Category Archives: Reader Investment & Empathy

Building Epic Worlds

J. R. R. Tolkien famously created entire languages and histories as part of his creation of one of the greatest world building exercises in all of literature. Even that wasn’t enough to satisfy his desire to create a complex and vibrant world. He used those languages to create unique poetry and songs, which he then translated into English as part of putting the Lord of the Rings on paper.

Frank Herbert had reams of notes detailing the history, economies, royal house intrigue and genealogy of a “world” that was far too epic to fit even onto one planet.

Is it necessary to mimic their herculean efforts in order to create immersive, believable worlds for your own story?

No, it’s not. Certainly you don’t need to create entire languages.

But it can be helpful if your readers wonder if you did. And that might be easier than you think.

One of the more consistent compliments I get on my War Chronicles novels is on the depth of world-building. I made a determined effort in writing those books to create an epic feel, not just for the character story arcs, but for the entire world. Not just for the story’s time, but for thousands of years into the past. Not just for the physical geography, but for the spirituality and myth.

Sometimes less can be more. In that story we encounter an ancient empire, one that is tied to the current story through a thread that traverses millennia, and will likely continue on into the future. To create the sense of an ancient empire that was palpable and relevant to the story, I wove that empire into the story whenever I could, in the most natural ways I could devise. But I didn’t write a hundred page treatise on that empire, I didn’t create languages.

What I did, was to have the empire be remembered in the land itself. The great mountain range dominating the main continent is named after that empire. Ancient structures dot the landscape. Terms are woven into the language of the townsfolk, idioms and proper names woven together even through dialog.

The illusion all this brings forward is one of an ancient empire, so powerful that its great works of art, science and architecture are still the pinnacle of culture and technology. Bridges and temples not only still exist, but some are still maintained and revered by their descendants.

The same approach works for geography and biology. A little variety, consistently applied, can create a compelling sense of distance and scope. As your characters move through the world, change the details of the local flora, fauna and terrain. New sights, sounds, even smells can delight or disgust your characters, which flows through their eyes and into the minds of your readers. Smell, in particular, is a very powerful memory aid. If you can associate a place in your book to a smell the reader recognizes and has a strong emotional response to, you can almost guarantee that place will stand out in their mind as they read it.

Finally, one of the most powerful ways to give a sense of world-ness to your story is to weave these different techniques together. Flowers can be associated with ancient rituals. Tolkien almost literally wove his history into his scenery. Think of the Dead Marshes, The Old Forest, Fangorn forest, Lothlorian… each place unique, each place memorable, each place as much a part of the myth and folklore as it is a part of the physical geography.

Once you start thinking about the story this way, opportunities to use these techniques will appear as you write, or as you edit.

Home As Setting and Theme

When my debut novel, Sleeper Protocol, was released in 2016, many of my childhood friends, family, and even my teachers commented about my use of “home.” Where I call home is a long way from where I live now, but every time I’m there the feeling of peace is as palpable as wrapping a blanket around my shoulders. I was born and raised in upper east Tennessee in an area called the Tri-Cities. My family actually lived very near a small community known as Midway – it was Midway between Johnson City and Tennessee’s Oldest City, Jonesborough. The Appalachian mountains filled the eastern horizon, running in a roughly southwest to northeast line. It’s a beautiful place.

And I never intended for my story to go there.

As the story of a cloned soldier trying to find his identity unwound from my brain to the keyboard, I initially struggled with “What’s the point?” or even Eric Flint’s famous guidance of “Who gives a $^#@?” I needed something to make the character’s emotional struggle hit home and that’s where the inspiration hit. So, I took my character home. In the third act, he descends Cherokee Mountain, crosses the Nolichucky River, and ends up on a small knoll where a farmhouse once stood. All of those are real places and the knoll is where my family’s homestead still stands. My cousins own “The Farm” as we call it, and it’s wonderful to know that it’s still there and open for my family to visit any time we want. That openness and warmth led me to bringing my character to an very different emotional level. I gave him a sense of place, a sense of a home that he’d once had and was very different than the future one, but a place he could identify with fully and embrace his identity. Once I’d opened that door, I proceeded to move him further along the path by having him stand over his own gravesite in the Mountain Home National Cemetery.

