Inspiration Sunday

“Simple” Stories, Deep Wisdom

I had to take a long drive by myself yesterday, and to pass the time I listened to my favorite set of CDs–the dramatized Focus on the Family version of the Narnia Chronicles, with introductions by Lewis’ son. I got through The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, and Prince Caspian before the trip was done, and was amazed (as I often am) by the many nuggets of spiritual wisdom Lewis throws into these “simple” children’s stories. If you haven’t read the Chronicles of Narnia, or haven’t read them recently enough to remember them, pick them up sometime. You won’t be disappointed! (And no, the recent Disney movie versions are NOT an adequate substitute. Don’t get me started on those…)

In one particular scene from Prince Caspian, Lucy woke from sleep feeling that the voice she liked best in the world had been calling her name. She gets up to search for the voice, finally coming upon Aslan, who is shining white in the moonlight. He is huge, and beautiful, and she rushes to him without a thought, as though her heart would burst if she lost a moment.

“Aslan,” said Lucy, “you’re bigger.”

“That is because you are older, little one,” answered he.

“Not because you are?”

“I am not. But every year you grow, you will find me bigger.”

I’m quite sure that when I read these books as kid, I didn’t really comprehend what that meant. My understanding of God and faith was pretty simple. I knew a bit from my Christian grandparents, but I was being raised in an atheist household–there was no going to church, no Sunday School, no praying, or reading the Bible, and any talk about God was likely to be negative.

I’m not even sure how long it took me to realize that Aslan was supposed to represent Jesus. At first, it didn’t matter. What I understood, and responded to, was the wonder in scenes like these–the way in which the trees came to life and danced in Aslan’s presence (they couldn’t help themselves), and most importantly, the protective, restorative love Aslan poured out on Lucy without pause or condition.

It was a unique kind of love that I didn’t find between the other characters, or in other books. Even when Aslan was instructing, or scolding, it was with a firm gentleness that prompted a willing respect and obedience. Somehow I recognized that Aslan’s love was different than any other. I longed for it, and I was seeking it, just as Lucy had been. When I felt God’s love for the first time, in the real world, I knew I’d felt it before…through Lucy.

Aslan doesn’t just shower Lucy with his love in this short scene then send her away, however. Lucy and Aslan have a real relationship. He growls at her when she begins to blame the others for getting them lost, and he allows her to see that she is just as much at fault. When fear causes her to express her anger and frustration, Aslan doesn’t rebuke her, but gives her strength to deal with it instead. There is something important he needs her to do–something that will be hard–because she’s the youngest, and because her faith allows her to see what the others can’t yet. Ultimately, it is Aslan’s love for her, and the strength of their relationship, that gives Lucy the courage to tell the others, “I’ll have to go with him (Aslan) whether anyone else does or not.”

Reading these passages now, with adult eyes, adult knowledge, and a fair share of life’s scars to boot, I have a much deeper understanding of what Lewis was really saying. (And believe me, this is only one spiritual nugget of MANY from this part of the book). I do indeed find “Aslan” bigger, and more amazing, every year I grow as a Christian. Our relationship is a constant work-in-progress. Sometimes I have Lucy’s child-like faith. Sometimes I’m Edmund who cannot see, but moves forward anyway out of trust. At other times I’m Susan, who doesn’t see because she is trapped listening to her own fears instead of Aslan’s voice.

Maybe part of why Prince Caspian spoke to me so clearly yesterday is because in the section of book 3 that I’m working on now, my characters are facing some of the same issues. They are also “lost” in the spiritual woods so to speak, and I am working through their struggles alongside of my own.

For Morganne and Elowyn things are changing again, too quickly for them to stop and catch their breaths. They’re desperately seeking Aviad’s guidance, but are unsure if that golden shadow moving between the trees ahead is really Him, wanting them to follow, or just a trick of the moonlight. The answers don’t come easy. Aviad is asking them to do something important–something hard–because they can see what others can’t yet.

