Category Archives: Writing

A Rose by Any Other Name…

A Rose by Any Other Name…

I chose the Canadian classic Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery for a visual because Ann hated her name and always wished to be called Cordelia. And if that couldn’t be managed, she would ask they spell Anne with an e. Because…

“…it makes such a difference. It looks so much nicer. When you hear a name pronounced can’t you always see it in your mind, just as if it was printed out? I can; and A-n-n looks dreadful, but A-n-n-e looks so much more distinguished. If you’ll only call me Anne spelled with an e I shall try to reconcile myself to not being called Cordelia.”

Words have two aspects: how they sound and what they mean. When it comes to names, what they mean no longer matters to us, they are chosen for how they sound. But there is a third aspect: what associations do the names carry.

As a writer, I have a number of resource books at hand such as Chambers Slang Dictionary, Medieval Terms and Phrases, and Dictionary of Surnames. One useful resource is The Baby Name Survey Book, by Bruce Lansky and Barry Sinrod. The subtitle reads, “What people think about your baby’s name”. So you’re writing a romance novel and you have a male character who is a sloppy ne’er-do-well and you want to call him Freeman. This reference book tells you “people picture Freeman as a handsome, neat, well-dressed, proud, and wealthy black man.” Several examples are listed: football’s Freeman McNeil, actor Morgan Freeman. Perhaps Freeman should not be your first choice.

Suppose you like the name Ciara and wish to use it for your female protagonist. The Baby Name Survey Book states:

“People see Ciara as a classy, exotic beauty…She’s also smart––some  would call her intellectual––and caring. When people hear the name Ciara, they also picture a bottle of Ciara perfume.”

I won’t dwell on this. The point is to consider associations the reader may have with a name.

I write historical fiction and I enjoy the time I spend choosing character names. One story I am writing has the protagonist wash up on the Falkland Islands in the early nineteenth century. I don’t wish to have him struggle with Spanish speakers, so I make the patriarch of the family who find him Irish––having first researched and discovered many Irish soldiers settled in Argentina after a failed invasion by Britain. My naming process is to google Irish surnames, read through the lists, and pull out several possible choices. I narrow the list down to four or five. They are:

  • MacGuigan
  • MacGrealish
  • MacKigo
  • O’Hehir
  • O’Hagan

Then I do the same with Irish male Christian names. I find so many good ones.

  • Darragh
  • Ciaran
  • Cleary
  • Clooney
  • Murtagh
  • Ruari (Rory)
  • Tierney

What becomes important to me now is the sound and rhythm of when first and last name come together. I come up with one of the most rhythmic names: Clooney MacKigo. Say it aloud a few times. Feel the rhythm? You could probably tap it out on a drum. And I’m getting a sense of the character. Clooney will have a sense of humour, but MacKigo is strong-willed and a force to be reckoned with.

I have used this process with The Swan’s Road, my novel set in eleventh century Europe. I have had to find names for medieval Saxons, Danes, Frisians, Normans, Welshmen, European Jews, and Italians. Usually I have an idea for the character and I search for a suitable name. I named my female protagonist, a determined and confident beauty, Selia Fehr––forgive me the play on Selia the Fair, I just loved the name. One good thing about period and ethnic names is they do not carry the baggage discussed earlier.

Here is an excerpt from The Dane Law, a sequel to The Swan’s Road, and a work in progress. Harald, my protagonist, and his friends are ribbing another Danish friend, Yngvarr, about how the king will reward him.

“…so he may give you gold…”

Yngvarr’s eyes opened wide.

“…or land..”

Yngvarr took on the look of a puffed up grouse in full courtship. He took another swig of ale.

“…or he may do you the ultimate of honor of marrying you to my          ugly cousin Gullborga.”

We three dove aside as Yngvarr sprayed his mouthful of ale across the table.

“I beg of you pardon,” Yngvarr said to Selia as he wiped the table          with his sleeve.

