All writers face a huge challenge when they embark on a novel—research. Love stories, mysteries, adventure novels, they all have at least some research behind them. For those writers who work in worlds that are a little—or a lot—removed from everyday life, research can prove to be tricky. Science fiction, fantasy and paranormal novels pose interesting questions. Should I research? If so, how much should I research?
The answer to the first is easy. Yes. Oh, yes, yes, yes!!! Your world, whatever it is, needs a framework, and research is the beginning of the frame.
How much research? Now that’s tricky. The answer is “enough”. How much is enough? I tend to err on the side of too much. I might not ever use that lovely tidbit I discovered about some archaeological find in Northern Europe and how it ties into my mythology. Or I learn more than is really needed about the physics of how my spaceships might travel though the void (as my poor ex-physics professor can attest). I need to know these things for me to make the world whole. The point to all the work is to make your worlds come alive for your readers. To let your characters move in a world founded on solid bedrock and not on shifting sand.
There is always the issue that there is someone out there who is a specialist in something you are writing about and will find a major flaw and pick at it—something a tiny bit of research would have fixed. On a TV show I watch, the characters spotted wormwood on a wall. All I could think was “you’d think a television production office would have a good enough research team to know that vine is NOT wormwood.” It still drives me nuts because the amount of effort it would have taken to get it right would have been so small.
Am I being too picky? Maybe. The problem is I am not the only one who is that nit-picky.
So, you’ve done your research, you know your history, or physics or the natural history of the lost species of the somethingasaurus—now what? Now you can settle into writing, referring to your research when needed. When you choose to deviate from the facts, you are making a conscious choice and one you can point to and say it was deliberate. Knowing your world and the framework it is built on is key in creating believability. Just don’t go overboard. I tend to find myself removing pages of really exciting research (to me) from stories because they really aren’t needed for the story, I just loved those little tidbits so much.
I still sneak a few in, and that’s the fun of it, the final pay-off of the research. Adding in one little thing that is off-the-wall but just so delicious it has to be there—and your readers will love you for it.
I love bookstores. Well, let me rephrase that, I love what bookstores once were. When I was young, there was a bookstore within a fifteen minute bike ride from my house that was the perfect bookstore. It is the bookstore by which all others are measured in fact.
Nestled between a shoe repair shop and a hair salon, it had been there for as long as I could remember. It had everything a bookstore has to have, including a store cat. I have vague memories of sitting on the floor in the back of the shop where they had a children’s area with blocks and puzzles and asking the cat for advice on a puzzle, or reading out loud to him.
As I grew older, of course, my perceptions changed and it became the bookstore.
It boasted a collection of new and used books. The store was full of the tangy scent of fresh ink and the lovely musty odor unique to used books. Not the used books that are so often the staple of used bookstores today—no these were old books, ancient tomes collected at estate sales and other wonderful places. Books with a story to tell—not just what was written in the book, but the book itself told a tale. Some even had the treasure of the former owner’s names and the date it was received.
Then there were the extra special ones—the ones with the notes handwritten in the margins. For me those were always like the original owner was sharing a secret with me, something we had in common. I still treasure those books. My collection of travel books from the Victorian Era started in that book shop and the very first book I purchased had those secret notes. I still remember one on a page about travel to Egypt, the owner of the book had written “camels are not a pleasant creature.” That tiny thing tied me to the original owner. I felt like I knew him and had shared that adventure with him.
One of the wonderful things was the new books were tucked in with the used ones, so you could find a first edition of Arthur C. Clarke next to a new paperback edition of the same book. It was a wondrous way to discover books I didn’t even know existed. I usually went there with a book in mind, and left with three extra spanning everything from history and science fiction to herbalism and cooking.
The sad thing is, bookstores like this one have mostly gone the way of the dinosaur, wiped out by giant asteroids of the big box bookstores like Borders and Barnes and Nobles. I miss them, I miss sitting on the floor surrounded by a collection of books some dating from the 1800s and some brand new. I miss finding those gems with notes from a secret friend. And I am sad that there are generations that will never be able to discover this magical lost world.
One of my favorite questions to ask writers is “who are your top ten favorite authors”? Before we go further, let me explain, I am not fishing for a compliment, and don’t expect my name on their list—but there is a name I do expect, but rarely hear—their own. If you ask me—amongst the top ten are Patrick O’Brian, Elizabeth Peters, Robert B. Parker, Anne McCaffrey, Jane Austen, JRR Tolkien, Conan Doyle and, yes, me. Is it an act of enormous ego? Tossing myself in with some of the finest writers of our time? No, and this goes back to why I asked other writers who their favorite authors are and why they aren’t on that list.
