Hello, readers and writers! November is just around the corner, which means you only have a few days left to finalize your NaNoWriMo plan of attack. You can do so by using three easy but helpful methods: researching, outlining, and creating a few character profiles.
Plan NaNo, you say? But I never plan Nano! I just open up a Word document and pound the keyboard until I’m done! Or pass out, whichever comes first.
Well, that’s certainly a method, but remember that the goal of NaNo isn’t just to write 50k words, but words that create some sort of cohesive story. While you can write anything and win, why not put those 50k words toward advancing your writing career? A complete first draft (remember: a first draft does not equal a submission-quality or publishable draft) within 30 days is absolutely achievable. All you need is a bit of planning.
I am a huge fan of NaNoWriMo, and have been participating for years. Two of my NaNo projects went on to become published novels, and I’ve used other years to make significant headway on sequels. However, last year’s NaNo was an epic fail on my part, and it was because I didn’t follow the three steps.
My main story idea was set and I’d done a bit of outlining and research, but not nearly enough. I also hadn’t completed a single character profile. (Character profiles don’t have to be long. Start with name, objective, and obstacles to achieving the objective.) It wasn’t long before the story had gone so far off the rails there was no way I could fix it in 30 days. In fact, I haven’t fixed it to date, and I have no idea if I ever will. That’s a shame, because it was a project I’d wanted to work on for a few years, and I had high hopes for it.
But this year will be different! This year’s project will be set in Scotland, and has a smattering of Picts and a Roman legion thrown in for good measure, and I’ve done my homework. I stocked up on travel guides of Glasgow, a few books on the ancient Roman military, and watched an interesting if maybe not completely factual documentary on the Picts. (What can I say, it was free on Amazon Prime.) I sketched out a rough outline so I know where my characters are going, how they get there, and what the ultimate goal is for each one of them. This time around I’m confident that even if I don’t have a finished story by November 30, I will at least have my fifty thousand words in.
Fifty thousand good words, that is.
But it’s almost November! How could anyone still have time to research? Fear not, because one of the great secrets of writing is that you don’t have to do all your research beforehand. What you need is enough to get your story going, put your foot in the door so to speak, and let the story unroll from there. I fully intend to consult my Scottish travel guides and books on Roman legions several times over the next few weeks, and who knows how many times I’ll hit up the internet for answers. I probably won’t re-watch the documentary on the Picts.
To sum up, the three basic steps to NaNoWriMo success are:
Research – Then do some more research, ask a librarian for help, and maybe book a trip to visit any real-life locations. Really, you’re not going to get too much information so go all in.
Outline – A nice detailed outline is key. One incorporating the classic three act structure would be ideal, but all you really need is a strong map to follow along. Think of it like you’re downloading the newest map software onto your Garmin, as opposed to using a paper map printed in 1952.
Character Profiles – Who’s the protagonist? Antagonist? What do they want? What are the stakes? What will happen if they don’t get what they want? Again, you cannot have too much information.
Will these steps work for you? That I can’t answer, but they have worked for me in the past. Hopefully they’ll work their magic again this year. I bet they’ll work for you, too. Have fun, and happy writing!
Jennifer Allis Provost writes books about faeries, orcs and elves. Zombies too. She grew up in the wilds of Western Massachusetts and had read every book in the local library by age twelve. (It was a small library.) An early love of mythology and folklore led to her epic fantasy series, The Chronicles of Parthalan, and her day job as a cubicle monkey helped shape her urban fantasy, Copper Girl. When she’s not writing about things that go bump in the night (and sometimes during the day) she’s working on her MFA in Creative Nonfiction. Visit her at www.authorjenniferallisprovost.com
Ray Bradbury once said, “I don’t tell anyone how to write and no one tells me.” Yet, when pressed, he produced eight “rules” for successful authors.
In fact, if you Google your favorite author together with “writing rules,” you’re likely to discover links to that author’s answer to the question, “What are your rules for writing success?” Try it. I found rules that ran from two items for Robert Heinlein to twenty-four for Dashiell Hammett. That may say something about their respective styles, or maybe about how much self-reflection went into their writing, or something else. But still, there is some wisdom to be garnered by looking at these lists.
