the narrative if they’re important to the scene. You can quickly check them and move on with the story.
I do the same with all my novels (at the moment – while writing the Wild Magic trilogy – I’m consuming biographies from the 1700s, trying to understand the lifestyle and mindset of the people I hope to populate a future novel with.).
Don’t forget too that editing is a writer’s best friend. You should feel free to put as much useless trash into the first draft as possible. If it makes you happy or interests you, put it onto the page. You can always cut it later (as I’ve got more experience, I’ve learned to cut more and more. I’m far more spare a writer now than I was at the beginning.)
Another element in The Moorehawke Trilogy I LOVE is your world-building. You base the world in an alternative medieval Europe, where cats can talk to people and ghosts are common to see, but religions such as Christianity and Islam have a strong presence. You also explained much of the inner workings of castle life without making readers feel like they had wallowed into info dumps. Exposition can be such a dangerous line to walk in epic fantasy—how on earth did you craft those paragraphs to help readers learn your world without slowing down the narrative?
Thank you, that’s so nice of you to say. I do feel that one person’s excruciatingly slow narrative is another person’s meaty delight, so I think the best approach is to write as you like to read and try and be honest to that. However, it’s a good idea to ask yourself in edits whether the information is truly important to the story itself – whether it furthers the readers understanding of the characters, or the plot; or whether it nudges them deeper into the mood or atmosphere of the scene. If it does any of those things, then it’s working for you and you might consider keeping it. Get honest beta readers too – people who will tell you where and when the story has begun to slow or drag for them. Try and get a few of them. If they all tell you that a specific portion of the narrative is a slog for them, then you need to consider cutting a little deeper or refocusing. Make sure the narrative is telling the reader something new or important, and that they feel rewarded by the read.
Stay tuned next week for more from Celine Kiernan! Now pardon me while I, an 80s child raised on Bluth films, fan-girl squeal for the next several hours. To meet a storyteller of powerful fiction who also helped create the visual stories from my own childhood is soooooo awesome! EEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!
+ Writer and fellow Wisconsinite Jon also wrote both an interviewand book review, and on top of shepherding a church, too! You’re too kind.
These are talented writers with stories of their own to tell, so I hope you check them out. Please be sure to share your own thoughts on Stolen or my FREE collection Tales of the River Vineon Goodreads or Amazon–I’d love to hear what you think. 🙂
Fellow Indie fantasy author Laurel Wanrow interviewed me on her site not too long ago. Read it here!
Painter and writer Sue Vincent invited me to share some imagery from Wisconsin and how the landscape inspires my writing. Check out the post here!
More guest post links and reviews will be harvested and shared over the next few days. If you have already read one of my stories, I’d love to hear what you think! There’s plenty of room on Goodreadsand Amazonfor your thoughts.
Before kids, Laurel Wanrow studied and worked as a naturalist—someone who leads wildflower walks and answers calls about the snake that wandered into your garage. During a stint of homeschooling, she turned her writing skills to fiction to share her love of the land, magical characters and fantastical settings. Today Laurel answers some questions about digging into history to inspire her steampunk novels and the importance of attending conferences to reach readers.
The steampunk genre has always fascinated me. What first inspired you to write in this genre?
I have always read fantasy and loved living history. As a teenager, I volunteered for the Appalachian craft center my dad ran at Catoctin Mountain National Park in Maryland. Over the years, I apprenticed to the craftsmen, then after college I worked in historic interpretation for several parks. It wasn’t a far reach to write in a historic time period. I began The Luminated Threadsas a strictly fantasy world patterned off of the Victorian period because I’d read several steampunks and really liked the aesthetic. My critique partner said it seemed so like Victorian England that it was annoying that it wasn’t. So I switched it to the Peak District of Derbyshire.
I confess that I’m one of those who will only research when absolutely necessary. It just feels like such a time drain when one’s writing with kids running around. Yet for stories like yours, I imagine research is an extremely important phase of your world-building. Can you share your research process with us, and any tips you have for writers who aren’t accustomed to researching historical periods?
