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December 2015

Star Wars: Creative Choices in Continued Mythologies

Some writers do more than create stories, they create worlds. It doesn’t necessarily have to be separate from our reality, after all the world of Harry Potter exists here in secret. It’s always fascinating to see what writers do when they create something like this.

Which brings us to Star Wars.

More than a few writers gave a go at the Star Wars universe. Besides the screenwriters for the six films there was the unofficial/official trilogy from Timothy Zahn that launched more and more fiction. George Lucas had just one requirement: that all books take others into account when constructing storylines.

You can see how the stories would become more and more constricted if you wanted to work with the principal characters from the movies. I read several of these books, including Zahn’s trilogy. There were some fascinating stories. Some of them simply continued the historical timeline and the struggle between the good guys and bad guys. Other stories, particularly those centered around Jedi themes, expanded some of the mythology of the pre-prequel Star Wars universe.

Yet another storytelling format went back even further. Knights of the Old Republic, a computer game, introduced us to a new character who seems to have affected even some aspects of the upcoming film The Force Awakens. That character was Revan, the most notable Grey Jedi (neither light, nor dark) and one of the most powerful, at least in the timeline of the stories generally referred to as The Old Republic.

Which Way to Luke?

I bring all this up because there was a lot of internet chatter on the nature of Luke Skywalker’s place in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. I haven’t read much of the speculation, but thought about it purely in terms of character development and also in context of what is revealed about Jedi in the six movies.

Recall that the battle between Luke and Anakin was really two battles, each against temptation. One had to avoid succumbing to it, the other had to fight his way back from it. Both succeed, but at the cost of Anakin’s life. We see Luke twice after his father dies. First he creates a funeral pyre for Anakin. (It strikes me that this name could be “Any King” and the temptation of power as a theme is well-placed, if that was Lucas’ inspiration for the name. On that note, “Ana-kin” could be translated as “against family,” just a literary side note, I suppose.) Second, he celebrates with the other members of the Rebel Alliance. Here we already see his separation. He sees what others don’t, has a link to a continuity they don’t feel.

Luke Skywalker off on his own, maybe a bit more Obi-Wan than Yoda in terms of isolation (he apparently takes R2-D2 with him), makes a lot of sense. Add to this that, thus far, Luke interacted with visions of Obi-Wan, Yoda, and his father. What are these three likely to advise Luke to do in terms of his power and the continuation of the Jedi? Luke has emotional entanglements. He is not a warrior monk as the prequel Jedi were. How were the Jedi wiped out? Because Anakin had an emotional connection. It’s sensible to suppose they advised Luke to get out of town.

Creative Enticement

This discussion could go on for some time. There are other story-driven reasons I can think of for this part of the plot, but this is where we circle back to my original point: this movie, as the dozens of books it replaces, creates a new reality. It’s so much more than characters and settings with plot. There is an enormous backdrop to consider, political (suppose the reconstituted Senate of a new Republic exiled Skywalker) and sociological (people might blame the Jedi for the atrocities of the Empire, either for failing to protect them or because the “subtleties” of light/dark are lost on them) aspects come into play in stories this big.

Tattooine? No, Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada. Just for the social media links.
Tatooine? No, Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada. Just for the social media links.

It is a daunting task to write in such a context, particularly with much of this universe created by other writers. This is one reason why Lawrence Kasdan’s presence and contribution with the new story makes me want to see it. It is also why I was so fascinated by the Old Republic storylines, mostly set forth in video games. I played these because I wanted to see what the writers (and here Drew Karpyshyn must be mentioned for his excellent work) did with existing mythology and how they added to it.

There is a childhood factor at work here as well. Star Wars was one of the first movies I recall, and I saw it three times in the theater. In terms of hero mythology, the influence of Star Wars weighs heavily on my point of view. I likely will wait until after the weekend to see it, but I am anxious to see the creative choices.