Not all Writing Rules are equal. Hammett’s, for example, are detailed, but in such a way that they apply primarily to detective novels of his era. Here’s his first rule, for example:
There was an automatic revolver, the Webley-Fosbery, made in England some years ago. The ordinary automatic pistol, however, is not a revolver. A pistol, to be a revolver, must have something on it that revolves.
This is interesting, but it’s not exactly advice. Of course, the point is that authors shouldn’t confuse a “pistol” with a “revolver.” More generally, authors should use technical terms in an accurate way. This more general form of the rule would include, for example, don’t confuse a unit of distance, like “parsec,” with a unit of time, like how long it takes to make a journey.
At the other end are Heinlein’s two rules.
1. You must write. 2. You must finish what you write.
These certainly clear, and they apply to all authors and all genres. But they are so general as to be useless. For example, they don’t tell you how often or how much you should write, nor how to know you’ve finished. He eventually expanded this to five rules, including that you should never rewrite except to editorial order, but even that is not specific enough to be helpful. We also know, from the correspondence in Grumbles from the Grave, that he in fact did cut his manuscripts, which is certainly revision.
Tom Clancy proposed five rules.
1. Tell the story. 2. Writing is like golf. 3. Make pretend more than real. 4. Writer’s block is unacceptable. 5. No one can take your dream away.
What? Like golf? What he means is that if you aspire to become a golfer, you practice. You might even take lessons from a pro. What you don’t do is read a book on how to play golf, or watch people playing golf, and then think you know the sport. You learn by doing. With respect to rule three, Clancy once opined, “The difference between fiction and reality? Fiction has to make sense.” That’s one way to make fiction more than real. For rule four, he clarifies that he means to write every day, whether you feel like it or not. Treat writing as a job. Finally, in rule five he says don’t let naysayers destroy your dreams. This is all good advice. Remember, J.K. Rowling went through twenty rejections for the first Harry Potter book before she found a publisher.
Hemingway proposed four rules.
1. Use short sentences. 2. Use short first paragraphs. 3. Use vigorous English. 4. Be positive, not negative.
These give clear instructions. They provide a basis for writing and revision. Anyone who has read Hemingway could deduce the first three rules. The last rule is the only one that might require some explanation. In rule four, he means describe what something is, not what it is not. He does not mean “be Pollyanna.”
The main problem with Hemmingway’s set of rules is that they are incomplete. Of course, any set of rules for writing is likely to share this flaw, but there are sets of rules that both serve as practical guides and are more comprehensive.
Kurt Vonnegut produced eight rules for short story authors, but they have value for novelists as well.
1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted. 2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for. 3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water. 4. Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action. 5. Start as close to the end as possible. 6. Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them—in order that the reader may see what they are made of. 7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia. 8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible.
To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.
I’ve gotten particular inspiration from rules two, three, and four on this list. Write at least one character readers will cheer for, give every character a goal, and always advance character and plot. If you can follow these three rules, you’ve got a leg up on a good story.
Elmore Leonard also produced a succinct set of rules.
1. Never open a book with weather. 2. Avoid prologues. 3. Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue. 4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said”…he admonished gravely. 5. Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose. 6. Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.” 7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly. 8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters. 9. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things. 10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.
Again, these are clear rules, things you can bring to the page as you write.
Raymond Chandler gave us many amazing mysteries, but he also wrote advice on a what makes a good murder mystery:
1. It must be credibly motivated, both as to the original situation and the dénouement. 2. It must be technically sound as to the methods of murder and detection. 3. It must be realistic in character, setting and atmosphere. It must be about real people in a real world. 4. It must have a sound story value apart from the mystery element: i.e., the investigation itself must be an adventure worth reading. 5. It must have enough essential simplicity to be explained easily when the time comes. 6. It must baffle a reasonably intelligent reader. 7. The solution must seem inevitable once revealed. 8. It must not try to do everything at once. If it is a puzzle story operating in a rather cool, reasonable atmosphere, it cannot also be a violent adventure or a passionate romance. 9. It must punish the criminal in one way or another, not necessarily by operation of the law…. If the detective fails to resolve the consequences of the crime, the story is an unresolved chord and leaves irritation behind it. 10. It must be honest with the reader.
