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Creating Fear: How to Build Suspense

He examined the page. It was only at some length and challenge he arrived here. There were the hours of examination, application, and exposition. All of it mattered little. There was nothing. It was a great void where he expected definition. He stared.

What adventures this page wrought, and further journeys it foretold. Yet, here, in this place, there was only emptiness…and urgency. The clock continued its course even as the puzzle before him revealed nothing.

Uneasiness clouded his mind, a slow rising, a light burn of exasperation. Had he not worked for this moment? Did it not deserve something? Yet, still, there was only a blank. Tick-tock-tick.

He looked around the room for answers. There was a map and photos from distant places. Was there a code? He swiveled. He saw books: stories of exploration, of war, and of warnings. Tick-tick-tick.

“An oasis in a desert?” he thought, briefly acknowledging a photo. It suggested little. He noted the fascination with ancient mystery. What did it tell him? Nothing; there was nothing here. Everything in his life led to this barren place. Tock-tick.

A cry of frustration, perhaps despair, rang through the hall. Tension gripped him. “Well,” he thought, “I’m not alone.” He considered whether to investigate, then the cry became a squeal and little else was heard. Tick-tock.

He looked again at the page. It seemed an impenetrable vacancy. Tock.

A word came to mind and his shoulders sagged. It wasn’t the stress of an unfathomable burden, but, rather, a bit of clarity through the fog. The word was no mystery and it held enormous consequences. Tick.

He learned some time ago to trust these moments of intuition. Still, another part of his mind pleaded the clock’s case. Tock.

A deep breath allowed him to quiet the voice and focus on the previous insight. “Manufactured” was the word. What did it mean? He glanced at the page again and found it populated with intent.

 

The Work

The intent, of course, was a bit of suspense. That’s part of my job and the “fear” created above was something akin to writer’s block, though mercifully short lived. There are many different directions the story can go. Part of the inspiration was the thought of an investigator or adventurer reaching his or her goal and finding nothing.

The writing is an end, at least in many cases. It is the last part of a process of inspiration, research, preparation, and visualization. I sometimes have the privilege of being in the room with many aspiring authors and the final part is always the writing. It’s the intimidating blank page that creates a weight, certainly a fear in some. There are many great story ideas out there, but even with the vast number of self-published e-books, a good number of the stories are never written.

In longer forms of writing it’s often a fifth or sixth draft that is (at long last) released. The most revision an author mentioned to me was nine drafts. Even with so much revision there are always new ideas, mistakes, and extraneous words, sentences, paragraphs, and even unnecessary chapters. Everything is a work in progress, particularly our thoughts and convictions.

The first effort of any writing is just to get the ideas down. First drafts do not pass muster. By the time you reach a final draft there should be few unaltered words, and this includes editing as you write. Don’t worry too much about the quality of your first draft. It’s the ideas that matter.

 

Fabrications

The lesson learned, not long ago, was this: every fear is manufactured. I didn’t write books in my 20’s, and managed just two at the end of my 30’s. Three years into my 40’s I’m working on my Molly and the Magic Suitcase Logotwelfth and thirteenth for two different series, and researching number fourteen. I manufacture fear in the mystery series, only able to do it because of diminishing my own fear.

But all that is a little touchy-feely, though I did consider making it the focus of this post. Instead, let’s look briefly at the first section and break down a method of creating fear for narrative purposes.

He examined the page. It was only at some length and challenge he arrived here. There were the hours of examination, application, and exposition. All of it mattered little. There was nothing. It was a great void where he expected definition. He stared.

First, the reader is placed in a fairly mundane position: looking at a page of paper, then told that this simple act was the result of great effort, reinforced through the description “hours of…” The effort, however, is insignificant: a sense of loss is presented, using little, nothing, and void to reinforce the feeling.

What adventures this page wrought, and further journeys it foretold. Yet, here, in this place, there was only emptiness…and urgency. The clock continued its course even as the puzzle before him revealed nothing.

The second paragraph reinforces the sense of loss and creates new tension in the guise of a deadline.

Uneasiness clouded his mind, a slow rising, a light burn of exasperation. Had he not worked for this moment? Did it not deserve something? Yet, still, there was only a blank. Tick-tock-tick.

“Uneasiness” and “exasperation” reinforce the character’s emotional state. The real question is whether it is shared by the reader. The first paragraph briefly described efforts that could be just about anything, including college courses. Here, the hard work is re-emphasized and, hopefully, the reader draws on his or her own experience to empathize with the character. Finally, I get a little gimmicky with the imagined ticking of a clock. It’s meant to build more tension.

