I love writing with the Fictorians!
The Fictorians blog was formed by Superstars Writing Seminar alumni who represent all genres, long fiction and short fiction. Some are independently published and others are traditionally published. But mostly, we’re writers who want to give back to the writing community by sharing what we’ve learned. You can find hundreds of marvelous blogs on topics including craft, business, the writing life, and movies and stories.
Here are excerpts from some of my posts. I’ve written many so I’ll be changing this list from time to time. To see the entire article, click on title. To read more posts by me or other authors, visit the Fictorians at: http://www.fictorians.com/.
Enjoy! And if there’s something you’d like me to write about, please let me know.
Standing on the ruins of a Minoan Palace, I heard that young voice begging for help. From that moment on, those stones, which had been set over 4,000 years ago, were symbols for the stories of an ancient civilization. This was a place where people had lived, loved, and died. Where they sought refuge from natural disasters and storms. Where politics ruled and religion tried to rationalize and explain the unknowable. Where engineering feats and hard work created structures and infrastructure that still exist today. It was where I found a novel-worthy story.
That’s the beauty of stepping away from the keyboard, away from the office, and most importantly, the familiar. When I do that, I clear my mind enough to ask the all important what-if questions. That’s what works for me. If I’m ever stuck for ideas (which I rarely am) I go see or do something new.
But I don’t need to go somewhere exotic or ancient to be inspired. For me, it can be as simple as a break in the routine.
I live near a wildlife park which is a protected park in the city. It’s got deer, coyotes, and the occasional wild cat or bear wandering through – a five minute walk and I’m in the wilderness. A creek which is a raging torrent when the snow melts off the mountains becomes a docile meander in the summer. It’s here where I can leave the familiar, and rest my brain. There, in the quiet, I imagine people foraging and hunting. I see wizards and knights in great adventures. Then there are dragons, faces in rocks, the Green People in the trees and entire kingdoms where life and death struggles occur. This is where I can watch a beetle crawl and wonder what it’d be like to mine precious minerals on Mars or hear a woodpecker tapping and wonder what message he brings.
I may or may not decide to use these imaginings in new or existing stories. This distraction is simply fun for my brain – it gives it a rest and if I’m lucky, it inspires story worthy ideas. When go back to writing, I feel creatively rested and sometimes if I’m lucky, a story problem has been subconsciously resolved.
In new situations, I stop thinking and just let myself feel, smell, hear, and observe from different perspectives. My imagination relaxes and has fun free-associating, and it rises to the challenge of answering the what-if questions.
I can’t explain how I can see political intrigue, religious zealotry, and murders 4,000 years ago in a rock. Or, how a wild life park can inspire a trilogy which addresses coming of age themes. Or how an aerial view from an airplane threw me into an alternate universe. Or how that beetle ended up on Mars…
What I do know is that when I suspend my everyday headspace, stop my mental machinations and give my imagination the freedom to play – strange and wonderful things happen.
For example, this winter I was in Colima Mexico, at the Platform ruins. While there, Mexico’s most active volcano sent plumes of smoke into the sky. I stood near a boulder which had been shot from the volcano 3,000 years ago. That boulder and others had been thrown over 30 miles and they landed in a heavily populated settlement. I wondered how people interpreted this powerful natural event. Their ability to engineer places to live was quite advanced but they didn’t understand the science behind the volcano’s dangerous fickleness. So as I watched the volcanic plumes, I imagined how they’d react to it and what their lives would have been like. Then, I was an archeologist a thousand years from now, digging through the remains of both our modern world and the ancient world. What if?
These experiences all have one thing in common – I experienced different sensory inputs than I normally do at home, in my office. An airplane, a log by a creek, ancient ruins – these places all have different sensory experiences. I touched a rock and saw a civilization. The breeze caressed my skin and it carried the smell of the ocean – was it a calming fragrance or the scent of a coming storm? The volcano’s plume was astounding but was it the gentle breath of the fiery god or his sulfurous wrath? I saw the relief of a continent and wondered about its fantastic and mythological societies. Leaves rustling, parched greens of summer, hot sand scorching my feet, the foraging of foods grown wild, the rich flavors of local spices, sitting on the deck, watching a lady bug traverse the whorl on the wooden deck board ….