I like these rules because they easily generalize to other genres. For example, change a word here and there and you’ve got a guide for a good science fiction story.
Stephen King has given us twenty writing rules. These are also quite good, and replicate some of the advice above, especially about adverbs and leaving out the boring bits. King also takes the interesting view that writing is like archeology in that you are discovering your fictional world as you write, much like an archeologist discovers, potsherd by potsherd, a village in ancient Mesopotamia, Mongolia, or Mesoamerica.
Can we find truth in these writing rules? Sure. There’s the truth about how these individual authors view writing. There’s truth in that there is some agreement between this diverse set of authors, although agreement doesn’t necessarily imply a deeper truth. But there’s truth in the diversity of opinion, too. Each of these successful authors found their own truth. If you want to be successful, you have to find yours, too.
Isaac Newton wrote, “”If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.” As you seek your own truth, you can build on the shoulders of these authors. Starting with their wisdom, find your own truth.
You can find the Writing Rules mentioned above in various sources. Here are the ones I used.
Max writes horror and science fiction stories, often with a dark twist. John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction is the single most important influence on his thinking about the craft of writing. Authors as diverse as John Updike, Stephen King, Richard Matheson, and Lawrence Block inspire and inform his literary style.
Max Griffin is the pen name of a mathematician and academic. He has retired from his positions at a major university in the Southwest. He is the proud parent of a daughter who is a librarian, and the grandparent to two beautiful little boys. Max is blessed to be in a long-term relationship with his life partner, Mr. Gene, who is an expert knitter. To learn more about Max Griffin, please visit: https://new.maxgriffin.net/
WARNING: In this article I showcase two book trailers I made. I think they’re pretty awesome and above the average self-made material out there. Despite the evident awesomeness, the objective of this article is not to boast about my outstanding multimedia skills, but simply as a case study. The ultimate goal here is for you to become aware of the software tools which are available for free (or for a moderate investment) as an alternative to spending hundreds, if not thousands of dollars, (up to $15,000) on a professional job. IF, and I repeat, IF, you are willing to climb a few learning curves.
First of all, I would like to discuss WHY you should invest time (or money, should you choose the professional option) in a book trailer. Book trailers are living blurbs. They engage the senses with a concentrated, sizzling bomb of pure narrative. Compared to a properly designed trailer the typical text blurb is no more than a footnote. Prospective readers can see your protagonist, hear the soundtrack and survey the setting. A book trailer can convey the atmosphere, the theme of the novel, and will make it clear to the viewer that if the trailer resonates with them, then they HAVE to buy the book.
In order to reach this goal, whichever route you choose to take, you need to be able to produce at least a decent summary of what your story is about. An illustrated storyboard of the trailer would be ideal. I mean, you can always toss a copy of the manuscript in the artist’s hands and let them come up with an idea but:
1. it’ll cost you more and 2. it’s YOUR story, dammit.
To me it’s like asking the neighbor to pick your daughter’s prom dress, and hoping he doesn’t get the wrong idea and follow his personal hentai tastes. So, no matter what, either make a pencil & pen ink sketch of your trailer, or use storyboarding software.
“Boords” is a free-to-try storyboarding platform, but they’re so cool about the whole deal they also give you links to alternative options. If you wish seek the help of a professional for your book trailer, then you can stop reading here. There are many excellent videomakers out there and not one of them offered to sponsor me, so no links.
If you wish to know how I made my own book trailers, and want to try yourself, then we’re ready for the next step.
Yes. you have to do that bit anyway. It is essential for you to get a clear idea of the timing, because a good trailer lasts between 20 and 30 seconds, and there is always the tendency to try and cram too much in that time.
A storyboard will let you visualize your scenes and realize you’re never gonna fit the whole book in five panels.
So? What should your trailer be about? Think about your story…does it rely on strong characters? Does it narrate a fall into darkness, a rise to higher levels of being? What color is your novel? Try to visualize your work in terms of movement, color, light and character.