He looked around the room for answers. There was a map and photos from distant places. Was there a code? He swiveled. He saw books: stories of exploration, of war, and of warnings. Tick-tick-tick.

It’s a short paragraph, but five complete sentences. The quick chops here push the pace. I’m not a fan of long descriptive sentences, particularly those that start with dependent clauses. I taught English in a private school for some years and that was precisely the method other teachers espoused for ‘artful’ writing.

It usually sounds to me like the author wants to impress himself/herself and doesn’t consider the reader at all. That said, if you write for critical approval, those are the type of sentences needed. An example: “Stopping to examine the hall, a tremulous feeling began as a buzz in the back of her uneasy brain as she felt the ancient weight of the ages in the dank and dusty walls.” It’s a short example, but plenty wordy. Critics love it. So, include plenty of this crud, add angst, stir and there is your recipe for good reviews. Likable characters aren’t needed, just the angst and wordiness. You may not even have to pay for your Kirkus Review.

The paragraph describes my office. There is a map, some travel photos, and plenty of clutter as well. The observation of seemingly significant information that is of no help adds to the frustration/tension. That’s the intent.

“An oasis in a desert?” he thought, briefly acknowledging a photo. It suggested little. He noted the fascination with ancient mystery. What did it tell him? Nothing; there was nothing here. Everything in his life led to this barren place. Tock-tick.

“Nothing” and “barren” continue to build the sense of loss or helplessness. The rush of time continues to be highlighted with the “tick-tock” gimmick. I reduce the number of ticks and tocks as the story continues to give a sense of time running out.

That’s probably enough to get the picture. There are few more things to mention, including the emotions described. I purposefully avoided the word ‘fear,’ and utilized as many synonyms of ‘empty’ as possible: nothing, void, emptiness, blank, little, barren, vacancy.

The cry of despair, incidentally, was my son who (once again) wasn’t napping. He vocalized the frustration I wanted to create and seemed to settle down. He still didn’t nap. You know how it is. If Shield of Horatius Coverit were a longer story, this part would be edited out. It’s not important, but included here to throw the reader a bit. The “oasis” is a reference to photos of the Valley of Fire (Nevada) around my desk. There is a double meaning because the character wants a lifeline and can’t find it.

One additional and relevant note is this: there are no exclamation marks. Let your word choice create emphasis and urgency. Do I always follow this rule? My books are for a younger audience so word choice is sometimes limited. That said, the mystery The Shield of Horatius purposely stretches the young audience’s vocabulary while providing context to show the meaning of the word. In other words, the young reader won’t have to use a dictionary if they’re engaged.

 

How-To

There is no singular method to create fear or suspense, but, step by step, here is a summary of what was done here:

  1. Established a familiar character.
  2. Established a recognizable situation.
  3. Created an unresolved necessity (an unknown).
  4. Enhanced the difficulty of obtaining the need.
  5. Increased the emotional tension of the character (and reader).
    1. Evocative language
    2. Deadline

Resolution isn’t always needed, or even desired. The story that comes to mind is Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” where her Step Three was to distort the recognizable situation into horror. She spends much of the story on Steps One and Two and it increases the emotional impact of the distortion. Steps Three, Four, and Five arrive suddenly before the abrupt ending.

Similarly, Richard Connell’s “The Most Dangerous Game” inverts a familiar situation, but the menace is straightforward and there is resolution (without graphic description). Both of these stories are terrific–in both senses of the word–October reads.

This was my take on a selected topic for another site. I hope you had fun. My wife wants me to make the story the basis for a new book, so I guess that turned out okay.

Happy October reading, and thanks for taking the time!

A Teen in Europe (Part 5): Morning in the Eternal City…I Think

I admit to a strong bias when it comes to Rome. Excepting cities I resided in, Rome is the city I know best. It is partially because of the trip I’m writing about, but mainly because I wrote a mystery set there. Google Earth is a tool this author cannot do without. That said, most of the sites in the book I saw only on a computer. Instead of revisiting what was familiar, I set out for new ground. Besides, memory is not a reliable narrator, as I found out.

The Colosseum, Rome, Italy.
The Colosseum, Rome, Italy. A van parked near the base provides some scale.

The Stadium

Thanks to Ridley Scott many people have a better idea of the size of the Colosseum. The digital reproduction in Gladiator was amazing. No such re-creation was available in 1990. There was little to prepare us. It was, after all, built in the 1st Century AD. A reasonable mind wouldn’t expect the reality of the Colosseum. My most recent stadium experience at the time was the old RCA/Hoosier Dome, with a seating capacity of just over 60,000. The Colosseum, in contrast, had an average attendance of 65,000, with a larger maximum capacity some sources say.