Read Up…Soon to Be Obsolete

There were a few books in the Star Wars “continuum” that I enjoyed, others added some fascinating bits to the puzzle. Among these, I recommend a few:

The Truce at Bakura, by Kathy Tyers: This picks up just hours after Return of the Jedi ends. There are interesting politics in this one in terms of Empire vs. a self-declared New Republic. A rather worn and weak Luke Skywalker encounters a spiritualism that holds Jedi accountable for the existence of evil. R2-D2 has a particularly direct effect in the resolution of this story.

Heir to the Empire and The Thrawn Trilogy in general, by Timothy Zahn: Introduces one of the best characters in any part of the Star Wars universe, Mara Jade. Formerly known as “The Emperor’s Hand,” Mara’s destiny was to oversee the death of Luke Skywalker. I read this trilogy more than 20 years ago and can’t remember much, but there are some interesting connections to the Clone Wars here and the introduction of one of the most enduring and subtly-likable characters ever to head an Imperial fleet, Gilad Pellaeon.

Children of the Jedi, by Barbara Hambly: Not sure I can explain this one. Basically, a ship with artificial intelligence captures a volatile crew (including Tusken Raiders) to aid its efforts at destroying a planet called Belsavis, where Han and Leia happen to be. Luke and a couple of his trainees are also captured, but become more and more cognizant of what is really happening. They must stop the ship before it reaches Belsavis with the help of a long dead Jedi.

The Courtship of Princess Leia, by Dave Wolverton: this one was probably my favorite. A powerful matriarchal society offers the New Republic an alliance with the stipulation that Leia marries the heir to the throne (the current ruler had only a son). Leia’s love for Han is clouded by her duty to the Republic and Han goes a little nuts about it, winning a planet for her through some skillful gambling. Mild Spoilers: The planet, Dathomir, has a history, however, and when Han kidnaps Leia and takes her there, they find the Empire still mostly in charge. Luke arrives and is nearly killed by a group of force users that once defeated Yoda and a band of Jedi. Through this defeat, Luke comes to understand much more about the force and when he heals…well, that’s for the book to reveal. Most of this is on the back cover.

Thanks for reading!

Pen and Suitcase: Travel as a Writer

The books we publish center around culture. In order to experience the culture, our characters travel. This blog mainly shares my thoughts on writing and about our completed (or nearly complete) projects. It makes sense to share a little about travel, particularly because of the slow realization that it plays a big role in my writing and an even bigger role in my life.

A Writing Experience

We’ll stick to traveling as a writer. Since we published Molly Goes to Rome, our family has been on two vacations. It was during one of these (in Florida) that I finished the first draft of The Shield of Horatius, the chapter book mystery that also takes place in Rome. It was a working vacation for me, but also for Amy and my parents as they all watched the kids when I went off somewhere to write. The beach was just yards away.

My first working vacation, though I didn't know it until years after. Temple of Castor and Pollux, Rome, Italy.
My first working vacation, though I didn’t know it until years after. Temple of Castor and Pollux, Rome, Italy.

Writing on vacation was not completely voluntary. I was and usually am of the mind that there can be work or there can be vacation, but mixing the two is tough. Both Amy and my parents were a little mystified why I wasn’t writing, but it’s tough to look after two small children in an unfamiliar place. My mind was wholly occupied with it because I didn’t want the responsibility to fall completely on Amy’s shoulders. We were on vacation!

They asked why I wasn’t writing and it was frustrating. “If you want me to write, I have to go somewhere. I can’t be on vacation and work, my mind has to focus on one of those things, it can’t be both.” The laptop and I arrived at a coffee shop about an hour later.

It was good work. Maybe it was the warmer weather or the setting, it’s hard to say, but the work went well and there were no creative blocks. In some way I was still on vacation and my mind was a bit more relaxed. The writing sessions were much longer than the typical efforts at home. That is probably why the last part of the book came together so quick and easy. I missed out on some fun with my family, but they were all supportive and the writing felt less solitary.

A Writer’s (Not Writing) Vacation

Travel is an opportunity to get to know new places and experience new things. The experiential aspect of travel has always been the main attraction. This includes eating local food, seeing unique and unfamiliar places, and trying activities you don’t have access to at home.