When I say ‘I switched it,’ the process really wasn’t that easy. Having worked as a historic interpreter, I wanted my world to be fairly accurate—fairly because I did take fantasy liberties. Those times were hard, especially for women, but in a fantasy world I could change things like equality and dress. And add magic to equalize the power among genders.
But the research: I questioned and checked everything, including changing the date of The Luminated Threads story—1868—to after steam-powered tractors were invented. Selecting Derby as a location wasn’t random either. It’s the site of the first water-powered silk mill in Britain and many cotton mills followed throughout Derbyshire, making it a center of Industrial Revolution. The borough was also the headquarters of the Midland Railway—and what steampunk doesn’t have steam trains?
I literally looked up everything. To reference it again, I create folders for background research, and save my referenced docs, with the URLs and often the important passages copied and highlighted. Here’s a screenshot of part of my research files, which reminds me how much I have invested in this series, and that I should really work on the second story arc!
I talked to people who write historic in other time periods, who are reenactors and others who are costume designers. I posted on loops and forums. I read blogs. I read books and took notes. My favorite is What Jane Austen Ateand Charles Dickens Knew by Daniel Pool. It gives general life details, but not every specific a writer needs. But the things I still had to learn are endless: I looked up vegetables planted in England in Victorian times, but referred to a rug as pumpkin-colored for a few drafts until I realized pumpkins didn’t grow in England. Cookies aren’t referred to as cookies in Britain, but I wanted readers to know my heroine wasn’t eating a biscuit-biscuit, so I gave them the name “sweet biscuit” and described them as discs. I gave 1800s “Mason” jar images as a reference to my cover designer, then had a fortuitous moment of doubt and learned Mason jars are American, the British used “Kilmer” jars. But I couldn’t find an 1800s image to verify if the logo was embossed on them. Instead, my cover designer embossed my jars with a “Wellspring Collective 1868” logo on The Twisting, making it my favorite of the three.
You asked about historical research, so I focused on it here, but all of the natural history for the series is researched and as correct as I can make it, too: agricultural crops and local plants I based my shapeshifters on native wildlife, a local mineral called Blue John is a fantasy element. Though my hidden valley doesn’t exist in the Peaks District, other valleys like it have been formed through similar natural phenomena.
One problem I have in writing dialogue for historical characters is their vernacular: what word’s okay for what period, how do they swear, etc. How did you tackle writing accurate dialogue for your time period?
Again, I looked up most of the words I use. For example, a character says, “No kidding?” Not in 1868. The colloquial interjection no kidding! “that’s the truth” is from 1914. But to “kid” someone, as to tease playfully, is from 1839.
I know my dialogue isn’t completely accurate, but I tried. You can read historic novels, but other authors make mistakes, too, so honestly, you must double check. Read novels written during the actual time period. I watched You-Tube videos and PBS shows. I asked a British-born friend to beta read and, among many others, he suggested the endearment “Duck” that Mrs. Betsy uses.
Swear words are particularly tricky for historic and YA novels. Some of my information came secondhand from a forum thread on Absolute Write. Many words were reviewed, but most revealing, to me, was that the expletive ‘bloody’ was a highly offensive curse for Victorians. The writer recommended: Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing by Melissa Mohr, published by Oxford University Press.
I see you attend conventions and signings. Those in-person events terrify me! Any advice to help a new author like myself get properly prepared for such events?
Attend a few as an attendee and, if you can, with other writer friends. Then you can review what you’ve experienced and learned together. Talk to the authors with tables or on panels to learn about their experience at that con and what other cons or fairs they have attended. Don’t be afraid to ask how it’s going or what they wish they had done differently. Take photos of their table set-ups, ask the sources of materials like display items, banners, table drapes, printed materials. Be sure to look up the event websites. The ‘guest writer/author’ fees, volunteer hour commitments and what equipment (canopy, table, chairs) vary widely. And the application dates are often a year to 6 months ahead of the event! With this information, you can prepare your table or presentations in advance.