Case study: The Descent
For my Historical fiction novel “The 45th Nail” I didn’t take too much to find the correct format. The narrative starts as a light-hearted escapade to Italy, but gradually descends into a dark quest of a man seeking impossible forgiveness. The key-word there was “descends”. And the trailer is a long, slow scrolling movement downwards. A narration, in the voice of the protagonist, gives a first-person retelling of the blurb while a few items flutter past and the whole background darkens. The final landing displays the title of the book. https://youtu.be/8jjVnxs70M8
How I did it: I used a free image editing software called “Gimp” to patch together images into a long, vertical strip. If you have Photoshop or have worked with it, Gimp is fairly similar and there are a lot of tutorials online to learn the basics you need to stitch pictures together. Time: 3 hours
The image of the golden “bulla” was created using a free 3D tool. (The one I used back then is not available anymore but there are many titles out there. If you can create a sphere, flatten it, and apply a picture of a gold medallion as texture, you can make the bulla. Depending on the software it may take you more or less time to figure out how to animate it spinning on itself. This was the result: https://youtu.be/l5tEYOH8ViA
Notice the black background. Some programs will let you create videos with transparent backgrounds, but they’re usually not free. Black is a good workaround. Time: 2 1/2 hours.
All the other things you see floating up in the video are static .png images I made using Gimp. .png images can have transparency. Time: 30 minutes.
I found the music on freesound.org which is exactly what it looks like: a free sound library. You are required to create an account and, if the composer requires it, mention them in the credits. I used Audacity to put the sounds together with my own voice. I was able to balance the levels and darken the tone, after twiddling around a bit with the various effects. Time: 1 hour.
I put it all together with video editing software. There are free video editing programs (DaVinci Resolve is Hollywood-grade production software and it’s 100% free. It’s also bloody murder to figure out.) I bought Filmora, which is $60 and is much more intuitive. Time: 2 hours.
A total of nine hours of work, and I got to keep the video editing software for future book trailers. Did I do it again?
You bet I did.
Case study: The Character
For my recent novel “To Cipher and to Sing” I wanted the viewer to do two things: get to know one of my main characters and get really suspicious about him. Once again I opted for the downwards scroll. I may have a thing about vertical drops, I don’t know. Anyway, this time the fall had to be a real one, a drop from a futuristic high-rise.
The trailer begins as a futuristic ad for some kind of A.I. chip. As the chip upgrades make it faster and more powerful the ad itself glitches off as the technology evolves into a robotic skeleton.
As the figure continues to evolve the camera speeds ahead and, upon reaching the bottom of the building, it witnesses the landing of the finished product, a complete android with eerie golden eyes which turns towards the camera and, in a not altogether disturbing way, smiles. https://youtu.be/CNF0KGebvd0
How I did it: Again, I went hunting for freebies and found Kitbash 3D, an amazing team that produces professional cityscapes and which, occasionally, gives out some free kits. I got their “Utopia” city, a $199,00 value, for free. The sheer quality of their kits has me thinking seriously of spending some real money the next time I need a 3D cityscape and I’m not lucky enough to find another freebie. I also used it as background for the cover of the book.
I used Meshmixer to select and move the buildings around, and save the result as an .obj file. Then I used it in Daz 3D Studio, where I created my character.
Now, Daz 3D is a BEAST of a program. It relies on high-performing computers to give you photo-realistic poseable humans. Yes, it’s free.
But you need to pay if you want to buy more props and characters. The prices are not terribly high and if you need something specific, you might want to spend twelve dollars on top of a fully-fledged 3D video studio which you just downloaded for free.
It takes a while to figure out all the things you can do with Daz3D, so take your time. All in all, between creating my character, finding some stray 3D skeleton on-line, importing everything, lighting and animating, it took me over ten hours.
Plus another FORTY HOURS to render the final animation. Luckily I was able to render blocks of frames and save them as clips, so I could use my computer for other things. Otherwise, while rendering, the intense CPU usage made it impossible to even browse the Internet.
Once more, I used Filmora to patch the clips together and include the soundtrack and sound effects from Freesound. I also made use of the excellent title kits and special effects included in the video editing software.
A conclusive thought:
I personally rely a lot on 3D animation, because I happen to have a background in multimedia design, and it comes in handy, especially if the subject is science-fiction. But bear in mind that I designed my trailers with the foreknowledge of the video footage I could produce myself or the 3D models I knew I could find.
