I’m sitting here tonight (last night actually) working on the major characters that will be a part of my fictional book and novel series. I’ve spent much of the past week doing the same.
One invaluable thing I learned from James Patterson’s Master Class on commercial fiction is the importance of ongoing, serialized characters that others adore. I’ve known this intellectually for a long time based on my own reading history both as a youth and throughout my life (John Carter, Tarzan, Spock, Jesse Stone, Sherlock Holmes, Doc Savage, Batman, etc.) but looking back on my fiction writings I’ve realized that it hasn’t really sunken in until now. It had sunken into my mind long ago, but not into my soul. Not until now however. But now, finally, I am fully getting it.
I’ve always been a “Story-First” kind of guy and looking back upon it all I suspect I very much now know why. I was trained and self-trained to write stories through D&D (Dungeons and Dragons) and through game writing in general and D&D was indeed the very most excellent practice and training for story-development. But because I so rarely played and was almost always the DM or GM (Dungeon or Game Master) and was always the one creating worlds and writing the stories I never concentrated much at all upon “Character Development.”
That is to say I always let my players develop and run their characters with as little possible interference from me as I could ever get away with. Therefore almost all character development was in their hands and I become STORY AND PLOT AND WORLD FIRST and in many senses, I just habitually adopted the idea of STORY ONLY. Character-Work was for them, I was the World Man.
Not that I couldn’t write or develop characters, I did have several characters of my own I played and I developed some very complex Non-Player Characters (NPCs) but that kind of thing happened rather rarely compared to my World Building and plot and background elements development and so Character Development became a secondary and almost a background issue to me as a fiction writer and story teller. I realize now that I have for most of my life had this sort of subconscious psychological habit of developing stories in complex detail but sort of letting Character Development handle itself in a laissez-faire fashion when I did not outright ignore the issue.
But now that I realize this fault and oversight in my own writings, and the way I go about writing, I have decided that for me this will be the Year of the Characters. This year Characters and Serialized Characters become equally important to me as Story and Plot and World Building.
This is to be my Year of Character, and the genesis of the development of the Great Characters of my Fiction Writing Career.
This year I build Men and Characters and not just Worlds.
This year I have decided to participate in National Novel Writing Month. And this year I have several good ideas for a potential novel I’d like to write for NaNoWriMo.
However I am trying to solicit the opinions of others on which idea and novel they’d prefer to read. Of the three novel ideas/plots I’ve I’d like to write for this November and that I have personally shown to family and friends so far I have the following results:
13 votes for The Old Man
10 votes for The Cache of Saint Andrew, and
4 votes for The Wonder Webs (all have been kid votes)
So I’d like to ask you, as my readers and internet friends, which novel story would you prefer to read: The Old Man, The Cache of Saint Andrew, or The Wonder Webs?
Right now I’m leaning towards The Old Man but still have a couple of days or so to finally decide. So if you wish to voice your opinion then just let me know. If you want to tell me your reasons that would be appreciated as well.
The Old Man – The Old Man is a mixed genre novel/novella consisting of three or four related stories about the same character set in different eras and story genres. In the story the child or children of a deceased man discover some old and unknown recordings which reveal their father in a totally different light and engaged in a fantastic set of secret lives. One section of the book will involve the science fiction genre, another the fantasy genre, another the detective/espionage genre, and the fourth the horror/weird genre. Despite the complexity of the story and the various genres it should be very easy to research and plot.
The Cache of Saint Andrew – The Cache of Saint Andrew is a literary genre novel involving a white man who marries a black woman. Although I did eventually marry a black woman the book is not autobiographical because I first had the idea for the novel in college and began writing it in college and I didn’t marry until I turned thirty, and at the time I began the book didn’t ever expect to marry. The story involves an older established, fairly wealthy white man who marries a younger (college student aged) black woman. The book describes their courtship, marriage, and the things that eventually dissolve their marriage, such as the loss of their first child shortly after childbirth. The novel is called the Cache of Saint Andrew because of the fact that the man, for years, plants secret messages inside the cache of a grave marker at the Orthodox Church of Saint Andrew in North Carolina. The Cache of Saint Andrew is actually the third book I ever started writing and the first one I started writing as an adult, but I put it aside to start my first business. I have replotted it many times but never actually finished it. It will require fairly complex plotting although I already have the main story well sketched out.
