The Reunion

Monday, September 19, 2016

Where did you get your idea for Beyond Heaven and Hell?


Last week, I was asked where I found the idea for my new book, Beyond Heaven and Hell. No surprise, there. It’s a common question. Readers are always curious about the writer’s inspiration.

I always sigh and shake my head when someone poses this question, not because my sources are secret, but because I never have a really good answer. I have never had a story spring, fully-formed into my mind. I’ve never taken a plot from my own life or from a news story. I’ve never re-written a fairy tale. I have never purposely manipulated any of the thirty-six basic plots which are said to underlie every story ever written.

A story’s idea develops over time. It is a dynamic process. No book that I have written has been exactly the story I started to write. As a result, it’s difficult to identify where I got my idea. I’m at a loss as to whether I should cite the source of the original idea, which may have little to do with the final story, or whether I should cite the idea I had while lying awake in the dark at three in the morning, the one that completely changed the story’s direction after fifteen thousand words had been committed to paper.

Perhaps an example would help.

Beyond Heaven and Hell, began in church. The initial prompt was a line from a hymn written to be sung on Palm Sunday: “Ride on, ride on in majesty…the angel armies of the skies look down with sad and wondering eyes…”

When I hear those words, in my mind I see a line of angels clad in Roman armor, spears in hand, gazing down from the clouds, ready to speed to his defense as Jesus enters the city of Jerusalem for the final time. I think of Michael the archangel who is said to command the heavenly arm. I recall images of Michael slaying the dragon (Satan) a metal sculpture mounted on the wall of Saint Michael’s cathedral in Coventry, England and the stained-glass window over the altar at Saint Michael’s Church in Charleston, where I live.

I’m reminded of the story of the war in heaven when, as legend tells us, Lucifer, another archangel, led one-third of the heavenly host in a rebellion against God and did battle against the army of heaven commanded by Michael. Lucifer was defeated and he and his followers were consigned to hell.

I recall an animated film from my childhood that dealt with this war. It was a Disney production as I recall, and it narrated a legend of how the leprechauns came to live in Ireland.

It seems the leprechauns were residents of heaven when the war began. While they sided with God, they were too small to actually take part in the conflict, so they hid until the battle was over. Since they had not fought for God, it was determined that they could no longer remain in heaven, but no one believed they deserved hell. Instead, they were sent to Ireland, which the legend maintains, is the next best thing to the celestial city

Why did Lucifer rebel?

It is said that he rebelled when God determined to create humans. A legend tells us God created Adam and presented him to the host of heaven with the injunction that they bow before him, since he represented the pinnacle of God’s creative work. Lucifer took exception to God’s evaluation of humanity, and he refused to bend his knee.

What happened next?  

A war in heaven would have been a civil war, angel against angel.

In the US, when we think of a civil war, we think of the war fought between the South and the North in the eighteen-sixties, but the American Revolution also had characteristics of a civil war. Both wars created divisions among friends, neighbors, and families, driving wedges between people who loved each other as each did what he believed to be right..

In a motion picture shown at Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia, we witness a discussion between the Randolph brothers. As the Revolution moves toward war, we hear John tell his brother, Peyton, “I am going home (to England). His brother replies “I am home” (Virginia). Brother against brother.

A civil war in heaven would result in similar situations as angels chose sides and prepared for battle.  What if Michael was in love and the angel he loved chose the other side? What would he do? What would she do?

Why would an angel follow Lucifer? Especially someone close to Michael? Would Michael really send someone he loved to hell?

We now have a story, not only about angel armies, but armies at war, about those separated by the conflict and the heartache that results.

Now, from where did I find the idea for my story?

The hymn?

The legend concerning the war in heaven?

The recognition that the war was a civil war, with all of the complications that flow from such a conflict? 

The hymn did provide the original inspiration. The war in heaven does provide the framework for at least a part of the book. The complications that arise from a civil war do form the heart of the story.

The person who posed the question last week was expecting a two-sentence response. Which of these should I cite?

I’ve always been fascinated by the story of the war in heaven and this was an opportunity to explore the conflict and its consequences would be the easy answer, and no one would question it. The truth, though, is more complex.