The imagination is so filled with possibilities and stories. Changing my headspace, getting away from the everyday familiar to experience different sensory inputs, all give my imagination room to play. This is how I let my life experiences shape my writing.
What are detective science fiction stories?
They’re detective stories set in the future, on earth, other worlds or somewhere in outer space. The detectives need to be observant, to investigate, to question suspects, work within the laws (or sometimes outside them), report to superiors, interact with segments of society. While the detective does his job, the reader experiences a future society through the detective’s eyes. It’s a very up close and personal view of the world.
Why does this mash-up make for great crime fiction?
Technology changes but human nature doesn’t. Despite our technological advances, crime is still part of our world. Theft, murder, white collar, blue collar crimes, crimes against humanity, deviant crimes, commercial crimes, drugs, crimes in international law (slavery, genocide, war crimes, piracy, for example), and the list is endless. In writing about the future, it forces us to consider our lives in the present. What if technology changes and we can read the brain or the psyche to predict if people will commit crimes? What are the ramifications? What happens when we break the laws of alien cultures? What are frontier crime and justice like on a newly colonized world? What happens when an android commits murder? Android or robot detectives, even if they’re good at their job, what perils do they face? What constitutes crime in the future? How are murder mysteries solved in the future – great sleuthing or with advanced technology?
Why do they work? Isn’t science fiction supposed to be about the science?
Detective science fiction works because detectives are like scientists in that they question, they need to know how things work, they explore, they follow clues. But detectives need to find the truth, and to do that they must dig into the corners of society, personalities, and political structures. They need to know a little about everything just enough to ask the next question or suffer the consequences if they don’t. In short, detectives in science fiction are the best tour guide to both future technologies and the resulting human condition. Technology usually has a huge role to play in a detective sci fi and for that reason I greatly admire the authors who go that extra step to know their worlds well.
What are key features of this genre?
For me, it’s a toss-up between technology and characterization. Both are essential and both are the reason I keep reading detective science fiction. The best ones have great plot twists and turns, and are sprinkled with red herrings. As a reader, it’s easy to immerse myself into a society with this combination of plot, technology and characterization. However, just as with commercial crime and mystery stories, there’s a wide range of styles or sub genres within this genre mish mask.
There are cyberpunk detective stories where the element of human/computer relationship plays more of a role than characterization and plot. Then there’s hard boiled noir detective science fiction where in a dark, futuristic society, a detective (usually a gun-slinging male) must solve a crime written in the style of American noir of the 1930 and 40s. There are some cozy mysteries in that the crime is committed off scene and there is little violence but it’s heavy on the setting, the detective’s character, but the detective isn’t usually laid back citizen, like Miss Marple although there may be lots of deduction and little violence.
But the general feature of a good detective science fiction, no matter the subgenre, is the world building, the protagonist’s interaction in that world and the morality tale that crime stories evoke.
If you haven’t read any detective science fiction, beware – there’s been a lot written but not all of it has been categorized as detective science fiction, it’s still in the larger science fiction category. And, it’s not brand new either! Here’s the classic story from Isaac Asimov himself of why he wrote his first detective science fiction. This led to him pioneering the human-robot buddy cop genre.
“[John] Campbell had often said that a science fiction mystery story was a contradiction in terms; that advances in technology could be used to get detectives out of their difficulties unfairly, and that the readers would therefore be cheated. I sat down to write a story that would be a classic mystery and that would not cheat the reader — and yet would be a true science-fiction story. The result was The Caves Of Steel.”
The Caves of Steel is a must read.
To date, Good Reads has over 100 books listed in its Science Fiction Detective category. BestScienceFictionBooks.com contains a stellar list. It’s worth checking these lists. So for this reason, I won’t be listing the popular and classic books like the “Gil Hamilton” stories by Larry Niven. Instead, I’ve got 5 authors and novels you may not be familiar with but are worth reading:
Hydrogen Steel by K.A. Bedford
When top homicide inspector Zette McGee is called out of her mysterious retirement to help Kell Fallow, a desperate former android accused unjustly of murdering his wife and children, she knows she has to help him. (This is powerfully written, with lots of great world building and much intrigue with sabotage, spies and nasty infections. The consequences of and ramifications of artificial intelligence and artificial consciousness are dealt with superbly.)