Will they wrap themselves in Aviad’s strength and accept His will as Lucy did? Or will they close their eyes and resist like Susan, only finally seeing Him in hindsight? I’m afraid you’ll have to wait for book 3 to find out.


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Ancient Tunnels and Present Day Mysteries

Today I’m giving you a peek at my latest newsletter. These go out every couple of weeks, and in them I share deeper insights into my book world and inspirations. You’ll also get bonus stuff, like links to a wide variety of free books by other authors, Rafflecopter giveaways, and the chance to participate in surveys that shape my series. Additionally, when you subscribe, you’ll get a free copy of Ancient Voices: Into the Depths, the second book in my series.


Ancient Tunnels and Present Day Mysteries

I love a good mystery, don’t you? Winding its way beneath the green hills of Europe is the erdstall tunnel system.

These tunnels are believed to have been constructed in the Middle Ages, but no one can figure out who built them, or why. And there aren’t just a few…over 2,000 tunnels have been discovered so far! They are smooth and rounded, carved right into the bare earth. They aren’t very large, only a few feet tall and wide. “Slip outs” are small holes that connect passages that are running at different elevations. Some of these are so tight, a person would have to literally squeeze through them to move from one tunnel to another.

Erdstall tunnels have only one entrance and exit, typically buried in the wilderness or among the remnants of old settlements. Not especially convenient! They also have no system for ventilation, and some flood with water. These tunnels are not places where anyone would be able to hang out for long.

Adding to the mystery is the complete lack of archaeological and historical evidence. Their construction is not officially recorded anywhere, and no human artifacts seem to have been left behind in the tunnels themselves.

What are some of the theories? Some say they were used for storage. Not likely given they were small, dirty, wet, and difficult to get in and out of. Another theory is they were places where people hid from marauders. The small size of the tunnels, and lack of oxygen inside, would make this fairly impractical, too. Not to mention with only one way in and out, if their hiding place was ever discovered it would become a tomb rather than a way of escape. Some think the tunnels might have spiritual significance; a place for the souls of the deceased, or perhaps even dark spirits to dwell. Austrian folklore gives goblins the credit for their existence.

I kind of wish I’d known about these erdstall tunnels when I lived in Germany so I could experience one for myself. In reality though, I’m horribly claustrophobic, so you’d have to practically kill me to get me in there. I’d no doubt peer with wonder into the small, dark entranceway, get a nose-tingling whiff of damp earth, take a couple of pictures, and that would be the extent of my adventure.

Mysteries such as these are a wonderful source of inspiration, though. One can imagine the erdstall tunnels weren’t carved by people at all (hence the lack of artifacts or construction records), but by serpents, or maybe hosts of dark fae. Austrian folklore could have it right after all.

In my own stories, I reference secret underground libraries which are connected by hidden tunnels and entranceways. Very few know they exist, and those who do are bound by oaths of silence. It is in my imaginary world that I can fill in my own answers to these questions that no one has been able to fully resolve in the real world. I can turn thousands of seemingly purposeless, dank tunnels into a vital network. Some of them are perhaps decoys, built only to confuse and misdirect. Yet others lead to glorious, irreplaceable collections of the world’s most sacred artifacts.

What do you imagine the erdstall tunnels were for? Who built and used them? You don’t have to be a writer to dream up a few ideas. It seems that even the historians are having to use their imaginations on this one.


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Have a Question? I’ve Got Answers!

In a recent newsletter I set up a survey for my subscribers. They’ve had a chance to respond, so I’d like to open this up to my blog readers as well.

Time for an author interview–and you’re in charge of the questions!

I’ve participated in lots of interviews over the years, including one that was live on internet radio. Most of them have been set up by bloggers or other authors, and not necessarily fans. It has been a while, so I thought it might be a good idea to post a fresh interview, and let YOU ask the questions.