Wonder Webs – The Wonder Webs is a young adult book I first started plotting out a couple of years ago in a writing class. It involves a fictional city, park, and zoo based upon Greenville, SC. It involves three main characters, two boys and a girl of late Middle School/early High School age. It also involves a secret “underground world” in which dwell three magical/supernatural spiders who are capable of building “Wonder Webs” or webs that help miracles occur. This book will be very complex to plot because of the characters involved but especially because of the complicated background/world involved, which is multi-faceted.
I know it’s very little to complain about, relatively speaking, but as a writer I just had the most frustrating night/morning of my life.
I went to bed about 11 to 11:30 last night, totally exhausted, and then rose again sometime not long after midnight. Ideas for my novel were running through my head, a lot of them, too many to just note on my bedside table notebook and so I went downstairs to my office and fired up my computer.
I then worked from shortly after midnight until 4 AM on nothing but the title of the novel series I am currently writing. I know exactly what each of the four books in the series will be called separately but I’ve gone through several incarnations of the title for the entire series and have never settled on anything that seems to really fit. My latest, or the Working Title for the series is The Other World or The Other Worlds, which fits to a degree, but isn’t entirely accurate or encompassing of what the books are truly about.
I ran through terms and titles after terms and title with still no joy and nothing availed. I felt like I had been awakened with a purpose but everything I thought of remained frustratingly just of reach and meaning.
At almost four o’clock I sat back in my office chair, cold, tired, and defeated. It was kinda like working a scientific experiment and everything I tried got close to a solution, but eventually all iterations failed.
Finally I looked to my left and saw my new copy of the Poetic Edda and thought to myself, of course, “I’ll use a title something like the Eddas,” suggestive, but not all encompassing or limited. Because for a very, very long time I’ve wanted to use a title like the Aeneid, or the Odyssey, which would be perfect if not for the fact that the books are not really only about one character, even Prester John. So I thought, maybe something like the Eddas?
So I began reading one of the Eddas (about Odin testing himself against the wisest giant) and a later one about Thor dressing as a Freya to recover his hammer by deception. But still nothing specific came to me.
At last I put the book away because I was too tired to continue, my brain simply wouldn’t function, but I was still too frustrated to give up. So I began asking God to help me title the series with the perfect title, something I’ve done before many times, but everything he seems to show me in language seems just beyond my perception. As if it is something beyond my own language.
At that point I fell into a kind of trance which was almost a blank mind, but not quite. It was like I was sleeping in darkness but all around me, in the background, I could hear voices whispering and saying things but I couldn’t quite make out the words or exactly what was being said. It was more like images trying to take on the form of words than words forming images. And they were all in the background and still hazy or shadowy. When I came out of that finally it was about 5:00 and I still had nothing specific except the suggestion that maybe I should invent the terms and title I wanted in another language, perhaps in Sidhelic or one of the other Eldeven languages.
Then I was struck by the idea that maybe there should be multiple titles for the series, each expressing a different aspect of what the books are about and each from a different viewpoint, but settle upon a single version for publication.
So I began developing this idea, one title each, each title being in a different language. Each title expressing a different aspect or focal point for the series. Such as a title concerning:
The Main Character or Person – Jhonarlk, or Prester John
The two (or 3 actually, though you never get to see the Third World, only hear of it) worlds involved, something along the line of the Other Worlds
The Weirding Roads (central to the story and implying much, much bigger things than simply a Road between worlds)
(The Fall of) the Vanished Eldevens – the penultimate event of the series and the seeming point of the entire tale, but not really the point of the tale
and 5. The War of…
Only one of these terms will be attached to the books but all of the terms will be spoken of in the books as being different histories covering the same events. And I’ll include little excerpts from these “parallel histories, “ (and I may speak briefly about their authors) each implying a different aspect or idea-set about what really happened and what the tale was really about but I’ll settle on one title for the series. Most of the histories will be in prose or in narrative form, as mine will be, but at least one will be in poetic form (probably the Lay of the Fall of the Vanished Eldevens – English translation, not the Eldeven term) and most of the poems in my series will reference that history as poetic extracts.