The Romans had a secret for mixing concrete: they used volcanic ash. In fact, they were particular about which ash was used. The resulting product is weaker than modern concrete, yet more resistant to deterioration. I learned this just a few years ago while researching my book. This is how some of their structures remain intact after two millennia.

We set out from our hotel early. The Colosseum was a short walk. We turned the corner a half block from our hotel’s entrance and there it was, just a few blocks further. Time has not always been kind to Rome. The city lost much of its population after the collapse of its empire. Dust and debris piled up to the point where many of the landmarks of ancient Rome were buried. Because of this, our first view of the stadium was deceptive.

A Teen in Europe - Chris Oler Author
The “aura” effect is present here again. Interior of the Colosseum as it was in 1990.

The ground around the base of the Colosseum is around fifteen to twenty feet lower than modern Rome. In other words, the first glimpse (link to a photo on Wikipedia) we had of the structure was about two stories shorter than it’s actual size. When we came close enough to realize this, I was in awe. To continue the earlier comparison, my eyes told me it was at least as big as the RCA Dome, and probably larger. This was one of the things I recall telling people over and over after the trip.

Our guide Giovanna was probably relaying great information, but I was busy processing the information from my senses. I do remember her talking about the brick structures, visible in my photo at left, used to shore up the outer walls. Much of this preservation was led by the Vatican and large stone plaques (one is also visible in the photo) are placed in various spots around the structure to commemorate the efforts of particular Popes.

It was a spectacular morning. A thin cloud layer had not yet dissipated and its effect on the light of the sun is apparent in my photos. The layer diffused the light of the sun to create the aura effect you see. It was something I barely appreciated at the time, but certainly do now. Please click on the photos to get a better look.

A Teen in Europe - Chris Oler Author
The Arch of Constantine…NOT a ticket office for the Colosseum (visible in the background).

Misinformation

Memory is a tricky thing. I am certain our group was told this: “Every stadium has a ticket office and the Colosseum was no exception.” The moment I heard this we were in the grounds around the Colosseum and my attention was on the Arch of Constantine. Whether the rest of my group was looking the same direction, I don’t know, but for years I thought our guide meant the arch was the Colosseum ticket office. I told people this when they looked at my photos.

It is much easier today to research such things. Sigh.

The Roman Forum – Write It Down!

The area at the base of Capitoline Hill is generally referred to as the Forum, but there are many structures there. It was once the center of Roman civic life and there are a number of temples as well. All in all, it is a compelling location for a tourist. And…I have little memory of our walk to it or partially through it. I can’t tell you which! There is evidence I was there, though. The photo at right and below is the Temple of Castor and Pollux. The angle this is taken from suggests we were right down on the lowest level of the Forum grounds. I have no recollection of this, nor of taking this photo.

A Teen in Europe - Chris Oler
Temple of Castor and Pollux, Rome. I have only a vague memory of taking this photo.

What I do remember is walking along a small side street packed with parked cars, mostly Alfa Romeos. Whatever we were looking at was on our right and below us. We came to corner that overlooked many ruins and this where I shot the photo of the Temple. Or so I believe. Looking at a map of Rome today and using Google Earth, it is impossible to reconcile my memory with the physical reality unless the street I was standing on was excavated in the last 26 years. What I’m saying is if you want to remember something, write it down!

It is surprising how much I remember given the time span between this trip and now, but there are a few blank spots too. I will return to Rome and gather new memories, but return a third time? I doubt it, even though I could spend years, there is too much in the rest of the world I want to see! So…next time I’m bringing a journal. Next time, I’m writing everything down when we return to the hotel in the evenings. Next time, I may make notes while we’re exploring the sites. It is such a rare opportunity to see these things, I am so very thankful for it, and I don’t want to chance not recalling any of it.

This was just the first morning of my first day in Rome. My first evening in Rome was really something special and we’ll get to that next time. Thanks for reading.

A Teen in Europe (Part 2): Cultural Exchange in Innsbruck

Day Two (continued): Innsbruck’s Altstadt

We left Salzburg early in the afternoon. That afternoon, my stomach started cramping. It wasn’t indigestion or bad food, it was intense hunger pangs. Salzburg required a fair amount of walking, but earlier in the morning we had a breakfast that became typical until our next to last day. The main part of the meal was a plain croissant. Added to this was a hard roll of some size, but it was hollow, so the size was deceptive. At least one or two mornings there weren’t enough croissants to go around and I ate as much of the hard roll as possible, which was essentially just the crust of a small bread bowl.