The journey to find his “home” was really the key to unlocking his identity. My first ideas to bring him through familiar territory to help with my description and emotional resonance gave way to something else entirely: a theme I’d never intended. Our sense of home is a large part pf our identity. Even our home nation, or state, or municipality is much more than a common bond to our neighbors. We identify ourselves to that place forever. No matter where I go, when I am asked where I’m from I always say that I’m from Tennessee and just happen to live elsewhere.

My point is this – write about your home or wherever you consider your home to be. Pull that emotion and identity into your own writing. Your voice will improve, your characters will seem more grounded and real, and your readers – especially those who claim the same sense of home – will keep asking for more. When you’re not writing about your home? Put that same warmth and emotion into the characters who are there. It makes a difference to the story and to your characters.

Free Reign

A guest post by Tonya L. De Marco

Do I keep a depraved soul locked in my subconscious, caged unable to act on her desires? Is there a past-life sister sharing her memories with me, breathing life into my characters and infusing them with her ideals of right and wrong? Is it just good old-fashioned curiosity about what makes such characters tick? Do I admire their freedom, their lack of concern for the moral and ethical shackles that bind most of mankind?

I try not to delve too deeply within myself seeking the answers. It’s likely I have a sympathetic personality or a very open mind that allows these characters to speak to me. I give them free reign through my writing. My voice is their voice.

My stories are dark, often with twisted characters and an erotic flavor. No subject is taboo. Incest, rape, murder, cannibalism, mental illness, sacrilege, and acts against children can all be found in my published work or my work in progress. These atrocities occur in the world, I see no reason not to include them in fiction. These are the stories that need to be heard. They are the tales I’m meant to tell.

Traveling through Wyoming on a return trip home from a convention, I encountered a new character and found inspiration. Now known as the Wyoming Frontier Prison Museum, we stopped in Rawlings to take a tour of what served as the territorial prison from 1901-1981. The imposing stone facade and high wall surrounding the yard were daunting, but it’s what transpired inside the fortress that still haunts me.

Stepping into cell block A, the oldest part of the prison, was an immediate shock. A chill permeated my body seeping into the very core of my bones. I wanted to weep, cry out, and run all at the same time but something held me immobile. The silent screaming of the tortured souls of the past invaded my mind and my being. I was overwhelmed with emotion flooding in all at once; hopelessness, fear, anguish, depression. I felt smothered, suffocated, controlled. The feeling of oppression was a palpable weight on my shoulders. It was as if I was being buried alive.

Collecting myself enough to follow along with the tour, the sense of straddling a line between the different times hung with me. As the guide recounted stories of some of the prison’s infamous inmates, their images played out before me as if etched on a veil hanging over my eyes. The prisoners endured remarkably deplorable and harsh conditions – cramped quarters, no heat, constant threat of violence, a cement ledge as a bed, persons convicted of petty offenses in the same general population with the most depraved criminals. The lives and circumstances of the prisoners intrigued me. I have to admit, I felt a level of respect for anyone able to survive in the inhumane situation.

I was particularly drawn to the history of a young woman inmate convicted of killing her father and incarcerated in the prison in 1908. Annie was sentenced when she was only fourteen years of age. The museum had some of her letters on display enabling me to learn more about Annie. Her voice spoke to me across the lines of time.

After returning home, I couldn’t shake the uneasy feelings I’d experienced. The sadness and hopelessness clung to me like a shroud. Deciding to immerse myself in the darkness rather than try to avoid it, I did some more research on Annie.

Annie’s letters give no indication that she was remorseful. She writes, “….a feeling or a wish came over me to kill someone and this feeling, I could not resist.” She was housed in the facility approximately a year then transferred to Colorado where she finished out most of her four year sentence before receiving a pardon. Annie’s life before and after the murder and incarceration, by all accounts I’ve found, was unremarkable. She went on to marry and have children and live a normal, quiet life until her death in 1975.

