FISKUR, the second book in my fantasy series THE GEMETA STONE, has now been out for a month. Its virtual book tour is complete, so I’m going to do what I did for KINGLET and put all the guest blogs I wrote for the tour here, for your reading pleasure. I wrote a few more of them for this release (my publisher, Fiery Seas, hired a new marketing person and she’s a real fireball), so I’m going to make this blog post a two-parter, so as not to overwhelm you readers. They’re on a variety of topics, and I hope you’ll find them interesting.
#1 – The Perils and Pitfalls of Researching the Fantasy Novel
I’m a fiend for research. In fact, it’s one of the things I like best about writing: learning new stuff which I can then incorporate into my stories.
Even when you write fantasy, as I do, you still have to ground your make-believe world in reality. The setting of my fantasy series The Gemeta Stone is a traditional European, medieval-esque world. My characters ride horses, use bows and arrows, fight with swords and live in and around castles. Fortunately it’s an era I’ve always been interested in, so I had years of reading (and stacks of books) on various aspects of that time.
However, when I was about to write my first one-on-one swordfight, I realized how little I actually knew about swordplay – beyond what I’d seen in movies. Fortunately, we live in the Era of the Internet, where information is yours for the taking if you just look around a bit. I found a number of sword-centric websites and YouTube channels that were extremely helpful, but when you’re trying to write a sword fight from a combatant’s point of view, there’s nothing like hands-on, real-life experience to give real veracity to your writing.
So I started casting around for a swordsmanship class. Fortunately, I live in a major metropolitan area where you can find a class in just about anything. Unfortunately, I’m a Woman of a Certain Age, so I knew I was probably going to be one of the older participants in the class.
I had no idea just how MUCH older.
First day of the course, I dress in yoga pants and a long-sleeved shirt and my new white sneakers and my gloves (the class brochure said to bring your own for hand protection; I’ve purchased an inexpensive pair of golf gloves). I drive to the community center, head to the classroom – and discover that my fellow students are children. And only children. The youngest is about six, the oldest…well, let’s just say I am a full forty years older than the oldest kid in the class. The teacher eyes me warily, the parents dropping their kids off stare as I slink sheepishly into the classroom.
We’re outfitted with masks and lames (chest protectors). Some of the kids didn’t bring gloves and get loaners from the instructor, some wear winter gloves and one bright spark actually has gauntlets. GAUNTLETS.
I line up with the kids. The instructor shows us some basic footwork but the kids are impatient and can’t wait to start slashing around with the array of foils, epees and sabres on display. The instructor hands out foils and we face her as she demonstrates various moves. We try them out, but the kids are getting antsy as hell (to be honest, so am I) and so eventually the instructor pairs us off to practice the moves we’ve just learned. I end up with a gawky twelve year-old who’s the tallest of the kids. As we square off, I’m thinking hard about Kristan Gemeta, the hero of my series: a small, slight young man who’s nonethless an excellent (albeit reluctant) swordsman who relies on his agility and powers of observation to defeat larger, more powerful opponents. I want to see if this actually works, but I tower over the kid, and due to his mask, I can’t read his face for clues. However, his whole being is suffused with embarrassment over being paired with a woman older than his mom, and that makes him awkward. Me, too. We clump through the exercises like a couple of ill-matched plow horses: me the heavy-footed old mare, him the knock-kneed, gangling colt. We’ve only gone a round or two before class is over. I’m sweating like a horse, too, as I slip past the parents.
I go home and tell my husband about my first class and he absolutely HOWLS. He says it reminds him of that episode of Seinfeld when Kramer takes a karate class with a bunch of children. He wants me to go to the following week’s class and TERRORIZE the kids, just like Kramer.
I am too pure-hearted to Kramerize the kids, though, and I return to class the following week resolved to learn regardless of the situation. And I do. Several of the kids have dropped out (no surprise there) so we get a little more individual attention. The instructor corrects our stances, adjusts our grip on the swords. I fight with the littlest kid, who isn’t interested in getting past my guard; he bashes my upraised sword ferociously, forgetting that he’s supposed to be fighting me. I defeat him and file that experience away under INEXPERIENCED OPPONENT, but then I’m paired with the oldest kid in the class, a girl of about fourteen who actually knows what she’s doing and feints past me again and again. She hands me my ass and is gracious about it. I file that away under HEROIC BEHAVIOR.
I absorb other lessons, too, especially once we start working with the heavier epees and sabres: how you forget to breathe when you’re fighting a determined opponent; how your neat, careful braid gets pulled loose by the mask and how the loose hair sticks to your cheeks and forehead; how surprising and painful it is to get jabbed in the shoulder with a weapon, even a blunt one; how your muscles tremble after a long bout and how you ache all over the next day.