The Ultra Thin Man by Patrick Swenson
In the twenty-second century, a future in which mortaline wire controls the weather on the settled planets and entire refugee camps drowse in drug induced slumber, no one –alive or dead, human or alien—is quite what they seem. When terrorists crash the moon Coral into its home planet, it is up to Dave Crowell and Alan Brindos, contract detectives, to solve an interstellar conspiracy or face interplanetary consequences. (Clever title. Clever concept. To say anymore would be to spoil it. Sorry.)
Transient City by Al Onia
On a distant mining colony at the far reaches of outer space, vast cities crawl across the surface of a desolate planet looking for valuable minerals while their citizens struggle to survive. Victor Stromboli, a professional crime scene witness, is nearly crippled by the brutal memories he can neither control nor forget. Now he has to solve the mystery of a missing corporate executive who happens to be married to the one love of Victor’s life. (Crawling cities! What a cool concept especially on frontier planets where the characters are strong and quirky and come with really unique idiosyncrasies!)
Red Planet Blues by Rob Sawyer
P.I. Alex Lomax works the mean streets of New Klondike, the domed Martian city that sprang to life in the wake of the booming fossil market. He plies his trade among the failed prospectors, corrupt cops, and ‘transfers’—folks wealthy enough to upload their consciousness into near immortal android bodies. Then, he lands a cold case—a decades old murder of Weingarten and O’Reilly, the men who first discovered evidence of life on Mars. (This was a delightful gumshoe romp which dealt with the implications of transferring human consciousness into android bodies, thus making humans, albeit wealthy ones, nearly immortal.)
Defining Diana by Hayden Trenholm
Found naked and alone in a locked room, the beautiful woman was in perfect health, except she was dead. It’s 2043 and much has changed: nuclear war, biotechnology and all-powerful corporations have transformed the world. Now science is taking DNA manipulation to new levels. Superintendent Frank Steel is an old-fashioned cop who handles the bizarre and baffling cases no one else can solve. He knows the money, murders, missing persons and gruesome body shops are connected and it starts with the girl. (This novel creeped me out partly because it’s set in a village not far from where I live but also because of the nature of the crime. What would a cyborg future look like, not only with cyborgs and what they’re capable of doing, but what crimes come with that kind of existence?)
That inner muse can be elusive. It is who we blame for our writer’s block.
But there is a secret to keeping that muse away from the straight jacket of silence. That secret is understanding the two truths of the inner muse which no one talks about.
Those two truths, once realized, will forever unfetter your inner muse. This month’s theme is about how life’s experiences shape what we write. We know that our experiences shape our perception and hence what we write. Experience also shapes what our inner muse reveals. But, did you know that there is a way to tap into those experiences while letting the muse do its sorting and compiling to create those aha! moments?
Tapping into our experiences happens when we’re aware of the two truths about the inner muse that no one talks about:
1) Inspiration isn’t always obvious; and
2) You may not realize what you know.
It seems that I’m stating the obvious. But without conscious awareness of these two truths, your inner muse doesn’t have permission to stay away from the straight jacket of silence.
What these two truths mean is that what inspires you to create a world and to write the story can be hidden somewhere deep inside and you don’t even know it.
Can you dig it out? Find it? Use it? Of course you can. The best way to do that is to not go looking for it. Sometimes, you’ve just got to let it happen. Sometimes you just have to be literal about being inspired. Here’s what I mean:
To be inspired means to be in spirit. That means giving your muse permission to access all that information in your head, all those observations and the situations you’ve experienced. It means letting your muse make the associations it needs to and to draw from the library of your inner knowing.
All you have to do to succeed is to trust it. Yes, trust your muse, trust what you know even if you’re not aware of it. Why? Because:
1) Inspiration isn’t always obvious
Sometimes we have an aha! moment which inspires a scene, a story even or a moment in the book. More often it comes from somewhere deep within. How often have you read what you’ve written and wondered how you knew to write that, or to word it that way, or your character has surprised you? Those are the moments when inspiration isn’t obvious and you may never figure out what inspired you to write what you did, but aren’t you glad your inner muse was working for you?