When you are ready to attend, it’s fun to go with an author friend or two, having your own tables or sharing one. Coordinate to cover each other for panel talks or breaks, or bring a family member or friend as a helper. Keep in mind the distance to some events adds to your time and cost (hotel stays!); try a few local fairs first to test the waters. I have found that ‘book’ festivals have more book buyers than fantasy cons where costumes and gaming compete with books.
If you have a character in your novel that inspires you to dress in costume, do it. I attract a lot of attention when I wear my steampunk costume.
Also, watch for sales with printing suppliers to stock up on business cards, postcards, banners, etc. That 40-50% off really helps. Black Friday is coming and that’s a big sale time. Go on the sites early to sift through what you want and even set up your designs.
Any other closing words of encouragement to help your fellow writers through the rough days?
Join a writing chapter so you can develop friendships with those going through the same work, frustrations and joys. Writing is a lonely endeavor and it helps to be able to reach out. I’ve found that having an accountability partner helps—one in similar circumstances to yourself (i.e. writes full time, works fulltime/writes on weekends, writing around toddler schedule) is best.
Thank you so much for your time!
About the Author
Laurel is the author of The Luminated Threads series, a Victorian historical fantasy mixing witches, shapeshifters and a sweet romance in a secret corner of England, and The Windborne, a lighthearted YA fantasy series that begins with The Witch of the Meadows.
When not living in her fantasy worlds, Laurel camps, hunts fossils, and argues with her husband and two new adult kids over whose turn it is to clean house. Though they live on the East Coast, a cherished family cabin in the Colorado Rockies holds Laurel’s heart.
I have always believed that for the hero to be successful, the villain has to be their equal.
Nothing wrecks a good story like a lame villain.
Be it Mustache Twirlers, Righteous Avengers, or World Conquerors, such villains have nothing to them apart from their evilness. And no matter how grandiose that evilness is, evil without any depth is boring.
A villain’s got to have more than just evil intent to be worthy of page space. A villain needs interests, feelings, and hopes all their own.
I always try to write the villains as the heroes of their own stories.
He was a small, rather dapper-looking man, dressed in a neat charcoal-gray three-piece suit that looked vaguely old-fashioned but that she could tell had been tailor-made for him. His iron gray hair was pulled back from an angular face into a tight pontytail, while a neat triangular bear, mostly black but flecked with gray, concealed his mouth and chin. (5)
Right here, in our first sight of Dr. John Dee, we get a sense of Dee’s style. He’s one for theatrical elegance, right down to the very scent of his aura when ignited:
Dee closed his eyes and breathed deeply. “I rather like the smell of brimstone. It is so…” He paused. “So dramatic.” (20)
Chapter 6 builds on this physical image of Dee, with limousines, leather coats, and the latest technology. The man’s even got a favorite ringtone: the theme from The X-Files (which, oddly enough, was MY favorite show back in the day. *Gasp* a sign of my inner villainy!). While a little detail like a favorite ringtone may not sound worth writing, such a little detail gives us a sense of a man amused by what humanity considers paranormal, one who might watch such a show just to see what humans get right. Heck, maybe Dee has a crush on Gillian Anderson.
My point is, a villain sharing his personal tastes in some fashion, any fashion, helps readers see a complete person on the page.
We also see that Dee’s not so disconnected from the world as to think he can do what he wants without affecting the environment. For example, when his undead army fails to capture Flamel and Co. but succeeds to destroy a chunk of a town, there’s a newspaper account of him holding his movie company accountable for the damage and promising to make reparations. Dee’s physical wealth gives him the ability to cover up his magical actions, including the kidnapping of Nicholas’ wife Perenelle. He’s bought Alcatraz as a prison for her…with a sphinx for a guard. Where else could one hide a sphinx near San Francisco?
An icy shiver ran down Perenelle’s spine as she realized just how clever Dee was. She was a defenseless and powerless prisoner on Alcatraz, and she knew that no one had ever escaped The Rock alive. (315)
Dee is, indeed, a wickedly clever individual. He understands alchemy, necromancy, sorcery, and more. He can call up the consciousness of a dead member of the Elder Race, one of the most powerful beings on the planet Earth, and command it to speak truth.
