Category Archives: The Writing Life

The Unconscious Autobiography

It’s been said, and I’m sure you’ve heard it before, that all characters in a story have a bit of the author in them. Everything you write is colored by your personal preconceptions, observations, experiences, and random thoughts about life and your place in it. In a very real way, who we are leaks into the text whether we want it to or not. I don’t know if I’m the only one who has had this happen, but I find it interesting, and sometimes unsettling, when I realize something about a situation or a character is actually something about myself that I had not realized until I saw it on the page. In a very real way, our characters are our reflections, though sometimes distorted ones. Their experiences and reactions to those experiences are deeply colored by our own.

Now, this doesn’t mean that one could use a piece of fiction as a case study of the author. Authors don’t directly translate themselves onto the page. Most of the time this is an unconscious phenomenon.

In fact, this happens so often and with so little thought that it’s almost impossible not to write what we know. Our subconscious does it for us. When we need a scent, we pull one from memory. When we need to show an emotional reaction, we look at how our own bodies might feel in the same situation. If the character experiences something that we never have, we might find an analogous experience to inform what is on the page. While in most cases writing fiction is writing stories about other people, we cannot help but write about ourselves at the same time.

On some level, writing what you know comes without thinking. But notice the “without thinking” part.

The difficulty comes when we let our own experiences limit what we can and do show in a story. It’s extremely easy to fall back on our own point of view. For example, I find that my characters can sometimes be reserved, even repressed, about their emotions. As a result, I often find it difficult to push the emotional dial up to full for an explosive moment of conflict. That comes from me. I’m a pretty laid back person who doesn’t feel all that comfortable when people around me are really emotional. While I can bring tension, sometimes just bringing tension isn’t enough for a big scene. I’ve seen and heard about other writers who will actually skip hugely important scenes in their books because they themselves have no reference point, or their own beliefs or view of the world make it difficult to face what their characters have to do.

And of course, there’s that ever present failure when an author writes a gross generalization or something just flat out wrong that is deeply insulting to an entire group of people because said author didn’t look outside their own point of view.

For instance, I once knew a real young man whose personality was so over the top that he seemed almost like a caricature. At the time, I thought he’d make a great character in a book, but part of what made him utterly ridiculous was intrinsically bound to an entire group of people who are mostly not ridiculous at all. That character isn’t showing up anywhere in my work as a result. Some might think, to avoid this, one should steer clear of any type of character that is not like them. Sometimes this might be the right call, but limiting oneself to just the familiar often leads to boring characters and lackluster plots. Variety is, after all, the spice of life.

My point here is simply to be mindful of what is going into the mixing pot that is your story. Pay attention to those moments when a character trait or bit of setting or what-have-you relies a little too much on what you know. Look for those opportunities when something different can strengthen and deepen what you’re working on.

Who knows, your characters might rub off on you for a change.

Gaining Experience from the Past: A Guest Post by Shannon Fox

I’ve never believed much in writing what you know. If everyone wrote what they knew, we’d have no fantasy or sci-fi. Imagine a world without Narnia or Hogwarts. A life without Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones.

I consider myself a novel writer. While attending UC-San Diego’s Literature-Writing program, I became part of the departmental honors program during my senior year. I needed a new project, a manageable short story as I only had about four months to get the research, writing, and perfecting all done for the defense.

Most people know about the Tesla car, but not about Tesla, the man. I was first introduced to Nikola Tesla, the inventor, back in 2006, while watching the Christopher Nolan film, The Prestige. Though the Tesla character played by David Bowie (RIP) was only a small part in a film dominated by Christopher Bale and Hugh Jackman’s rival magicians, I was nonetheless enchanted by Bowie’s character.

Trying to brainstorm short story ideas for my senior thesis, I thought again of Bowie’s Tesla and his experiments in Colorado. But by the time I sat for my thesis defense in 2012, my committee and I both concluded that my short story, now grown into a novella, was not even that, but rather a novel.

I finished the first draft of the full-length novel in 2013. It was suggested to me that I go to Colorado Springs and look at the town for myself, to trace what I could find of Tesla’s trail. My research had uncovered little written about Tesla’s time in Colorado Springs. Tesla arrived by train on May 18th, 1899, stayed at the Alta Vista Hotel, ran experiments for roughly eighteen months at his new lab, and left. The lab was later dismantled and the pieces sold to pay Tesla’s debts. I had read everything there was to read about Tesla. I had looked at old maps and drawn from my childhood raised on the Front Range of Colorado to complete the atmosphere. But, my descriptions were lacking a certain authenticity. You couldn’t quite imagine the town yet, picture the clouds of dust rising softly around your feet. And while I couldn’t travel back in time, I could visit the town, 115 years in the future.