The collection and combination of ideas to produce a story is a mysterious process that defies explanation. In another essay on this same topic, I compared the process to that of a weaver who must choose the colors that she will use, and I quote from a novel, Second Chance Café.

The author writes of a young woman who weaves beautiful scarves. They sell in upscale stores around the country and are often seen wrapped around the bodies of movie stars and celebrities. Each scarf is unique. How does she decide on the colors, the pattern, for a new scarf? She describes the process in this manner:

“I don’t know how you do that,” her father said, looking at the collection (of yarn) she held and shaking his head.

Honestly, neither did she. To this day, she could not explain how the colors came together in her mind. How one flowed into another as she sat at her loom. How the different strands of story became a whole. “I just see it. I don’t know where it comes from. Any of it. It’s just there.”

 

 

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

When You Write a Story: Points to Ponder


Write every day

I’m currently completing work on a novel, a romance set during the war in heaven that pitted Lucifer and his army against Michael the archangel and his soldiers. I wrote the first chapter over ten years ago.

A number of times, when I set goals for the New Year, I would include “finish book” in my list, but I never seemed to find the time to even identify the main characters, much less to develop the plot. Whenever I glanced at my list, there was always something else that seemed more important, or easier, or less time consuming. It was not until last spring that I finally began to write the story.

You will always find something other than writing that begs to be done. I generally tumble out of bed to write at seven each morning. I could always choose to sleep for an extra hour, eat breakfast, read a book or walk on the beach, but unless I purposely write on a regular basis, I will not write much at all.

To say “write every day” may be a bit strong, of course, but if you want to write, you must work at it regularly. It cannot be something that is done “on the side” or solely in your spare time.

 There must be conflict.

In his book, The 90 Day Novel, Allan Watt writes that conflict is central to drama…we are naturally drawn to charged moments both large and small. We are not drawn to what our hero had for breakfast, unless he is on death row and it is his last meal.

Without conflict, a story becomes a simple account of events, strung together, one after the other, without direction or purpose. The conflict that drives a story can be external, resulting when our characters are prevented from reaching their goals by someone or something outside of themselves, or the conflict can be internal, reflecting the interplay of the hero’s multiple wants, desires, and motives, man struggling against himself.

In Once and Future Wife, we find both types. An external conflict arises between Jennie and her future stepdaughter, Tasha, who is trying to prevent Jennie from marrying her father. The primary conflict, though, is internal, as Jennie fights the demons of her bipolar disorder that threaten to cooperate with Tasha and derail her impending marriage.

Without conflict, a story lacks a driving force. It lacks interest. Where is the suspense? Where is the fear that the hero will have her plans thwarted, her hopes dashed? Where is the relief when a satisfactory ending occurs? 

 Know where you are going.

J.K. Rowling once said she knew the conclusion to the Harry Potter series as she began to write the first book. This seemed like a remarkable claim when I first heard it, but it is likely true. It is quite important that before you begin to write, know how your story will end.

Writing is like a journey. If you don’t know where you’re going, you have no idea which highway to follow, which turns to take, or how far you must travel.

Each scene in a book, each decision the hero makes is designed to move him from the inciting incident toward the conclusion. If the conclusion is unknown, then the hero wanders. The scenes are disjointed, perhaps giving hints of what is to come, perhaps leading the reader down blind alleys. The plot becomes confusing and the reader loses her way.

Some writers develop detailed outlines before they begin to write. I’ve read, for example, that James Patterson does this, for example, but not everyone finds such outlines useful. Knowing your conclusion does not mean you must have a complete outline. What you must have is a destination, not a GPS locator.

 Don’t be afraid to wander.

Always be open to new twists or even new characters. Madeleine L’Engle, author of A Wrinkle in Time, once wrote of returning to the story on which she had been working the day before, only to find two new characters who had not been there before. The story was much richer with the new characters than it would have been without them.

I have found that some of my best plots appear as I am in the middle of writing a scene. A line of dialogue, perhaps, will suggest a new direction in the story. I may describe a character’s facial expression and wonder why what she might be thinking. I might describe the weather or the flowers in a garden and those elements may become important elements in the story.

In Those Children Are Ours, the main character spots a hawk soaring above a cemetery. When I first mentioned the hawk, my character was sitting in an old cemetery on a rural road, surrounded by the pine forest that covers much of northwest Georgia. I was simply setting the scene, but the hawk became an important element, appearing each time she visited the cemetery and tying the story together. You’ll find the same hawk in Once and Future Wife.