One of my previous jobs provided the opportunity to travel to California. Over a two-year period the company sent me four times in support of our products. Each time I took a couple extra days and did my best to take advantage: I drove the Pacific Coast Highway, mountain biked in Marin County, and stayed on in San Diego for a couple of days with old friends. Of all the experiences, the one most remembered is an early evening on an outdoor restaurant patio in Ocean Beach.

This was a moment the “California vibe” was all too plain and obvious. It was the moment that allowed me to understand why people are so attracted to the place and the lifestyle. It is something you can read about in an academic sense, but the experience is something fuller or more complete.

This is why we interview people for our books. Some things about a place are difficult to know without being there, or, more particularly, being from there. No amount of research can give a sense of how mangoes taste in Thailand, but to hear someone describe a tantalizing dessert and see and hear the experience played out through their body language and words…it’s the next best thing to being there. Some of the words our “host” characters use are direct quotes from our interviewees because you can’t duplicate their experience.

These are the little things that shape personalities and local cultures. A writer who travels is smart to seek these experiences. They help a character become three-dimensional and lend an air of authenticity to your settings.

Off the Path

The Colosseum circa 1990, early morning.
The Colosseum circa 1990, early morning.

This goes back a way, I think, and the benefits cannot be overstated. At age sixteen I was not into taking risks, yet I remember two moments that shaped future travel experiences. I was in Rome with a tour group from high school. We were in the city for three days and had some free time.

Perhaps it was the age, but I recall the confidence gained from using the city bus system. It’s silly, but this was a long way from home and a long way from any sort of comfort zone.

The second formative moment was setting out on my own to explore. The Colosseum was visible from our hotel so there was an excellent landmark to find my way back. I found an out-of-the-way restaurant, essentially in a back alley, and ate a meal hearing no English. The first time this happens to you it is frightening and, only later, empowering. It was a great opportunity to observe modern day Romans, but I wasn’t any sort of a writer then and had no inkling such a thing was possible. Still, it was an adventure and since then it has always been a goal to find places only locals frequent.

One such place I’m aware of, but haven’t seen (yet!), is a bar in the middle of the Nevada desert. This bar has a particular clientele, as related to me by someone who had been there many times: cowboys and soldiers. The latter were part of an Air Force facility that flew drones. The drones didn’t circle the surrounding desert, but another one halfway around the world. The cowboys were cowboys, tipping a few back after a hot day handling cattle. Many of them, I was told, were armed, pistols in holsters at their side. Ah, the story possibilities…

Red Rock Canyon, Nevada Chris Oler authorStories to Discover

There is much more in the Nevada desert just outside of Las Vegas. Excepting family vacations when I was young, Las Vegas has been my most frequent vacation destination. My wife and I have been there three times together and her total visits outnumber mine six to five. On three of those occasions, including my honeymoon, I visited the Valley of Fire.

Many movies have been filmed there. You can see why in the accompanying photo of Amy in nearby Red Rock Canyon. The vistas are incredible, vast, and in a mid-westerner’s mind, somewhat like being on another planet. It can and has inspired stories, nevermind the factual sagas that once took place, or perhaps still do.

To say such stories are embedded in the rocks is not metaphor. In the Valley of Fire there are petroglyphs and one

Petroglyphs and landscape of the Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada.
Petroglyphs and landscape of the Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada. The two photos were taken from the same spot.

set records the story of a young boy. The boy was eager to prove his manhood and set out to hunt on his own, but it was too soon. In danger, the boy was rescued by his father and a lesson learned. How much literature has been created showing the dangers of pride? Or folk tales demonstrating the virtue of patience? One such story is written in the rocks of the Nevada desert and it is a place to inspire any writer.

No Right Way

There is no right or wrong way to travel. The point of this piece is just to say when you do, be open to your new surroundings. There is always something to learn. Stories are everywhere and as many know, one doesn’t have to travel to find them, but it sure is fun.