Even though he has not been able to study the powerful book known as the Codex because Flamel guards it, he remembers several elements of its contents, including a prophecy involving twins heralding a powerful change for all races, magical and non-magical, that walk the earth.
So when twins Sophie and Josh are separated in Chapter 37, Dee uses his wit to corner Josh’s fragile mental state. He knows just the lines to say to make Josh feel like Dee is full of truth, and Flamel is the proper liar. Lines like:
“Are you a victim too?”
“It seems we are all victims of Nicholas Flamel.”
“Do you know how long I’ve been chasing Nicholas Flamel, or Nick Fleming, or any of the hundreds of other aliases he’s used?…Flamel never tells anyone everything,” he said. “I used to say that half of everything he said was a lie, and the other half wasn’t entirely truthful, either.” (338-40)
Terms like “victim” and “lie” are just enough to keep Josh second-guessing if Dee is being truly helpful or truly villanous. This buys Dee enough time to cast a spell on Josh to numb his senses so he can go hunting for the others.
But no scene quite shows the inner motivations of Dee like the end of Chapter 32, after the Dark Elders leave Dee to chase Flamel and Co. southward.
Dee shoved his hands in the pockets of his ruined leather coat and set off down the narrow path. He hated it when they did that, dismissed him as if he were nothing more than a child.
But things would change.
The Elders like to think that Dee was their puppet, their tool. He had seen how Bastet had abandoned Senuhet, who had been with her for at least a century, without a second glance. He knew they would do exactly the same to him, given the chance.
But Dr. John Dee had plans to ensure that they never got that chance. (298)
Dee has been granted immortality by the Dark Elders in return for his service. He’s led their armies, he’s spent years wandering Otherworlds and Shadowrealms, he’s fought monsters that would frighten the blackest of natures. If you had ten years to wander around in an Otherworld of ice, that’d leave you time to think.
Dee absolutely believes he is doing the right thing; he has to believe that Flamel and Perenelle are in the wrong. –Michael Scott
Michael Scott takes care to give us consistent glimpses into Dee’s feelings via changes in point of view. Not only do we see the progress of the story from Flamel’s narrow escapes and feats of magic, but we also see the story from Dee’s prepared traps, skillful attacks, angry defeats.
By focusing solely on the twins’ POV, we would only get a tiny glimpse of what was happening. Similarly, with Flamel, we get just another tiny slice. By giving us Dee, and the other POV and perspectives, we get a bigger, broader and wider story. Also, it teases the reader slightly (and this is something which is explored in more detail as the series progressed): are the Flamels being honest? We, the reader, know they are lying to the twins, so suddenly, everything we know about them is thrown into doubt. Maybe, just maybe Dee is telling the truth. –Michael Scott
Dee is just as passionate about achieving his plan as he is cunning in his means to fulfill it. This man even carries one of the greatest swords of humanity’s heroes: Excalibur.
Dr. John Dee lifted the short-bladed sword in his hand. Dirty blue light coiled down its length, and for an instant the ancient stone blade hummed as an invisible breeze moved across the edge. The twisting snakes carved into its hilt came to twisting, hissing life. (267)
Surely a hero wields a heroic sword, doesn’t he? Yet Dee uses it to kill an Elder and destroy an entire Shadowrealm. That doesn’t sound heroic.
But we readers started this series with Flamel. We’ve connected the term “hero” to Flamel, not to Dee–which is ironic, considering the author Scott’s own words:
…for the longest time, [Dee] WAS the hero of the series. It was called the Secrets of Doctor Dee, with Machiavelli, who appears in book two, as the villain of the piece. However, Dee never felt “right” for the role. Because my rule for the series was that every character had to come from history and every creature from myth, I wanted to stick as closely to the “real” Dee as possible. And while the real Dee was many things, he was not a hero. –Michael Scott
Like the “common” villain, Dee has his moments of confidence, and rightfully earned, too: when he first takes the Codex, when he kidnaps Perenelle, when he kills an Elder. His skills and knowledge shine in these moments.