“It is all right,” she told him. “Harald must have his jesting.” She gave a look to me and shook her head slightly.

“You don’t have an ugly cousin Gullborga, do you, Harald?”

“No, Yngvarr. In truth, I do not.”

“Well then, that’s good.”

“No, her name’s Bothilda and she’s twice your size!”

“Ah, you won’t be catching me twice on that one,” said Yngvarr,          “besides, the bigger the woman, the warmer the bed. I’ve always          admired a woman with plenty to hold on to.”

This playful scene only works because of the choice of particularly unflattering names for the imagined cousin. To call her Mary or Sarah would be much less effective. (Please note: I tried to make this piece end on a positive note for bountiful women.)

One other important thing a writer should do is keep track of names and avoid using ones that look similar or are the same. I have read novels where they have two Michaels or a Michael and a Michelle. A fast reader may mix up the names. I keep an alphabetical list and try not to double up on monikers starting with the same letter. One would not have a Terry and a Jerry, even if they were twins.

I’ll end with a few of the fictional character names I used in The Swan’s Road and let you determine what kind of character qualities each conjures up.

  • Alric
  • Bertran deZouche
  • Floriano Roncalli
  • Ravya ben Naaman
  • Urbano Pupo

To see if you are right, you’ll have to read The Swan’s Road. I hope this article gives you a greater appreciation of well-named characters.

And if you were to change your name…



Titles and Titillation


I have reclaimed this blog from a blog swap I did with my friend Michael Hiebert. He blogs more often than I, so this piece lay buried under many rare monographs.

The blog is about creating great titles for stories and novels. The above title would be a fitting choice for a story about a busty woman (notice the title has a word for breast embedded twice) who works in a Lands Registry Office and is attracted to a co-worker.

That’s interesting—I’ve never thought about starting with a great title and writing a story to match it, though I used to give my Grade Four students “The Best Summer Vacation I Never Had” as a creative writing assignment. I expected them to tell of being captured by pirates or orcs, journeying to the bottom of the sea or flying through the clouds and so on.

Usually, according to Canadian writer Fred Stenson, one of my writing gurus (Michael Hiebert is another), you cannot craft a decent (or indecent, as the one above) title until you have completed your story, for not until the ink is dry on the ending do you really know what the story is all about. But then you have outside-the-box writers such as Harlan Ellison who wrote one of his most successful short stories from two sketches and the artist’s caption: “I have no mouth and I must scream.” Ellison had the perfect title before he put pen to paper.

Usually writers slap on a working title. I take Stenson’s advice and wait until the end to think about titles. Then I make an audition list of possibles. Here are some categories (see Fred Stenson’s writing book: Thing Feigned or Imagined):

  1. Direct reference to what the story is about, e.g. The Blue and the Gray (American Civil War).
  2. Plays on words related to the story, e.g. The Visitation (a story where a visit totally alters the protagonist), The Sun Also Rises (basically, life after impotence).
  3. The name of the story’s catalyst, e.g. Guy de Maupassant’s The Necklace, Arturo Perez-Reverte’s The Flanders Panel.
  4. Titles where the reader questions. What happens at Eight-Thirty? Three Day Road to where?
  5. Titles that are a puzzle—e.g. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the NightimeI Have No Mouth and I Must Scream.
  6. Plays on the connotations of a familiar phrase or quote, e.g. Before I Wake, A Delicate BalanceThe Cold DishFor Whom the Bell TollsInherit the WindWho Has Seen the Wind? and probably Gone With the Wind.

Creating a list of titles is great fun. There are no rules, so you can try anything. I recently wrote a short story about a beaver that dams up a culvert and the frustrated landowner who is forced to clear out the muck and branches each morning. The man is a dormant volcano of anger and repression. I tried various titles that involved damming, plugging, obstructing, all playing on the man’s locked up emotions. Then on a whim, I looked up the Latin name for our Canadian beaver and the alliterative title came together. I call the story Castor Canadensis and the Clog, which I believe fits my tongue-in-cheek rendering of the tale quite well. This title falls under category two.

