Into the Woods

I firmly believe that most people would benefit from being dropped off in the middle of nowhere and forced to spend some time with non-civilized noises for several hours.

Unfortunately, we are so constantly bombarded with “artistically rearranged” imagery of what nature looks and sounds like, that most of us have some strange ideas about what goes on in the areas of the world that aren’t thick with people.

I’ve touched on this before because this is what I see as one of the biggest disconnects in genres like Epic Fantasy and Remote Area Thrillers, but I really want to focus on the idea of exploration and what it means to leave behind the familiar and enter the unknown.

Someone mentioned Campbell’s “The Hero’s Journey” to me this weekend, with a particular emphasis on the transition from the known to the unknown. I always wince a bit at this because it seems to me that so often wilderness is used in these sorts of stories as a stand in for the terrifying and dangerous unknown. There is a strange sort of separation that this creates, even if it is only in the back of the mind.

Life that doesn’t largely involve human interaction becomes exotic, unknowable.

It shouldn’t be.

I think that it is important to understand how the world that doesn’t involve us works and functions. Even if we don’t spend our time clambering over mountains and wrestling with bears, having some knowledge of the world that isn’t plastic is important. In my case, my life constantly interweaves with wilder areas. However, I am deeply conscious of how understanding things like the effects of seasons on the growth of plants and the complicated interactions between soil and fungi give me a better perspective on the balance between the world and the things that live within it.

So often, the natural world in writing is portrayed as dangerous, mystical… and completely incomprehensible.

It is a message that we can internalize and carry into our real world interactions and thoughts about the wild.

The thing with traveling into the unknown is that experience should make it more understandable, not less.

If the journey only makes the woods deeper and darker, perhaps the problem lies not with the forest, but with the hero.

IMG_0325The woods are lovely and not nearly as dark as we like to make them

I am fascinated by our relationship to the world around us and how we choose to write and discuss that relationship.


 

If something’s going to be incomprehensible in my story, it’s going to be because it is a sentient toaster and not because it is a tree. If you would like to see that in action, my fantasy novel,  The Guests of Honor, is available here.

A Choice of Frames

The way we cut a picture is almost as important as what a picture contains. The difference between a sleeping lion and the potential of imminent death by claws is about five inches of focus.

This is not a blog entry about photography.

One of my few promises to myself when I created this blog was that all of the pictures I used for my blog entries would be unedited. Everything that goes up here has not been altered after being taken, so I have to live with poor focus or lighting or framing.

I think that there are some important lessons that I’ve been able to take from this and apply both to my writing and to the stories I read.

As much as a few inches shift can affect what a photograph shows, so can a small difference in the choice of focus in a story.

The more I’ve become involved in photography and graphic design, the more I’ve become aware of the difficulties people encounter when they try to decide how much or how little their story is going to show.

Viewpoint can help decide this – a tight first-person narrative is normally going to show less of the world and its events than an omniscient, head-hopping narrator. But much like photography or playing cards, knowing how much to show -and how much to conceal- is a vital part of creating the power and motion of a story.

I’ve mentioned Shirley Jackson on this blog before, but her short story “The Lottery” is a masterclass in framing. I’ve often wondered if Ms. Jackson knew anything about photography because her slow pans and careful scenic movement feel cinematic. The movement towards her reveal of the full scene is careful and cautious and helps to create the power of her conclusion.

I think that sometimes there is a temptation to show everything at once right away or to hide so much information that people become lost and confused. Good framing is honest about what it is showing, but still leaves enough pieces out to create interest and draw viewers into the story or photograph.

There is also the kind of framing where the only part of the story that is told is the part that justifies the experiences of the focus character. This can be used in interesting ways if the narrator is shown to be unreliable (in cinema, something like Rashomon or in story, American Psycho), but it can also make it harder to suspend disbelief if the story does nothing but prop up the character’s thoughts and beliefs.

Have you ever read a story where you spent a few minutes thinking about the main character and decided that you probably would have sided with the villains?

This is often because of a failure of framing. When what we see as bad actions on the part of the main character are justified rather than challenged, we will often lose trust in both the story… and the writer.

Much as viewers will lose trust in a photographer who makes a sleeping lion look as if it is a dangerous threat.

Thinking about how a story should be presented is a vital part of writing.

It is important though that the tale accurately reflects exactly what kind of lion sits on the other side of the lens.

IMG_0623The other part of framing is what is shown and what is not. What’s on the other side of these irises? You’ll never know!

I am fascinated by what we choose and do not choose to show in our stories and how that translates into the tales we tell.


I enjoy playing with framing in my own writing, although I can promise that all lions are portrayed at an accurate level of threat. If you would like to see for yourself, my fantasy novel,  The Guests of Honor, is available here.