But unlike the “common” villain, Dee does not assume his plans are fool-proof. He often has to create new attacks on the fly. He’s often afraid to deal with the Dark Elders, but he has no choice and seeks their aid.
“Fixing a smile on his lips, he rose stiffly to his feet and turned to face one of the few of the Dark Elders who genuinely terrified him.” (92)
Now normally I’d say fear makes a villain whiny, or at the very least obnoxious. But with Dee, this simply shows he’s capable of more than confident arrogance. Just as a hero fears failure, so does this villain. Both hero and villain are desperate to succeed, but unsure they can. This dual uncertainty, emphasized with the multiple points of view, drives readers to turn one page after another, eager to see who gets the power tipped into his favor in the next chapter, and the next chapter, and the next.
He was a real man, extraordinary in so many ways, but incredibly flawed.
May your own villain be as Dr. John Dee:
A devil in need of sympathy.
Many thanks to Michael Scott for taking the time to talk to me! Over the past few decades he’s written one hundred novels in a variety of genres, including Fantasy and Science Fiction. He also writes for both adults and young adults. A student of story himself, Scott’s studied Celtic Folklore so deeply he’s become a renowned authority on the subject. Learn more about him and his work at http://www.dillonscott.com/.
Readers expect a world created from our words, a place of wonder and depth. If they get bored–and as a reader, I know I’ve gotten bored–they will tune the story out. They will shelve it among the “did not finish” works in Goodreads, and they will bid our titles adieu. There are, after all, a gazillion other writers out there.
So how do we keep readers in the story? How do we get them to whisper, “just one more page” for the seventeenth time?
After reading Michael Scott’s The Alchemyst, I can safely point out two elements that kept me reading: the cliffhangers between each chapter, and the book’s antagonist. In this post, we’ll focus on the first.
Let’s consider Chapter 1. We’ll have to start with the first line in order to fully appreciate the chapter’s end. (I’ve already covered story starts in other posts about Holly Blackand Diana Wynne Jones, if you care to look.)
“Ok–answer me this: why would anyone want to wear an overcoat in San Francisco in the middle of summer?”
Nothing outrageous. Just a little oddity that might call attention to a casual passer-by, as it calls the attention of teen Sophie. She sees a few coated individuals and “small, rather dapper-looking man” enter the bookstore across the street where her twin brother Josh works. They’re kind of weird, but that should be it, right?
Scott then takes us to Josh’s perspective. When foul odors suddenly permeate the bookstore’s basement, he decides to go up for some air.
He popped his head out of the cellar door and looked around.
And in that instant, Josh Newman realized that the world would never be the same again.
End of chapter.
In the first couple pages, Scott establishes something is off in the Normal Life of our protagonists, but we don’t know how off. At chapter’s end Scott makes it clear that it isn’t the teens’ summer that changes, or even their Normal Life. It’s the world.
And, it’s only page 8.
We need to read how this simple meeting, this little one-off from Normal, could mean something cataclysmic.
Over the next few chapters, the teens are on the run with Alchemyst Nicholas Flamel, keeper of an ancient book called the Codex. The Codex holds the secret to immortality as well as the forgotten histories and magics of Earth itself. The Dark Elders, once gods but now forgotten, want that book more than anything, and they’ve sent Dr. John Dee, an old apprentice of Flamel’s, to retrieve it. Immortal through his service to the Dark Elders, Dee will spill any blood and unleash any power necessary–and we see in The Alchemyst that Dee has a massive magical arsenal at his disposal.
Come Chapter 6, we are following Dr. John Dee’s point of view. Dee has stolen most of the Codex and abducted Nicholas’ wife Perenelle, but Josh managed to rip the last few pages back before Nicholas helps the twins escape. Furious, Dee contacts his masters for a little help.
Then he snapped the phone shut and looked over at Perenelle Flamel. “It would have been so much easier if they had just given me the Codex. Now the Morrigan is coming. And you know what that means.”
End of chapter.