Shortly before Christmas 2014, I arrived in Colorado Springs. Like so much of Colorado, Colorado Springs was born of gold fever. The 1859 Pikes Peak gold rush brought the first settlers into the region. In 1871 the town of Fountain Colony was laid out, along with Manitou Springs. In addition to the mining that was done around Colorado Springs, many people came to the area for the health benefits of the dry climate. Fountain Colony would later be renamed Colorado Springs. Colorado itself achieved statehood on August 1st, 1876, and became known as the “bicentennial state”.

My first stop in Colorado Springs was Tesla’s first stop: the train station. The Denver & Rio Grande Railroad Depot was completed in 1887 and remained operational until the late 1960s. The station is not in use today, though it continues to be well-maintained and was even decorated for the Christmas Holiday.

My father used to write non-fiction books, pictorial essays, about the railroad and he always included his own photographs, shot with a traditional film camera. Though I was sporting a several years out of date Canon DSLR, I think I had never felt closer to my father. My young childhood was spent in the back of his green jeep as he and my mother carted me around the western United States, looking for trains to photograph. In addition to the death of his clientele (the old timers who worked on the railroad and still appreciated film photography), the advent of 9/11 made it all, but impossible for him to continue with his books. Where he had so easily been able to walk right up to the tracks and get onto the surrounding hillsides to frame his shots, most access points to the train tracks were now blocked by barbed wire and other deterrents.

But no one is concerned with an empty train depot. I easily creep around the back of the building to take a look at the tracks and the platform. If one could erase the highway overpasses, it is fairly easy to picture the station as it would have been over one hundred years ago. All hustle and bustle with the whine and hiss of steam engines.

Tesla stayed at the Alta Vista Hotel, in Room 222 or 207, depending upon which story you consult. It is said that Tesla selected his room on the premise that the room number was divisible by 3, a prime number. While I had known that the Alta Vista Hotel was long gone, I am not prepared for the surprise of it being completely taken over by a bank with a drive-through. I had been imagining a gaping hole where it had been. As if you could cover up something that vital to the town’s early life.

Around the corner is St. Mary’s Cathedral, one of the buildings I had come to visit more for its age than because it had any actual relevance to Tesla. According to the Church’s website, St. Mary’s was the first Roman Catholic Church in the Pike’s Peak region. More to my interest, the majority of this structure was completed in 1898, the year before Tesla arrived.

It’s a beautiful church, as most churches of a certain age are. St. Mary’s has been well-kept and modernized over the years. Many of the features of the church were embellished or added on later, though the core of the building, the beautiful red brick, has remained the same.

In the downtown area, many of the buildings and streets have retained their original layout. Tejon, Kiowa, Cascade. All names that can be found on historical maps. Many of the buildings bear historic plates, attesting to their age and the sights they have seen.

I drive down Tejon, looking for more buildings from the late nineteenth century. I discover an old day nursery and several wonderful specimens of old Victorian homes. I also find myself near one house that was built in 1902. Tesla’s lab was located outside this downtown area, about a mile behind The Colorado Deaf and Blind School. The school itself had grown from its early days as a single building. I park in the neighborhood across the street from the entrance (a neighborhood also composed entirely of Victorian Homes) and as I get out of the car, I hear a bell tolling the time.

The bell continues to peal as I walk up to the fence outside the school. Here, finally, I can feel Tesla’s ghost again. I have no proof that he ever left his lab and went into town, ever walked into the buildings I’ve just seen. But this school was about the only thing out here besides his lab. He would have been aware of it.

Though most of these buildings weren’t here in 1899, the fact remains that the deaf and blind students who were educated here lived less than a mile from Nikola Tesla.

To find the spot where Tesla’a lab stood, I don’t have to travel far, about a block or two further down. An enormous park takes up the right side of the street as I turn on Foote.

My phone’s GPS dings that I have arrived and I glance around, a little bit confused. There’s no remnant of the lab having ever been here. Residential houses, decorated for the holidays, line both sides of the street. I had known the lab had been entirely dismantled, but I didn’t imagine it would be so completely erased.

I stop in front of the largest house on the street, the one Google has dropped a pin on. A couple comes out of the backyard. They give me a curious look, but don’t ask me what I’m doing. That seems to be the theme of the day. Hardly anyone seems very concerned about me. What a difference from San Diego, where any sort of odd behavior would prompt a question or two.

