Is the Customer Always Right?

Post by Mattias Bergman

PT Barnum – or somebody a whole lot like him – said “Give the customer what they want.”

More recently, in her book “How to Write and Sell Historical Fiction,” Persia Woolley warns against being too accurate in even the most well-researched historical fiction. Especially if accuracy flies in the face of widely-held misconception. One example used is travel from Scotland to England in King Arthur’s time, across the north of England. Now, of course, the famous Yorkshire Moors are vast expanses of open, largely-treeless hills. In King Arthur’s day, the place was dense woods.

After a lot of give and take, modern-day perceptions won out. The story showed travel across the moors.

This example, and many more examples, are harmless enough. But what of something even more insidious, something we have all (probably) been guilty of in our own writings? Namely, projecting our current cultural environment into the storyline, and often into the narrator’s POV in our stories.

We might do this for all the “right” reasons. Having all of our characters, whether in historical fiction, noir, fantasy or science fiction setting — all of which are far removed from our comfortable 21st-century suburbia/urbia — be social justice warriors of one sort or another. Or, the plot has to move along current culturally-accepted norms (no violence, talk your way out of everything, the bad guy can never be a minority, etc) We may get a warm, comfortable glow from such a slant, feel oh-so-noble in our social gatherings, and perhaps even increase book sales to fellow virtue-signalers.

But is it good writing?

I don’t pretend to have the answer, but I think it’s a question we must all ask. It begs a few follow-up questions:

      • Is such writing just another form of “cultural imperialism”? If so, should we not avoid it?
      • Will such writing “date” our work, shortening its shelf-life? Read some 40s and 50s noir novels, for instance, and see how the author himself treats certain ethnic groups. It kinda grates.
      • Conversely, will writing “true to form” fiction hamper sales and longevity. Witness, for instance, the current backlash against the language in Huckleberry Finn, even if it was a quite progressive and enlightened book for its time.

What do you think?

Picking Up Someone Else’s Threads

Post by Cheryl Mahoney

I shared a few weeks ago about my experience writing Chapter Two of Pesto, Pirouettes and Potions, a collaborative novel with three other authors.  We’re writing it round-robin style, each writing a chapter then passing it on to the next person, and my second turn came around again recently.

I had a lot of fun reading through the five chapters we had so far, and then writing up Chapter Six.  I got into a nice flow of conversation between the characters, getting to know their dynamics a little more.  I had the chance to play with Charlie and Lola, our two heroines, and their friends Nathan, who dances in the ballet with Charlie, and Mario, Lola’s roommate.  Mario is a flirt who thinks Charlie is cute, Nathan likes to tease straight guys who assume he’s gay (he isn’t), Charlie is totally freaking out over her crush on Lola, and Lola is trying to convince herself not to crush on Charlie–so it’s awkward all around and it was so much fun to write.

This was the first chapter I wrote picking up after other people wrote theirs – I wrote Chapter Two previously, but since it was introducing Charlie (while Chapter One introduced Lola) it was pretty independent.  I really enjoyed being able to riff from things other people had written–like continuing Charlie’s tic of saying “oh goddess,” or building from a previous-chapter moment when Charlie introduced her dog.  I probably wouldn’t have thought of either element, so I loved springing off of the ideas to continue building.

My last post mentioned setting the stage for things to play out louder, possibly in chapters written by others.  For Chapter Six, I got to see the opposite side of it, continuing to build something other people started.  It’s awesome to get such great ideas to play with.

Here’s an excerpt that shows a couple ideas someone else created continuing to grow in my chapter!

**********

Was this whole business, stalking the Pilates classes, showing up at brunch, going too far?  Was Charlie building way too much on one charged exercise class, and one not-quite-a-date?

But it had been such a good sort of date.  It had been a long time since she’d felt a connection like that.  And Sammy had liked Lola—who had understood his name.  Charlie only introduced him as Samwise when she wanted to see if someone would catch the reference, pick up the semi-secret code she was sending out.  And Lola hadn’t just asked about Lord of the Rings, she had asked Sammy if he was a Hobbit.  So adorable.

Oh goddess, she had it bad.

We Meet Again

Blog Post by Karen Blakely

It’s interesting, to have four authors writing a story about two main characters. Two writers are sharing Lola, the chef, and two of us are sharing Charlie, the ballerina. I like Charlie. Among other things, she’s tough, graceful, vegan, into herbal remedies – and she’s lonely.