Perenelle Flamel may know what “that means,” but we have to study the context a little to catch on. “The Morrigan”–a definite article means this not just a beast or creature, but a specific being, an individual entity unique and separate from others met so far. “So much easier if they had given me”–if surrendering to a killer is the “easier” option, then we know whatever’s coming is more violent and nasty than Dee’s been. Dee feels confident in telling Nicholas Flamel’s wife about “the Morrigan” because he expects this Morrigan to get results. Since we’ve seen some of Flamel’s magic, this must mean the Morrigan is a very powerful individual capable of killing Flamel.
Well. We’ve got to see that.
Closing the chapter on a sinister, ominous image can also hook readers for the next chapter. Chapter 8 has Flamel and the twins trapped in ally Scatty’s residence. We end as Dee begins his assault with creatures under his control.
Below them, three huge Golems, trailing flaking dried mud, were pushing their way through the wide-open alley door. And behind them, in a long sinuous line, came the rats.
End of chapter.
I LOVE the use of the word “sinuous.” Read out loud it sounds like a snake’s slithered into the room. Visually, readers picture rats doing something they know to be unnatural. Since when do rats move in a single-filed line? Plus there is a common loathing of rats: bringer of disease and destruction, full of little pointy teeth and hands. When you see one, you know there’s a few dozen more not far behind. Maybe some people think of Ratatouille, but being an 80s child, I think of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.
Scott also has some fun playing with the reader’s expectations. Chapter 10’s climax is a lovely example of this.
Sophie pulled her cell out of her pocket and flipped it open. “Aren’t you going to work some magic?” she asked hopefully.
“No, I’m going to make a call. Let’s hope we don’t get an answering service.”
End of chapter.
By this point, the twins are accustomed to seeing Dee utilize his powers to combat the villain. The fact he uses a phone for such a mundane action makes Reader Me want to know: Who on earth could this guy be calling to combat a monstrous cloud of crows bent on tearing them apart? The only way I can learn the answer is by reading on.
Being a pushy, curious sort, I asked Michael Scott how he worked out building strong chapter endings with multiple points of view. His answer reflects an important writing strategy: planning.
I started with a single sheet of paper and wrote out my idea for the entire series. I could see that there were six very neat breaks in the narrative.
I then wrote out the idea for each book on six sheets of paper. Then I went in and plotted them sometimes in fairly fine detail. That allowed me to pace out the chapters.
I always tried to end a chapter with a hook which would leave you dangling so that you had to read the next chapter (which was often not a continuation of the story), to get back to the main story. So your plotting is chapters 1,3,5 are all one story, and 2,4,6 are a separate, but linked story.
I love my narratives to adventure into the unexpected, but even I like to keep a map on hand in case I get lost. Readers will only appreciate tension and high stakes if the story stays focused on those things. If writers dish out too much tension at once, any slowing of the plot jars the pacing beyond repair. Like the 90s blockbuster Speed, you have to keep the story moving fast, or risk blowing up your reader’s engagement. If you attempt a slow burn and fail (and I just read a novel guilty of this, so stay tuned in August), you’ve lost readers before you could even get to the story’s objective.
So you need action, but not too much at once. You need climaxes in that action, but not so much to make later climaxes feel, well, anti-climactic. No wonder, then, that Scott not only took time to outline The Alchemyst, but the ENTIRE six-book series of The Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel. How else can he tell the story from both the heroes and villains’ perspectives without missing a beat?
And I’m not going to lie–Dr. John Dee is my favorite part of this book. Next week, we’ll explore with Michael Scott what makes this villain–and therefore the well-written villains–worth reading.
Many thanks to Michael Scott for taking the time to talk to me! Over the past few decades he’s written one hundred novels in a variety of genres, including Fantasy and Science Fiction. He also writes for both adults and young adults. A student of story himself, Scott’s studied Celtic Folklore so deeply he’s become a renowned authority on the subject. Learn more about him and his work at http://www.dillonscott.com/.
Christopher Lee is the indie author of Nemeton,Bard Song, Westward, and Pantheon. He is an avid history buff, mythologist, bardic poet, and keeper of the old ways. Here he takes a moment to share a few favorite photos of his Colorado landscape as well as his thoughts on the challenges of point of view and world-building.