It just wasn’t enough to support our activities and my stomach told me about it. We didn’t have much of a chance to snack, but we did stop for gas between Salzburg and Innsbruck and here I received an introduction to the Milka brand of chocolate. Maybe it was the hunger, but it was the best chocolate I’d ever tasted. Milka wasn’t particularly fancy, it was a mass-produced brand, but when it appeared a couple of years later in a hometown pharmacy, it was just as good, smooth and buttery. Anyway, the chocolate temporarily solved the stomach problem.

Most of our Innsbruck tour was by bus. We really only visited two sites: the Hofkirche or Court Church and the Goldenes Dachl, the “Golden Roof.” Both of these sites were in Innsbruck’s Altstadt or “Old City.” The primary feature of the Hofkirche is the tomb of Emperor Maximilian. It’s set in the middle of a large chamber as you can see here. The statues arrayed around the tomb are of Maximilian’s relatives, ancestors, and heroes, including King Arthur of Britain. It’s a necessary stop if you visit Innsbruck.

A Teen Goes to Europe - Chris Oler Author
Inside the Hofkirche: Some of the statues surrounding the Tomb of Maximilian. My camera didn’t do too well in here.

The Golden Roof is also connected with Maximilian. It was created (finished in 1500) to celebrate Maximilian’s wedding. The emperor and his wife often used the balcony to observe different ceremonies and celebrations. There is a museum inside that features the life of the emperor, but I gathered something went wrong with our scheduling and we weren’t able or allowed to tour it. This seemed to touch off a chain of small mix ups and a couple of big ones, all of which contributed to the flustered state of our tour guide, Giovanna.

Our Guide

“In this place I may as well jot down a chapter concerning those necessary nuisances, European guides. Many a man has wished in his heart he could do without his guide, but, knowing he could not, has wished he could get some amusement out of him…”

-Mark Twain, The Innocents Abroad, 1869

The tour guide or chaperone who often leads teenagers ideally has one of two special gifts. The first is the patience brought by the serene security one can find by being circumspect, seeing the future of one’s charges, rather than noting their current behavior and rendering judgment. If he or she does not have this patience, then there should be a distance to the things that surround them, or simple unawareness. The sometime impulsiveness and insecurity of the teen years do not lend themselves to being a good traveler.

I’ve seen it from both sides, first as a student and years later as a teacher. When we were actually there, on this trip, I didn’t appreciate it as well as now. Heck, I didn’t appreciate it as well five years ago, though I’ve always been thankful. So, what could befall this guide who had the courage to travel with us?

A Teen in Europe - Origins of Molly and the Magic Suitcase
Goldenes Dachl or Golden Roof of Innsbruck. The roof tiles aren’t actually gold, but fire-gilded copper.

Giovanna had Coke bottle glasses and constantly wore a long raincoat. She was an interesting character. Her hair revealed a bit of her personality, as it curled and swirled on the edge of chaos. When we weren’t on the bus, she seemed to chain smoke. Maybe this was a clue as to how we harried her, but, looking back, we certainly didn’t follow Twain’s example. There was another element of her smoking that I cannot forget: the ash on her cigarette seemed to hang on for an impossible length of time. It was mesmerizing to watch. You kept waiting for it all to drop, but it just hung there.

Parents, I know how it looks, but this was 26 years ago. There was a smoking section on the plane during our overseas flight. A different time, even though it doesn’t seem that long ago.

Intentions go a long way and hers were golden. Giovanna was conscientious in her efforts to share history. This clashed directly with the only working strategy I found to combat my stomach problems: sleep. Call it conserving energy, I napped every chance between stops. But we frequently passed places of interest and Giovanna dutifully powered up the bus speaker system to tell us all about them. Because she placed enough value in these places to talk about them, I placed enough value in them to take photographs as we sped down the highway. The end result: no relief from the cramping and a bunch of photos I can’t identify.

A Cultural Exchange

Our tour of the museum now out, Giovanna was at a loss and clearly apologetic. We headed for the hotel where more problems manifested. There was no food service or they couldn’t accommodate a group of our size or something. Basically, we had to find something to eat. We piled back in the bus and headed to the only place we knew: the Altstadt. Thankfully, a couple of food trucks that were in the plaza during our visit to the Golden Roof were still there.

A Teen in Europe - Chris Oler Author
Venice, Piazza San Marco from the lagoon.

It was here I learned the power of speaking the local language. I would love to tell you it was a product of my actions, but it wasn’t. Nevertheless, I observed the changes in disposition of two older gentlemen sitting nearby when drinks were ordered in German. Eyebrows arched, shoulders relaxed, and the looks of wariness replaced with interest and, perhaps, welcome. This too is a bit of Austria carried in conscious memory all these years. Had I been the one to order the drinks, the reaction would have gone unnoticed. It was another moment worthy of gratitude.