But I’ll not write full versions of those histories, only hint at them and include extracts from them and those versions will also have some alternate versions of the events in my book.
I’ve therefore, because of last night/this morning written a little author’s introduction to the series.
(The claimed author will not be me, but will be a man by the name of Wyrdlaef, a seemingly very minor character in the books who follows Larmaegeon to Constantinople and then to the Isle of Avalona and after the destruction of the Other World returns to our world and secretly writes his account of these events and hides his books in an Irish monetary which then eventually makes its way back to the Other World. )
The introduction is very rough so far but goes something like this:
“These books recount the history of the Great but Invisible Wars that took place on our world and upon the lost world of Iÿarlðma in the years of our Lord 797 to 835. At that time an ancient and noble but since vanished people fought alongside Man for the fate of the Earth and Heavens and the preservation of their own kingdoms. Great these people were but of what their true nature, like that of man, a created being, or like the very angels in flesh, or like some entirely other thing I still cannot tell, though I lived among them for a long time. Five accounts there were of these events, that I know of, but to my knowledge only my brief and poor and incomplete account remains. But if all were told as it truly happened then, as was said of our Lord, not all of the libraries of the world could contain those accounts for the splendour and wonder of the tale. These books then, my account of these fantastic and horrid events, I call the Fall of the Vanished Eldevens and they speak as well as I am able of the final encounter and friendship between Man and the Eldevens against many ancient evils and monstrosities I still do not understand. For it has been said, with good reason and as I witnessed with my own eyes, that the Eldevens were entirely destroyed by their enemies, wiped from the face of their world, with those small numbers of survivors who did escape driven into the wilds to be hunted to extinction by their remorseless enemies. But I have also heard, from both the seers of that strange people and from the prescient prophets of our own devout holy men that one day, far into an uncounted future, Man and the Sidhs of the Eldevens would once again meet as friends on the shores of yet other distant and undiscovered worlds, and that God would have mightily blessed and enlarged us both. Of that time, if it ever comes, if it is ever true, I shall see nothing, for I shall be long dead and buried. But I hope and pray that my account survives, and that perhaps this prophecy is real. For everyone would be the better for it…”
I meant to put this up for Tuesday’s Tale, but work and other things interfered so I’m putting it up here today for Highmoot.
What you see below are the creation materials (or some of them anyway) for my four novels of the Other World, specifically the first in the series, The Basilegate.
Actually I have 1200 to 1500 pages of research materials (mainly historical but also containing other materials) for all four novels already, most of it on CD or DVD and on computer files on my main work system. The rest is in hard files, collected notes (post it notes in the big white container that say BOOK I), in my notebooks and sketchbooks, outlines, timelines, etc.
I laid all of that out on Sunday and had my youngest daughter take pictures of it. This week I am taking all of that material, my chapter outlines for the first book (Basilegate), my notes, etc. and transferring it all to my Chapter and Plot Board. You might think of this as a Case Board by which I’ll run the plot and structure of my novels (in this case, the first in the series) as they progress. I already have about a hundred or so pages of the first novel finished, and various sections of all of the novels completed (as first drafts anyway), not counting the various scenes I have sketched out for each of them. My overall aim now is to collate and compile and arrange all of these scenes and what I already have written into a coherent and consecutive and consequential novel storyline, and thereby push on to finish the first novel while simultaneously arranging all of the other serial plots.
In this collection you will see all of my files, notes, the plot board itself (before being arranged), notebooks, research materials (on CD and DVD), some of the maps I’ve created, and the poems, songs, and music I’ve written and arranged to be included in the books/novels.
(You might ask, “Why does he have the AD&D and 5th Edition Dungeon Master’s Guides as apparent research materials?” Simple, not for the research itself, but because these two books are the best fictional writing guides I’ve ever read. Anywhere and on any fictional subject. If you are a writer and you do not have these writing guides then you really should, they are simply superb and extremely useful for all kinds of story arrangements, including plot arrangements.
