Tag Archives: characters

The Distracted Writer and His Demons

avatar3The Distracted Writer and His Demons

So I managed to get up by alarm this morning at eight, then wasted a whack of time reading the newspaper, fed the horses, and got to my computer by 10:10. This was to be a back-on-track writing morning. I started off by reading a chapter of a Bird on Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, by Anne Lamott, to get me in the mood as it were. To be honest, it’s a dodge. An avoidance. A distraction.

I love writing when I’m doing it, but when I’m not, I’m running scared–away from imminent disaster. Sometimes I think I should be a drunk or an addict, so the millions who read my books–in the future–can say how I suffered for my art. “Maybe it was his demons that made him great,” you will say, thinking of me wistfully, giving your head a few such-a-shame passes back and forth.

I am writing this blog to keep me away from working on my novel. I’m afraid the novel’s dreck. I’m afraid it will be too short. I’m afraid I’ll change course too many times and none of my sub-plots will untangle. I’m afraid…that I can’t do it.

I wonder if other self-employed workers have this problem with distraction, avoidance, and self-doubt. Does Fred the plumber decide to check facebook for an hour before he goes on a job? Does Dave the drywaller doubt whether he can hang gyproc straight?

I compare myself to other writers I know. One gets up before the dawn and writes for hours, totally committed and focused–a much different personality type from me. My friend M. can write marathons. “I wrote 10,000 words today,” he says. But he’s bi-polar and incredibly prolific in the manic phase–the blessing, not the curse of his condition.

So to help me write, I have a list of guidelines, just for me. And they do help. Here are a few of them:

  1. Write at a particular time, not when you feel like it.
  2. Write or work at writing every day to improve and to build momentum.
  3. Don’t follow distractions such as e-mail.
  4. Don’t give in to doubts about your ability to write. You have a voice unique to you. Use it.
  5. Writing is a right brain activity. Thinking about writing and why you can’t is not. Start writing and get in the zone.
  6. Don’t lose contact with the enjoyment of writing and the desire to write well.
  7. Don’t worry so much about the First Draft. Only be concerned with the words stopping, not what they are. You can take out whole chapters later if you have to (Second Draft), but by persevering with production you may be taken down pathways you never expected or planned for.
  8. Be flexible with your novel or short story plan. Let the characters tell their story. Write to discover what happens. Enjoy.

 

That’s it. Notice that the word “enjoy” comes up more than once? Now I’ve got to get down to my writing.

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.

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.