June 28, 2010

Stories show up in the strangest of places...

I'm not really a fan of the Christian band 'Skillet', but the other day while my brother Caleb and I were doing dishes, he hooked up his iPod to my brother James' guitar amplifier (who needs surround sound?) and we were listening to Skillet's song 'Looking for Angels'. I don't even remember all of the lyrics, except for the line "Angels show up in the strangest of places."
Now Galadriel's comment on my last post has me thinking about how we writer-folk find stories in the weirdest and 'strangest of places', so I thought we might spend some time discussing the subject.
Music is where I find a lot of my ideas. Sometimes it's when I hear a song for the first time, and sometimes it's a song I've heard dozens of times that just strikes me in a new way all of a sudden.
Sometimes I find ideas in conversation. Sometimes I find them in a painting or photograph. Sometimes I find them in real-life circumstances. Sometimes they show up without prompting from any particular thing at all, as far as I can tell.
What about you? In what strange and unexpected places have you found ideas and inspiration?

June 21, 2010

More on World-Building

So, fantasy writers, we've talked about beginning to develop your fantasy world, mapping it out, beginning to learn about and explore it. So let's continue with that train of thought, shall we?
Once you have the basics of your world - geography, countries, people groups, - figured out, where do you go from there?
For me it seems to be a gradual process. I never really sat down and said 'Today I am going to develop the Athragani culture' or 'I will now work out all the details of the Rheuhark social system.' Those things just sort of developed themselves over time, as I worked more and more with the characters from those cultures.
Oddly enough, the culture of the Taravels, which are the race closest to us Earth Humans in my book, is the least developed of all the cultures in Reyem. For me, it is actually a bit difficult to develop a culture that has a fantasy flavor to it. Human nature is the same, regardless, so there are aspects of human culture that will carry over, even into other worlds (commerce, family relations, moral ideals, love of art and music, etc.). In order for your readers to connect with your characters, they have to be able to identify with them on some level, so you have to maintain at least some aspects of human nature in your characters. At the same time, you have to take human nature/culture and give it the flavor of other-worldliness.
So how do you do that? How do you maintain enough human nature in your characters to allow your readers to identify with them, while still giving their culture the flavor of a fantasy world?

June 18, 2010

Maybe we're not crazy!

As writers, I’m sure that all of us have at one time or another had a friend or relative lovingly suggest that we are completely insane.

“If you don’t want that character to die, why don’t you just change the story so that he lives?”

“What do you mean you didn’t see that coming? You wrote the story!”

“You’re laughing at something your character said? You’re the one who wrote what she said!”

“Your character isn’t cooperating with you? Seriously…”

“You’re the writer – just make the characters do whatever you want them to do!”

Yes, I suppose we can all admit that to a ‘normal’ person, we writers are just a little weird. However, weird though we may be, perhaps we’re not crazy after all! Here is my theory – a scientific explanation – as to why we writers can’t always control what our characters do, and why they sometimes surprise us:

When you meet a new person – a real one, say, at church or at work – the first thing you get is a visual of their physical appearance. You introduce yourself and start a conversation with them, usually asking questions pertaining to the immediate surroundings and/or circumstances (Are you new in town? What brought you to this church? Have you worked here long?).

Then you start asking broad, generalized questions (Where are you from? What do you do for a living?). Then you begin moving on into more personal questions, learning opinions, etc. while still keeping a bit of distance (What kind of movies do you like? What did you think of the election results?).

Gradually, as a relationship develops, you can begin asking more personal, intimate questions, learning who the person is at their very core (What is your deepest desire? Your greatest fear?) and as they begin to learn to trust you in return, they will often share their deepest, darkest secrets with you.

Once you know a person at this level, you can begin to predict with some accuracy how they will respond to given situations. Have you ever had someone tell you “So-and-so did such-and-such,” and you knew in your very heart that there was no way on earth that story could be right? That is because you know that person, and you know how they respond.

These stages of getting to know a person work much the same way for writers getting to know a fictional character. For me at least, the first thing I get from a character is their physical appearance. I start asking questions, then, starting with broad, generalized questions, and moving on towards the deep, intimate questions, until I know who that person is at their very core.

My theory is that your subconscious mind does not know the difference between a fictional character and a real person.

Think about it: you have given your mind the same information and stimuli with the fictional character as you would have with a real one, starting with physical appearance and moving on into who the person/character really is in their heart of hearts.

Just as your subconscious mind allows you to ‘just know’ what your best friend will do in a particular situation, it allows you to ‘just know’ what your character will do. To change it would be to force them into doing something out of character. When you write a line of dialogue or action for another character, your subconscious mind can process all of that information and make a prediction as to how your main character will respond. The result is that witty line of dialogue that you find so hilarious; that recourse that you really don’t want the character to take but that they are bound and determined to take anyway; that action response that you never saw coming, but that makes perfect sense.

And that is why a fictional character can feel so real to us, just like they were a real person.