You might also ask, “why the harmonica?” Well, because I often like to play the harmonica when I become stuck on some aspect of the story. It helps me think.)
Once I’ve gotten everything fully arranged and up on my Plot Board in proper Order I’ll take a new set of photographs and post those here too. I’ve been working on this novel series for years now, and as a general idea for a decade or more, but I’m finally in a position to push on and finish all four books now. I’m now satisfied that all of my major research and preparation work has been properly conducted and finished and I’m now ready to finish the novels without anymore large-scale or wholesale plot revision. Just minor tinkering at the edges left really, and then the finished writings.
Which is a big relief to me as I intend this novel series to be one of my Magnum Opae (one of my major Life Works – I literally cannot say Magnum Opera as that construction seems wholly silly and inappropriate to me in English).
Linn Ulmann spent her childhood trailing her famous parents as they traveled the world. As the daughter of director Ingmar Bergman and the actress Liv Ullmann, two legends of 20th-century cinema, her “home” shifted time and again. The one constant was a Swedish island, Fårö, where she returned each summer to visit her father.
Now, she’s fascinated by the way our surroundings shape us. In her interview for this series, the author of The Cold Song used a short story by Alice Munro to illustrate the way setting drives her writing, and how place and memory help dictate the stories we tell.
The Cold Song concerns a cast of characters affected by the disappearance of Milla, a 19-year-old au pair working in a coastal town south of Oslo. After two years, her body—and the grisly manner of its death—is uncovered by three boys searching for buried treasure. With this act of violence at its heart, the novel explores the unexpected ways a crime haunts people who knew the victim, inflaming their secret sources of guilt.
Linn Ullmann is the author of five previous novels, including Before You Sleep and A Blessed Child; her work has been translated into more than 30 languages. She spoke to me by phone from her home in Oslo.
Linn Ullmann: When my father died six years ago, and we were selling off his property on the island of Fårö where I grew up, I kept a diary in a big, black notebook. It was a strange thing: a book that mixed notes on practical arrangements with ideas for the new book I’d started writing then. (This book was a mix of the book I did eventually write—The Cold Song—and another book I didn’t write, about the death of a father.) The notebook was a reading diary, too. In between meetings about the funeral, and what to do with his things, and how we were going to bury him, I was reading Alice Munro.
I’ve read her in many stages of my life. I love the way her voice just sucks you in, the way her stories walk you as if to the unexpected edge of a cliff, towards moments that—in their violence or sense of life-changing possibility—are like sudden free fall. During that time of mourning, I’d written down this passage from her story “Face”:
Something had happened here. In your life there are a few places, or maybe only one place, where something has happened. And then there are the other places, which are just other places.
This quote—“Something had happened here”—resonated so much with me. I found it very moving because of where I was right then: starting a new book, having just lost my father, in the only place I had ever really called home. At the time, this was a very desolate island with a few sheep farmers living on it. Fårö was my home until I was three years old—and though I moved very, very many times, I returned every summer for the rest of my life, until my father died. These lines struck me on a profoundly personal level, and I had no choice but to write them down.
I’ve just re-read the story now, and am again blown away by it. It’s impossible to retell a story by Alice Munro, because there are so many ins and outs and digressions, before everything comes together in this surprising, magical way—but this is a strange love story about a boy who has a wine-colored birthmark over half his face. As a child, he’s friends with a girl about his age. Twice, she tries to make her face look like his—once, using red paint, and again later in a more permanent, devastating way. She does this out of love, or a destructive thing that love can sometimes be: “I love you so much that I want to be you.”
There’s so much else in this story, which gives the whole broad arc of the narrator’s life. We learn about his relationship with his father (who, moments after his son is born, remarks, “what a chunk of chopped liver”). We learn about his career as a successful radio actor, before TV—an industry his birthmark bars him from—takes over broadcast drama. But what sticks, in the end, is the moment in the basement of the childhood home where the little girl splashes red paint on half her face and says, all hopeful, “Now do I look like you?”