Because I need to know my character before I start writing, I touched base with my Charlie compatriot a couple times. We decided on a few external features and some of the more critical internal truths for Charlie. That’s one of my favorite things; finding out who my character really is and understanding how they’re going to react to the world around them.

Charlie is intrigued by Lola. Maybe nothing would have come of their first brief encounter, but they end up running into each other the next morning. That was my job in Chapter Four. To get them back together and into a Pilates class.

Continue reading “We Meet Again”

Love in the Realms of Heroes

Blog Post by Ingrid Victoria

It’s late February, and the romantic surge of Valentine’s Day is settling back into the hum of everyday life.

But story characters do not have an everyday life – only scenes which serve to move the plot forward. Often, then, when it comes to romance, two (or more) characters are depicted in a whirlwind of big events, jumping from major relationship stage to major relationship stage at whatever pace is necessary to get them together by the final chapter, all the while interrupted by whichever monster, supervillain, or quirky hijinks the story also has to feature.

With all this necessary plot filling up the pages, is there room to add the touches of normalcy to a character’s budding relationship? Is there time to write it unfolding naturally, in a method more similar to how real people may find it? Would readers even care to read these normal tidbits, or are they impatiently flipping through to reach that scene with the dragon or spaceship or supervillain destroying the city?

Continue reading “Love in the Realms of Heroes”

Understandable Romance?

Blog post by Magnus Victor

It has been pointed out by experienced authors that characters in a novel only somewhat resemble real-world people: the actual depths of the human mind are far more complex than even the best authors could describe, if given an infinite number of pages in which to do so. Real-world people make choices and perform actions based on reasons that would seem utterly nonsensical if read on a page, and which they themselves would often find difficult to explain.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the topic of romance.
Writers and philosophers have struggled for millennia to explain why and how people fall into (and out of) love, and with precious little to show for it. This is true for real-world people, but for the written novel it is still a risky decision at best for an author to say ‘and these characters fell for each other, because that’s just how it went.’ People understand that romance is a ferociously complex subject, but for those minutes or hours when those ‘people’ become ‘readers,’ suddenly they expect ‘clear reasons’ and a ‘character arc’ that ends with two fictional characters in love.
This is not a bad thing.
Many people can think of a friend or acquaintance of theirs, about whose romantic choices they have wondered ‘What did s/he see in them, of all people?’ If a real-world person were to be asked such a direct question, often they would find it difficult to answer honestly – human attraction being such a confusing mess of thoughts and emotions. But an author can explore the twists of thought and tides of emotions that lead one fictional character to see past the outer layers of another fictional character, to find the compatible soul within. This can often end up being a more ‘elegant’ story than the disorderly jumble of real-world romance. (The inverse also applies: it can be easier on the reader to be given explicit reasons why their favorite paired characters drifted apart instead of the sudden break that characterizes so many real-world breakups)
In all, remember that a majority of readers immerse themselves in novels in order to experience a world that is ‘better’ than the real world. Readers want heroes to be more successful, technology to be cooler…and romance to be more understandable at all understandable.

Big Ideas

Post by Mattias Bergman

Ideas. Are ideas what makes novels truly great? If so, then how? I’ve been increasingly pondering that question as I study some of the great classics of literature. We focus so much on POV, on characters’ “voice”, on scene-setting, on witty dialog. All of these are necessary, to be sure, but are they what make a novel stand apart?

Does anyone remember the vivid settings of the Grand Inquisitor, for example, or quote the snappy banter of Anna Karennina?

So let us postulate that we need an idea — the over-arching human question that we explore in our stories.

But, ah, this is February — the month of Valentine’s day, and by extension, the month of romance.

So, for the modern novel, do we need not only ideas — and of course POV, setting and dialog — but also romance? If there are male and female characters in our novel, do they have to fall in love? Or perhaps fall apart from one another?

The pressure is on, but there are exceptions. In the Da Vinci Code, for example, the author follows religiously (pardon the pun) the notion of a direct descendant of Christ, *without* the need to have her fall in love with her “rescuer”.

I hate to say it, but I deplore many of the so-called historical novels that take a fascinating period of human history and reduce it to a mere bodice-ripper. Yet they sell.