So, while we writers may still be eccentric and weird according to our friends and relatives, maybe we’re not completely insane after all. What do you think? Does this theory sound viable to you? Or do you have your own theory about why the writer’s mind works the way it does?

June 10, 2010

Some thoughts on world-building

Yesterday afternoon a writer friend and I met at the library for a mini writers' conference. Up until now, I've flattered myself with the thought that Reyem, the fantasy world where my books take place, is very well-developed, well-rounded, and fleshed out. After all, I have a map of the North Continent, the alphabet of one of the languages, and I have developed four separate cultures for the four countries on the Continent.
Then my friend shows up with his world maps, his stack of binders full of information about everything from the technology to the plant and wildlife of his fantasy world, and several volumes' worth of information still in his head. Needless to say, I didn't do a whole lot of bragging about how developed my fantasy world is.
But, it did get me thinking about the importance of world-building as a fantasy writer. It's not enough to take your reader on a grand adventure with a wonderful cast of characters if they're doing it in a vague or shallow world. (You can click here to read my thoughts on the importance of descriptive detail in your writing.)
So fantasy writers, let's start at the beginning. What is the first thing you do when you start developing a new world? How do you get the process started? What methods work for you? What aspects of world-building are the most important to you?

June 7, 2010

Little Brother's Graduation

It's so hard to believe that my little brother had his graduation party this Saturday. It's hard to believe that his graduation means that my graduation was three years ago!
Cute, sweet little James (and I pray he doesn't read this to know that I said that) has grown up into - well, not that he isn't cute and sweet any more, it's just ... different now. He used to say things like "Hey Thithy, wanna come play carth with me?" And now, just the other day he told me that "If anyone ever tries to hurt you they'll have to answer to me." He went from being head-and-shoulders shorter than me for most of our growing-up years to being a full head taller than me. I remember when he started kindergarten. Now he's getting ready to start EMT Basic. If it has wheels, he can drive it. If it can throw a bullet, he can shoot it. If it comes apart he can put it back together.
Granted, he still hates poetry (I've given up hope of breaking him of that) and he is a bit of a dunce when it comes to classic literature (he calls it 'li-torture') but I guess an EMT doesn't have much need for poetry.
And at the end of the day (please allow me a moment to wax sentimental here) I still love him to death and am proud as I can be to have a great guy like James as my brother.
Just in case you do read this, James: Happy Graduation!

June 5, 2010

The Answer Revealed:

For all of you who have been trying to figure this out all week, here is the answer and explanation of the clues I gave you in the last post.
The woman is wearing a huge diamond wedding ring and diamond pendant: her husband had a lot of money in the past, so chances are he's not in a business that grows gradually.
She's had a face lift: this most likely would have been quite some time after they got married, so business has stayed steady and profitable for him.
She tans, colors her hair, and just opened a brand-new business in February (and not a business that is guaranteed to make huge profits, either): so her husband is making a lot of money now.
The only people making lots of money in this economy are doctors and lawyers. But a lawyer has to start small, grow his practice, and suffer some slow periods in his business. The diamond jewelry suggests that this lady's husband didn't have to start out small, and if he did it didn't take him very long to get past that stage.
He's a doctor.
Congratulations to Kate, whose guess was 'plastic surgeon'. But as for the rest of you ... well, I guess I'm going to have to come up with a few more scenarios like this, since your Sherlock skills apparently need a workout! ; ) Just kidding, and great job, guys!
I'll be back on Monday. Have a great weekend, everybody!

June 1, 2010

"I'm not psychic - just paying attention."

~Patrick Jane, 'The Mentalist'

My all-time favorite fictional character has to be the great Mr. Sherlock Holmes. That is probably the reason that I also love the show “The Mentalist”. For those of you who may not have seen it, the main character Patrick Jane is almost a modern counterpart of Mr. Holmes – only lacking the austere aloofness.

In the case of both characters, the thing that sets them apart and makes them the best at what they do is their ability to pick up on minute details and form accurate conclusions from them. The most surprising thing about their methods is that they work! Granted, in the case of Mr. Holmes we always get the explanation of how he knows what he knows, and we don’t often get all of that with Mr. Jane. But a person who is paying close attention can actually learn a lot about you just by noticing details.

With that in mind, I’m trying to work on putting good details in my writing – details that don’t just give the readers a vivid picture of the (character, building, etc.) but that make sense and actually help us learn more about them. And we all know how important that is to good writing, especially fiction.

I decided to experiment with it one day a couple of weeks ago. My mom had taken me to visit a newly-opened yarn shop in town. While we were inside, I decided to learn as much as I could about the shop’s owner without actually saying anything to her.

Here’s what I noticed:

1. She’s had a facelift – maybe two.

2. She tans and colors her hair.

3. She’s wearing a huge diamond wedding ring and diamond pendant.

4. The shop is brand-new, opened in February.

So now here’s a question for the Holmes and/or Jane fans reading this: What does her husband do for a living?

P.S. Yes, you can figure it out using only the details I gave you above. I did it, and I was actually correct! Can’t wait to hear what you come up with!