When I finished my historical novel—working title Journey of the Northman—an adventure story set in the eleventh century involving a trip by river and land from England to Rome, I discovered that Viking warships were called drakkars, so I considered Drakkars to Rome and such like. I then looked to one of my gurus for help with a title. To be a commercial success, he suggested, I should use words like sword, dagger, moon, scarlet, blood, blades, clash, crowns, ravens, thrones, cold, crystal, castle, and so on. I played with that limited vocab until I settled on Blood Moon Road. The novel wore that title—in my computer—and was offered to at least one agent under that cover, but it just didn’t fit, as if the book was trying to act like something false. Besides there were at least four other books with that title already in print.

I discussed it with my writer friend, Mary, who is the wise woman/Mother Earth archetype in the Chilliwack Writers Group. Mary suggested looking through the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle orBeowulf for phrases. I checked out the former, then scanned the latter, coming up with a wealth of possible titles, including:

  • Beyond the Whale Road
  • One Good King
  • Out to the Sea’s Flood
  • To Sail the Swan’s Road 
  • Flamed and Consumed
  • Bloodshot Water 
  • The Sharp-Honed Blade 
  • That Any Warrior Would Envy 
  • *A Blade That Boded Well
  • Over Time and Tide
  • Scalding Was the Blood
  • *The Far-Flung Land 
  • A Web of Chainmail
  • A Curling of Blood 
  • No Trembling Harp
  • In a Place Beyond 

I spoke again to Mistress Mary when I had narrowed the list down. I thought the image of swans flying south over both land and water might well symbolize my main characters’ journeying. Mary told me how swans mate for life, and since the novel is also a love story, I felt I had a winner. Blood Moon Road was re-Christened The Swan’s Road. That was some time ago, and the title has stayed in place like a Tilley Hat in a windstorm. This would be a category six title.

So, I hope this is of some help to other writers. I suggest keeping your lists of possibles, so in the future—when you discover that bright-eyed publisher who loves your work but can’t stand your titles—you’ll have plenty to choose from.

Garth over and out.


I’ve Got Rhythm–Who Could Ask for Anything More?

images-5I used to love reading novels to my grade four students. It was a way of sharing a love of story and of language. For some of those students, the experience sold them on reading, and when I run into them as grown-ups, they often mention a favourite book I read to them.

For the magic to happen–and it is magical to gather and lead willing minds on a literary journey–one needs the right books. I discovered that some books just didn’t work when read aloud, even if they contained believable characters and exquisite stories. The missing quality is rhythm. English can be dry and tedious or swirling and sumptuous. English has more words than other Romance languages thanks to the Celts, Romans, Angles, Saxons, Danes, and Normans who all added vocabulary. So it is how a writer chooses words and puts them together that either kills a sentence or gives it life.

Here are a few lines of Shakespeare’s that have stuck with me for years after acting in this scene from Cymbeline:

Thou toldst me when we came from horse,

The place was near at hand.

Ne’er long’d my mother so

To see me first, as I have now–

The speaker, Imogen, has been traveling on horseback with an older man who is supposed to be leading her to meet her lover, but has been instructed to kill her. They have left the horses and walk over a rise. So, written with no rhythm, the lines would be:

You told me when we got off our horses that we were almost there. I’m really anxious to get there.

Bor-ing. There’s no one like Shakespeare.

Here’s a line from a short story by E. W. Farnsworth I read this morning–he’s a good writer; I hope he doesn’t mind me dissecting his sentence. It’s the opening line.

“Buxom, beautiful and belligerently single Ellie Armstrong awakened after a night of tossing and turning in her sleep, splashed water on her face and threw open the window.”