Our brain likes to make associations, find familiar in the unfamiliar, and find patterns. It sees shapes in clouds, a face in a whorl of wood, that phone number is all primes and if I add the first two numbers together…
The trick is to trust the inner muse and to trust that it’s working for you. Forcing the writing, forcing a scene, rarely works. It has to come from the characters and the situations we created and from the inner muse which understands those creations at a much more profound level than what we are sometimes aware of.
2) You may not realize what you know
I’m a kid from the farm. It took a little while for me to realize that most of my stories happen in rural settings in whichever genre I’m writing. I have detail which I take for granted and other people have to research. I understand the relationship people have with the land and animals. I have planted, harvested and marketed, I have prepared and stored food for the winter and have experienced limited access to store bought foods,.
It’s the same thing with the characters we create. We tend toward the familiar, especially when it comes to relationships. That’s when patterns in our writing occur. Strong female, weak male characters or vice versa. Female characters who hate their fathers. Male characters who are emotionally deprived heroes. There are countless patterns and stereotypes we fall into because it’s subconsciously familiar in some way. It’s the material the muse has to work with.
Whether it’s settings or characters, relationships or values and ethics, our inner muse has the information of who and what we are and uses it, even if we don’t realize that’s what is happening.
So we don’t always realize what we know and even what we don’t know. But when we consciously let the muse do its work, when we become consciously aware of the work it is doing, then we can form a relationship with it that changes what we write. We can give the muse permission to explore new situations, characters and relationships. This awareness allows us to ask for help to change the pool of information the muse has to work with. In a critique group I’m in, a well published author informed us that she had become aware that she always wrote a specific father-daughter relationship into her stories and she understood why. Now she wanted to change it up.
The two truths contradict each other:
“Trust inspiration” versus “Don’t trust what it’s telling you”.
Or, so it seems at first glance. But the real axiom is:
Trust Inspiration. Understand what it’s telling you so that you can change it up – if you wish.
We, and our inner muse, are the sum total of our experiences. As writers, we’re not always aware of what we know and what we don’t know. The more we write, the more opportunity we have to understand what informs our writing and to change and expand upon that.
You know that the writing myth that says you’ve got to write a million words before you’ve got a chance to be successful? It’s not about the word count, it’s about understanding your inner muse and developing a comfortable, trustworthy relationship with it. Sometimes, it takes a million words before you realize you’re basically writing the same story, the same themes albeit in different settings and milieus. Once you realize that, you’ve hear your inner muse. Now, you can give it new fodder, inform it with new information and experiences. You can give it permission to shake it up a bit.
Will you need a million words to do this? Maybe yes. Maybe no. And remember, I used the word ‘myth’ for a reason.
Inspiration isn’t always obvious and you may not realize what you know – once these two unspoken truths are understood, your life experiences will shape your writing in ways you never imagined it could! So, trust Inspiration and understand what it’s telling you so that you can change it up – if you wish.
Value systems create opportunity for conflict and give characters depth. Once we’ve discovered those values, the plot comes alive as characters struggle to be true to themselves. For example, in The Hunger Games, despite all contestants valuing survival, they each value other things which motivate them: Katniss wants to save her sister and to avoid loving people but finds herself falling in love with Peeta who she’ll have to kill to win the competition; and Peeta wants to save Katniss but to do so, he must overcome his pacifist nature and kill others.
Ask – What three things does your character value the most?
The most important thing for X is: survival ….. adhering to the rules ….. scientific discovery …. family ….. avoiding love … finding love …. and so on.
We can use Maslow’s Hierarchy to explore the range of values to determine which ones will create the most conflict for our character and our story. Maslow’s Hierarchy orders our human needs from the most basic to self-actualization. Remember, fulfilling our needs determines what our values are at any given point in our lives. That means we can be on level 1 while trying to achieve level 5 because conflicts are never tidy packages – they are individual to the person and even to the culture.
