Archive for November, 2021


The Process: Research

Here’s another post about my writing process. Previously, I talked about how I decided I wanted to try writing a “world” series, which would involve a number of semi-standalone stories set in the same world.

If you’re writing a “world” story, though, you need to have a good world, a place where lots of interesting things can happen. Most of my books have involved a ready-made world. There was the New York of Enchanted, Inc., which was the real world with a magical layer added, so it was obvious what I needed to research. I just needed to figure out the magical stuff, and that’s all made up. For the Rebels books, I was using the Gilded Age New York, and I needed to figure out my alternative history and what adding the magic and steampunk touches would involve, but it was still obvious what I needed to research.

For this new thing, I wanted to do a more traditional secondary-world fantasy, so I wasn’t sure what I needed to research. I had a vague idea of what the world would need to be like to tell some of the stories I wanted to tell, and I knew some things that needed to exist in this world, but beyond that, I wasn’t sure. So I took the things I knew needed to be there and started my research reading.

I have two kinds of research when I’m writing a book, idea research and detail research. The idea research comes in the planning stage, when I’m looking for ideas of what might go into the book. Even when I’m making things up, I like to ground my books in some kind of reality. I think that gives them that sense that this could all be real. With a secondary world, it’s about plausibility. I like finding fun little details in the real world and spinning off of them. This kind of research is mostly about reading a bunch of stuff to fill up my brain, and then my brain will digest it all, synthesize it, and create something out of those raw materials. You may not recognize any of the source material in the finished product. It’s like the ore going into the smelter to create iron and steel, which is then made into a washing machine or a car. You can’t see the car in the ore, but you can’t make a car without it.

The detail research comes when I’m actually writing and I need some particular fact to make sure the story works properly. In my previous books set in real places, that usually means a lot of maps and things like “when was this building built?” I have no idea how it will work in an imaginary world, since no one will be able to say “Aha! There’s no bus route serving that location!”

For a couple of years now, I’ve been doing this idea research reading. I started broad, then found a couple of details that intrigued me, so I narrowed in on those topics. Along the way, the world gradually began forming in my head, which gave me more ideas for how the stories might work, which gave me more topics to read about. There have been a lot of branches and rabbit trails along the way — ooh, I could use this, but then I’ll need to know more about that and that. I have about three and a half spiral notebooks full of notes I’ve scribbled down when I’ve found something I think I might use. I’ve learned a lot about a weird variety of subjects.

Now I’ve decided that I’ve done enough reading and it’s time to start putting it all together. I’ve been rereading my research notes and jotting down notes about what might go into my world and how I might use this information. It’s interesting seeing some of the things I was researching at the beginning before I’d narrowed in on a particular place and time I wanted to work with, and I can see the point when I found something that made me decide what the basis of my world would be. There was a very clear moment of “okay, this is what I’m basing this place on.” This process is probably going to continue for a few more days. It took me a day’s work to get through one of the notebooks.

Meanwhile, I’ve also been watching documentaries on these subjects. That’s a good way to get mental images for settings and clothing. The fun thing about a secondary world is that I can pick and choose from the real world and also make things up. If I like the women’s clothes from one period and men’s clothes from another, I can do that. Or if I like parts of the clothes but dislike other parts and the hairstyles, I can do that, too. But that means looking for a variety of sources to decide what I’m going to use and then get the images settled in my head so I can describe them in words.


Recent Reading: Intimate Fantasy

I recently read a series that really hit the sweet spot for intimate rather than epic fantasy, with a focus on the characters, and we really got to see the characters grow, even though there were only three books. It was the Blackthorn and Grim series by Juliet Marillier.

The series is set in Ireland soon after the coming of Christianity, but before it really takes over, though it’s a fictional version of Ireland where magic exists and the fey play a role. The setup for the series is that Blackthorn, a former village wise woman (a healer, mostly, but with a bit of magic) has been imprisoned by a corrupt lord. She’s looking forward to her day in court to be able to publicly accuse him of his wrongs, but on the eve of her hearing, she’s warned that the lord has no intention of letting her speak, so she’s going to suffer an “accident” on the way. A fey lord appears to her and makes her a bargain: he’ll get her free, but she has to agree to go to a different kingdom, take up residence in the cottage she finds in a certain place, and resume her duties as wise woman. For seven years, she can’t seek revenge against the lord, and she must help anyone who asks her for aid. She wrestles with the decision because she wants nothing more than to get revenge, but ultimately decides that she can’t get revenge if she’s dead, so she takes the deal. Another prisoner, Grim, escapes with her. They find the cottage, set up shop, and soon the local prince needs some help because there’s something very strange going on with his betrothed.

