Concept Art

I think I’ve mentioned before that I’m more of an audible reader/writer – I don’t tend to visualize stories as I read them/write them. I hear them in my head, instead (one reason why I rarely bother to read to stories aloud when I’m editing them. Since I hear it as I write it, reading aloud is redundant).

This means that I tend to write my characters all in “white space.” I’ve had to train myself to write in background details for scenes, so that my characters aren’t all talking heads.

This also means that when I placed my sci-fi novella-turned-novel From the Shadows on a futuristic spaceship, I didn’t bother visualizing how the spaceship would look, its design, or anything beyond a vague “sleek and shiny.”

I knew I would need to get more detailed at some point, but when Amanda and I were discussing elements for the cover and decided that it needed an image of the ship on it somewhere, I had to buckle down and figure out exactly what it looked like.

This led to figuring out logistics as well, what parts of the ship did what, and a rough sketch of the outline to send to Amanda so she could see what I had imagined.

I never claimed to be a great artist

I never claimed to be a great artist

Somewhat to my surprise, it was fun, sketching it and plotting it and detailing it. (I have a rough plan of the inside layout of the ship, too, but that isn’t even close to fit for other people to see – I need to polish it up.) And it has helped with the writing, as well – knowing what the setting looks like in my mind helps me to unconsciously write more natural details into the scenes and keep the characters from being the talking heads I veer toward so naturally.

I’ve been toying with the idea of once in a while sketching out scenes from my books now, in hopes that it strengthens my ability to be a visual as well as auditory writer, and that it makes for more detailed writing and a fuller experience for the readers.

(Also, it makes me wicked excited to see how Amanda incorporates the ship into the cover art.)

Lloyd Alexander and Diversity

An incomplete (but pertinent) bibliography of Lloyd Alexander’s works for young people:

Time Cat, 1963. Takes place in ancient Egypt, Rome, Britain, Ireland, Japan, Italy, Peru, Isle of Man, Germany, and America, all extensively researched and handled with great respect and affection.

The First Two Lives of Lukas Kasha, 1978. Takes place in fantasy Persia, extensively researched.

The Remarkable Journey of Prince Jen, 1991. Takes place in fantasy China, patterned after Chinese folklore and fairy tales, extensively researched.

The Arkadians, 1995. Takes place in fantasy Greece and neighboring islands, patterned after Greek myths with very obvious affection.

The Iron Ring, 1997. Takes place in fantasy India. Patterned after Indian myths, incorporates traditional Indian caste systems and the importance of honor and karma, extensively researched. (Also the first Lloyd Alexander book I ever bought with my own money.)

Gypsy Rizka, 1999. Features a Romany heroine.

The Rope Trick, 2002. Takes place in fantasy Italy, pre-unification.

The Golden Dream of Carlo Chuchio, 2007. Takes place in Arabia.

In all the calls for the need for more culturally diverse books, I have not seen anyone mention Alexander’s works, and that’s a shame. Because I grew up enthralled with fairy tales and folklore of many different lands, and infused with the desire to immerse myself in and explore all sorts of “other” cultures in my writing, and I never considered that an odd way of thinking, and that is due almost entirely to Lloyd. To me, respectfully, excitedly, and lovingly exploring different cultures through fantasy was normal, and sticking with basic European traditions was weird.

We do need diverse books. So let’s not forget the man who was writing them long before any campaign for such notion began, the man who wrote diverse books solely because he loved the richness of them.

I would also like to note that all of the female characters in Alexander’s works are strong, no-nonsense (except for the ones who like nonsense), independent, intelligent, witty characters, at least if not more so as well-rounded as the male characters. And most of them are capable of physical fighting as well, though they tend to be clever enough that they avoid the need to fight much of the time.