I really like the use of alliterative words (buxom, beautiful, belligerently; tossing, turning; sleep, splashed) as they give the sentence a nice rhythmic bounce. The name Ellie Armstrong also slides off the tongue effortlessly. I would only improve the rhythm by putting a period after “turning,” and discarding “in her sleep” because it’s redundant. Then I’d adjust the punctuation. The two sentences would read:

“Buxom, beautiful, and belligerently single, Ellie Armstrong awakened after a night of tossing and turning. She splashed water on her face and threw open the window.”

I hope you are reading these examples out loud a few times, especially the Shakespeare. Once you get the handle on Shakespearean language, it’s marvelous.

Here’s a few lines from a western short story I wrote:

I learned a thing or two about shootin’ and huntin’ from Hank on that journey,             how to use both pistol and rifle, how to stalk game, and butcher it after the kill.

Now another writer in my writers’ group said I don’t need the last three words because obviously you only butcher a carcass after you’ve killed it. That’s correct, but I left “after the kill” in because the sentence scans better. The three words give it balance. Am I wrong? Those two lines even look like they’re balanced. And that’s another thing about writing rhythmically, you can turn it into poetry.

Here’s a descriptive paragraph from a short story of mine called River’s Rising disguised as a poem:

It’s a place of sloughs and creeks, home to migrating birds by the thousands, as well as beaver, possum, mink, raccoon,

Coyotes roam the pastureland looking for anything smaller, competing with the eagles and hawks,

Great blue herons wade the streams all year round, and nest high in the cottonwoods come spring,

Black tailed deer graze in the wooded areas and the occasional black bear strolls down from the hills.

Okay, I’m not a poet, but it sort of works, don’t you think?

I’m not sure I can tell you how to write rhythmically, other than to advise reading well-written books, so you develop a sense of what sounds beautiful.

Here is the opening page of The Enchanted by Rene Denfeld. I think it is the best piece I have read in a long time.

This is an enchanted place. Others don’t see it but I do.

I see every cinder block, every hallway and doorway. I see the doorways that lead to the secret stairs and the stairs that take you onto stone towers and the towers that take you to windows and the windows that open to wide, clear air. I see the chamber where the cloudy medical vines snake across the floor, empty and waiting for the warden’s finger to press the red buttons. I see the secret basement warrens where rusted cans hide the urns of the dead and the urns spill their ashes across the floor until the floods come off the river to wash the ashes outside to feed the soil under the grasses, which wave to the sky. I see the soft-tufted night birds as they drop from the heavens. I see the golden horses as they run deep under the earth, heat flowing like molten metal from their backs. I see where the small men hide with their tiny hammers, and how the flibber-gibbets dance while the oven slowly ticks.

The most wonderful enchanted things happen here–the most enchanted things you can imagine. I want to tell you while I still have time, before they close the black curtain and I take my final bow.

The author uses strong nouns and verbs–not big words mind you–to increase flow. It doesn’t matter that some of the sentences are long because they don’t break the rhythm. If you read this out loud and fast, you can hear the tudda-tudda-tudda-ta rhythm your tongue and lips make. I am in awe of such perfect writing.

I hope this blog makes you more mindful and appreciative of rhythm in writing. And if you find some examples of perfection when you’re reading, please send them to me. I love being humbled by my betters.

Period Language in Historical Novels?

I now have my second medieval novel underway, but I’m still not sure if I have perfected medieval-speak.  I do however, have my own particular take on it. Here are some thoughts:

  1. Balance is everything. Do not over-do the period jargon and do not under-do it. Speech has to be natural and just modern enough that the reader is comfortable with it. Words or constructions that “throw the reader out” must not be used.
  2. Whatever historical period you choose, some form of parody has been set there or the seeds of stereotypes have been planted–

“Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears.”

“What do you have there?”

“A sackful of ears.” (Wayne and Shuster)

For the Middle Ages, I’m recalling Monty Python’s The Holy Grail, and Robin Hood: Men in Tights. So unless you’re spoofing the genre, avoid all the “forsooths,” “zounds,” “fair maidens,” and “gadzooks.”