At the time, this gesture deeply wounds the boy, and his family interprets it as an act of terrible, mocking cruelty. The two children are never allowed to see each other again. It’s only as an adult that he learns—the afternoon of his father’s funeral—that she later used a razor to cut his same mark on her face. This act—of fidelity? Of shame? Of atonement?—casts the moment in the basement in a totally different light. Perhaps she was a person who identified with him so completely, that she was willing to trade her unblemished face for his. The narrator begins to realize that exchange in the basement was a crucial moment of his life; even though he didn’t realize it at the time, it may have been the closest he ever came to having his marred face looked upon honestly but without reproach, with something like love.
There’s no big sign saying Here’s the turning point. There’s no Sliding Doors scene that tells you, “Here’s the big moment!” But by the end of the story, we sense that this is what matters most to this character, as he looks back. After the revelation at the funeral, he decides not to sell the house where he grew up, where the exchange in the basement happened, as he had planned. Instead, he lives inside it for the rest of his life.
In other words, he comes to see that the childhood house will always be his reference point, his stage of greatest significance. I think it is this way for many of us: There is maybe one place, when we look back, where something happened. Or only a few places. “And then there are all the other places,” Munro writes: important too, but not distinct, not above all else. Those precious few settings where something happened are where meaning resides—they contain the story, they are the story. Yes, I think that, to Alice Munro, story is place—the two are that deeply connected. You do not have a story of a life without an actual place. You can’t separate one from the other.
I think that’s why she’s intensely local in her fiction, like many other great writers (Faulkner, Joyce, and Proust come straight to mind). Munro’s stories unfold in remote places in Canada that I’ve never been to—but in these geographically small places, whole worlds play out. The best writers provide a sense of events unfolding in this specific place, a place that informs and feeds the characters and events. What comes first: the place or the story? The story or the place? With great fiction, it can be impossible to distinguish.
I’ve been a reader of authors who have a strong sense of place, because in my own life I’ve been somewhat placeless. I always traveled as a kid, and went to a new school every year. I lived in New York, I lived in Norway, I lived in Sweden—we travelled around, we moved, and I continued doing that into my adult life. I have been something of a placeless person—so I try to find that in literature, I guess. I seek out books and authors who are very place-specific. For me, in a way, the experience of sitting with a book is the closest thing I have to “home.”
And this reminds me of another Munro line, from her story “The Bear Came Over the Mountain”:
There are places that you long for that you might not ever see.
Some places you never actually experience yourself, but are always important in your life anyway, even if you never go. Places you learn about through literature and other people’s stories can take on intense personal significance, as Munro’s Canadian hamlets have for me. I have this second quote written with the lines from “Face” in that big, black notebook; I probably wrote them on the same day. Somehow, I feel like these two passages—because they are about place in literature, and where things happened, whether a physical place or interior place—are what Munro is all about.
In my own work—the way I actually write—place plays an essential role, too. A choreographer I whose work I love, Merce Cunningham, was once asked, “How do you start a dance?” He said, “Well, you have to begin by showing up.” I think that’s brilliant, and it goes for writing, too. You can have all these novels in your head, all these characters and ideas, but if you don’t actually show up to your writing day—the physical place where you get the work done— you have nothing.
The characters, too, need to “show up”—the story needs to happen somewhere. Again, Munro: “Something happened here.” That line could be the epigraph to everything I write. The “here” is every bit as important as the “something happened.” For me, the two cannot exist without each other; setting and character respond to and inform one another.
When I begin writing, I need to have a place. It can be a small: even a single room, though I like to be able to see the layout, the colors, the objects inside. I need to have that stage so that my characters have a place to move around. If I can develop that sense of place—and that other crucial quality, the narrative voice—then I feel sure I will find a story, even if it takes some time. If I don’t have the place, and I don’t have the voice, I’m writing without a motor. It all becomes just words. But once the voice comes, the “here” comes next, and then the “something happened”—what we call plot—follows from it.