This series is structured a lot like a mystery series, with a “case” in each book of someone who needs help, but the characters and their relationships grow from book to book, with the threat of that evil lord always lurking in the background. There’s also a hint of romance, with some of the cases involving relationships. I would have thought this series could go on indefinitely, with seven years worth of having to help anyone who asks, but the whole thing is wrapped up in the third book, and quite satisfactorily. I like the way it’s resolved, but since I enjoyed these books, I wish there had been more of them before the ending.

One thing I enjoyed about this series is the way it was told. There are multiple viewpoints, with Blackthorn and Grim in first-person narration and most of the “guest” characters in third-person. Their voices are so distinct that you’d have known whose chapter it was without the headers. Blackthorn has an edge to her voice. She’s lost trust in people and starts out very bitter. She doesn’t really want to help people and would prefer just to be left alone. Grim is a gentle giant, a man of few words, and his narration reflects that, with short sentences and simple words.

I will caution that there’s mention of rape, especially in the first book. It takes place “offstage,” but it is referred to, and the effects are dealt with, with the focus on the victim. That might make this difficult to read for some. I’d tried to read another book by this author and had to stop reading midway through because it was too much — it was a retelling of the fairytale with the brothers turned to birds and the sister having to remain silent while she makes shirts of nettles, which has always bothered me, but dealing rather realistically with what happens to a girl who can’t speak, so it got really intense. These books aren’t nearly that bad, but she doesn’t shy away from painful subjects. I think it’s handled well in this case, but I’m not seeing it from the perspective of someone who’s dealt with it personally, so I don’t know how it might affect them, and thus the warning.

The first book is Dreamer’s Pool. I ended up devouring the whole series but might have paced myself better if I’d known there were only three books. They were good for reading on a rainy night with Celtic music playing. I’m going to try another of her series next.


The Process: The Idea

I’m in development mode for a new series, and I said I’d share some of my process for this, so here we go, starting with where the initial idea came from. I’m not going to get really specific about the content of what I’m working on. I’m just talking about the process. After all, I don’t want to spoil the books for readers, and I don’t even know what will end up in the books.

This idea, like most of my better ideas, came from wanting a particular type of book, with no idea about things like plot or character. With Enchanted, Inc., I wanted a chick-lit type book with magic in it, or else something like the Harry Potter books, but about adult things rather than about school. With Rebel Mechanics, I wanted a steampunk book in a Gilded Age kind of setting, with adventure and airships. In both those cases, it started with something I wanted to read, and then when I couldn’t find it, I decided to write it. It took me a while to figure out the specific stories I was going to tell with that kind of book.

In this case, the initial idea was perhaps a bit more mercenary. As you might recall, I had a bit of a meltdown early in 2019 in which I was prepared to give up writing entirely. I was frustrated with the fact that my books just weren’t selling and my income was steadily decreasing. After giving myself permission to quit, I realized that there wasn’t anything else I wanted to do, and the idea of getting a real job that would require going to an office was so horrifying that I figured I’d be willing to tolerate not making much money and dealing with the business side of writing that I hate. But if I was going to make a go at this, I needed to do much better financially.

The trouble I have is that in my most popular series, the Enchanted, Inc. books and the Rebels books, the publisher controls the first books, which limits what I can do for promotion. Almost all promo revolves around getting people to try the first book, and then pick up the rest of the series. With these books, I can’t control the price of the first books, which limits what I can do for promotion, and I can’t do anything to drive people from those books to the rest of the series. I can’t get the publishers to add the other books to the list of books by me in those books or get them to put links for subscribing to a newsletter. I just have to hope that people who read those books go looking for more. If they buy them on Amazon, Amazon might recommend the rest, but I have zero control over this. By the way, this is why I’ve been holding off on doing a fourth Rebels book. I’m close to getting the rights to that first book back, but if I put out a new books, that will increase sales, not enough to make me any more money, but enough to delay me getting the rights reverted.

So, I was thinking that what I need is a new series I control from the start. I was looking at what seems to be successful, and romance is the big seller in the independent publishing world, perhaps because the kind of series they can do there.