  1. Avoid anachronisms. Make sure what you are talking about actually existed at that time. I had lovely descriptions of my female protagonist’s golden tresses and words of appreciation on the lips of her suitors, until I discovered that only young girls and prostitutes wore their hair exposed. So proper research is necessary, but does that relate to language? Sure it does. How can you call someone a sadist if the Marquis deSade never lived until the nineteenth century? How can a character “turn a blind eye” when Admiral Nelson had yet to raise a telescope to his eye patch and ignore the semaphored orders not to pursue the Danish fleet?
  2. You are watching Game of Thrones and someone is called a “fuckin’ bastard” and it seems to fit. But Game of Thrones is historical fantasy (and bloody good in my opinion); the language works because we think the characters would speak that way. Good writing. I have characters that are eleventh century Danes and Saxons; the “f-word” was not yet in vogue, and though “bastard” meant illegitimate offspring, it did not have the negative connotations the word enjoyed in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. So what would you call a scoundrel in the eleventh? Well, you could compare him to an animal–pig, goat, dog–or you might use a word like “dastard,” meaning a stupid person. Am I being too meticulous? Maybe, but an ounce of fun has just been added to the writing.
  3. I resurrect lovely archaic words that are sadly out of use. The moon waxes and wanes. Misgivings are quelled. Wagons once again become wains. Vikings sail in drakkars. Old occupations are dusted off and brought out into the light: cordwainers, fletchers, fullers, spooners, proctors, and horners.
  4. I find old place names: England was Engla-lond when the Danes came; Southampton was South Hamtun (or Hamwic earlier).
  5. I pull words apart to reveal their original meanings–before they got taken for granted. Farewell becomes the instruction “fare well”; welcome returns to the statement “well come”; tomorrow reappears as “to the morrow;” awe-full might re-emerge as a positive descriptor. Nurse goes back to its base: nurturer, nourisher–and is called that.
  6. And then I take a lesson from Shakespeare–or Edward deVere if you remove the mask–who added 10,000 or more words to the English language, and I play with the language and make up words. So, the man who takes the nobles’ horses to the stable is the “stabler.” The players who don disguises for their roles are “guisers.” And now I’m really having fun.

Let me find a passage from my finished novel as a sample. Gwyn is a sometimes (oft times) humorous sidekick to my protagonist, Harald, son of King Cnute. Here he tells a tale while lying back, gazing at the night sky after a night of drinking. Gwyn is Welsh.

“I had this girl once. Agga was her name. By the saints she were a beauty. Oh, I loved that lass and I think she loved me. The two of us, we could make the hay fly, true enough. I’d be with her still, but she couldn’t take a jape. What a temper had the woman. What finally ended it for me was this day she were gathering eggs. Agga goes into the henhouse with her basket, didn’t she? And there were this clutch of eggs in the nest. She were reaching for an egg and it crushes flat in her hand, dry as an autumn leaf. She picks up a second one, didn’t she? Same thing. Crushed, nothing inside at all. And they were all the same. I’d gone and pinpricked ’em and blown the guts out into a bowl. Angry? You should ‘ave seen that girl. Chased me around the yard with a hayfork, didn’t she? Mind you I were laughing so hard, I could hardly snatch a breath. I think that were the lark that finished it ‘tween Agga and me. She married some dolt of a ploughman and was birthin’ a bearn a year the last I heard tell. Lord, I miss that girl, don’t I?”

So, looking past the attempt at colourful dialect in this piece, you should only find words that had ancestors in Danish-influenced Anglo/Saxon English, for example “lark” and “jape” are used instead of prank and joke. I use the archaic form “birthing” and often reverse sentence structure into Yoda-speak, such as “…a temper had the woman.” “Dolt” only came into use in the sixteenth century, but it sounded too good so I kept it.

There you have it, my in-process formula for medieval-speak. Works for me. Or does it? Comments?

Garth out.

