My What?

So…when someone asks you what your “special sauce” is it’s hard to know exactly what to say. Do they want my katsu sauce recipe? Do they want the password to the secret underground culinary fight club? Are they coming on to me? Who knows.

I bet he knows.

But if the question is what makes my stories sound like me…well that’s a difficult question to answer. I’d like to think that my nerdy and off the wall humor is my signature thing but not all of my stories are humorous — my poetry definitely isn’t. Plus I’m not the only author who tells those kinds of jokes so I still couldn’t claim that it’s mine and only mine.

So what is my signature bit? Well…the best way I can think to describe it is to say that it’s like Doctor Who. Every Doctor has their own thing. Sometimes it’s as simple as a signature outfit, sometimes it’s a catchphrase like allonsy or Geronimo, and sometimes it’s jokes about eyebrows that can be used as bottle openers. While other times it’s a story line that makes you think. It’s that last one that I think if anything is my “special sauce” it’s that. When I write my stories, whether it’s a novel or a short story, I try to put in something that’s going to make the reader think and ask themselves if they would have done the same in that situation…followed by a pithy break the tension. Just kidding. I do it two pages later…and only on Saturday nights.

But of course this is all conjecture since only Mr. Shooty McBangbang knows what the question really is.

Using Whole Foods in your Characters’ Diets.

Since the month seems to be focusing on the food aspects of writing, I thought I’d be trendy and go in the organic direction. When I think of organic or whole foods, I think of simple, the way nature intended, unadulterated ingredients. In relation to characterization, I think of characters with a rich and unique background, not created to fit the story, but naturally emerging from their setting, lifestyle, and experiences. Many of my readers tell me that’s my special sauce, that my characters are unique and distinctive from one another. How did that become my strength? I’m not sure, but here are a few ideas.

Psychology and people watching: I didn’t like people as a child. When I was young, I decided that people were cruel, selfish, devious, and impossible to interpret or understand. I may have been somewhat lacking in social skills. I determined that animals were superior in all ways. As I grew older and a bit more mature, I realized I had to get along with my fellow humans and the best way to do that would be to understand them and why they do what they do. Thus started my non-career interest in psychology. As I learned, both from books and personal experience, my attitude shifted. I love people. We’re amazing, complex, and limitless. The way that who we are merges with our genetics, environment, and experience, shaping every person to be a little bit different is fascinating. One of the aspects of writing that I love the most is the opportunity to present my characters as truly unique individuals.

Language: I speak multiple languages, sort of, and the acquirement and exposure to these languages has led me to an interest in linguistics. In brief, I grew up in an area with many Spanish speakers, studied French in school, served for my church in the Philippines and learned Tagalog and Ilokano, and our young family went to German-speaking Switzerland for my husband’s post-doctorate employment. The only language I ever became fluent in besides English was Tagalog, now long forgotten. Still, the study of those languages along with listening to people speak from different geological, socio-economic, and educational areas, gave me a sense for how different everyone expresses themselves, not only from one culture to another, but also as individuals within those cultures. I believe that understanding bleeds through to my characters, giving them distinctive ways of expressing themselves.

History: I love history. If I had the history channel I’d never get any writing done. One thing that all of us have in common is a distinctive history. That history doesn’t just span a single person’s lifetime, but extends into the generations before. In looking at my characters’ backstory, I try to look at why they had a childhood like *blank,* why they believe *blank,* and what is their connection, physically and emotionally, to the community around them. I don’t necessarily go through in-depth interviews or write everything down, but as I think about those things, my characters develop a unique personality in my head. I tend to see a lot of my scenes and people during my pre-writing like one might see a movie. Bits and pieces of their history, including how that history evolved will churn in my thoughts, the characters and setting birthing from one another.