The next morning we crossed through the Alps to Italy and headed for Venice.

Mind Blown: A Teen in Europe (A Partial Origin of Molly and the Magic Suitcase)

There are two stories important to how our book series Molly and the Magic Suitcase started. One took place in April 2012, our daughter Molly’s first trip anywhere. Michael was not yet born, but that day was coming too, less than two months later. The first relevant travel story is much older. It goes back to March 1990 and a spring break trip to Europe. This experience directly affected some of our first editorial choices.

The Teen in Europe: What Do You Expect?

Our itinerary was: Munich, Salzburg, Innsbruck, Venice, Siena, Rome (three days with a day trip to Pompeii and Sorrento), Florence, Monaco and Nice. Pretty ambitious for a ten-day trip.

A Teen Goes to Europe - Origins of Molly and the Magic Suitcase
The Nymphenburg Palace, completed in 1675. I wanted to get the whole thing, but the palace is pretty big.

So what thoughts did a near-seventeen year old have going into this adventure? There was a responsibility more than any expectation: this trip was on behalf of my family. That in mind, I asked to borrow the “nice” camera for the trip, but departed with my Canon Snappy AF (and eight rolls of film).

One significant thing was our family trips were always full of activity. In other words, I did not expect to be a passive observer.

Day One: Munich, West Germany

Yes, there was still an East Germany, though the dramatic fall of the Berlin Wall happened in the months before. We flew PanAm from Indianapolis to New York, JFK. There, we connected and boarded a Boeing 767 for the flight to Munich.

Highlights of Munich included the Nymphenburg Palace. In fact, we spent a good amount of our first day there. The grounds were sprawling and the two things I recall (and shot photos of) were the frescoed ceilings and a bedroom adorned in green (also shown at the included link). The opulence left an impression, but so did the jetlag. The entire day was a bit of a blur.

A Teen Goes to Europe - Origins of Molly and the Magic Suitcase
Partial of a fresco inside the Nymphenburg Palace. I wanted to get the gilded (?) molding as well.

We pushed on to the city center, stopping briefly in the Marienplatz to learn about the Glockenspiel at the New Town Hall (Neues Rathaus). The Gothic architecture (actually Gothic Revival) impressed and there was a sense this was closer to what I expected of Europe. It contrasted sharply with anything I’d seen in the United States. We also viewed and heard a bit about the Frauenkirche. We drove by many other sites including the Olympic Stadium. Our tour guide, Giovanna, used the bus speaker system frequently throughout our trip.

Our hotel had an indoor pool and we were anxious to use it. Its small size, however, surprised us. Other guests seemed to scurry away at the arrival of American teenagers. The hotel was fairly unremarkable and was across from a German army base. The base was the only nearby feature of any note. My first real overseas meal was in this hotel. It was food, not particularly good or bad.

Day Two: Salzburg…and I Fall in Love with Austria

We boarded the bus early the next morning and drove toward the border with Austria. This was the first of three border crossings and the one that took the longest. In the meantime, we were treated to the visual spectacle of the Alps. I left Germany with only 20 Pfennig and no Deutsch Marks as  souvenirs. My disappointment was forgotten with our arrival in Salzburg. Salzburg is the most beautiful place I ever expect to go. The cool mountain air, the low-lying Alps nearby, the complete absence of any sort of trash on the streets, and the charm of the city all contributed to a few hours that left an indelible memory.

A Teen Goes to Europe - Origins of Molly and the Magic Suitcase
Salzburg is the birthplace of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. There is an annual festival in his honor.

Most of us think of The Sound of Music when Salzburg is mentioned. I love watching the movie, particularly when Julie Andrews and the kids are in the carriage singing “Do Re Mi” because they ride through the main part of the city. Whenever I see this, the feel of the air and the atmosphere of the city return.

But I was a teenager. So, instead of schnitzel or finding something more local, our group headed for…Pizza Land. Fortunately, even with the many days spent in Italy, this was the only pizza I ate in Europe. It was also very good, and in a style which seemed common over there. It was heavier with sauce and light on cheese. Several years ago I gave up dairy and now order pizza with no cheese at all. My experience at Pizza Land was not much different. There were small globs of cheese and isolated toppings, nothing at all like the flavor extravaganza we take for granted. They had the fundamentals, though. The crust and sauce were excellent.