There are several different kinds of series. There’s the saga, which is one long story chopped up into book-sized chunks, with each chunk possibly ending in a cliffhanger. You see a lot of this in fantasy, like with the Song of Ice and Fire series. You have to read this kind of series in order, starting with book one. Otherwise, it would be like opening a book to chapter 10 and beginning to read there. It would make no sense.

Then there’s the episodic series, which follows the same cast of characters, but with a new story in each book. There might be subplots that span from book to book, generally focused on the characters and their relationships, so the series will make more sense if you start at the beginning and read them in order, but you could probably follow the plot of an individual book if you happened to pick up a later one in the series first. You see this kind of series in mystery, where the mystery plots are self-contained, but you may also be following the development of the main character’s personal life.

You may also see a hybrid of this, where there’s a big-picture overarching plot for the series, but each individual book tells a complete “episode” of the story. You still probably need to start with book 1 and read them in order, but each book has its own beginning, middle, and end. I’d put the Harry Potter series in this category. There’s the big-picture plot of the fight against Voldemort and Harry figuring out his destiny, but each book is a complete story of Harry dealing with an aspect of this fight, often defeating a minion of Voldemort. I’d put most of my books in this category, as well.

What romances tend to do is a “world”-based series. There’s some kind of setting or situation that involves a group of people, and each book is about a different person within that setting or situation. The main characters from one book may go on to be supporting characters in later books, and the supporting characters from other books may take their turns to step up and have their own books. If you read the whole series in order, starting with book one, you might get a better picture of things and get all the references, but you can jump into the series at any point. Any book could be a first book, and then you might want to go back and read the rest. This kind of series is sort of a best of both worlds situation. There’s enough continuity to keep you wanting to read more of the series — will that character you like ever get his own story? — but not so much that you have to start at the beginning or read all the books.

This kind of series is ideally suited to romance, since the happily ever after ending means there isn’t much story left for the characters after they get together. This way, you can shift the story to another couple while still showing what’s next for the previous couple. You don’t see a lot of this sort of thing in other genres. Mercedes Lackey has done a couple of fantasy series that are kind of like it, where there’s an established world and organization within that world, but each book is about a different main character dealing with that world or organization. Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books are sort of a hybrid of the episode and the world series. The series is about the world, but each book may deal with a different aspect of that world. There are the books about the city watch, the books about the wizards at the university, the books about the witches in the mountains, the books about Death, and various one-offs about other things. Over time, this built out into multiple miniseries within the series. You could jump into that world at just about any point, but it helps to start with the first book in a particular miniseries. Sometimes the different miniseries cross over, so that the main characters from one series will appear as secondary characters in another series. The more books you’ve read in the overall series, the more details you catch, so it rewards rereading. The first book you read will take on new meaning after you’ve read more books.

I thought it might be fun to do a fantasy series like that — create a world, then have a bunch of mostly self-contained stories within it. I have a lot of story ideas I haven’t managed to fit into any of my other series, and this could be a place where I could use them all. That was what kicked all this off. I came up with the mystery series idea around the same time and started writing that one first because this requires so much more research and development. I’ve spent the last couple of years doing research and the occasional bit of brainstorming. I’m not sure how well that totally self-contained stories thing is going to hold up because there may be a framing story to set everything up and provide some link between stories. I’ll know better how it will go once I get into more details.

In a future post, I’ll look at how I go from wanting to write a type of book to figuring out what the story will actually be.


History vs. Fiction

After reading about and watching The Princess Bride last week, I followed it up by watching Lady Jane. Cary Elwes mentions that movie a couple of times in his book about The Princess Bride. That was the role that got him noticed so that he was cast in The Princess Bride, and it was filmed at one of the locations that was also used in The Princess Bride. It’s been sitting on my watchlist for a long time, but I’d been putting off watching it because the previous time I saw part of it, it was a painful experience.

Back when the History Channel had actual history-related content, they used to have a program called something like Movies in History, in which they’d show a film based on a historical person or event, then have historians talk about the actual history, comparing it to what was depicted in the movie. I loved this because I often would look up the real history after seeing a movie, and this was in the early 90s, before Google and Wikipedia, so looking up the real history required going to the library and looking in the encyclopedia or finding a book, and that was before my neighborhood had a library branch, so I had to drive downtown. When I was in college, I’d even look up the microfilm for newspapers at the time of the event (it was convenient living across the street from the main research library) so I could see how the event was covered in the news at that time. Seeing movies through this program saved me the trip to the library (unless I was still curious enough to want to read a whole book on the subject, but it at least dealt with the immediate curiosity so it could wait until my next trip to the library).