I write stories that I want to read. In fact my first adventure into what is now termed “fanfiction” came about when I had finished all forty of the set of Hardy Boys books my father had purchased at the Goodwill. I was devastated. There were no more stories, and I’d read all the books twice—then I realized, I could write my own adventure! It was a moment of true enlightenment and the beginning of a life-long journey to tell stories, to relate the world through my written words.
If I don’t write what I want to read—and reread—how can I ask others to do the same? If I am not enjoying what I have created, how can I ask a reader to purchase a book or spend time reading a short story? Ovid said scribere jussit amor (love bade me write) and that is the place we should all write from. Love. If you are not in love with your own words, how can you expect anyone else to love them?
I have talked to many writers recently who said they don’t read their own stories, novels, or essays. Why? That is always the first thing out of my mouth, usually followed by the insertion of my foot. I don’t mean to be awkward, I am truly curious, if you are not writing something you want to read, why are you writing? I understand sometimes we get stuck in jobs where not everything we write is what we want to be writing. News, columns, even romance novels sometimes are more about the money than creating something to read again—then again—why not? Even that simple hundred-word news brief is going to be read by many people, so why not make it the best it can be?
Writing should always come from a place of love, a place in the heart reserved for words and their expression. It is the place that stores life experiences and lets us tap into those places to create our stories.
If you are not in your top ten favorite writers, ask yourself this hard question—why? Is it that you see flaws, things that you might have done differently? Is it that you don’t like what you have done? Why? Why don’t you have your books or stories loaded onto your Kindle or Nook or PC to read and read again. Not to the exclusion of others, but because you have told a story you wanted to read, and believe me, if you write stories you will love, I guarantee other people will love them too.
Today, take out a story or book you haven’t read since you put the final edit on it and open it again. Read it, and become one of your own favorite authors.
I love fantasy. It was something that caught my imagination when I was young and, with science fiction, made up the bulk of my reading for many years. Back then, days in the park were full of dragons and knights, dark wizards and heroic journeys. Of course, living in the Pacific Northwest, with its forested areas close to the city, made for a perfect setting because, let’s face it—fantasy happened out there. What do I mean? Fantasy always had a medieval setting, forests and castles, bogs and moors, the cityscape was completely removed from that world. Even C.S. Lewis moved from this world into another. The fantastic just doesn’t happen in a world ruled by science, a world full of cars and airplanes, coffee and computers.
There seem to be vampires and werewolves popping up everywhere. Angst-ridden teens write long sighing love poems and plucky (or hard-boiled) detectives hunt down the denizens of the night. Oh, there might be more than a vampire or two out there, but still it is a world that is primarily paranormal rather than one of fantasy. Somehow we have come through the ages with our belief that the undead (and a few other things) still walk amongst us, but other things were just figments of our ancestors’ superstitious imaginings and have no place in a modern setting.
And we are back at the why in the whole equation.
What is it that keeps us from diving headlong into that world of epic fantasy—only in today’s world? As I sit here mulling the question, I wonder if it’s one better answered by a cultural psychologist. It is a rather interesting idea, why do we readily accept one and not the other?
I have often wondered why those things fell away. Once the world was full of monsters, creatures of light and dark, dragons coursing through the sky, a physical reality that could be altered by a magical presence. Is it a question of rationality? Humanity has grown up, and as adults we no longer need childish things. We see only the facts of the world, the grind of daily life and if something of the other world should cross our path it is a creature of passion or violence—symbolic of a desire to recapture a lost part of ourselves. Other than that, it is dismissed.
But is it gone?
There is a line in the Merlin books by Mary Stewart, where he (Merlin) speaks of the old gods, and how they are still there in the hollow hills, under the ground, in the streams and wells, just no longer acknowledged. They wait, forgotten, until they are remembered again. It’s an elegant notion, and one I think applies to the idea of the elements of fantasy in the modern world. They are all out there. In the forests, the parks, the dark canyons of the wilds and the deep shadows of the cities. All waiting until we see them again.
It’s not childish, I think, to see a dragon lurking in the clouds, or find the fae in the dappled light of a forest grove. With the eye of science firmly in hand, we are unwilling to believe and let these aspects become part of out world. I think it’s the tendency to believe that rationality conquers all. The problem is—we really don’t believe that. Which is why vampires and werewolves still creep into the urban world.
The time has come to embrace it all. Bring fantasy into the modern world—if a vampire can stalk downtown, a dragon can fly overhead. The challenge is to create the world in such a way that the reader can willingly dive into this reality and can accept that their next walk in the park may be filled with something magical, something out of the depths of myth, something truly epic.