Researching Historical Fiction


This is a tricky topic. I check out an historical fiction writers’ forum occasionally and I mostly find very knowledgeable people helping others. But, as is the way on the Internet, sometimes a contributor may be intellectually intolerant and insensitive to the vulnerability of others. Discussions often concern historical accuracy and sources. Where I come in on those discussions is here: the story is everything. Historical fiction is fiction surrounded by non-fiction. Just as science fiction is a genre where the story is enhanced by the technological possibilities and moral choices that arise in an imagined future, historical fiction is made more interesting by the technological and cultural limitations imposed upon the story.


When I wrote history papers in university–back in the pre-computer dark ages– all my sources were found in the library. I understand that today students are directed to primary rather than secondary sources. The Internet provides the researcher with a veritable sea of information. I use books as well as on-line sources. Because I bring in historical figures such as King Canute, Robert of Normandy, and Earl Godwin, for example, I try to learn as much as I can about their lives. From their actions, I can speculate on character. I don’t mind stretching historical timelines a bit so some of the players’ appear as contemporaries, while in reality one may still have been a child at the time. My protagonist, Harald, would have been about twelve when his father, King Canute traveled to Rome. At twelve years, a boy was old enough (sources tell me) to swear allegiance. Whether he accompanied his father king on that journey, I don’t know, but I wouldn’t have written an adult novel if I’d kept his age accurate.


It is the details along the path of the story that breathe life into historical fiction. Questions constantly arise. How big a city was Rome in the eleventh century? How would a Danish prince of England communicate with Germans and Normans? How Norse were Normans by the year 1027c.e.? What foods would be served at table? What swear words were in vogue? What would the female protagonist be wearing? How far can you sail up the Rhine? What mountain passes would be used to cross the Alps in those times? What covered the windows, if not glass? Finding the answers to these questions is fascinating and time consuming, taking one away from writing the story. But the answers add fuel to the fire and the story progresses.


One area I choose to play with is the language. When I’m reading a book, nothing throws me out of it faster than an anachronism–a word or object or an expression that did not exist at the time. You can’t say Claude buttoned up his tunic and put his hands in his pockets if neither button nor pocket had been invented. And you better find a name that would have been common in England in the eleventh century, because Claude is French. When I tried calling one of my characters a “joker,” a member of my writing group suggested it was too modern. Sure enough, the word joker came into use in the nineteenth century. I changed it to “he liked to jest”.


I realize that if I wrote the English language just as it was in the Middle Ages no one but scholars could read it, so there are limits to word research. Sometimes my pre-occupation with word origins comes up with some real gems. I was trying to discover what term would have been used to describe a mercenary warrior in the Middle Ages. I found that our modern word “freelance” came from just such a person, whose lance was for hire.


I am still too much of the teacher at times and fear that I take too many opportunities to teach readers word origins. How “bye” for example, morphed from “God be with you” to “God be” to “good-bye” before it arrived at today’s brief dismissal. I’m sure an editor–if I should be so lucky–will call me on teachiness.


So, those are my thoughts on research: the story is central, timelines are flexible, details breathe life, and language is just plain fun.


Garth out.


Writing Historical Fiction

63a0e8af496cf3c10dbe9b3249f7820cIn my last blog, I talked about being open to story ideas when they zing by you, and using the what if helper. For me, history releases ideas like a porcupine throws quills. My novel, Blood Moon Road, grew out of a “write-off” session with my friend and writing guru, Michael Hiebert. A “write-off” is where you sit in a room (or a Starbucks), agree on starting point, and both write for three or four hours. Then you critique each other’s work. Though Michael tells of our writing encounter with the theme of how incredibly distracted I am, my version is that I finally found one idea in the book he handed me–a history of the Middle Ages–that ended up as a novel.