 Know when to stop.

My wife convinced me to watch the first season of the television production of the Outlander. After several episodes, I pulled up the book on my Kindle, and I discovered it was three times the length of most books I had read recently! What is more, I found there were seven more volumes, plus a novella that serves as a prequel. I certainly have no problem with stand-alone sequels, but this series is a long, continuing story with a complicated plot and many, many characters. You may love this series, many people obviously do, but I would have been much happier with several stand-alone books.

It is always bad when an author falls in love with writing a story rather than falling in love with the story, itself. It’s similar to enjoying dating someone more than you enjoy the someone you are dating!

You don’t have to tell everything you know about all aspects of your hero’s life. Know the story you want to write. Tell what is essential to the plot, to develop the characters, to give the reader a sense of place, and let the rest go.

 Don’t stop too soon

On the other hand, don’t stop until the characters are developed, the conflict is resolved, and the story is complete. Tell all that is necessary to reach a conclusion. I once wrote about the difference between a happy ending and a satisfactory one. A happy ending occurs, I concluded, when the main character gets what she wants. We have a satisfactory conclusion when she gets what she needs.

Either type of ending can make for a good book. Having both can result in a great book. When the author stops too soon novellas have a distressing tendency to do this in my opinion you often will find neither type of conclusion, and the absence of a conclusion can make for a really bad book.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Elements of a Story




 

Many elements come together to make a successful story. To me,  four stand out as being of great importance.

 Conception

 “Where did you get the idea for your book?”

It has been said that every story is a variation on one of no more than thirty-six unique plot lines. This might well be true, but I know my stories do not begin with a perusal of the options!

I find this question to be a tough one, because I seldom can give an exact answer as to what gave rise to my particular variation on one of those plots. My stories do not begin with a plot but with my life experiences, with events that I hear about from others, with stories I see in the newspaper or on television. I’ve never taken a story directly from any of these, although my life experiences and other real events often appear in my books.

For example, I have read that one of my ancestors, Sarah Proctor, arrived in the US on board a ship that sailed from Belfast. It cast anchor in Charleston harbor on Christmas Eve, seventeen sixty-six. Sarah and her family were given land in the colony, tools, seed, and transportation to their new home because they had arrived under a program designed for “poor Protestant immigrants.”

If I were going to write a story, I would begin by imagining what might have happened to her. I know that , several years later, Sarah married George Adams. How might she have met her future husband? Why did they fall in love? Did they fall in love? What complications might have arisen to complicate their relationship?

Maybe instead of a story of how the two fell in love, it would be one of how their love survived some traumatic event, the American Revolution, perhaps.

As I would consider Sarah, various possible stories would emerge. As I begin to write, I need not know the entire story. In fact, I don’t want to know all of it. Creativity does not stop when writing begins, and I want to be able to incorporate new characters, new twists in the story that are triggered as the story takes shape.

In other posts I have explained the process of designing a story with a passage from the Second Chance Café.

The author writes of a young woman who weaves beautiful scarves. They sell in upscale stores around the country and are often seen wrapped around the bodies of movie stars and celebrities. Each scarf is unique. How does she decide on the colors, the pattern, for a new scarf?

 “I don’t know how you do that,” her father said, looking at the collection (of yarn) she held and shaking his head.

Honestly, neither did she. To this day, she could not explain how the colors came together in her mind. How one flowed into another as she sat at her loom. How the different strands of story became a whole. “I just see it. I don’t know where it comes from. Any of it. It’s just there.”

 This is how it is with writing. The author doesn’t know where the specific events come from. Any of them. The author begins to write and they’re just there.

 Commencement

 We often use the word commencement to mean graduation and we think in terms completing school. Commencement also means the beginning, and it is in this sense that I’m using it here.

The inciting incident is not always the first event in the story. It is the event that sends the hero in search of what he wants. It is the event that sets up the crisis.

In Once and Future Wife, the book opens when Jennie learns that her daughter’s stepmother has died. While her death opens the possibility that Jennie might reconnect with Thomas, her former husband, it does not cause her to do so.it does not propel her in that direction.