What would you like to know, about me, my writing, or my book series? You can have some real fun with this and ask my characters questions too–they’ve all agreed to participate. The answers will be shared in my next newsletter and get added to my website for everyone to read!

CLICK TO TAKE THE SURVEY

 


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Under the Magnifying Glass: Is it Getting Hot in Here?

Today I’m giving you a peek at my latest newsletter. These go out every couple of weeks, and in them I share deeper insights into my book world and inspirations. You’ll also get bonus stuff, like links to a wide variety of free books by other authors, Rafflecopter giveaways, and the chance to participate in surveys that shape my series. Additionally, when you subscribe, you’ll get a coupon code for a free copy of Ancient Voices: Into the Depths, the second book in my series.


Under the Magnifying Glass: Is it Getting Hot in Here?

Life really pushes us around sometimes, testing our strength, our patience, and sometimes our faith. Writers test their characters just as hard, sometimes harder. We can put them in situations we hope to never face ourselves, then either shove them over the brink, or pull them back at the last second and pick up all the emotional pieces left in disarray.

Now, you might think writers are really just like a mean kid with a bug and a magnifying glass on a hot summer day. But really, we don’t enjoy tormenting our poor characters. We feel their joy, disappointment, and grief just as strongly as if it is our own. In the process of exploring their circumstances and emotional reactions, we learn something about ourselves, and about people in general. Our writing is often an invitation for our readers to do the same–to put themselves in our characters’ shoes just as we have during the writing process.

Einar is tested to the limits of his sanity in Into the Shadow Wood. Likewise, Elowyn faces the greatest test of her young life in Ancient Voices (I won’t go into detail for the sake of those who haven’t read it yet). I dreaded putting her through it, going through a writer’s version of a stubborn, sulking, toddler-like tantrum where I didn’t write for months. I tried to talk myself out of it a hundred different ways, but as I followed all of those different possibilities to their eventual outcomes, none of them took Elowyn where she needed to go. Without that defining moment her life would have been simpler, happier maybe, but not nearly as rich or significant. She could never be the person she was intended to be.

I eventually came to accept that Elowyn’s test was bringing about a necessary pain. So I gave up my tantrum and got down to writing. I got angry. I shed real tears as I wrote, and if anyone had asked me what I was sobbing uncontrollably about, they probably would have thought I was crazy. Maybe writers have to be…just a little, anyway.

In my final acceptance of Elowyn’s fate was a real life lesson for me as well. Parts of my life have not been easy, and I’ve sometimes thought how much better everything would have turned out without them. If I had power over the master delete key, and could go back and remove all those difficult chapters where I was tested, would I? How would that irrevocably change me, since I am a far more complex being than a fictional character? Would my life have been simpler and happier? Would I be a better person without them? I have no way to know, and I am not done being tested, or growing as a result.

Yet I do have faith that what the Bible says in Romans is true, that God really does work for the good of those who love Him. He can take the horrible things we go through and use them to make us spiritually rich and significant in the lives of others–if we let Him. Elowyn can’t see my plans to turn her pain into a blessing. If she was real, she might very well think of me as a mean kid with a magnifying glass. I am equally blind to God’s plans for me.

In dire times it’s natural to wonder why God doesn’t stop the bad things that cause such pain. But if He has a magnifying glass, its purpose is not for torment, but to give clarity and a tool for self-examination. If I can use Elowyn’s trials to write her into her most beautiful future self, how much more so can the Author of all Life write my story into something more glorious than I could ever imagine?


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Five Tips for Writing Good Dialogue

Throwback Thursday! I thought it might be fun to resurrect this post from my other blog two years ago this month!


Five Tips for Writing Good Dialogue

Many writers struggle with dialogue, maybe because there is so much pressure to get it right. Speaking in someone else’s voice isn’t always easy, yet as writers we end up with a whole cast of characters who all need distinct, unique voices, and it is up to us to provide them. Who would want to read a book where all the characters sound the same? Boring…and confusing.