You can reach great results even if you choose to shoot a whole live-action sequence with real actors and costumes, if that’s more in your set of skills. Use the material you are most familiar with, and your result will be more in your own style. Remember that in order for your trailer to be effective it has to focus on the emotion and the atmosphere more than the plot itself.
Thank you for taking the time to read this longer than usual article. I hope you found it useful and inspiring.
Ian Lahey, author, dreamer, and Olympic-level binge-watcher, teaches English Language and Literature in Italy. Apart from writing arguably decent fiction, he also cooks with nearly edible results, tinkers with computer graphics, and does quite a lot of gardening, since he needs to replace all the plants he’s inadvertently killed. https://ilahey.com
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Almost everyone has sprawled on a grassy hill or mountain meadow. Or simply sat on the ground in a backyard. Have you ever knelt, gently parted the grass with your hands, and looked to see what you might overwise have never seen? The sprouting seedling, with its neck curled to the sun, an earthworm keeping my yard green, a sugar ant scaling a blade of grass, a 1987 penny: yesterday in my front yard. In less than thirty seconds I looked upon a hidden world, right under my feet. Same thing, but use a magnifying glass! What all do you, might you, can you SEE?Without looking, do you know whether the last time whoever mowed the grass went back and forth, up and down or diagonal? Why not? Do the daffodils need cutting back, has the last tulip bloomed, and were your lilacs caught by the cold this spring? Do you know?
Without looking, do you know if it is sunny or cloudy outside? Is the sky a bowl of brilliant blue or pale whitish blue? Do clouds shuttle across, great sails of billowy white or are they multiple shades of threatening grey? Are there mare’s tails, or is it, perhaps a mackerel sky? Are there a million pricks of light or a blanket of thick clouds? What phase is the moon in? Is it a child’s fingernail clipping or a fish-bellies moon? Have you seen the space station skittering across the sky? Do you know? Have you?
Have you looked to appreciate the diamond glitters of dew catching the morning sun on the grass? Do you know if the birdfeeders are empty or full? Do you have one? What birds come to feed? Have the bluebirds returned? The hummingbirds? Do the goldfinches have their summer colors yet? Did you notice how the calls of the robins, cardinals, and blue jays have changed? Have you seen? Have you noticed?
Have you ever found a bench to sit on and relax in town and simply watched the throng pass by? Are they staring at their phones or looking where they are going? Do they ever look up to catch the colors of a morning sky or notice a checkerboard of contrails? Do they stride or stroll? Can they tell, without even looking, when the crowd pauses for the light as if part of a school of minnows? Do they notice the world around them or are they secure in their little bubble? Are they busy talking? Do they even hear the car horns, the clack and stomp and shuffle of feet on a sidewalk, or the sound of the vendor on the corner? How do they look? Happy, busy, sad, depressed, mad, or stressed? Are they smiling or frowning or are they blank-faced or excited? How do you move in the crowd? Ever thought about it?
If your desk is near a window, do you notice how and when the sun slants in and gets in your eyes? How it moves from one side of the window to the other as the year progresses? What is outside that window? No, not ‘just the backyard or the street. Across the backyard, we have a long, four-foot-tall woodpile. It is also the chipmunk condominium, the opossum’s den, and is half-buried in pine needles. The older wood is blackened from time, weather, heat, and cold. The newer wood is still pale browns, golds, and oranges depending upon whether it is cherry, pine, oak, or birch. Between here and there are goldfinch feeders, lawn chairs (which absolutely need new cushions) and a wide expanse of (diagonally-mowed) grass. Goldfinches, resting on the grass, look almost like dandilions.
Is your coffee cold in its cup or still steaming hot? Has the ice melted away to dilute your drink? Where are you reading this? At your desk? On your cell in the car? Waiting for the kids or on a subway? What are three distinct sounds you can hear right now? Listen …–Listen, don’t just keep reading! I can hear the furnace running and feel the heat on my bare feet. I can hear the annoying clicking my fingers make on the keyboard, (some keys click louder than others; most noticeably the space bar!) and I can hear the dog barking. It is her ‘Mom, the bunny’s in the front yard again and I want to go play with it! Can I, Mom? Huh, huh? Can I?’ whines and yips.