We visited the graveyard where the Von Trapps hid from the Nazis. It is quite different from the set they built for the movie. The nuns requested no photography and I complied, snapping only a photo of a World War I war memorial, somewhat offset from the rest of the cemetery. Not too long ago, I saw a photograph of the graveyard on Pinterest. It didn’t sit well, but I suppose the nuns may have relented.

A Teen Goes to Europe - Origins of Molly and the Magic Suitcase
The interior of the Salzburger Dom. It’s a bit blurry, probably due to a lower speed film.

Salzburg Cathedral (Salzburger Dom) was one of our principal stops. The choir loft above the entrance included a beautiful pipe organ. This was of particular interest to me because the church I grew up attending was known for its pipe organ. I couldn’t compare the two instruments and certainly wouldn’t compare the churches given that the Salzburger Dom was built about the same time of the founding of Plymouth here in the Americas.

The Hohensalzburg fortress was the highlight of our brief visit. The views of the city (see below) and the surrounding countryside were breathtaking. Salzburg was an experience I will never forget. On a side note, I still have plenty of Austrian Schillings (currency).

Travel Pries Us Open

It took less than two days for Europe to conjure awe, not only in my senses, but, perhaps, my soul. That’s probably a little dramatic. What I know is this: those first hours were important. I took full advantage of our time in Rome, perhaps only because Austria was such an eye-opening experience.

Travel changes a person. It pries open a mind, reveals new experiences, and makes you want more. The thing is, you have to be open to it. It’s hard to say why I was susceptible, but there are certainly no regrets.

It’s surprising how much I remember going through this day by day. We haven’t yet reached the end of the second day, which includes an overnight visit to Innsbruck, Austria. Innsbruck was also my first cultural exchange. You’d expect, after two-and-a-half years of studying German I would be anxious to use it, but I was pretty intimidated. Part Two is coming soon!

Below is a panorama stitch of two photos to give you an idea of how the city looks from the Hohensalzburg fortress. The church in the foreground is the Salzburger Dom.

A Teen Goes to Europe - Origins of Molly and the Magic Suitcase

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.

Five Reasons (Six if you’re a writer) to Like Cursive Writing

Some things once given as necessary are now seen as expendable. Cursive writing is an example. Let me caution you before reading: maybe you don’t use cursive. This post is in no way meant to criticize that. If you are an adult, you’ve made an informed decision because you likely were required to learn it.

I advocate for its inclusion in education curricula for the reasons listed below. When I’ve had a conversation on the topic with someone that opposes it, the only argument I hear is “it’s obsolete.” This post should convince you otherwise. If not, there are some interesting bits here about cognitive development. Bottom line: give your kids the choice you had.

Fine Motor Skills

The intricate movements necessary to differentiate some letters lead to better dexterity for the hand. Researcher William Klemm talks about hand-eye coordination and elaborates, “in handwriting the movements are continuously variable, which is much more mentally demanding (than single-stroke block letters).”

There is a creativity associated with the movement as well. With “continuously variable” letter combinations, our brains constantly formulate new movements, new paths for our hand. Later, we add personal fluorishes to the movement. As adults, we don’t think of it anymore and our movements are practiced and quick. For children, it’s an important part of developing.

A Higher Level of Thought

Studies connect the use of cursive with a higher level of thought. The same parts of the brain we access during reading are used when we write by hand. Typing on a keyboard doesn’t do this. Single-stroke block letters do it only in a lesser way. The implications for the development of a child’s brain are considerable. In effect, their brains receive a diminished diet of stimulation compared to the education we had.

Just in case you forgot!
Just in case you forgot!

Test-Taking Skill

Cursive writing is also a test-taking skill that allows a proficient student to write more in less time. I taught eighth and ninth grade English for four years and required cursive writing on all exams and in-class assignments. This was not without controversy. There was some parental resistance. My students all went on to the International Baccalaureate Diploma Program, where final exams (in just about every subject) require considerable amounts of writing. This is one reason I, and the department-at-large, felt strongly that block print should be discouraged.

Students with developed handwriting convey more ideas in less time. Cursive writing aids not only the physical act of recording the thoughts, but the mental ability to organize those thoughts.

Better Learning

Everyone learns in a slightly different manner. Many of us benefit from visual learning. Charts, graphs, photos and videos help us understand. We all benefit from this to a greater or lesser degree.

The same is true for writing. It’s called kinesthetic learning and most of the time we associate it with learning physical skills. This is often referred to as “learning by doing.” In my case, and I’m sure others, it also means that the act of writing helps commit information to memory. Because I take the time to write something, my brain seizes on it as important. Anytime I write out directions to go somewhere, I don’t have to worry about whether or not the slip of paper is in my pocket, it’s already memorized.