Take as an example a series of novels I am writing concerning ex-patriate Norse in the Byzantine empire in the late 10th century. It is a truly pivotal time and location, with the future of European and Greco-Roman civilization at stake. The novel explores questions of belief and destiny, and whether one should make personal choices that can have profound impacts on the lives of thousands of others.

Ideas. Big ideas.

But do I need a romance?

Continue reading “Big Ideas”

Spinning Threads I Might Not Finish

Four of our Stonehenge Circle Writers—Karen Blakely, R. A. Gates, Kelly Haworth and Cheryl Mahoney—are collaborating to write a new novel: Pesto, Pirouettes and Potions.  It’s unusual for this many authors to work together on one continuous story, so they’ve decided to blog throughout the drafting, to give you some glimpses into the process.

Blog post by Cheryl Mahoney

Last week R. A. Gates told you about writing Chapter One of the story, and introducing Lola.  I was slated to write second, so I dove into writing Chapter Two of the story.  My main task was introducing Charlie, our second lead character.  Charlie must have wanted to share her story, because the scenes flowed pretty well.  We also did more outlining for this story than I usually do for my own, so I was working with a paragraph of notes on what we decided to include for this chapter.  That may have made things easier, because the roadmap was very clearly laid out.

Since this was Charlie’s first chapter, it was mostly about setting up her character and her life.  I started with the bows at the end of a ballet performance—which sent me down a rabbit hole of research on modern ballet and the levels for dancers within a company!  I started inventing characters to form a community around Charlie, both in her dance company and in her neighborhood, which we had decided is very close-knit.  Even though I was creating characters for Charlie to know, I was also trying to hit the point that she’s lonely right now; her grandparents, who raised her, died a few months previously, and she’s also alone romantically.

The funny part about writing this as a collaboration at this point was realizing that I was setting up threads and ideas that I (or at least, I alone) wouldn’t be the one to write the results for.  For example, I wrote a bit where Charlie is hoping to get the role of the Sugar Plum Fairy in The Nutcracker this year, but someone else may be writing the scene that reveals whether she gets it or not.  With that in mind, I added more notes than usual, detailing what I was trying to set-up and how it might pay-off.  We may not follow all of those ideas, but at least that way it’s noted and can be considered by my fellow writers as they write forward.

It also was interesting to have more immediate feedback for my writing than usual, as I bounced ideas I was having off of my partner writers in almost-real time as I wrote.  I have people I talk to about my writing, but it’s usually not quite so in the moment.

I thought I’d share an excerpt from Chapter Two.  This is my favorite bit, as Charlie struggles to fall asleep and her dog Sammy comes to join her.

********

After Charlie’s mind went around the same circles two or three times, and she tried every possible position at least once, she gave up and turned the light back on.  Some nights were just going to be restless and blue, and there was no use fighting it.

She reached down to the bottom shelf of her bedside table and came up with her worn old paperback of The Two Towers.  She opened at random, landing near the beginning of Chapter Four.  She knew the story backwards and forwards, so she started reading where she was.

Only a few pages in, she heard a thump as the mattress shifted, and then Sammy’s cold nose was pressing against her shoulder.

Charlie rolled over to rub Sammy’s favorite spot between his ears.  “At least I have you, right, Samwise?  That was enough for Frodo.”  He’d had an entire Fellowship, but Sam was really the only one he’d needed, to get all the way through Mordor.

Sammy snuffled, turned around twice, and curled up against her.  Charlie went back to her book, the little terrier a warm lump at the small of her back, and read about Merry, Pippin and Treebeard until she fell asleep.

Co-Writing Adventure

Blog post by R. A. Gates

Anyone who thinks that writing is a lonely pursuit has never been to a writer’s critique group. I’ve come to realize that it takes a village to write a book. At least a good one. And then there are the writing conventions and workshops writers attend to hone their craft. I’ve met some wonderful writers and friends through these avenues. And lucky writers like me get to co-write a book with some exceptional writers.

The first project I co-wrote with four other writers was a Beauty and the Beast retelling, The Servants and the Beast. In composing that novella, each writer had a section they were in charge of. We all read everything over, made suggestions and edit recommendations but the writer in charge of that section had the final say.

Currently, four of the five writers of that book are venturing on a new project. This time instead of each writer being in charge of certain sections, we are alternating chapters. I believe this project will be more challenging than the first because our writing styles need to mesh more than before. We all have to be more in synch with how the plot plays out and how each character develops.