As writers, as poets, we need to be observant. It is most often the little things that can give poetry the nuances and levels to make a point. Poetry depends upon fresh descriptions and new ways to see things. Perspectives change and morph depending upon a vantage point. How we, as writers, describe things in the world around us requires us to become excellent observers. Otherwise, one sees (and writes) the same old cliched phrases.
Imagine, for a moment, you were a sugar ant. Blades of grass soar upwards. The root of a tree is a mountain. Then aiming up the truck, following a scent that means food, you travel upwards, for almost half an hour as you traverse bits of knobby bark, branches, knotholes. Thirty feet off the ground, something ‘big’ brushes you off the tree and you fall, covering in seconds what it took a very long time to achieve. Assuming a bird doesn’t snatch you mid-air, do you know what happens to that ant when it hits the ground? It bounces, shakes itself, and then starts a totally different journey. Assuming I could manage to climb thirty feet up into a tree, I seriously doubt I’d be able to pick myself up, dust myself on and just continue on my way collecting food!
Observation also comes into play when reading poetry. Ours or others, it is still the same. There is so much to be learned about writing poetry from reading a plethora of poems. Experienced writers tend to write in layers. The poem is so much more than x-numbers of words arranged in a pleasing fashion. Word plays, multiple meanings from the same words, a deeper meaning, a layered nuance. Poems are rarely what’s just on the surface! You need to take a deep breath, dive down and explore the multiple meanings that can be found, the deeper message. Then, get that magnifying glass back out and look again!
Then it more[hs into the MORE! Not just in our daily existence. You will find yourself seeing the stuff that was right out in the open that you’ve missed! The little things others do for you that they don’t mention. That cup of coffee brought to you just when you realized you wanted one. The haircut. The new shirt. That they mowed the yard or that there were fresh flowers on the table. Maybe someone else (for a change!) did the dishes or folded laundry. Maybe they didn’t touch their cell once while you both were talking or one of the kids did a good job on their room or chores without being prodded to do so! Little things. Tiny things. But they add up to so very much! Sometimes, you need to work for it –it isn’t just handed to you on a poetic platter! Don’t just read for the snack –read, write and –live (!) for the feast!
It may be hard in our day-to-day lives with significant others, kids, pets, work, dealing with covid on top of everything else, but once you get yourself in the habit of being a dedicated observer, it will become second nature. You will be amazed at all the things you’ve been missing out on.
Cut me: I bleed ink. There is a space, a fathomless well of unsprung thoughts that exists inside me. I write to pull forth the words; grasp and yank them screaming or dancing, from deep within and set them free upon the page. This, this is why I write, for if I didn’t, then I shouldn’t be alive at all.
My ‘Journey Collection’ is a contemporary fiction series about groups of people with a high-risk of suicide: things read when people are not mid-spiral may surface when they are – and let them break free. Nothing like a phone call from someone saying they walked away from the Golden Gate Bridge because something in ‘Journey to Jukai’ made them think again! Or receiving an email from someone wondering if I am trans or gay because I nailed ‘the who they are!’ (I am not. Intense, deep research is your friend!)
Robin Moyer is an author, poet, great-grandmother, veteran, creative writing teacher, wife, world-traveler, free spirit and book publisher. (wynwidynpress.com) She has eight books under her belt including a prize-winning series and three works in process.
Facebook reminded me this week of a trip four years ago. I had the rare and wonderful privilege of spending almost two weeks immersed in writing, steeped in the power that place can exert on creativity and identity.
I applied, in the final year of my MFA in Creative Writing program, to a writing residency in Ireland – a place I’d always dreamed of visiting. Except for the briefest of trips across the border into Mexico and Canada, I was a Gen X-er who’d never traveled outside the United States. I had a list in my pocket of places I’d visit and a current passport, should the opportunity (and funds) ever arise.
Likewise, the MFA was a goal I’d held close for, well, decades, if I’m honest. The program ended up opening the door, as well, to this dream of international travel. My gratitude for this has only grown in the past year, through all the isolation and restrictions.
It took almost two days to make that trip from Colorado to our final destination – an inn on the island off the coast of Ireland called Inis Oirr. It was a “planes, trains, and automobiles” kind of trip. Two planes, a bus, a small ferry boat, a horse drawn buggy (for our luggage), and a hike up a steep cobbled road from the docks, to be exact. The trip was like winding back the decades, one mode of transport at a time.