After six weeks, the class was over. Am I a good swordsman as a result? No – I’m not even a passable swordsman. But I’m a better writer, at least when writing those swordfight sequences. My experience in that humble little class gave me confidence and allowed me to narrate those scenes with authority and describe them viscerally – and that’s worth a little time and humiliation.
#2 – Deleting a Favorite Scene, or My Writing Bleeds When I Cut It
One of the hardest lessons I’ve learned as a writer is when to acknowledge that a scene isn’t working. I’m not talking about when the scenario doesn’t flesh out properly, or the writing is forced and clumsy. That happens all the time, and I hack that stuff out quickly and without remorse, and start again. No, what I’m talking about is when a scene is good, and the writing so polished that it shines, but the scene just isn’t serving the story as a whole. Sometimes it’s just extraneous material that’s bloating the word count, but more often – at least for me – it’s when the scene isn’t moving the plot forward with vigor.
I remember one instance of this particularly well. In an early draft of Kinglet, the first book in my fantasy series The Gemeta Stone, I opted to start the book with a scene from the point of view of my antagonist, Daazna, as he arrives on the shores of the kingdom of Fandrall. Beginning with the antagonist is a departure from a traditional opening, which introduces the protagonist. I was happy with the opening and it’s how the completed book starts, establishing tension by displaying Daazna’s skill with magic, the ruthlessness of his character and his nefarious motives for being in Fandrall in the first place.
The very next scene introduced Robert, the king of the realm and father of the series’ main character, Kristan Gemeta. It was a beautiful scene, with Robert on the battlements of his castle on a clear spring morning, Robert is admiring the view, and for sheer pleasure, throws out his arms as if to embrace it. He’s interrupted by Maxwell, his senior knight and oldest friend, who ribs Robert about making love to his kingdom. The two chat about Kristan and how well he’s grown up, and together they descend to the council chamber, where the character of Kristan is finally introduced.
It was a nice scene, with solid character-building and good descriptions, and I was in love with the image of the king standing high above his realm with his arms outflung. The problem? It was too nice. All the tension I’d established with Daazna in the first scene had completely dissipated. Yes, there was conflict coming in the scene with Kristan and Robert, but I’d have to rebuild the tension I’d already lost. And with Kristan being introduced by Robert and Maxwell singing his praises before the reader ever met him – well, shades of Mary Sue.**
So I cut that king-on-the-tower scene. It hurt. I’d lavished a lot of descriptive energy on it but it was simply not serving the story as a whole. After a lot of trial and error, I settled on a completely different second scene, which began with Kristan and his horse Malvo and introduced the upcoming conflict with Robert Gemeta in a much more interesting and effective way. I’d been pleased with the original scene, but I was delighted with this one, so much that when it was finished, I said out loud, “Yeah, that’s the stuff!” ***
Still, I mourned the loss of that king-on-the-battlements image. Even though it was cut, it refused to die. It was not until several years later, when I was working on the fourth book in the series, that I finally had the opportunity to use it – in a slightly different and even more interesting way (you’ll have to wait until that book comes out to see how). Not every cut scene gets a chance at resurrection, though – an early draft of Fiskur: Book Two of The Gemeta Stone had a great frolic-in-a-waterfall scene that got cut as well. It’s still breathing, though, and waiting for its chance to be in a story.
Maybe in Book Five.
* Or, in the case of thrillers and mysteries, someone who is about to get killed off.
** For the uninformed, a Mary Sue character is one that’s idealized to the point of nauseating the reader.
*** I talk to myself when I’m writing, but most of the time I say things like “well, that sucks.”
#3 – Where I Write Is How I Write Is What I Write
Remember what the dormouse said
Feed your head, feed your head
“White Rabbit” by Grace Slick
I write this sitting on a pair of house slippers.
That’s not entirely correct. I write this sitting on a tall wooden stool at a faux-granite countertop in a teeny-tiny sublet in midtown Manhattan. The house slippers are between me and the stool because the stool is hard and makes my sciatica flare up.
I am writing in this less-than-ideal environment because I’m temporarily in New York working on a Broadway show. I’ve been here for about nine months. Another week left, and the show will be closed and I will be headed back home to Virginia, where I have a proper desk and a proper chair in a proper office.
Do ideal settings make me write more? Or write better?