Level 1 – Survival: basics such as food, shelter, water, clothing, health – what the human body requires to function
Level 2 – Safety and security: personal (violence, natural disaster), financial, health and well being
Level 3 – Love/belonging: friendship, intimacy, family, this is our tribal nature of needing to belong in a group to enhance safety and survival needs
Level 4 – Esteem: being respected by others, needing status, recognition, fame, prestige, and attention. self-respect, mastery, independence and freedom. Respect = greater power
Level 5 – Self-actualization: concerns personal growth and fulfillment …
There are those who argue that because myth is defined as being of the distant past, that it has its own cultural criteria and that it requires organic growth in a culture, that it can’t be instantly created. Humbug! Myth is a way for people to reconcile the paradoxes of life – the things that don’t make sense to us. How was life created? How do the gods and people interact? What are the rules for interaction? Apply it to everyday life and we can call it religion. Apply it to books and we call it world building.
And perhaps that is the difference – scholars will argue that because what writers create isn’t part of the everyday, ordinary belief systems for people, then it isn’t legitimate myth. But who draws that line? Who determines when an idea crosses that line? And does it matter? Is it any less compelling? I think not. We no longer believe in the Greek Pantheon of gods yet they’re as popular as ever in literature like in Rick Riordon’s Percy Jackson and the Olympian’s series. Do we have to believe in those specific gods for the mythology to be relevant, to explain creation, our relationship with the world, our struggle with life’s paradoxes and our need to have legitimate heroes to inspire us? Not at all. When we delve into other people’s belief systems, we challenge and enrich our own. We discover new ways to escape and to solve problems.
The Sauropod was given it’s name by Marsh in 1878, while the Prosauropod (Plateosauridae) was named, also by Marsh, in 1895. Why is this important? Because Marsh was a principle character in the Bone Wars.
The issue of whether the dinosaurs we learned about as children is not just about the liberties taken in the creation of fictional works . The issue is about whether early paleontologists got it right at all…
What traits do characters need to be memorable?
We’ve all been schooled in what makes a character great, and numerous books and blogs have been written on how to develop character. Character development includes backstory, key external qualities (appearance, clothing, etc), value systems and life philosophy, habits, opinions, and flaws. Once all this work is done, the question remains: Is the character you’ve created memorable?
What makes a character memorable?
Is it a quintessential trait? I’ve read many thriller series and cozy mysteries where I felt that the characters weren’t very deep or complex. Some are very superficial. Yet, they are exceedingly popular. Why? Because the author focused on quintessential traits. Every time I pick up one of those books, I know who to expect and what to expect. Sometimes these character are endearing, sometimes frustrating but always, they are consistent in their quirks, their approach to life, their heroics, their dedication, and in their flaws.
Perhaps it’s the world that makes a character memorable.
That world maybe the present. People coping with hardships that we can relate to or understand in our society makes it easy for readers to engage with. Here, characters find themselves in worlds which blend the fantastic with the present, like in the superhero and urban fantasy genres. Other readers need to have those dramas played out on other worlds in fantastic settings. In these science fiction or fantasy worlds, readers become explorers and how key characters function in these worlds grabs the imagination and makes the entire milieu memorable. The Martian, Harry Potter, and The Lord of the Rings, and Tanya Huff’s latest series Peacekeeper, are examples of this.
Or, are characters made memorable because of who we are at the time we experience a character in book, theatre, or film?
Which character we resonate with may be determined by: our life stage (child, teen or parent, senior), our personal fears about the present or future, current world politics, personal hardships, or our fascination with the future or imagined worlds. Thus, our personal psychology and needs determine what we engage with and what satisfies our entertainment need at any given time. There are times when I want a comedy, mystery, or fantasy world to escape into and not a horror story where people are hurting others, no matter how engaging or memorable that story and its characters may be. There are adults who refuse to read a young adult or middle grade book, no matter how popular the characters are. Others will read only literary genre dramas because they can’t fathom the characters created in any fantasy.
For some of us, the greatest impact a character can have is when we experience him in our childhood and teen years. Harry Potter is the quintessential wizard for many, while Merlin is for others. For me, Nancy Drew and her ability to solve mysteries grabbed my imagination when I was eleven and I’ve loved mysteries ever since. It is debatable if she’s a well-written character or not, but for an eleven year old, she is certainly memorable for her sleuthing and heroics.
Because of all these factors, different characters resonate with us. Memorable characters aren’t necessarily the protagonist, for they can also be a secondary character, a villain, or a minor character,
This month, join us and our guests as we explore memorable characters from movies, books, and comics. Many of these characters have inspired us to create our own memorable characters and hopefully, our inspirations will inspire you.