Like any good recipe, these “natural” ingredients mix together to create a balanced and tasty meal. In the same way, various characteristics combine to create well-rounded individuals in our stories, with strengths and weaknesses, distinctive patterns of speech, and unique wants and needs. I don’t know if this list helps in any way with your own writing, but I hope that as you consider these points with the characters you create, you can see them as unique people, friends or enemies, as real in theory as the people you interact with on a daily basis are in reality.

Colette Black Bio:
Author PicColette Black lives in the far outskirts of Phoenix, Arizona with her family, 2 dogs, a mischievous cat and the occasional unwanted scorpion. Author of the Mankind’s Redemption Series, The Number Prophecy series, and the upcoming Legends of Power series, Colette writes New Adult and Young Adult sci-fi and fantasy novels with kick-butt characters, lots of action, and always a touch of romance. Find her at www.coletteblack.net

 

As Much Weirdness as Will Hang Together

Me again! A bit earlier in the month, I spoke about one of my favorite authors, Daniel Abraham, and what I believe constitutes the “special sauce” that separates his writing from that of others.

Now, I’ll be subjecting you, dear readers, to my analysis of my own writing. It tends to grow from seeds. I say “seeds” in the plural rather than the singular because I rarely begin a story with a single idea. A single interesting idea is generally not enough (for me at least) to build a story upon. I’ll file the idea away (writing it down if I’m smart) and wait until another, totally different idea, strikes me. If I find that this second idea is challenging–but not impossible–to merge with the earlier notion, a strange kind of resonance begins and my inspiration module kicks into gear. One thing builds upon another builds upon another and on and on they snowball.

That’s how two disconnected ideas:

  1. A race of beings imprisoned in a miniature replica of an entire world
  2. Cities built into the bones of mountain-sized monsters

merged to create the world of Unwilling Souls. These two ideas had, initially, nothing to do with one another. They wouldn’t hang together as-is, so they required tweaking.

Who was this race of imprisoned beings, and why had they been locked away? I decided that these were the gods, locked away in a human-built prison after a failed attempt to exterminate humankind. And the prison itself, rather than simply being a replica of the outside world stored in some fantasy version of the Indiana Jones warehouse, was in fact carved into the very core of the outer world. Prisons require jailers, who require a place to live. The center of a planet is not terribly comfortable and is rather full, so I envisioned a hollowed-out space surrounding the prison-core itself, the magma of the mantle held in check by magic of immense power. In this hollow space, the jailers would live and work, protecting the surface world above from the gods that had sought to destroy them. These jailers would be blacksmiths of a sort, for since the core of an Earthlike planet is made of metal, metalworkers would be needed to maintain this prison of the gods.

So where do the giant beast-bones come in, and why do people live in them rather than building normal cities? Well there were normal cities, it turns out, before the gods began their war against humankind. But in the last gasps of that war, as they realized they were going to lose, the gods summoned up great beasts of truly mind-boggling size (for a real-world comparison, these would laugh at kaiju, chowing down easily on any iteration of Godzilla you can think of). These beasts went on to all remaining cities as well as most of the world before humankind rallied and killed them in turn. Then, having little else to base rebuilding their civilization, they turned to the bones of these beasts and used them as foundations for their new homes. Being magical in nature, the bodies lingered on well past when they otherwise would have. They also retained some other … interesting properties.

So there we have it. A setting chock-full of weirdness that nonetheless hangs together coherently. Or at least, my definition of coherently. What? And incidentally, I’ll be hosting the blog in July for an entire MONTH of good stuff about setting, so stay tuned!

But setting is only part of a story, and worldbuilding alone is not enough. It’s characters that drive a story, after all. And in a world this strange, I wanted characters who were grounded in believable (if larger-than-life) behaviors and personalities. The first story I conceived of for this world was a short story (serving as a prequel to the novels) based a little on one of the oldest there is: Romeo and Juliet, the star-crossed lovers. Larimaine and Cassia mine were called. Because Larimaine’s ancestors had opposed the gods in the war and Cassia’s had joined with them, their relationship struggled to bridge an almost endless societal divide. (Also, Larimaine wasn’t nearly good enough for Cassia). They don’t work out, of course, being star-crossed and therefore tragic (but not, like, DEAD tragic) by nature.