After she attends the funeral, Jennie could have returned home, seldom thinking of him again. In most cases, that’s exactly what would happen. The inciting incident occurs when Thomas reaches out to Jennie, asking her to babysit his newborn child, and she agrees to do so. On that day, the crisis is set in motion.

If I were writing about my ancestor, the story might begin on the cold, clear night on which her ship reached the harbor. She might have gone on deck and looked up at the stars. She might have gazed at the lights of Charleston, wondering what her future held.

The inciting event though, would likely come later, perhaps when she and George Adams meet for the first time. Maybe their land grants are adjacent. They meet, but and the boundary is disputed. They take an instant dislike for each other, but the dispute guarantees they will continue to have contact.

 Conflict

 In The Ninety Day Novel, Alan Watt indicates that conflict is central to our stories. He tells his readers – aspiring writers - to put their characters in relationships with other characters and see what will happen. Conflict, he writes, will ensue.

Conflict can be external or internal. We generally identify four types of external conflict: Person against Person, Person against Nature, Person against Society, and Person against God. In each case, something outside of our hero thwarts his attempt to obtain what he wants. In Once and Future Wife, Jennie has fallen in love, again, with her former husband, but one of his children is determined to prevent them from marrying again. The conflict is person against person.

In an internal conflict, the hero prevents himself from attaining his goal. Again, In Once and Future Wife, Jennie’s bipolar disorder drives her behavior in such a way as to threaten her opportunity to find happiness.

If I were writing about my ancestor, it may be that Sarah finds George Adams to be handsome and kind and good. She begins to fall in love with him. But he is the man who she believes is trying to steal her land! He comes by the small cabin she has built and she meets him with a loaded musket, ready to defend herself and her property. That is conflict.

 Conclusion

 The writer should know the conclusion to his story as he begins to write. If he doesn’t, then his story will lack direction, go off on tangents, and never have an acceptable ending.

We see this phenomenon, we think, in several television shows we’ve been following this year (Castle and Black List, for those are familiar with the shows.). The writers have gone to quite a bit of trouble to develop likeable characters, set up a storyline, and to introduce a crisis, but they do not appear to be able to ever reach a conclusion.

New twists emerge in the plot. The characters are quite busy chasing the bad guys, but, as the end of the season approaches, the crisis has not been resolved. One has the feeling that the writers set things in motion with no clear idea, perhaps no idea at all, of where how they were supposed to end. As a result, they have gone nowhere, and we feel sure that the season finale will not be satisfactory at all.

Books can suffer from these same problems. A conclusion should not be simply the last word written on the page. It should not simply be a cliffhanger designed to lead the reader into the sequel. At its conclusion, the reader may not be happy with the outcome, but she should be satisfied. The outcome should make sense in terms of the story and the hero, the main character, should have found what she needs.

If I know that Susannah and George will marry at the end, then this knowledge guides my writing. In spite of which roadblocks appear, I must leave a way over them or around them. It may appear that their relationship is doomed. Perhaps Susannah decides to marry someone else. Perhaps she wants to move to the city. Maybe she decides to sail home. Any of these can occur, but in the end, the two must marry.

Originally published as a guest post on Celtic Connexions

Friday, May 6, 2016

Once and Future Wife


Jennie Bateman has fallen in love again with Thomas, her former husband, but Tasha, his daughter, is determined to destroy their relationship.


Jennie destroyed their first marriage two decades earlier when, in the midst of a manic episode, she abandoned Thomas, choosing, instead, a life of shameless debauchery. Now, they have rekindled their love, but Tasha, Thomas’s daughter, is determined to block any plans for a second wedding.

After all, Tasha declares, Jennie’s medicine won’t work forever, and another manic episode surely lies in her future. When it erupts, it will ruin Thomas’s life a second time.


Shamed by Tasha and hoping to prove she is cured, Jennie ponders tossing her medication, but. she fears Tasha is correct she will fail the test, and the demons of her disorder will rush back in.


In Once and Future Wife, we follow Jennie as she goes a second round with her demons as they conspire to thwart her chance for a second marriage and to steal the love and happiness that seem to be within her grasp.

A stand alone sequel to Those Children Are Ours, Once and Future Wife picks up four years after the first book ends. Each can be read and enjoyed alone.