But creating our characters’ voices is only the beginning—they still need something authentic and interesting to say, not to mention the writing itself must have all the correct grammar and punctuation.

I thought this week I might share some tips for writing dialogue, and anyone who wants to add their own in the comments section is welcome. No, I am not an expert. These are based on my own experience as a writer/editor, and on advice I have received from others over the years. I am still learning and improving, and frequently need to go through and re-examine my own dialogue when I am editing.

Tip 1 – Finding your character’s voice.

As I mentioned earlier, the last thing you want is for all of your characters to sound the same. Even people growing up in the same household will vary in their speech patterns. An outgoing person might have the tendency to talk a lot, while a more reserved person may say very little at all. Knowing your characters well is vital to writing good dialogue. What are their personalities and thought processes? What would they say, and how would they say it? Would they use big words or simple ones, formal speech or slang? Does she talk faster when excited? Does he deliberate over every word? Do they live in a region with a dialect? All things to consider. A good test is to strip away the identifiers in a section of dialogue. Can you still tell who is speaking, just from the way the words are spoken?

Tip 2 – How much realism is necessary?

I took a writing class once where we had an unusual assignment to help us learn about dialogue; go sit in a public place and listen in on the surrounding conversations.   We were supposed to return with our observations about how people naturally speak to each other. Several things stood out for me.

  1. People rarely give direct, simple answers to a question. They tend to dance around it and give explanations rather than just say yes or no.
  2. They easily tangent from subject to subject, sometimes having multiple conversations simultaneously. They might eventually circle back to the original topic, or never resolve it at all.
  3. There tend to be lots of extra pauses, ummm’s, uh’s, like’s, and external interruptions.

Does all of this really belong in a story?  Probably not, especially the latter two.

While the point of that assignment might have been learning how to re-create realistic conversation, I think for me it was a lesson in how not to write dialogue. When it comes to what our characters do, we don’t think twice about skipping over all the mundane parts of the daily routine. No one wants to follow their characters to the bathroom ten times a day, or watch them cruise around the grocery store checking package labels—unless there is a point to doing so. Why should dialogue be any different? If it does not enhance our character’s development or further the plot in some way, it doesn’t belong. Make every spoken word count so that it has purpose and meaning, otherwise it is just taking up valuable real estate.

Tip 3 – What about special speech?

Regional dialects, “thee and thou,” historical, and traditional fantasy dialogue are all under this category. My advice is to proceed carefully. It is usually better to give the occasional flavor of a dialect than try to replicate the whole thing, especially if you do not speak in that dialect yourself. It won’t sound authentic, and you’re bound to make mistakes. Writing in dialect can get very tedious for the writer and hard to understand for the reader. Choosing a selection of words that will make it obvious where the speaker is from, and using them consistently, can be quite effective.

Thee and thou I wouldn’t use at all in a long piece, unless you know you can authentically pull it off and the story absolutely needs it. Most writers don’t get the grammar right consistently and it just doesn’t work. Readers also tire of it pretty quickly.

Historic and fantasy-specific language is pretty well accepted. Readers of these genres are quite comfortable with the tradition and actually expect the use of older words and more formal, elegant speech.

What they are not as likely to forgive is language that will pull them out of whatever era they have settled into. Don’t use modern sounding words, or worse yet, metaphors or sayings that refer to things that would not have even existed yet. This is where an online dictionary can be your best friend. Yes, you already know what a given word means, but scroll down to see the word’s origin, or etymology. You can find out where the word came from, and when it came into use. If you’re writing a medieval era story for example, don’t use words that didn’t come into use until the 1700’s or later. It will greatly annoy your more savvy readers and make you look like an amateur.

Tip 4 – What comes after the quote?

One of the most difficult parts of writing dialogue can be knowing what to say after the quotation marks are closed. There are lots of different opinions out there, and I can’t say that I agree with all of them. He said, she said—pretty standard. Some advocate that you shouldn’t use much else, that the reader will just tune it out after a while and focus only on the dialogue itself. Others say varying it up strengthens the writing; he stated, she replied, they inquired, etc.