I head over to the park, where there’s a marker dedicated to Tesla. As I wait for the light, I notice the statue to the fallen firemen on the corner. It’s a little bit ironic that this monument and Tesla’s marker are sharing the same park. After all, during the eighteen months Tesla was in Colorado Springs, his experiments caused at least one grassfire.

The monument to Tesla turns out to be just a plain wooden sign underneath an old tree. Tesla’s trail has officially ended here.

It starts to snow, fat, lazy flakes. It’s a good thing I only want to make one more stop. I need to leave before the storm really hits.

Lowell Elementary is a beautiful, red brick building still in use as a school today. And even more striking is the panoramic view of Pike’s Peak you’re afforded from the front lawn. I grab a few pictures of the school in the snow before admiring the mountain. Wreathed in wispy snow clouds, there’s a glow on Pike’s Peak, as if God was feeling particularly proud of his work and decided to cast a spotlight down on this mountain and all 14,114 feet of its splendor.

I learned a lot from my trip to Colorado Springs. The most important being that I had the layout of the town entirely backwards. From my reading, I had thought the Deaf and Blind School and Tesla’s lab sat in the foothills of Colorado Springs. They actually sit to the east, on the plains. I also discovered that the houses dating from the turn of the century where quite a bit larger than I had envisioned.

Petite by today’s standards as we build our McMansions, but not a shack either. I was also surprised by the use of brick and stone in the architecture. I had been convinced that everything was wood, made to burn.

I think that there’s something to be said about the authenticity, even if it’s not quite writing what you know. As authors we can try to have these crucial experiences. While I’ll never know what it was like to be in Colorado Springs while Nikola Tesla was there, I now know the streets he might have walked, the mountains he saw when he stepped off the train for the first time, the scent of the pine trees rolling off Pike’s Peak, the school he might have gazed at when he stepped outside his lab on a summer morning. We cannot know everything, but we can know what remains to us.

My pictorial diary of that day I spent in Colorado Springs in late December 2014 can be seen here. I am currently seeking representation for my historical fiction novel about Nikola Tesla. If you would like to read more about my writing journey, you can visit my blog at IsleOfBooks.com.

1adf16_4e3d92970c7a4d00b8cd53a62951e52bAbout Shannon Fox:
I have a B.A. in Literature-Writing from UC-San Diego. While at UCSD, Pulitzer prize-winning poet Rae Armantrout selected my poetry as a runner-up for the 2011 UCSD Stewart Prize in Poetry. Recently, I have worked with Tom Jenks of Narrative Magazine and am currently an Assistant Editor at Narrative. I have co-authored an article published in Scientific American Mind Magazine and was an editorial assistant for Teen 2.0 by Dr. Robert Epstein. I was also a research assistant for the recent book, Against Their Will, by Dober, Hornblum, and Newman. My fiction and poetry has appeared in Black Fox Literary Magazine, The Copperfield Review, The Fat City Review and more. I also have my own blog, Isle of Books, and am a contributing writer to the blogs Mooch Mooch Pets and Coastal Premier Properties.

Leaving Books Behind

[For those interested, my book Unwilling Souls begins a week long Kindle Countdown Deal at 8 AM EST TODAY, February 2nd, 2016! For the next two days, it will be just $0.99 on Kindle, with the price going up steadily every couple of days after that. So act quickly!]

Owing to my post last month which directly related how experience shapes writing, I’m going to take a slightly different tack in approaching the topic this month. Show of hands: how many of you have read Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series? It’s an interesting set of books for a number of reasons. The first is that fantasy isn’t generally King’s genre. I’ve often found that talented writers who don’t usually write straight fantasy then choose to attempt it come up with very unusual entries into the genre. It’s as if not being immersed in the rules of the genre, both written and unwritten, means they approach a fantasy story with a very different mindset. Justin Cronin’s series The Passage has similar traits.

But I digress. The real reason The Dark Tower is such an unusual series of books is that King published them over a period of twenty-two years (1982 – 2004, and thirty years if you count The Wind Through the Keyhole, which came out in 2012). And since books 5-7 were published within a year of one another, the publication frequency became even more lopsided.

This is an impressive feat. Keeping the enthusiasm for a series of books up for that long is pretty much unprecedented, at least recently. As much grief as George R.R. Martin gets, his series has been ongoing since 1996, so he’s just second place on this list of two I’ve generated. There were plenty of Stephen King fans who, prior to 2003, thought they would never get the end of their beloved series.