I’m remembering, as I write this, the crowded Galway park, full of locals enjoying the warmth of a relatively rare sunny day. Our cohort assembled to await the ferry, lying about on the greenest of grass (which is not a myth, by the way ; ) I fell asleep for a bit, exhausted from the travelling, feeling somehow safe in the midst of all that activity. Then came the crisp, refreshing wind in our faces as the ferry boat bumped its way over the rough open sea to the island. The thrill of seeing the island rise up out of the water ahead, crowned by a diadem with castle jewels. The fishy smell of the docks as we hopped off the swaying boat. The clop of horses’ hooves on the cobbles. The lilt of a warm greeting from the innkeeper in Gaelic. The savory smell of fresh seafood chowder for dinner, served with stories from fishermen playing pool nearby about the catch of the day.
Feel that sense of place? : )
I could add a few bumps along the way, to be sure. But I find myself recalling mostly sensations, memories that make me smile. Experience again those spacious moments. Walks by the sea. Sunsets so late at night. Lovely language and kind community. The writing the immersion opened in me.
Perhaps it’s in sharp contrast with feeling so confined much of the past year, between lockdowns and perpetual smoke and ash last summer from the fires here in Colorado. The feeling of loss all around – its own sense of place.
Ireland was an embodied experience of what I’d vicariously tasted as a teen, exploring the strange new worlds of science fiction and fantasy. Places that (as a young queer person who wouldn’t find acceptance for years to come) inspired feelings of hope and belonging in a wider world. Settings and societies that expanded my definitions and horizons beyond the messy, violent urban neighborhood I grew up in. Written by authors who knew how to create new potentialities by conveying a strong sense of place.
John Varley, for example, in his classic Gaia Trilogy, transported me to Titan, the being/world whose 12 distinct lands he personified on the page. Each place – and Gaia as a whole – acted as a foil for the astronauts stranded there (and those soon to follow) requiring characters to confront their limitations and biases. Allowing them to discover fuller identities (including sexual identities). To reach unexpected potentials beyond the limited selves they were on arrival. All through sustained interaction with a place far beyond their current experience.
Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern series pulled me into world where the dragons, themselves, were inextricably tied to the biology of a world inhabited by a people who were (in the original trilogy) beginning to question their ancestry. Their sense of place. Where individuals were questioning their identities as this evolution began. Where young people could empower themselves, be supported in putting hard situations behind them, and pursue their gifts. Could use them in service of surviving, thriving, and creating in this place. Responding to questions whose answers challenged every assumption they’d held about their connections with each other, the dragons, and Pern.
I’ve found myself rereading these and other authors with this talent in the past year. Reaching, almost obsessively, for that expanded sense of place, as my outer world shrank to the size of my apartment. For that spaciousness I’ve always found on the page. What I’m now enjoying, again, through the pictures of my time in Ireland. Revisiting that lived experience of revising, in a deeper way, my sense of place in the world. Seeing it reflected in my writing.
We can be of service, I believe, as writers, by reaching beyond the experience of place we know. Not by appropriating others’ stories, their unique sense of “place.” Rather, by reading those stories – real and fantastic. Stretching our own lived experiences, where we can. Cleaning out head junk that likes to whisper, “What you’ve known is the only place.”
Think of the impact we can have, dear writers, if we work at conveying, as best we can, insights we glean by taking deep dives into place. Imagining less limiting futures. Creating stories and worlds our readers want to visit – even revisit – that expand their own definitions, as others’ stories have for us. The hope and resilience we can help bring to a “place” that really needs it right now. ❤
D.M. Rasch is an author of LGBTQ+ speculative fiction (and an occasional poet) who lives in the Denver, CO area with 2 sister kittens who are pretty tough in the editing department. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing and balances being a working writer with her work as a Creative Coach, Mentor, and Editor (as Deanna M. Rasch) in her business, Itinerant Creative Content & Coaching LLC . Find her publications on the linked Amazon page and look forward to upcoming publications: a YA science fiction novel Freedom’s Cost, as well as the first in a series related to her story At the Movies, recently featured in Other Worlds Ink’s anthology, Fix the World: twelve sci-fi writers save the future. LinkedIn Amazon