(Lloyd Alexander has also written a few picture books which are beautifully illustrated and also culturally rich. The Fortune-Tellers, illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman, is set in Cameroon, and is witty and charming. Dream-of-Jade: The Emperor’s Cat I (sadly) have not yet read, but it is illustrated by D Brent Burkett and set in Ancient China and looks just as marvelous as all Alexander’s other works. The King’s Fountain, another I’ve not yet read, is illustrated by Ezra Jack Keats and set in the Middle East.)

TL;DR

Lloyd Alexander was awesome.

Make Mistakes Great

I’ve mentioned here before that I’m working on Magic Most Deadly‘s sequel, right? (I know, I could look it up, but … who has the time?) I’ve hit a couple of snags with it, coming up against errors or “oops” moments from the previous book. One little thing was when I wanted to use Sophie and Owen from If This Be Magic, but I realized that I’d given Owen the same last name (Maddox) as Maia’s friend Constable Maddox from Magic Most Deadly. Uh-oh!

I came across a more egregious error when I remembered that I’d let Len use magic to dispel a hangover in Magic Most Deadly, but according to the rules of magic I laid out more clearly, any direct use of magic on a person, whether yourself or someone else, is evil and against the law. These rules play an enormous role in this current book, whereas in the first one they were only a side note, so I didn’t notice the mistake until I came to this one.

That was a big oops.

What to do? I couldn’t go back and change it – the book is already published. I could ignore it and hope that no readers picked up on, but that felt like cheating. Besides, even if nobody else ever caught the mistake, I would know about it, and it would bother me. Forever.

I wrestled with it on and off for a couple of weeks. Then, this morning, the answer came to me, laid out as a beautiful scene. Not only can I use that to add another layer of nuance to magic, laws, and Magical Intelligence work, but I can also use it to add further depth to Len’s character.

Even though I’m not at the point in this story where I can work the point in, I sat down and wrote the scene out as soon as it came together in my mind, so that now it’s ready to insert when I get to that part.

As a bonus? At the end of that scene, a little bit of romance snuck in! (I know some of you out there are Len/Maia ‘shippers!)

And that’s the story of how a mistake turned into something that made the characters, and the world, even better than they were before.

I hope all my human errors in these books turn out as well!

Not So Original

Last night, I half woke up from a dream, thinking it would be the perfect idea for a story someday … it featured a married couple in a medieval-fantasy world, where the woman was the warrior and the man was not, and he was always cracking jokes, and they were quite happy together …

I was horribly, terribly sad this morning when I woke up fully and realized that it was not, in fact, a brilliantly original idea which I could use for a fabulous story.

I had just taken Zoe and Wash from Firefly and inserted them into the Middle Ages.

Darn you, subconscious!

Names and Naming

I realized, a few years back, that every single story I was writing had a main-ish character with some version of the name Katherine. Every one. The funny thing is, that name was never even on my list of favorite names, certainly not one I considered for either Joy or Grace (although if I had a third daughter …), and yet it kept cropping up in every one of my stories, until I had to consciously edit it out. Magic Most Deadly’s Julia was a Kate first, for example. As were the main protagonists in the two other stories I was writing/plotting at the same time as that. I kept one as was, changed MMD’s Kate to Julia, and abandoned the other story entirely, at least for a time.

Other names, or name-sounds, crop up with frequency, too. I adore Lloyd Alexander’s Princess Eilonwy (I think the E and the I look ugly next to each other, especially with that W showing up so soon after (W is just an ugly-looking letter anyway), which is one reason why I never considered Eilonwy as a name for Joy or Grace, but the sound of the name – Aye-LON-Wee – is pure music). I love JRR Tolkien’s Eowyn as well (though the E-O-W is even uglier to look at than E-I…W), and have found myself using very similar names in many of my stories. I have an Eilwen in one, her daughter Eirlys in another (plotted but not written). I’ve used Owen, Will, Gwen, in several of my non-fantasy stories. And I have yet to write this character, but I love the name Telyn and am eagerly waiting for the right story to put her in.