All the Orphans

One of the things that most concerns me when I read Fantasy literature is the dreadful spread and contagiousness of Orphanus Maincharacterus. I have been half-tempted at certain points to look and see if there are fundraisers to prevent the tragic removal of every parental or family figure of a person who is about to star in a Fantasy series.

Now, there is nothing wrong with a tragic backstory. Often these stories use these backstories as a way to explain the shaping of the main character’s goals and dreams.

The problem is that often this feels like an emotional shortcut rather than a fully-fleshed characterization decision.

If these characters had adopted families or circles of family-like friends, then the character development would seem more well-rounded.

Unfortunately, this trope is often paired with a hermetic seal around close personal connections and the main character will start the story without any deep family connections at all.

This puzzles me because familial interaction is one of the richest, most diverse sources of plot inspiration and interaction.

We love our families and sometimes we hate them too (and no, our father doesn’t have to be Darth Vader for this to be true). They shape us and we shape them in a way that is difficult for others to approach, because for most of us, we’re connected to them for the rest of our lives.

We can grow closer and we can drift apart, but they are part of a bond that is hard to forget and almost impossible to completely break.

What I see in the abundance of orphans that I read (and yes, other genres do this too, but Fantasy seems to do this so much more), is the desire to have a main character with a completely blank slate.

No previous ties, no complicating connections, no inconvenient character-shaping except from loss and grief.

I like complications.

I like characters who didn’t spring, fully-formed, from a dark void somewhere in the Land Before the Story Started.

I like characters that walk into the story full of love and frustration and terrible conversations that only other family members understand.

There is a purity to the Hero’s Journey that erases everything except the Hero’s motivation and talents and ability to pull themselves up completely by their own bootstraps without any pesky past connections aiding or blocking them.

But there is something lovely and messy and real about characters that are part of a larger social and familial web that shows its influences in the path the story takes.

There is no need to eliminate the Tragic Backstory entirely from works of fiction.

But if all the fantasy cities are full of orphans and only children, perhaps it is time to investigate whether this a kingdom not of magic, but of cliches.

IMG_0813Let a thousand orphans bloom! Just be wary of creative rot.

I am fascinated by how we do and do not write write about our families.


 

Family, in its various blood and not-blood forms is a large part of my story-telling. If you would like to see how I handle it in my own writing, my fantasy novel,  The Guests of Honor, is available here.

I was also alerted to a lovely little review of “The Guests of Honor” available over here. One of the things that makes me happiest as a writer is when people have fun with my story. If you are someone who is interested in a thoughtful discussion of what worked and didn’t work for a reader of my story, please check out My Little Book Blog’s review.

A Curious Mind

Stories come from people who ask questions.

If the world is solved and wrapped in a neat, bow-tied package, there is no need to add new conversations. If we already know everything there is to know and have traveled every pathway there is to travel, then why would we try to search out what we have not already experienced and commit it to words?

Now, this is a ridiculous exaggeration and certainly, there are stories that are told and re-told over and over again.

But any story that is not a direct repeat of the one before it came from finding some way to slide or shift or look beyond what was already there.

Stories come from people who ask questions.

What would “happily ever after” look like for a cowboy and a hard-nosed single mother?

What would happen to our society if nobody could sleep?

What would a world where dragons were tools of war look like?

How could a cat find happiness with an owl?

Stories are about answering questions, conscious or unconscious, and creating more in the process.

As a reader, I love asking questions.

Every new story I walk into has so many possibilities and directions and I am eager to see what shape the writer creates from their initial question.

My problem is that, sometimes, I think that writers forget that the root of our desire to read and explore is curiousity, is that insatiable need to poke at mysterious objects with sharp sticks until they reveal their secrets.

It is not that there is not comfort in tried and true formulas, skillfully executed.

It is that sometimes I think that there is such an overwhelming rush to get to the answer of the initial question that the world the question inhabits is left as pieces of stage scenery being carted about by grumpy extras.

There’s no need to fill in every background detail and piece of the surrounding universe (that has its own set of terrible problems)!

But sometimes I wish that more writers would leave hints of a world that is doing its own thing outside of the central story, continuing in its own pathways and mysteries, while the story takes place within it.

It takes a question to begin a story.

Our minds do not become uncurious because we are following that question to its conclusion.

I can only hope that more writers will leave some of those other questions sitting quietly to the side, a gift for those who wish to ask and answer questions of their own.

IMG_0794It’s nice to have a path to follow but even nicer to have other paths running alongside

I love creativity and curiousity in equal measure. I can only hope to encourage more explorations of both in the works I read.


If you’d like to see my own sets of answered and unanswered questions, you can read my fantasy novel,  The Guests of Honor. It is available here.