Better Listening

This also affects note-taking in class. When I taught speech we went over mistakes people make when they listen. One of these was “listening too hard.” It means we sometimes make the mistake of giving equal weight to everything that is said, rather than pick out significant points or facts.

This is precisely the tendency for someone taking notes on a computer. Meanwhile, the person who writes his or her notes can still make this mistake (as I did), but has a lot of motivation to develop new and better listening habits. Sharpening the skill allows the student to pick out relevant information and the kinesthetic aspect of writing helps the student commit the information to memory.

Research for the Writer

The age of mobile phones and the vast tools we have access to via the web tend to downplay the need for written notes. Instead of recording information, we return to it at will by bookmarking its location. This plays out in a greater context than writing: there is an increased tendency for people to no longer remember an answer to a question, rather, they remember where to find the answer to the question.

Written notes for a writer, however, are a necessary thing. Writers very often must research various topics to plausibly use them in a story. What is easier, to bookmark something and continually return to it for reference? Or writing it down, thereby committing it to memory, and having access to it whether or not you happen to be in front of a computer? It is no contest, and the writing flows much more easily when you have knowledge of the topic, rather than rely on access to that knowledge.

Writing: More Important Than Ever

The Information Age brought us e-mail and social media. What does one do to realize the potential of these forms…oh, yes! One writes! Along with these things, we’ve seen the magnification of communications blunders. Nevermind talent, a merely competent writer is in demand! Today, he or she is a “content provider.” Does cursive writing make me a better content provider? It does, for all the reasons listed above.

Plus, I think a page of written notes looks cool. Thanks for reading!

Creativity (Part IV) Spark

The original question that inspired these creativity posts asked what books I recommended for the creative process. My answer is any book. There is no particular book I know on the process that is particularly helpful because my reading in this area is nonexistent. Still, any experience is of help. Sometimes we just need to hear the same thing said in a different way.

Here are are my tips for finding that extra bit of creativity when needed. I consulted no other articles putting this together, but have read on this topic in the past and these suggestions likely echo others. What makes sense for one often makes sense for others.

Spark Tip #1: Read

This past week I read a somewhat dated action/suspense thriller. It mainly concerned terrorism. This book gave me the idea for a new chapter in my current project, a middle-grade mystery. More

Most of our character creations to date!
Most of our character creations to date!

specifically, the chapter concerns a key figure in the story and his experiences. There is a direct relationship between the information and unraveling the mystery. None of it involves terrorism. In fact, it’s mainly about carpentry.

How did the book inspire this? I’m not entirely certain. No similar chapter appears in the book. Nonetheless, the text engaged in a way where the thought processes used were similar to what was needed to create the idea. Logically, that is the best answer I can give.

Reading stimulates our brains, and fiction in particular should spark the creative center. If it doesn’t, the author isn’t doing a good job. We constantly concoct visuals to go with the text. This is the reverse of how I write: my brain creates a visual and text is written that puts the same visual in the head of a reader. That’s the idea anyway.

Different tools stimulate our brains in different ways. As an example, each night before studying in college I did the New York Times crossword. It took a couple of months to actually finish a full crossword, but complete or not the clues stimulated the analytical parts of my brain and made the reading much easier. Our classes were largely discussion based (small school), so breaking down large amounts of text into easy-to-explain summaries was the task at hand. It was a sort of game and the crossword gave the right mental nudge to do it.

Spark Tip #2: Write!

“Wait, but that’s exactly what I’m having trouble with!” Think of it as a lateral maneuver. Your mind won’t go where you want it to, so take it somewhere else and find another path to what you want. Write about something fun, or something you know. There is a scene in Finding Forrester, where Sean Connery plays a famous author, that rings true. He sits down to write while his protege sits across from him waiting for inspiration. “Start with something familiar,” Connery says and gives him an old essay. The younger man copies the first sentence and then he’s off on his own writing journey.

Everyone writes a bit different and our experiences are unique. Maybe you love to compose poetry, but the project in front of you isn’t a poem. It doesn’t matter because, again, you access the right part of your mind. Once you wake up those brain cells, put them to work on what you really want to write.

The results of my experience with this are mixed. I have a hard time writing about my hobbies and tend to lose focus on the intended message. Our experience with our interests is immersive; there is a lot of information stored in our heads! We have so much detail in our memories is not always easy to put aside that clutter and effectively communicate our experience. So it is sometimes a frustrating exercise to write about things we love.

That said, the effort expended is not a waste. Part of the creativity we want to access is simply forming sentences and varying their structure. That is a worthwhile way to spend time.