Let’s begin with a little about you. What was the first story you encountered that made you want to be a writer?
Ok, that is an easy one. Star Wars was the reason I became enchanted with the prospect of storytelling. When I first watched the fantasy and adventure of Han, Luke, and Leia, I was entranced. The vastness of their world, the complexity of the universe was gripping. As I grew into my teen years I became intoxicated by the idea that I would create worlds like that one day. After years of creating a fan-fic world within the Star Wars Universe, my lifelong friend and I decided to divorce our concept from the Star Wars Universe and make it wholly our own. Since that time, I have crafted many worlds from the realm of my own dreams, and don’t believe I will be stopping anytime soon.
You clearly enjoy creating worlds complete with vast, populated lands. What kind of creative process did you follow to develop the world of your first novel, Nemeton?
Nemeton is part of a grand epic that encompasses the whole of human history. When I first got into it I had a fraction of an idea, and zero clue about how to build a world as complex as was necessary. When it comes to worldbuilding there are literally thousands of angles to consider. I was overwhelmed at first, but I kept beating my head against the wall, and slowly it came into sharper focus. Overtime I developed an outline structure that I use in all of my worlds that dials in the world. This is my favorite process in creating because it allows me to see a completely new complex world. Nemeton relied heavily on readily available human myth. It was an attempt to blend the many voices of this world’s culture into a cohesive structure that was both believable and enjoyable. There were many hours in libraries, on Wikipedia, and scouring the internet for ancient documents that gave me a clear picture of what it might have been like to live around 3,000 BCE.
I’ve always felt writing characters of the opposite gender to be a tough gig. Any tips on how to swing this as you do for Sam of Nemeton?
Oh dear, this is something that I struggled with mightily. I wanted Samsara to be infinitely more complex than myself and slowly came to the realization that it was going to take more than I had in my toolkit. Writing the opposite gender is full of pitfalls which can either make or break your story. As a male, it was a struggle to craft a flawed, yet empowered eighteen-year-old girl that didn’t reek of male influence. I worked with a model I have seen in my own life as Sam is loosely based on my wife. I find that this process is helpful, especially when writing characters of the opposite gender, though it is also helpful in crafting characters of your own gender. Trust your heart, it knows how people interact, but you have to make sure to be honest in your assessments and resist the urges that don’t fit with the characters personality. Another thing to do is do personality tests as if you were the character. I find that to be thoroughly enlightening.
Your other fantasy series in the works are both episodic in nature. You explain this move to episodic writing and publication on your own website, but can you share your favorite reason to write serialized fiction?
Serial fiction is fun because the pressure comes off drafting a manuscript as a whole. It is then applied to crafting self-contained episodes that carry their own arch, on a much shorter timeline. The primary reason I like this method, currently, is that it allows me to track how the audience is enjoying the story in advance. With a full novel you often have no clue how an audience would respond, save with the help of a few beta readers. When you release content in quick bursts, you can hone the book for an audience long before you publish the entire Omnibus, and therein you find a proof of a concept, which is a huge hurdle for all writers. Imagine if your audience was your agent. They are the gatekeeper of the indie author. If one of my serials fails to draw interest, I can shift gears quickly and not lose the investment of my time. I can take what characters the audience likes and continue on their journeys, or scrap the idea all together, thus not wasting inordinate time and energy on an idea that doesn’t draw interest. But probably the best reason lies is audience engagement. Episodic releases allow me time to engage the audience and talk about what they dig. This is one way you can build a truly loyal audience, by simply responding to their feedback and giving them what they want more of.
Pantheon, your current project on Patreon, brings multiple mythologies together in a battle for supremacy. This reminds me of the Street Fighter arcade games of childhood. ☺ What inspired you to drop these characters into your arena?