It’s tough to keep up enthusiasm for one idea for that long. To be a writer requires a lot of enthusiasm, because there is very little in the way of positive feedback, especially in the early going. Certainly there’s no monetary feedback. It’s almost impossible to put fingers to keys if you aren’t excited about the ideas you are putting down, or at least excited about finally finishing those ideas. What readers ended up getting with The Dark Tower was a series of four books, each of which was written in a different style and with a vastly differing plot. No two of those first four books were really anything alike. Each was its own, unique animal, with strengths and weaknesses that largely differed from any other entry in the series. The overarching plot connecting them was very loose and free-form. By contrast, King wrote books five through seven back-to-back-to-back in an effort to finally put the series to bed. As a result, those last three books demonstrated a much more uniform style and a renewed focus on the overarching plot of the series. In the end, the main seven books of the series were written by five different versions of Stephen King over a period of a quarter century.

Talk to enough writers, and you’ll start to hear the same refrain over and over again: ideas are easy, execution is hard. And it’s true. My friend Gama Martinez is famous among his friends in the writing world for being able to take any weird or random notion you throw at him and sketch out a story concept within a few minutes. Most every author has more ideas knocking around inside their head than they can ever write about. And the sad truth is that plenty of those ideas, as excited as you may be about them when they pop into your head, may wither on the vine before you get to them. People change. The things that interest or excite them change too.

After my first Superstars seminar, I returned home with renewed writing vigor. Over the course of two months, I wrote a 100,000 word first draft of a superhero novel. It flowed out of my brain faster than anything I’d every written before. Then I started looking at it and realized how many problems it had. Ultimately, it was a series of mostly cool scenes and chapters that didn’t really fit together into a single, cohesive story, and I wasn’t sure, at the time, that I could find a way to make them fit. I put the book aside and began work on something new, my burst of excitement over my superhero story fizzling.

I told myself I would come back to it, rewrite what needed rewriting to fix the structural problems and not waste all that time I spent coming up with that world and those characters. And yet here I am five years later, and I still haven’t rewritten that novel. I’m neck deep in a four book series, now, unwilling to break my momentum with major side projects. After that’s done, the possibilities of the blank page may call to me more than a massively flawed novel first draft.

Time marches on. Our lives take us in different directions, and the topics we focus our thoughts on shift in compensation with these changes of direction. Sometimes, as writers, we outgrow ideas, or even entire stories. That’s okay. In fact, it’s perfectly natural, change being the only universal constant and all.

Write down your most exciting ideas when you have them. Even if you can’t get to them for years, you may find a way to spin them together in another story. And if nothing else, they are a snapshot of the kind of writer and the kind of person you were at the time.

 

About the Author: Gregory D. LittleHeadshot

Rocket scientist by day, fantasy and science fiction author by night, Gregory D. Little began his writing career in high school when he and his friend wrote Star Wars fanfic before it was cool, passing a notebook around between (sometimes during) classes. His first novel, Unwilling Souls, is available now from ebook retailers and trade paperback through Amazon.com. His short fiction can be found in The Colored Lens and A Game of Horns: A Red Unicorn Anthology. He lives in Virginia with his wife and their yellow lab.

You can reach him at his website (www.gregorydlittle.com), his Twitter handle (@litgreg) or at his Author Page on Facebook.

 

 

Write What You Know or No?

All right, Mark Twain, sounds simple enough.

If you’re a writer, you’ve probably heard this sage advice: write what you know.

Our experiences help shape who we are and what we believe about the world, so they can be valuable veins to mine when it comes to writing. No one person in the world has had the same combinations of experiences as you. However, many have had similar combinations of experiences and have lived in the same time as you. That connection of shared, similar experiences can help engage readers and draw them in to your book. This is why the saying, “Write what you know, ” is so popular in writing circles.

But this advice isn’t the end-all be-all. Plenty of arguments can be made against it.

Oh, I see what you did there.

What if a physical handicap has limited the writer in combat experience, but the writer wants to write a medieval sword fight?

What if you’re a boring person? Do you just write about owning seven cats at one time because that’s what you’re familiar with? What not showering for three days does to the human body? Not clipping your toenails for three months?

While those topics can be very interesting and you should totally write about those, perhaps there is room for adding more information to your story even if you haven’t yourself experienced it.

This month, the Fictorians will discuss personal experience verses imagination: which

Okay, I don't even know anymore.
Okay, I don’t even know anymore.

is more important and where the two intersect. We’ll also consider how far you can/should/maybe shouldn’t go to experience what your characters experience. We’ll include some interesting experiences we’ve had, which may or may not include learning how to deal with post-combat stress, retracing Nikola Tesla’s footsteps, butchering our own meat, and breaking bones.

Later this month, we’ll get an exclusive interview with Fictorian Frank Morin, author of the series The Petralist.

Now we’re curious. In the comments below, please tell us how far you’ve gone to gain experience for writing!