No. Sometimes the odder the writing environment, the more the ideas flow. I’ve written in coffee shops and restaurants, libraries, parks, trains, buses and airplanes, conference rooms, hotel rooms, laundry rooms, dressing rooms and theatre lobbies. I’ve written in lined notebooks, on scraps of paper, bits of napkin and out loud into a recorder, but I’m happiest if I can use my laptop on a proper surface with a decent chair. (Because sciatica.)
I don’t need silence; as long as the sounds around me aren’t blaringly intrusive, they’re just absorbed into the experience. If things get too loud, I can always put in my earbuds and listen to some music while I write.
Since I write fantasy, I rely heavily on my imagination, and the more I’m stimulated by my surroundings – odd though they may be – the more open I am to new ideas. Sometimes my desk and chair at home are too familiar, too comfortable, so I make a point of getting up and moving around every hour or so. (Also because sciatica.) I look out the window, go out on the deck, head into the garden and pull a few weeds. If I’m really stuck I go for a walk. Sometimes I’ll take a notebook with me, just in case inspiration strikes, but mostly I just walk and breathe and think.
My most productive walks are in nature and in solitude: open fields, forests and deserted beaches are best. I like both an expansive view and minute details: open ocean and grains of sand, towering trees and a chickadee on a twig, wide open spaces and a cricket at my toes.
But sitting on a pair of house slippers will work just as well. It’s all grist for the mill. My discomfort – as far as I can stand it – is another experience that I can use in my writing. It opens my mind, it releases my imagination, it feeds my head – far better than the potions and mushrooms advocated by Grace Slick and Jefferson Airplane in “White Rabbit.”
#4 – How I Started Writing
It’s hard for me to remember a time when I wasn’t making up stories. I’m the middle child of a big Army family and when I was a kid we moved just about every other year and usually in the middle of the school year. I was always the new kid, and consequently it was hard to break into the pre-existing cliques. I was saved from being a lonely kid by always having siblings to play with, and endless games of pretend with them (and an ever-expanding cast of stuffed animals and dolls) gave me a solid grounding in the world of storytelling.
Later on, I graduated from acting out stories to drawing them. On pads of wide-lined, rough-textured elementary school notepaper, my younger brother John and I scrawled out complicated chambers inhabited by characters we called “Pirits.” Pirits were stick figures, clad in pointed hats and triangular gowns and as far as I can recall, were essentially sexless. Pirits were sucked into these chambers by a giant vacuum and then blown out into little sub-chambers, where the sheer force of the wind activated mechanical contraptions that fed them, put them into shoes, cleaned their hats, and whatever other goings-on our young minds could contrive. Stretched out on the floor on our tummies, with the notebook open between us, John and I would draw on our own page and describe to each other what was happening in our particular Pirit world.
When we’d learned how to read and write, we started creating little books of construction paper with illustrated stories of perhaps four or five lines. I can’t remember any of my mine, but one of John’s involved a little guy eating pizza with extremely stretchy cheese. In its entirety it read:
Would you like to eat a pizza pie? (picture of little guy biting pizza)
And try and try and try and try? (cheese stretches way out)
WHAP! (cheese recoils, hitting the little guy in the face)
You think and think (little guy ponders)
And WHAP again! (little guy punches the pizza maker)
I never said we were brilliant writers. The family thought the stories were great, though, and urged us to write more.
Our tastes and writing abilities expanded and matured. We returned to writing in notebooks again, only this time they were the more grown-up composition books – handy because they had sturdy covers that made a good writing surface. We started drawing comic books together, based on The Lone Ranger cartoons that ran on Saturday morning TV. Initially they were tongue-in-cheek spoofs, but later on we took the characters of the Ranger and Tonto, updated them and made them into contemporary secret agent-types. The stories turned from spoof to serious, with real plots and real villains and (gasp!) even love interests. John wasn’t much for the love interest stuff. Our creative differences meant we started writing our stories separately, on regular notebook paper, and enshrined them in separate ring binders. We’d still read and enjoy each other’s work, though. Even after we stopped writing them, we kept them for a long time. They finally disappeared from our lives, probably during one of our last moves as a military family (my dad was ruthless about throwing out stuff before a move).
Now, decades removed from our Pirits and construction paper books and fan-fic comic strips, my brother and I are both published authors. John’s book is a scholarly work called Playing War: Wargaming and U.S. Navy Preparations for World War II. And I’ve got my fantasy series The Gemeta Stone. The first book of the series, Kinglet was released last August, followed by Fiskur, now available now from major retailers everywhere. The third book in the series, StoneKing, will be released in early 2018.
It’s funny how far enthusiasm, a little paper and some encouragement can get you.