Well a few years ago, when I was still drafting Nemeton, I fell in love with this concept of the pantheons doing battle. Who would win? It’s kind of like Avengers: Infinity War. What if we brought everyone into the same space (No pun intended, as it is a space fantasy). I sat on the idea and toyed with it until it finally fully formed in my mind. I’ve always been obsessed with mythology, reading it is what prompted me to write Nemeton. Thing is Nemeton is primarily Celtic in nature and didn’t deal with the gods and goddesses of the other western pantheons, so I wanted to draft something that gave a stage to the forgotten heroes of humanity’s past. Pantheon is that homage to the legacy of mankind, a revamped, relived story where the prominent and some not so prominent myths of mankind are reborn for future generations.
I can only imagine how hard it can be to decide which characters to use from these mythologies, and which to cut. Can you describe this process a little?
A lot of reading, researching and world-building. I basically compiled lists of the all the characters and figured out which major story-lines would work in concert with the others. The characters that play large roles in those story lines became my main POV characters. At first I wasn’t sure how I was going to tie them all together, but remarkably they all seemed to fall into place, as though the story itself was commanding itself to be written. Each Pantheon has their own story arch that will occur in Season One, mimicking major events in that cultures myth. I simply had to pick the characters that jived with that story-line and just follow the blueprint that the ancients left us, and whallla–Pantheon! I only pray that I have given it its proper due.
Unlike Pantheon and Nemeton, your other serialized fiction series Westward takes place in 1860s America. Does it feel restrictive, working with a geography and history already established in readers’ minds? Why or why not?
Well not really, in fact it liberating. I don’t have to come up with the major conflicts or story ques. I can follow what happened in history and work off that, with subplots that are character driven. Imagine taking a historical event and adding a character that didn’t exist, then weaving that character and its fictional story into the one we know. It’s challenging in its own right, but it is also very freeing because it allows you to present a fantastical element to almost any element of human history. I liken it to reading conspiracy theories because Westward/The Occultare Series relies on an underground/unseen organization that combats magical/supernatural occurrences in the human world. All you have to do is imagine that there is one operating today. Because there is…or is there?
Unlike Nemeton, you also write Westward with a first person point of view. What do you love about this intimate perspective, and what do you find challenging about it?
This was a HUGE jump. After half a million words spent writing Nemeton in the Third Person Omniscient viewpoint, first person was like trying on someone else’s skin. I thought it would be more difficult than it was, but once I sat down and just started to click the keys it flowed out of me. I’ve enjoyed it thus far because I can go deeper with the character than I can in 3rd, but it does limit a great deal of what I can do. I bend the rules a bit because my characters all have a little of me in them, aka a hyperactive mind, which may not be to the liking of all readers, but hey man–this is fantasy. Suspend your beliefs when you walk through that door.
Any last words of encouragement for your fellow story-tellers?
JUST KEEP AT IT! Everyday you should be writing, or editing, or at the very very least reading. Reading is the key to learning storytelling. There is no magic bullet, no blueprint. True storytelling comes from years of absorbing great stories. Read nonfiction books about writing, about life, religion, politics, history, enrich your mind with a wellspring of knowledge you can draw inspiration from. I know I couldn’t have crafted the religious systems of Nemeton without my previous interest in druidic religion. The key is to constantly look for areas to improve, steep yourself in the craft and you will grow. Probably the most important rule is this: You don’t have to please everyone, because frankly you can’t. There are going to be people who say you suck, there are going to be readers and fellow writers who tell you you aren’t good enough. POPPYCOCK! Straight up, not all readers will like your work. Your job is to find the ones that do and continue to better your craft to eventually envelope the readers who don’t. Rule number two, take what other writers say with a grain of salt. The Indie Author’s world is saturated with advice about how to MAKE IT. It’s bloomin’ bologna. You will find limited success this way, but you risk ending up a carbon copy of all the other authors out there right now. This flies in the face of art in general. Chasing fads, writing only in one POV to please the audience, or sticking a hard line on generalized writing rules are the plagues of the writing world today. Do not stymie the thing that makes your voice different. Learn the rules, perfect your craft, and then allow your voice to shine by breaking the rules as only you can. Only you can tell your story, not your readers, not your fellow writers, YOU. You have to believe in you because no one else is going to, save a few extraordinary folks. So get to it!