We spent time last September creating the main character, Lola, in a writing exercise. Then we plotted out the story so we have a nice outline of what is supposed to happen in each chapter. I got the privilege of starting us off by writing chapter one. The chapter that is responsible for hooking the reader and getting the ball rolling. The chapter that introduces the reader to the main character and her situation.

No pressure.

I did my best to show who Lola was without being info-dumpy or having her look into a mirror and perfectly describe her appearance. It’s a lot harder than you think. Then when I had a decent beginning to our story, I sent of the file to the next writer to complete chapter two. It will be passed along round-robin style until the last few chapters which we will write together.

We’re aren’t sure how well this will work or if we will actually publish the story when it’s completed, but the experience so far is a lot of fun. Having four creative minds come together to plot out a story was amusing. Hopefully we can pull it off.

This is the first  in a new series of blog posts; each of the co-writers of this new novel will be sharing their experience as the drafting continues.

On Hobbies and Writing

Post by Kelly Haworth

Like most people, I’ve been drawing longer than I’ve been able to write. Every Christmas for years I would get an art kit from my grandfather, who had been a watercolor painter in his retirement. I still have the last kit he gave me before he passed away. The kit is mostly unused –  colored pencils, watercolors, and oil pastels in a brown wooden suitcase with a clasp. I don’t remember much of what I drew with those kits. What I do remember is girls in frilly dresses or jeans with cut outs – it was the 90’s after all, and I wanted to be a clothes designer when I grew up.

In my early teens I discovered another creative venture – writing. My first story was about a girl who jumped into the book she had been reading and travelled to the 1700’s (obviously because of the fashion) to be with a family that sailed to a tropical island complete with unicorns and magical birds.

For the next ten years, art and writing were delightful hobbies of mine, at which I didn’t think I’d ever be professional, but I still had fun nonetheless. I didn’t become a fashion designer, unfortunately. Instead I worked in a science lab, where I used delicate lab equipment eight hours a day – involving fine hand motions. Within a few months of this, my hands ached so much I stopped drawing. But I could still write. Even after I was promoted to a desk job, still, I just wrote. And even published some novels!

Fast forward to 2018, when my writing career shifted – I pulled my books from their original publisher, and partnered with two other publishers to get the ball rolling again.  Simultaneously, my job hit some setbacks which doubled my workload for nine months. The overtime meant my writing had to go on the back burner. By the time I could breathe at work again, I looked at what was left of my writing career – one republished novel, two novellas, and a handful of WIPs, and grimaced.

And the worst part was that I’d try to work on those WIPs and just stare at the blinking curser. Nothing was there. Which made me discouraged, which made it harder to write, etc etc etc.

Besides work on collaborative projects, I haven’t written in over a year.

But.

In October last year, I saw a number of artists participating in an event called inktober. Do one inked sketch per day throughout the month. If I couldn’t write, and if it had been six whole years since I had moved on from the repetitive hand-motion job, maybe I could draw again? So I picked up a sketchbook and an old kit of inking pens, and gave it a try.

Continue reading “On Hobbies and Writing”

Do You Prefer Yours With Blood and Gore, Or Unrelenting Creepiness?

Post by Karen Blakely

I like many types of fiction.  SciFi, Fantasy, Mystery, Romance, even Horror.

A couple members of the Stonehenge Writer’s Group write some excellent horror. That’s a genre that is incredibly difficult to pull off without being cheesy or letting down your readers at the end of the story. Kudos to those who do it well!

I believe horror can be roughly divided into two main groups. The first: Grab the reader’s attention by drowning them in blood and gore. The second: Rub the reader’s nerves raw, slowly, agonizingly, with an ever-increasing application of tension — knowing something bad is about to happen, perhaps when you turn the very next page…

Okay, reading that back I guess it’s obvious which type of horror I prefer.  Not that I mind well done blood and gore. I just prefer to have it as a climax to a great story, not the main reason for the story. That’s just my preference. I know there are many who will vehemently disagree. So for this post, let’s agree to disagree. For me, the best is incredibly creepy OMG-is-it-going-to-get-me-NOW horror.

So, what do you find horrifyingly creepy? Something realistic? Ghostly? Monsterous? Something tangible, like a phone call with no one there? Or the intangible, like the glimpse of a shadow where it doesn’t belong?

Continue reading “Do You Prefer Yours With Blood and Gore, Or Unrelenting Creepiness?”