Lady Jane came on this program during the early 90s when I still only knew Cary Elwes from The Princess Bride and Helena Bonham Carter from A Room with a View. I was familiar with the history in general, so I knew about (spoiler!) the royal cousin who was made queen very briefly before Mary took the throne and had her executed, but I didn’t know a lot of details. I’d heard of the movie but hadn’t seen it and stumbled upon it partway through while channel surfing. The movie plays out like a tragic romance, with the couple in a marriage arranged by their parents, hating each other at first and then falling madly in love, then having a brief moment of hope that they could do great things leading the kingdom before their tragic end. Lady Jane was depicted as serious and scholarly, and we had her and a slightly younger version of Westley bonding over intellectual discussions of religious doctrine, so this movie was totally my jam. When the movie ends with the idea that they may have been executed, but they were going to be together in heaven, I was sobbing. It was a great romantic tearjerker.

And then the historian came on and ruined everything by talking about how it was all false. They hated each other, never fell in love, never really spent any time together. She even refused to see him before their execution. They also wouldn’t have had any impulse for reform while she was queen, since that wasn’t a way people would have even thought at that time. It ruined the movie because it was such a disappointment. I’ve since found other information that while it is true that they didn’t spend any time together and probably were not in love, her reason for refusing to see him before the execution was that she thought there was no point since they were about to be reunited in heaven. Also, the word “Jane” was carved into the cell of the Tower where he was kept before his execution. So, maybe not a love story, but it’s possible that if they hadn’t been executed so young they might have worked out. It is true that she was very studious and was considered one of the most highly educated women of her time.

I didn’t get nearly as weepy on this viewing, and I watched it with the idea that it was basically a historical romance using characters and situations that existed. It also helps to imagine the novel My Lady Jane, which puts a fantasy twist on the story and gives it a happy ending. It’s amusing seeing such a young Helena Bonham Carter, long before she went into Tim Burton mode. The costuming and scenery are lovely, and I had fun playing “name the location.” There are a few scenes set in the same courtyard where Princess Buttercup is introduced to the people, and there’s an exterior set at a castle I’ve visited but that doesn’t actually play a role in this story. They’re pretending that part of that castle is also part of that other manor house, even though they’re in different parts of the country. Aside from the two young leads, most of the cast were from the Royal Shakespeare Company, including Patrick Stewart (pre Star Trek) as Lady Jane’s father, so it’s very well-acted.

If you like costume dramas and tragic romance, this one can be entertaining. Just ignore the history.

Books, movies

As You Wish

The last time I went to the library, I brought with me the sheet from my memo cube on which I write down the books I want to get at the library. These are generally things I’ve seen mentioned online and looked up in the library’s catalog system. For fiction, I’ll write down the author’s name and title, but for nonfiction I’ll often just write down the call number. I had one of those on this trip and had forgotten what book I’d looked up. I assumed it was a book relating to that project I’ve been developing. Then I got to the library, found the book, and was surprised to see that it was As You Wish, the memoir about the making of The Princess Bride by Cary Elwes (who played Westley/The Man in Black/The Dread Pirate Roberts in the movie).

That’s one of my all-time favorite movies. I can just about quote the entire film, and yet I still enjoy it every time I see it. This book adds another layer of enjoyment to the movie with stories about how the project came about, how various cast members joined the project, and bits about things that happened during production, with some follow-up about what happened when the movie was released and times the cast members have reunited.

It’s a delight to learn that this really was a project of the heart. The story was something William Goldman came up with initially to amuse his daughters and that he wrote for love. Rob Reiner wanted to make the film because he loved the book so much and wanted to do it justice. Many of the cast members (including Elwes) were also fans of the book. Meanwhile, the cast and crew all came to love each other. The way Elwes talks about Andre the Giant makes me feel a real loss that I didn’t get to know him. Reiner was like the dad of the project, a genuinely caring boss who looked out for his people. “Westley” and “Buttercup” had crushes on each other in real life, which helped create their chemistry (it sounds like neither acted on it, or possibly even admitted it until later, and they just became really good friends).