Spark Tip #3: Edit

You might also backtrack a bit if you’re in the middle of a project. Do some light editing or re-read the previous chapter. In other words, re-connect with the ideas that advanced the story or make

If you haven't done this, authors, make the opportunity happen. It is too much fun to miss.
If you haven’t done this I hope you get the opportunity. It is too much fun to miss.

new connections. It’s a good idea even if the storyline you want to write isn’t directly related (possible, but unlikely).

This is an effective technique. First, it puts me more at ease with the book draft because it cleans up a few things. Second, it re-establishes the pace of the narrative. The mental energy that goes along with being part of that pace opens up the story. Once again, we’re immersed in the feel of the book. If you pair this with the fourth tip, it should give you somewhere to go.

Spark Tip #4: Consult Yourself

You made an outline, right? Okay, go back and take a look. Remember the arc you envisioned when all this started. It sounds a little odd, I mean, you might have the outline pinned to the wall and think you constantly access it. But we can and do lose focus. My chapter book mystery The Shield of Horatius is set, mainly, in modern Rome and the characters visit some amazing sites. There is a mighty temptation to drone on about the surroundings.

We put together likable characters that interact in interesting ways and…maybe…we overdo it. We fall in love with the dialogue and forget to serve the story even while we think we’re serving the art. The art, however, isn’t writing, it is storytelling. Witty banter between characters only does so much for the book. Consult your outline. Get back on track with the story.

 

Mind maps and other idea-generating practices also might be useful. I use and recommend these for essays, but never had a need for them when it comes to writing narrative fiction. No matter what anyone suggests, when you make the effort you likely will find something that suits you. As I said, our writing and our experiences all differ. It stands to reason there is no true model to produce a creative spark in every single one of us.

Good luck with your writing and thanks for reading!

From End to Beginning (Creativity Part III)

Let’s take a moment. I know this doesn’t need to be said, but here it is: everyone’s approach to creativity is different. That said, I talked to a friend today who also writes and consults in marketing about his approach to the process. It was basically the same as mine.

Finish at the Start

The end dictates everything that happens. Because this is true, you have to start with the end. Story arc is something I always cover when we speak at elementary schools. It’s an easy thing with the illustrated series because the stories start and end at Molly and Michael’s house. There are many other elements we present, but the story itself ends where it begins, with knowledge gained.

It is, naturally, different with a longer story and the example genre here is a mystery. There is a sought outcome that may or many not involve location, but has everything to do with knowledge. The knowledge may be a location, or who did it–basically, the resolution of the main conflict. Items must be found, secrets uncovered, clues understood, trials faced, shortcomings overcome, and villains defeated. Some of it happens along the way. The story’s goal must be clear, both to writer and, eventually, reader. Everything in your story arc must serve the story resolution.

At our most recent school talk.
At our most recent school talk.

You have to know the end before you begin. If you do not, there is nothing to direct where the story goes. Obscure the end, make it uncertain to the reader, but be certain for the purpose of writing.

Wide Open Choices

The Shield of Horatius is a story about a lost artifact. That was the resolution I sought. So…where do I start?

It’s much easier to see the process in hindsight. I introduced the story of the artifact, its user, its protector, and then its finders (while also revealing the reason for their journey). It is a four-and-a-half page introduction that spans 2,500 years. It’s not a dry introduction, the first two segments take place in the heat of battle. Actually, I didn’t write the first segment, it is quoted from the Roman historian Livy. The second segment is historical fabrication on my part, though it takes place during events that are part of the historical record. The third part (re)introduces two of the main characters.

There was an end, now there is a beginning.

Creative?

How do we go from Point A to Point B? There must be points along the way. We move, within the story, in increments that inform, shock, frighten, endear, or produce any other effect we want to have on the reader. The goal is twofold: move toward the end and keep the reader interested.

It is at this point that you stop looking at the whole process as “creative.” Why? Because you’re filling gaps, doing things that make sense, creating the necessary events to lead to a plausible and exciting conclusion. You’re creative at every turn–varying sentence structure, using vivid language, revealing character–but it doesn’t seem so. For the writer, it’s a straight line from beginning to end, though the story may (and should) include twists and turns.

That is why creative process, in this context, is difficult to describe. There is no ritual I can give someone to think creatively. When you have the end and know where to start, the rest reveals itself. It doesn’t have the feel of creation, it is just storytelling. The thing is, and this is difficult to remember, the story only exists inside of you. No one else knows even if it is something that in your mind seems so clear.

And it is clear, or will be when things are going well. Things line up, twists pop to mind, the story pours out of you…when things go well.

When things don’t go well, there are a few things that help and we’ll discuss those next time.