Both camps are pretty adamant, but I think this is one of those areas where writers have some leeway. Neither is technically right or wrong—it is just a matter of personal taste and writing style. I tend to vary it up because as a writer I get bored with just he said, she said. And sometimes including some extra descriptive words (yes, even those controversial words ending in “ly”) help me convey the emotions and facial expressions of the speaker.

That being said, be careful of ending your dialogue with phrases like, he laughed. Try to laugh an entire sentence sometime and let me know how that works out. It is more correct to say something like, he said as he laughed. The difference may seem subtle, but grammatically there is a difference. Also, be aware of whether your character is making a statement or asking a question. If there is a question mark at the end of the sentence, use he asked rather than he said, and vice versa.

Tip 5 – Commas, and periods, and quotation marks, oh my!

Quotation Rules

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Yeah, this is grammar, and I’m sorry. But as an editor, it makes me crazy when writers don’t know how to correctly punctuate their dialogue. If you are an American writer, please keep your periods and commas inside the quotation marks. “Yep, just like this,” she said. “Not like this”. Also note that I did not write, “Yep, just like this.” She said. She said is not a sentence by itself.

If someone in your story is speaking for a long time, requiring more than one paragraph of dialogue, do not end each paragraph with closing quotation marks. However, every time you start a new paragraph, begin it with quotation marks. The reader will understand your character is still speaking. Reserve your ending quotation marks for the end of the very last paragraph of the dialogue.

Quotation marks can also be confusing when someone who is already speaking quotes another person. For instance, My grandmother always used to say, ‘cheaters never win, and winners never cheat.’ The regular double quotes are for the person speaking, while the information being quoted is enclosed in single quotation marks. Make sure that you have both beginning and ending quotation marks for each.

Quotation marks should be reserved for spoken words only. Inner thoughts written as dialogue should always be in italics. That guy is crazy, she thought.

Lastly, check to make sure all your quotation marks face the right way. When typing things for the first time, your word processing program will position them correctly. But once you start editing, cutting, pasting, inserting, and moving text around, sometimes they can get turned the wrong way. It is easy not to notice unless you are looking, so make this part of your self-editing process. It is way easier to fix these issues as you go, rather than having to find and correct them in an entire manuscript after the fact.

These are just a few of my thoughts on writing dialogue. What makes good dialogue for you as a writer or reader? What makes the story stronger, and what makes you want to stop reading? How can you let what others have done inform your own writing to make it better?

Thoughts on Time & World Building Concept in Fantasy

World building is a time consuming process. There is a lot to take into account when you are considering every aspect of a new world…how it came to be, what kinds of people lived there, how its landscape, history, economy, religion, and politics developed over time to the point where your book plot begins. How is what you write going to shape that world’s future for any additional books you may be planning?

Part of building a new world is figuring out how time works. Is your brand new world governed by the same rules we’re already familiar with? Or is it more subjective and non-linear; “a big ball of wibbily wobbly timey wimey…stuff” as David Tennant (still the best Doctor!) describes time in Doctor Who? Do you mark the passage of time with minutes, hours, days, months, years? And are those at the same intervals we are accustomed to? Maybe you are doing something radically different. If so, how do you get your reader to let go of what they know and embrace your vision of how time moves?

When I started working on my series I ran into two issues which affected my perspective on time. First, even though my world is a complete fantasy, the setting mimics that of medieval Europe. I relied heavily on research to inform the details of what daily life would have been like. One thing I discovered is that while people of that era had the ability to keep time with mechanical clocks and other means, ordinary people simply didn’t bother. They didn’t even necessarily know their birthdays. They often had a general idea based on the season, but didn’t keep track of the specific date. They might mark certain years based on memorable events, like the year the river flooded, or lightning struck the bell tower. Religious days and festivals were more regimented, but by the Church, which was more exact with its time keeping. For most, the days were governed by the position of the sun, and the passage of time by the seasons and the demands required by them in turn. I’ve tried to express this different sense of time through the eyes of my characters—hopefully I have been successful. I also purposely did not give my characters specific ages. I have a general idea of how old they are, and so do they. But they won’t be celebrating any birthdays.