A Rural Light

I live in the most beautiful place in the world.

Now, even people who live here will argue with me on that, but I long ago decided that for myself, there was no where else that I had traveled or lived that brought that perfect sense of awe when I looked out the window in the morning.

Your tastes may vary.

In fact, when I view other media, it becomes obvious to me that most other people’s tastes vary.

One of the interesting aspects of reading a lot and reading widely is that I can track changes in genre over a long period of time.

It has been  interesting to me how the unpopulated rural areas have slowly disappeared from stories and media.

There are still small towns and interpersonal connections but there are very few genres now that have stories about what it’s like to live twenty miles from your nearest neighbour.

Very few stories about being a person in town… where the next town is over fifty miles away.

When I see rural portrayed visually or in writing, there is always a sense of continuous habitation, even if it is less dense than it is in urban centers.

This may seem cosmetic, but there are very real differences that arise when you aren’t close to other people or larger communities.

Small medical complications can become life or death situations.

If the store is out of a product, it could be weeks before the product arrives.

When you travel into the backcountry, if something goes wrong, it could be literal months before they find your body.

There are advantages too, as I greedily horde the vision of our orchard in morning that no one else will ever see or share.

But I think that this lack of understanding of the knife’s edge takes a lot of the power away from the writing of rural living.

Ironically, where I see the lack of this understanding most keenly is in Fantasy.

Since so many epic Fantasy stories are set in some version of Medievalandia, they often involve road trips across sweeping outdoor vistas.

Unfortunately, it becomes very obvious very quickly when the writer of these stories has not spent much time in the outdoors themselves. Survival outdoors skills that you use where you know that you have no access to emergency services are very different animals than the kind of camping that takes place in parks with three or four hundred other occupants.

With all of these things, it is not always necessary to have been stranded in the backcountry to write about it.

But I think that the real power of writing outdoors adventures is better illustrated when that knife’s edge always lurks just beneath the surface of the beauty.

IMG_0695The border of the rural and the wild is beautiful and cautionary

I’m always interested in portrayals of where the rural meets the wild. I like to think about those portrayals that I enjoy and those that I don’t.


I like to play with rural wildness in my own stories. If you’d like to see my take on these ideas, you can read my fantasy novel,  The Guests of Honor. It is available here.

To Hold Up a Mirror and Make It So

When the rabbits started to die, I didn’t understand what was going on.

As I continued to read, I was as confused and lost as the characters in the story. It took me years to understand some of the central messages of “Watership Down”, but the confusion and heartbreak of those rabbits was mirrored in myself long before that understanding.

We bring ourselves to the stories we read and I have written about what that does and does not do for our understanding and connection to the tales we absorb.

I haven’t spoken about what happens when a writer deliberately tries to shine the story back upon us.

It is hard to write about areas of social or political concern in fiction, particularly genre fiction.

The dance between polemic and seed of change is a difficult one.

“Watership Down” was a watershed moment for my nine-year-old self. I know that it is not viewed as well by others, so even the definition of success is not a universal statement.

Mirrored moments in stories are often how commentary is worked in, although they can be used for other purposes.

Describing the human destruction of a rabbit warren from the rabbits’ perspectives allows us to look at mundane events in a new light and perhaps see ourselves and our relationship to those events.

This type of mirroring can also be used to create empathy and connection for the characters in the story.

We may not have lived in a cupboard under the stairs, but there are few children who haven’t been lonely, who wouldn’t be awed and excited about a grand magical destiny. Many, many people can see themselves in Harry Potter, but also were able to sink so much more deeply into the world he inhabited because they learned about the world just as he did.

His confusion and understanding were mirrored back to us and our agreement or disagreement with his choices reflected our own understanding of ourselves and our relationship with choice and power.

There are more cynical, and less successful, examples of holding reflections up to the audience. There are stories where the characters or action serve as little more than thinly-veiled mouthpieces for a particular statement or writer’s vision.

The problem is not in the holding of this vision or statement.

It is that clumsy mirrors are worse than no mirrors at all.

There are very few things more likely to break suspension of disbelief or interest than the idea that we are being forced to stare at the writer’s vision of us-

-and it bears no resemblance to what we see and know of ourselves.

I have learned so much through reading, both about myself and the world around me.

The best mirror that I can face in a story is one that subtly, creatively forces me to summon my own reflection-

-and look at myself in understanding.

IMG_0821Our reflections may not always be obvious, but they are often worth seeing

How we see ourselves and how we recognize ourselves in the stories we read has always been one of my favourite puzzle pieces to dissect.


For my work on reflections, metaphorical and literal, you can read my fantasy novel,  The Guests of Honor. It is available here.