I write this way, with pieces finding odd connections to other pieces, because I find great joy in it. An individual idea will rarely spark my interest enough grow into something lager. But as multiple ideas start crashing around together, they bring out nuances in one another they could never have achieved alone. Finding these connections, finding ways to make them all fit together like puzzle pieces from different sets merging to form a picture both impossible and utterly believable is what keeps pulling me back to the keyboard. I’ve always been fascinated with how the world works, with how pieces of science and society and behavior fit together.

Writing fantasy is, at its core, simply a way of determining how a world works. It’s a secret sauce tasty to both myself and, so far at least, my readers!

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 (all right, during) classes. His novels Unwilling Souls and Ungrateful God are available now from ebook retailers and trade paperback through Amazon.com. His short fiction can be found in The Colored Lens, A Game of Horns: A Red Unicorn Anthology, and Dragon Writers: An 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.

 

Don’t Forget to Tweak the Recipe

Bakery dessertsAs Guy discussed yesterday, sometimes it’s necessary to change up an author’s approach and writing style when developing stories in very different genres. It’s also important to make sure different stories in the same genre feel unique and fresh, even though they’re recognizable as written by the same author.

You can use your own special sauce, but still need to tweak the recipe so stories don’t feel so similar readers feel bored or frustrated.

A great example comes to mind. Long-time favorite author, David Eddings. He wrote great epic fantasy, and part of his special sauce included large casts of endearing characters. Sure, a lot of those characters easily fit into fantasy tropes, but he portrayed them with flair and humor and made them real. As a young reader, the characters felt alive to me, like long-time friends, and I was eager to share in their adventures.

Eddings introduced some of my all-time favorite characters in The Belgariad, a five-book series that followed the development and growth of the simple farm boy Garion until he matured into Belgarion, the mighty sorcerer and king of a league of nations. Cool stuff. Belgarath, the ancient and grumpy old sorcerer was a hoot to read about. Silk, the spy/assassin/thief, fascinated me, while Barak, the hulking viking-type warrior was a classic brute with a heart of gold.

Then in The Mallorean, Eddings again launches into a very similar tale, using the same beloved characters. That second five-book series was one of my favorites as a teen. The characters were well developed, they played off of each other extremely well, and their adventures were fun and creative. Eddings even poked fun at the fact that the second series was so similar to the first, and that actually worked really well.

A later series that Eddings wrote offers a cautionary tale, though. The Elenium, although a fantastic series in its own right, included perhaps too much of Eddings’ special sauce. Although on its face the story is very different from the epics centered around Garion, it explored very similar concepts. The most striking similarity was how the characters interacted. The makeup of the protagonist team was very different, but it felt like they were falling into the same patterns as the group of companions in the Belgariad and the Mallorean. For me that made it harder to enjoy the books because it felt like Eddings was trying to imbue the same hearts into his cast. That was sad, because they were really good books, but they needed a little more space of their own to really shine. I wonder sometimes, if I had read them first, would I have loved the Elenium more and felt the Mallorean was too much of a copycat?

I still recommend reading all of those series. They’re classics and well worth the read. I’ve found that with pretty much every favorite author, there are lessons I can learn. With Eddings, it’s distinguishing the different series a little more. I’m grateful to find examples of what works and maybe what doesn’t already out there to learn from and make my own writing that much better.

So develop your special sauce, be aware of it, and at times be sure to change up the recipe with a new story or series.

About the Author: Frank Morin

Author Frank Morin
Rune Warrior coverFrank Morin loves good stories in every form. When not writing or trying to keep up with his active family, he’s often found hiking, camping, Scuba diving, or enjoying other outdoor activities. For updates on upcoming releases of his popular Petralist YA fantasy novels, or his fast-paced Facetakers Urban Fantasy/Historical thrillers, check his website: www.frankmorin.org