As I prepare the final touches on the next piece in the Custodes Noctis series, I have been thinking a lot about where they came from, and what it was that led me to create this world with these characters and the complex equation that brings them together.
The idea of a group of warriors raised to a specific task is a very old one—it can be found in the histories and myths of many cultures, and it was there I found my first inspiration. Once that tiny seed was planted it began to take root. There needed to be more, something personal, familial, and there the Custodes Noctis were born. A family that is trained to fight.
Of course there is far more to their world than just that, but that was the beginning.
Once upon a time, things that we readily dismiss as unreal were very much a part of the human landscape, part of daily life and a very real part of the fears that bound communities together or tore them apart. The night was a place of terror, full of things that yanked away human life with the ease of a hot knife through butter. The waking world was full of evil—violence, warfare and the unseen evil of plague. We have since explained away much of this with science. Complacent in the germ theory of illness and knowing that the things in the night are just creatures that “the people back then” had no weapons against.
But what if that was only half true? What if there were things out there that lurked in the night, things that ripped through society and left it bloody and filled with death? We would need protection against those things, the things that even the evil feared. As I began to research further, digging into old histories and Sagas, I began to put together the picture of what would become the Custodes Noctis. The Keepers of the Night. Literally guardians of the night.
Of course, if they were to battle this evil, they would need to be special, and magic had to enter the arena. Referring to that once upon a time again, magic was just part of life. Later fear of this would lead to great tragedies throughout Europe but in the beginning, people had their healers, their shaman, those that could fight evil in the physical world and the worlds that are unseen. When I made the choice to have brothers, tied by a special bond, I was thinking of some of the Mythical Heroes, tied magically to their siblings giving them more power and a greater chance of survival in battle. I’ve added my own twist to this, giving each brother their own Gifts as well, and as the series expands and we meet other members of the Custodes Noctis, not just the Emrys clan, the way those Gifts manifest will be explored as well.
Building up the world of my main characters has led me into the world of the Sagas, I’ve spent hours pouring over the Sagas of Iceland and other parts of Northern Europe. There is a wealth of magic, of epic there that is untapped. Along with that, I have brought in my own research and knowledge of herbs. The history of healing is a personal passion and I have added much of that to the world of Galen and Rob Emrys.
The trick to it all is mixing it into the modern world. Bringing the idea of the mythic warrior forward and handing him not only a sword but a cell phone. The bond I created between the brothers has proven to be a challenge too, it’s an odd thing to play with, and sometimes leads me to an interesting situation when dealing with my characters. As I have added people and places, I have tried to stay true to the oldest possible version of the myths. For example in The Hunt when I decided to bring the fae into the story I dug into the old, old stories. Fairies were not nice creatures. They were terrifying. And as I move forward I will keep this up.
In the new entry to the series The Summoning out October 31, just in time for the traditional Emrys birthday, I will be bringing one more ancient Saga to light…
After a discussion with a friend yesterday, I’ve been thinking about world building a lot. It’s the single most vital thing we do when we embark on a novel (or story or film). It is that first vital step that leads to everything else. If you don’t have a solid world, where can your characters, no matter how well drawn, exist?
Of course, with world building comes a host of problems. Once the world is built, if you play fair, you can’t decide to alter it because it has become inconvenient. It seems obvious, but it’s hard to do. I know that I have run flat up against some of the rules I created in the world of the Custodes Noctis and have spent some time wondering if I could ethically (well for me) just tweak the world a bit.
But then, that’s cheating.
I’ve created this world, and as much as I can’t change the world I live in to conveniently work for me—if I could I would own a Ferrari or Bugatti, my house would overlook the sea and I would not have to get up to go to work every day. Sadly, I can’t do that, and in all fairness doing it in a place I have created through writing is just the same. It’s cheating myself and more importantly my readers. It’s something you always have to consider when setting out, and as I look forward to different worlds and different series, I am eying the underlying structure of those worlds very carefully, because once in place, I can’t move them.
And I have to admit, I have a problem with writers that do just change things when they become inconvenient. It is cheating. You can’t have a world that (for a bizarre example) the sun rises in the west and all of a sudden go “well, that’s not working” and flipflop it without some reason, and some major event that actually alters the structure of the world. Just changing it is laziness, cheating, and it’s breaking every rule in the, pardon the expression, book.
I have been a writing all my life and have been published in newspapers, magazines and books. Recently, I have started working with writers helping them to learn to love their writing, and how we, as writers can learn from musicians and their techniques.