Second, our present day calendar and numeric way of tracking the passage of years is unique to our history. It occurred to me that in my world, their way of keeping time should be unique to theirs. Trying to track years with numbers quickly became too complicated, especially since I created a historic timeline that started way back at the very creation of my world.

I decided instead to split my world up into different eras, their names determined by a special group of prophets within the monastic community. Each era of time has its own important events, and its own feel, much like the decades of the 20th century. The 60’s had a very different feel from the 80’s. The names given to each era describe their significance in history, starting with the Era of the Ancients, the very first era in which the world was created and humanity made its appearance. Later on The Era of Desolation marked a period of great turmoil and suffering, followed by The Era of Varol, where my world’s greatest hero (Varol) emerges to change the course of history. I may include a listing of all the eras and their significance as supplemental material when I publish the next book, but am not sure about that yet.

If you’re a fantasy or sci-fi writer, how do you mark time in your world? If you’re a reader, what are some of the most interesting ways your favorite authors have played with the concept of time in theirs?

Fantasy Writing

Fantasy is a highly versatile genre, encompassing everything from traditional, mythical fantasy, to that which is more modern and even futuristic. When people ask me why I love fantasy, the answer is pretty simple. Because there are no rules, and no limitations. Fantasy can take you to amazing places, both magnificent and mysterious, filled with creatures that defy nature and captivate our imaginations. Anything we can dream becomes reality for our world and characters. It’s a beautiful thing!

My love for fantasy began when I was a young girl discovering the magic of books. I would traipse to the library and come home with a stack I could barely carry. Before they were due back, I read them all…some of them more than once. My favorites were those that pulled me out of my everyday reality and into a world I could love, with characters and creatures I longed to make real. Even as an adult, I would give anything to be able to travel to Narnia and have afternoon tea with Mr. Tumnus, or visit Cair Paravel. Those stories grabbed hold of me in a very real way; they shaped my ideas, comforted me in difficult times, and left me spellbound with a sense of wonder that has remained with me ever since. As fantastical as they were, they were actually quite real—to me. Fantasy holds that kind of power in a way no other genre does.

As an adult I have also come to realize that the fantasy I read as a youth was not only entertaining, it was showing me how to be a better person. The epic struggles between good and evil teach us something about ourselves, showing us just what we are capable of, whether for good or bad. We learn about courage, honor, and integrity in the face of overwhelming adversity, and how to persevere through the trials that push the limits of our physical and mental strength. We learn how to hope, against all sense of reason, that good will always win in the end. Fantasy can in some ways prepare us for the epic struggles of real life that we all face from time to time.

As I learned from the Narnia Chronicles, fantasy can also speak to faith. Lewis imparted the simple, life-changing truths of Christianity through his children’s stories. Through them I could hear God’s voice calling to me, lifting me, and preparing me for a more mature walk with God as I grew into my faith. That has stayed with me, and I am still so thankful for those stories. Sure, they were only fantasy…but they were infused with a depth and meaning that changed me. Not all fantasy is Christian, of course. Even so, most strong fantasy characters believe in something greater than themselves. Maybe they believe in a god, a powerful object, a person, place, or an ideal. Whatever their belief, it is core to their being, and fuels the determination that drives them to fight for a higher purpose, despite the hardships they must endure.

Now that I am a fantasy writer myself, my greatest desire is to have the deeper truths underlying my own stories touch readers in a meaningful way. I’ve tried to create a rich fantasy world, full of beauty and mystery, with epic struggles, both external and from within. My hope is that I’m contributing something to the genre; joining with other writers to pass down the power of fantasy to another generation of readers, just waiting to be transported to another realm.