The story I’m writing is fiction so it’s inspired by Annie rather than based on her. All manner of horrific events will happen to my character, Anna, before the murder, during her stay in the prison, and after her release. I have to let go of all the emotion that overwhelmed me that day at the prison. My way of accomplishing that is to write about it. Feel the feelings and move past them as I let the characters I write experience the emotion for me.

Unlock the locks, throw open the doors, uncage the dark demons of your mind. Give them a voice through your pen and let them tell their stories. Maybe they’ll connect with the darkness in the readers and you’ll have a best-seller!

 

To learn more about the museum and Annie, follow the links below:


tonyasquareimgTonya L. De Marco is a Costume Designer, Cosplayer, published Model, and published Author. She splits her time between the Ozark Mountains of Missouri and the Rocky Mountains of Colorado.

You can visit Tonya on her Amazon Author Page, her Instagram page, her Facebook page, or on her website, TonyaLDeMarco.com.

Research Until Your Fingers Bleed

This month the Fictorians are focusing on posts about what we, as authors, believe sets our work apart, or at least, what we believe makes our writing more authentic and compelling. In other words, what is our “special sauce?”

I’d like to think there is more than one thing that I do which gives my writing authenticity and makes it worth reading, but there is one thing I have done that seems to surprise most people.

My first epic fantasy series is set in a stone age culture, and the protagonist is in training to become a “flint-knapper” which is a person who creates stone tools. In fact, one of those stone tools, a knife, is one of the most important artifacts in the story. His skill with a bow is also critical to the story line.

When I started writing the story, I rapidly came to realize that I was having trouble writing scenes that revolved around stone age technology. I wanted to bring the reader into those scenes. I wanted those scenes to reveal the protagonist’s persistence, his struggle to master his craft, and eventually his talent and pride in creating the tools that his village needed to survive.

So I did “research.” I searched for every article or paper I could find on the ancient art of flint-knapping. I watched videos. I purchased stone arrowheads and spearheads at flea markets. Like these:

But even after that, I never really felt like my scenes reached that level of authenticity I wanted.

So I set out to learn flint-knapping myself. Luckily there was a little shop on my way home from work that sold rocks. So one day I stopped in and looked around. I got to talking with the owner, and eventually told him that I was an aspiring author who wanted to learn flint-knapping. His eyes lit up, and an hour later I left the store with a cloth sack filled with about twenty pounds of rocks. It turns out that making stone tools requires different kinds of rocks, plus some other tools, like antler tines or something similar. It looked sorta like this:

Then I set to work. I spent an hour or so after work and on weekends for weeks, bashing rocks together on my patio. It was a slow, painful and painstaking process, just to learn how to strike a blank with a hammerstone in the proper way to break off a suitable chunk of obsidian to START to make an arrowhead or spearpoint. And learning that took a toll on my fingers and thighs. Eventally I got some thick pieces of leather to protect my thighs and clothes, but there was really nothing you could do to protect your hands and fingers. If you wanted to make stone tools, especially arrowheads, spearpoints or knives, you were going to cut your fingers and hands.

And the cuts were not simple scrapes or splinters. Obsidian has been used to create scalpels for eye surgery because the result of a well-aimed blow will create an edge that is, literally, sharper than a razor. So those cuts bled copiously. My leather thigh protectors were soon stained with blood. This is a pretty good example of what that looked like:

I won’t pretend that I ever mastered the art of flint-knapping, but I did get decent enough to be able to make functional tools. But more importantly, I learned enough that when I returned to those scenes, the writing came from a natural understanding of the mechanics of the craft, as well as the risks.

“Write what you know” they say. Well, in this case, that’s what I decided to do. And I think it paid off in spades.

So, my fellow authors, when you need to learn something to make your story believable, research it, baby! Research until your fingers bleed!

Mine did.

(No, I didn’t make this. But this is what the knife in the book is modeled on. This was made by a professional flint-knapper, and is an example of what a skilled artisan can do with stone. My wife and daughter had the sheath custom-made for the knife. It’s a pretty cool combo.)