The fact that tweaked my interest that day was that King Canute of England in the year 1027 traveled to Rome for the coronation of the Holy Roman Emperor (the Church’s secular head of Christendom). I was taken by the idea of this English king who was actually a Dane with Viking roots, arriving in a Rome that was but a remnant of what it had been under the Caesars. I started with Canute’s longships crossing the English channel, and after a bit of digging to find that Canute had three sons, I posed the question: what if one of his sons accompanied him? I chose the middle son, Harald Harefoot (so called because he was fast, not because he had furry feet), and made the point of view his. As his character grew, I knew he must part ways with his father king and woman must be involved. From there I mapped it out (with help from the writing guru).

In writing historical fiction, one can always position fictional characters close to historical figures, or have them tragically affected by enormous historical events: wars, revolutions, plagues, assassinations. What was that film about the woman who ran the boarding house where John Wilkes Booth and his cohorts planned the killing of Abraham Lincoln? Fascinating. Now that wasn’t fiction, but it could have been. What if Guy Fawkes had a sister? How would she have been affected by his arrest and execution?

One of my favourite historical novels is The Eagle of the Ninth, by the wonderful British writer Rosemary Sutcliff. She took two events: in the year A.D. 117, the Roman Ninth Legion marched north from Eburacum (now York) to put down a rising of the Caledonians, and was never heard from again; eighteen hundred years later a Roman eagle, standard of the Roman legions, was unearthed in Hampshire. Sutcliff wove a superb tale of a Roman centurion forced to retire after an injury, who travels north of Hadrian’s Wall in disguise with his slave/friend to find out what became of his father’s legion and to recover its missing eagle. A marvelous read (and now a passable movie: Centurion starring Michael Fassbender.)

Another great use of a minor historical fact is Geraldine Brooks’ book, The Year of Wonders. In 1666, the town of Eyam in England quarantines itself to prevent the spread of plague. Given that one fact, Brooks creates a strong female protagonist in a town that becomes a small microcosm of believable characters dealing with sickness, death, and betrayal. The story really belongs to the protagonist, Anna Frith, whose character arcs superbly. The result is one of those unforgettable stories that celebrate the triumph of the human spirit over adversity.

To successfully spin fact into fiction requires an enormous amount of research, but that is a topic for another blog. Until then, if you want to send me story ideas or interesting historical facts you think might be launch points, please do.

Garth out.

Grabbing Ideas Out of the Air

flyingstuff1Writers are often asked where they get their ideas for stories. Because my idea machine is currently running on empty, I thought I’d do some “thinking at the keyboard” on the subject.

What has worked for me so far is to relate events that I experienced–a strange meeting on a plane, the finding of a 1940’s love letter in an old warehouse, a waterfall being dammed by ice then bursting forth into an icefall, a death on a logging site. These they capture a truth and I get to tell a story as if around a campfire.

Then there are the stories that grow out of someone else’s experience. Years ago I worked two summers as a janitor in the various government buildings in Victoria, British Columbia. I recall a co-worker mentioning one janitor who was a real joker. He scared the pants off his partner one night by pretending to hang by his fingertips outside a third storey window. From that event I was able to create two character opposites alone in building at night, one not quite sure what stunt the other would pull next.

But what about story ideas that aren’t based on experience? To address this I’m better off quoting Stephen King from his book On Writing:

“There is no Idea Dump, no Story Central, no Island of Buried Bestsellers; good story ideas seem to come quite literally from nowhere, sailing at you right out of the empty sky: two previously unrelated ideas come together and make something new under the sun. Your job isn’t to find these ideas, but to recognize them when they show up.”

I consider this quote from Stephen King to be bloody brilliant. It means there are story ideas flying by all the time like microwaves (not the appliances, the waves); it’s just a matter of seeing them. King also talks about “what if” thinking. What if your grouchy neighbour won the lottery? What if the big earthquake that’s supposed to hit the west coast struck today? What if the trend toward social technology, non-face-to-face interaction, and entitlement continues to grow? What would our culture look like in twenty years?