It’s also interesting to learn how little movie trickery there was. That infamous sword fight was not done using stunt men. It was all the actors, who spent months training for it. Every bit of down time during the production was spent on training and practice. The only time a stunt man was involved was for the acrobatic flips. The rest was all them, and it really is good fencing, from the footwork to the way they use their blades.

I got weirdly emotional while reading this, to the point I actually cried when they came to the end of filming and people were saying their goodbyes, feeling a bit sad that this wonderful experience was ending. Then I laughed at myself, since this ending came more than 30 years ago, and if it hadn’t ended, I wouldn’t be reading this book because there would have been no movie.

I was a bit surprised to learn that the movie was initially considered a disappointment upon its release. It didn’t do very well at theaters and only took off later on home video. I’m one of the few who actually saw it in the theater in that initial release. I don’t remember having heard of it, but I went with friends (or, more accurately, I was included in a group of friends who went to see it because I was the one with a car) and the friends picked the movie. I loved it instantly. I remember describing it as a spoof that was also the gold standard of the kind of thing it was spoofing. Everyone I knew had seen it and incorporated lines into normal conversation. But I guess I was living in a bubble at that time rather than in the mainstream of popular culture, since I was in college and living on the honors floor (the nerd floor) of the dorm.

In a way, there are parallels to Enchanted, Inc., in that it was mis-categorized and barely promoted, but it’s endured and people are still discovering it. It hasn’t yet become a pop culture phenomenon that’s widely quoted, but maybe someday …

After reading this book, I had to watch the movie again, and I found that it made me love the movie even more. As familiar as it is, I noticed new things from watching it so intently to look for things mentioned in the book. Often, learning how things were done ruins the magic, but in this case, it seems to have enhanced the magic. I’ve never been all that affected by the relationship between Westley and Buttercup. This isn’t the movie I turn to when I’m in the mood for romance. But I got it this time, possibly from knowing the actors fancied each other. I could see how that colored their dynamic. It helps that the last time I’d seen this movie, it was at church when the pastor was doing a series of sermons tied to movies. We had a movie night at the church, then Sunday the sermon used that movie as an example. For this one, it was about steadfast love, that Westley was so devoted to Buttercup he even resisted letting death separate them, while she had absolute faith he would come for her. The romance genre is mostly about the couple overcoming their internal conflicts to develop a relationship, and since that part is glossed over in the opening here, I hadn’t thought of it as too romantic. But there is a different kind of romance involved with a couple that’s already together who manage to hold on to their love in spite of external conflicts. Their love is a quiet assurance. It’s the rock amid all the other drama.

If you love the movie, I recommend reading this book. And then you’ll want to watch the movie again.

writing life

Back from Staycation

I’m “back” from my staycation — sort of. The original plan was to take a whole week off, so I guess I’d have been back today anyway, but I started working again on Monday. The weather didn’t really cooperate with my plans. I’d hoped to take some long walks, but we had a massive wind storm, with a couple of days with gusts of 40 to 50 miles per hour. Walking would not have been fun. Then it got too hot for a long walk (especially in the sun), and then it got cold and rainy. If you’re not doing anything, then a “staycation” starts to feel like being lazy at home, and do that for too long and you just get into bad habits. I spent a couple of days obsessing over a puzzle, and then I got bored. I actually wanted to get back to work.

So, I’m transitioning into what I’m thinking of as a creative retreat with a flexible schedule. Before I start a new project, I like to immerse myself in things that inspire me for that project. I read and watch things for research, like documentaries relating to the setting or some element of the story, plus I look for things to watch that remind me in some way of the story. It may be a movie set in the setting of the story, or something that stars someone I’ve mentally cast as one of my characters, or just something that has an element in it that I want to put in my story. I may listen to music to come up with a “soundtrack” for the story. It’s all about giving my brain input to create the movie that plays in my head that I then transcribe into a novel.

So, I’ll be doing that, along with the usual admin stuff I need to be doing for work. But if it happens to be a perfect day to pack a picnic lunch and go for a long walk in the woods, I’ll do that. If it’s a perfect day to curl up with a cup of tea and a good book, I’ll do that (as I’m planning to do today since it’s cold and rainy).

It’s not a full-on writing schedule, but I am doing things that relate to work that move me closer to being able to start writing, but also with enough flexibility for me to take some time off and revive myself, so it functions like a vacation.