I sat down and analyzed Wings of Song the other day and realized it pretty much needed to be torn apart and begun again. Part of that tearing apart meant changing my main protagonist’s name. So much of her character was bound up in her name. If she needed a different personality, she needed a different name. I wanted this new heroine to be a combination of two previously-written protags: one named Meggie, one Gwen. At first I thought I wanted a name that preserved that middle “eh” sound, but in the end (and it was surprisingly difficult), I went with something entirely different.

And it’s working.

Poor Carl – I used to scare him half to death when we’d be driving along in the car, talking of something completely different, and I’d suddenly fire off: “What do you think of ___ for a name?” “Are you pregnant?” he’d howl.

He’s since learned to just roll with it. He married a person with an endless fascination for names, how they look, how they sound, what sort of associations they conjure up in people’s minds, all that. When I did get pregnant, and we finally did start talking names for real, I couldn’t settle down to think about anything in the pregnancy seriously until we had decided on names. (Joy and Grace, for newer readers, are not their real names. I decided when Joy was a baby that I could use photos OR real names, but not both, and at that point I went with photos. As they’re getting older and their faces are getting more recognizable, I’m starting to rethink even that policy. We’ll see.) And even though we didn’t use the boy name we had chosen for Joy, I couldn’t consider that name (Evan, by the way) for Grace. That was Joy’s-boy-name. Grace (of course, at the time we were discussing names, we didn’t know she was a girl) needed her own unique boy-name (she would have been Tristan, if you’re curious).

What about you? Are names something that fascinate you, or are they just convenient handles for keeping people and characters from getting confused? Do you find yourself drawn to similar-sounding names without even realizing it, or re-using one name across many different stories? And which is more important to you, a name that looks beautiful written, or sounds beautiful spoken?

Welcome to Stanbury

Hello! Welcome to Stanbury, ancestral home of the Whitney family. Come right in! Let’s use the side entrance; it seems more friendly, doesn’t it?

Maia used to swing on the gate when she was a child. It drove her mother mad, of course, but she loved the freedom of swinging combined with the ability to see the world passing by on the road. Even if “the world” were usually only a few stray escaped sheep.

Mind your step here. You wouldn’t want to trip on these stairs. Ouch!

Shall we pop into the kitchen a moment? Mrs Humphrey won’t mind. If we’re lucky, she’ll even give us a cup of tea (and possibly a slice of fresh-baked bread).

The sitting room gets marvelous light, wouldn’t you agree?

Mrs Whitney says it’s terribly draughty, though.

Yes, the bathroom is rather small. But so elegantly decorated! Ellie insisted on that.

The Whitneys are so very proud of this room, an addition the current Mr Whitney had built after he was married (but before the War, naturally. One doesn’t indulge in unnecessary expenditures in this day and age. Have you heard that they had to sell the London house? Terrible shame, but one can one do? Mr Whitney was only thankful to be able to hold onto Stanbury).

And here we are back onto the grounds! Sorry we couldn’t take more of a detailed tour, but really, it is terribly gauche to peek into people’s lives too much, don’t you agree? Besides, you wouldn’t have wanted to see Ellie or Merry’s bedrooms, believe me. They are a terrible mess, especially since Merry keeps chasing away all the maids with her Socialistic notions.

I hope you enjoyed the tour! Stanbury might not be the grandest showplace of the county, but the local folk are proud of it all the same. After all, as Maia says, it has character, and that’s even better than impressiveness.

All pictures are, in reality, of the Old Vicarage in Croxton Kerrial, Leicestershire. I love real estate websites for finding house inspirations.

Magical World-building, Louise Style

I distinctly remember the first time I discovered the world of Cecy and Kate.

I was in the Scranton library, one of my first visits there after we moved from our apartment to the duplex and our former library was too much of a drive for every week (it was here, by the way, a great little jewel of a library that I truly loved). I was exploring the YA section, and wanted to see how many of the Enchanted Forest books by Patricia C Wrede they had. Instead, they had this collaborative effort by Wrede and someone I’d never heard of before, that read, upon skimming it over, like a blend of Jane Austen and … well, Patricia C Wrede.

image courtesy of Goodreads

I have always been skeptical of collaborative books, but this looked way too intriguing to pass up. I borrowed it, and promptly fell in love. Not only with Kate, Cecy, Thomas, and James, but with the idea of insinuating magic into the real world, into real history.