I wrote a post-apocalyptic story that began with the question: What if I looked at life after the apocalypse from a dog’s point of view? What if a feral dog had some minute genetic memory of his species connection to man? I think the story worked. It certainly was fun to write.

Stephen King mentioned two unrelated ideas coming together. This is a real story generator. I just finished reading Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands by Chris Bohjalian. He tells the story of a homeless girl from an upper middle class family–an interesting set-up for a character–but he combines that idea with a meltdown at a nuclear power station. Both her parents are killed and the father is blamed. Suddenly, the story idea has doubled the size–at the least–of its audience appeal.

Another device a writer could use–and I think I’ll wind down on this point–is to have the protagonist do something big and bad that either causes a chain of other events, or comes back to haunt him. In the beginning of Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge, the protagonist sells his wife in a tavern. Years later when he is a well-respected businessman and mayor, his wife and daughter arrive in town.

So my thinking-at-the-keyboard has been fairly productive. I’m remembering a few real life events I could choose to write about, and there’s a true story a girl once told me. But I think I’m more drawn to continue on with my Blood Moon Road characters and try to plan out a second book and possibly a series.

I think my next blog will be about writing historical novels, for history is nothing but layer upon layer of entwining stories. And there’s always room to sew in a fictional thread.

Separation Anxiety

coat of armsI’m suffering from separation anxiety.

No, my wife hasn’t left me, and empty-nest syndrome hasn’t kicked in, though my three sons have gone. The loved ones who are now far away have names like Harald, Selia, Gwyn, Gudrun, and Cnute. Then there is Yngvarr, Ravya, Xaviero, and Floriano. All are precious to my grieving heart, for they are all my creations. I finished my historical novel, Blood Moon Road, a month ago. My main characters headed home to northern Europe and left me in Italy, spinning my eleventh century cart wheels.

Not having been left as a babe in a basket on the steps of St. Agatha’s, abandonment is a new experience. When the novel first began to take shape, I awoke one morning to find that Harald Cnuteson, my protagonist, was making decisions for himself–drinking too much ale and pursuing a beautiful woman. I reacted to his Pinocchio-like transformation by running about the room crying, “It’s alive! It’s alive!” (my apologies to Victor Frankenstein).

When I calmed at last and sat down at my computer, I discovered that I was unable to keep my Anglo-Danish hero from continually running headlong into danger (I refuse to say “in harm’s way”). What proceeded was a half-year chronicling the trials and tribs of myfriend and his companions as we explored Europe in the Middle Ages.

The great British novelist Graham Greene said, “The moment comes when a character does or says something you hadn’t thought about. At that moment he’s alive and you leave him to it.” I suppose that is the most exhilarating aspect of the writing process. Though you are the prime mover in your book’s universe, developing characters act in keeping with the truth of themselves. For the writer–at least for this writer–it is the experience of a reader losing him/her self in a great book, taken to the next level.

Years ago, I set out to learn the craft of acting. I advanced far enough to get paid a pittance for my work, and managed to learn a few things in the process. I learned–or used the concept–that to become a character you had to reach down deep to find where that character’s anger or bitterness or joy lay either realized or in potentiality inside you. From that place you spoke and moved and reacted.

Creating characters on the page is much the same. They all exist within your psyche, layered in life experience. I don’t recall who said that all characters are but different reflections of yourself, but I wouldn’t disagree. Even the evil that befalls you becomes a part of you.

I have always enjoyed flawed but heroic characters, for when they soar, so do I, whether as reader or writer. And creating a love interest for my hero is to put the ideal of perfect union within my own reach. So do I live life vicariously through my characters? Shit, ya.

My friend, Mary, the wise-woman and seer-ess of The Chilliwack Writers Group, told me she had been advised by a prof to expect sadness and a sense of loss to follow the completion of a major writing project. So what I am feeling is normal. I guess I’ll have to toss ideas around for a sequel and try to track down my lost characters. Blog writing is okay. But I do miss the swords.