In this way, writing becomes a listening experience—a way of being responsive to what you have written, and letting it guide you. Some writers say “the characters come to me,” or the “characters become alive to me at night.” Bullshit. I don’t believe that my characters are alive. But the process requires a form of artistic listening, of understanding the consequences of the decisions you’ve made. If you are lucky enough to find voice and place, there are real consequences to those choices. Together, they limit the possibilities of what can possibly come next—and they help point the way forward. Your role, then, is to not stick to your original idea—it is to be totally faithless to your idea. Instead, be faithful to voice and place as you discover them, and to the consequences of what they entail.
That’s why it’s often more fun fumbling around with notes and good ideas before the writing actually starts—it doesn’t require as much intensive listening. Most writers start out thinking “I’m going to write about such-and-such grand idea.” That’s fine when it’s all up in your head. But the minute you start putting words down, you begin to confine yourself to certain possibilities, and you must be prepared to abandon what you thought you were writing about before.
There is a Norwegian novelist who says “Writers must beware of their own good ideas.” You have this great idea, and then you start writing—and maybe something happens, and your voice starts taking you places. But if you start to think, I’m going away from my great idea, I have this wonderful idea! I need to get back to my idea—you stop following the consequences of the place and voice you’ve chosen. This is a mistake. You see a lot of decent books and plots that are fantastic—the writing might even be really good—but still somehow feel completely dead. I think that’s because there’s a great idea, a compelling premise, but a lack of honesty that can only come from listening closely to your writing. Those beautiful moments when you’ve just got to put the book away for a while because it’s so intense—we have a Norwegian word, smertepunkt, which literally means “point of pain”—can only come from this kind of honest listening. And Alice Munro is an absolute master of it. She dares to take the consequence of a voice, and a place, and follow them to where it takes her.
Place dictates who we are and how we see—this is true in life, as well as fiction. I see it in the way my father wrote about his first impressions of Fårö in his autobiography, Magic Lantern:
If one wished to be solemn, it could be said that I had found my landscape, my real home. If one wished to be funny, one could talk about love at first sight …. This is your landscape, Bergman. It corresponds to your innermost imaginings of forms, proportions, colours, horizons, sounds, silences, lights and reflections. Security is here. Don’t ask why. Explanations are clumsy rationalizations with hindsight. In, for instance, your profession, you look for simplification, proportion, exertion, relaxation, breathing. The Fårö landscape gives you a wealth of all that.
He decided because of the shape and the light and the proportions that this was where he was going to live and work. And that place is the central place in my life, too. I think probably reading these Alice Munro stories right after his death was why I copied over those quotes. They struck me—because he was dead, and also because I was mourning the fact that I was also losing my place. The island, the house on it, that’s all going to disappear now—and all the memories there, too. You cannot separate memory and place. There are certain places, if we go there, either in our writing or in reading or in life, that conjure up our deepest memories. And memories are all about who we are.
I always wondered if it really was my place. That became the big dilemma in the years after my father’s death: Was it my place, or was it his place? Places are always complicated in that way.
The island is not a place that says “Love me. Look how beautiful I am. You’ll be happy here.” It is not a place that tries to charm or seduce you. It’s beautiful in its starkness, in all its different rocky greys. There are old stone formations, called rauks, that are millions of years old. Red poppies grow in the summer. In the winter, there are countless shades of white. The surrounding sea, the Baltic Sea, is a broken sea: it’s losing oxygen, is filmed with algae on it, and very still. A dead ocean. It’s beautiful, but severe. The nature and the temperament of the whole, stark place—yes, you might fall in love with me, but I don’t know if I’m going to return your love ever. I know that I love the place, but I don’t know if the place loves me.
With some of the greatest loves you have, that’s the dilemma you have to live with.
I’ve been really excited lately at the work I’ve been doing on my novels and their plot-lines. I mean, actually very excited to be writing my fiction and plotting and replotting my books.
I’ve had a wealth of great ideas in the past few weeks. Some difficulty, of course, as to how to best arrange all of these great ideas into the body of my novels, for some of these ideas complicate (and enrich) the plot considerably, and I’m not sure I can use all of the ideas I have – I may have to reserve some of these ideas for other books.
But still, overall, I’d much rather have these ideas and not be able to use them right now, than not have these ideas at all and so never use them because I lacked them.