When the first glimmers of plot for Magic Most Deadly were swirling about my brain, my first thought was to make the world very similar to the Kate & Cecy world – where magic was an open, accepted part of everyday life, only in the 1920s instead of 1820s.

In the end, I just couldn’t make that work, though, and had to rely on magic existing, but being hidden. Which had its own set of challenges, but fit the story and characters’ needs much better.

It made the world-building and research process so much fun. How does one fit the War in with the concept of magic? Would magicians have been involved? (Hey, my brain said, there’s a good backstory plot point.) How does magic work? How do they keep it secret? How do they keep track of all the magicians? Is it a world-wide thing, or does each nation have its own set of laws regarding magic, or what? (Ooh, said brain. FUTURE plot points.)

What I did not do is what almost every writer of fantasy insists you must: I did not write out a detailed, complete outline of how magic worked, a complete alternate history, maps, et cetera.

Part of that was because I was coming off an exhaustively researched, meticulously detailed, carefully plotted project that had sucked the life and joy right out of writing for me. Magic Most Deadly was never intended to be publishable. It was just a fun project to help me recover my zest for story. So more meticulous detailing and back-plotting was the exact opposite of what I needed then.

The other part is that it’s really hard for me to think of all the necessary details to build up an alternate history completely, right out of hand. Rather, I do much better with a vague, broad outline, filling in the details as I go. I also happen to have a rather good memory for what I’ve already said and detailed, so it is very rare that I end up tripping myself later on with details or writing myself into a corner (with magic or history details, that is. Len’s eyes went from brown to blue probably half a dozen times in the course of the story in the first two drafts, and I still have to think twice if you ask me what color they are. And don’t even bother asking which leg Dan lost in the War. Are Maia’s friends the police officers Ray Maddox and Alan Andrews, or Ray Andrews and Alan Maddox? I’d have to check the book to tell you for certain. But  the magic details, those all stayed perfectly plainly, and very neatly labeled and organized in my head.)

Magic! Yes. Part of nature! Yes. Can only work with natural items! Well, that certainly makes sense, and provides a good limitation. Wait, then can magicians be mechanics? Don’t know, don’t need to know now, file that question away for later when it’s relevant.

Can people do magic on other people? Sure, but with limits. What limits? Hmm, I probably do need to work this one out. … Able to, but banned because it’s wicked. (Which ended up being the main plot point for my short story If This Be Magic.)

But wait! Banned by who? OK, need some sort of magical government. Hmm … we’ll call it a council, work out more details as needed.

(Later on, it turned out I did need those more details, and then I sat down and wrestled into submission the idea of Master Magicians, Journeymen, Apprentices, and Ordinary Magicians. That each nation had its own system of governance seemed obvious, so I didn’t bother messing with any other countries’ methods – I still don’t know how they all work, though I will have to figure out some for the sequel, featuring as it does magicians from the US and Russia.)

I don’t necessarily recommend this method for everyone. It can get sloppy, and if your memory doesn’t have the knack of holding onto the important details, it can get you in trouble. But it worked for me, for this book, and it saved me at a time when I have squeezed all inspiration out of my writing process by trying to be too businesslike about it. As I was working on the very final draft, I finally narrowed down various other details: where in England the story took place, what Stanbury and Little Oaks looked like, that sort of thing.

Sheepy Lodge, the inspiration for Little Oaks. Isn’t it gorgeous?

By then, the polishing stage, I needed all those little bits and pieces. Back at the beginning, the first few drafts?

They would have gotten in the way and bogged me down.

So this is what worked for me, for this book. It’s unconventional, sure, but it was also a whole lot of fun.

(I just realized, when I close my eyes and picture Dan, he is definitely missing his right leg. So there you go.)