Tag Archives: Mary Pletsch

A Pirate’s Life for Me

yarr coverIn yesterday’s blog article I wrote about drawing inspiration from songs and music.  I provided an example of a short story inspired by a single line in a song.  Today, in celebration of my newest short story release – “The Lighthouse Keeper’s Daughter” in Yarr:  A Space Pirate Anthology by Martinus Publishing – I’m going to talk about a different kind of musical inspiration.

Music is a crucial component of cultures around the world.  When I was planning and writing “The Lighthouse Keeper’s Daughter,” I’d just moved back to the Maritimes, and was listening to a lot of East Coast music.  The East Coast of Canada has a longstanding tradition of sailing, smuggling, and bootlegging, so I found myself easily slipping into the mood to write a pirate tale.  Music helped me immerse myself in the kind of culture I wanted to portray in my story.

Many people are familiar with the song from the Pirates of the Carribbean ride – yo ho, yo ho, a pirate’s life for me – and the classic “Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum.”  One thing I didn’t want to do is create a pirate story too much like the ideas of pirates that are already common in popular movies like Treasure Island and its sci-fi Twin, Treasure Planet, or the fantasy-flavoured Pirates of the Carribbean.  Everyone’s familiar with the charismatic captain and battles on the high seas and hidden treasure chests.  East Coast music gave me some alternate ideas.

The biggest influence on “The Lighthouse Keeper’s Daughter” is the song “Wrecker’s Den” by Kilt.  This song is where I first heard the legend of wreckers.  The legend claims that brigands and thieves would lay out lights around rocks near the shore, signalling safe passage.  According to the story, ships would follow the lights and run aground on the rocks.  The wreckers would then pillage the foundered ship.  I’d never heard of wreckers before, so this song gave me an idea for another kind of pirate.

As I did my research, I wasn’t able to find any historical accounts of ships brought down by this method.  I did find articles alleging that a ship’s captain shouldn’t be fooled by lights on the shore.  (If you do know any historical accounts, please drop me a comment!)  Regardless of whether wreckers were real or a nautical “urban legend,” for the purposes of this story, mythology took precedence.  The pirates in “The Lighthouse Keeper’s Daughter” are space wreckers, bringing down their enemies by means of falsified guidance systems.

On the topic of legends, just as superstitions and “yarns” were common among real historical sailors, tall tales play a key role in “The Lighthouse Keeper’s Daughter.”  The main character, Lees Kai, a navigator and reluctant privateer, hears that his captain has been cursed by the lighthouse keeper’s daughter.  He’s forced to examine not just his own superstition but also his morality:  whether or not the curse is real, has the captain deserved it, and does Lees want to continue to be part of the privateering mission?

Some other songs influenced the space legends in the story.  Lennie Gallant’s “Tales of the Phantom Ship,” a song about a real-life legendary ghost ship that appears in the Northumberland Strait, inspired me to include a fiery phantom starship as one of those legends.  The ghost ship named “Mary Ellen Carter” is a nod to the song of the same name by Stan Rogers.  Great Big Sea, Rawlins Cross and Mackeel are other bands whose songs provided a background soundtrack for writing “The Lighthouse Keeper’s Daughter.”

I’d be amiss not to mention “Barrett’s Privateers,” also by Stan Rogers, which provided loose inspiration for the privateer captain as the villain of the piece.  After all, the major difference between a privateer and a pirate is the government’s seal of approval…

If you’d like to sail with Lees Kai, meet the villainous Captain Crest, and face the curse of the lighthouse keeper’s daughter, Yarr: A Space Pirate Anthology is now available in both print and ebook.

And if you’re stuck on inspiration, take a look through your music playlist and see what ideas come to mind!

Inspiration from Songs

When-the-Hero-Comes-Home-2-coverIf you’ve spent any length of time in a fan fiction community, you’ll probably know what a “songfic” is.  If you haven’t, a songfic can most easily be described as a story interspersed with the lyrics of a song.  It’s the fan writing equivalent of a movie soundtrack.

You’ve seen scenes in movies, TV shows and even commercials where a song plays in tandem with visual images.  Sometimes the lyrics of the song narrate the events on screen.  Sometimes the music helps to create a certain mood or underline a theme.  Or, sometimes, images and music that don’t seem to match can provide a striking and powerful contrast.  (Examples include the “Mad World” commercial for the original Gears of War video game,  or when “I Can’t Stop Loving You” by Ray Charles plays during the destructive climax of 2001’s anime film “Metropolis.”)

Songfics aren’t allowed on certain fan fiction web sites for copyright reasons.  But it’s natural for people, as creators, to use music for inspiration:  to imagine certain songs as the theme songs, soundtracks, or end themes for our novels, stories, or characters.  And this impulse isn’t limited to fan fiction.

Carrie Vaughn’s urban fantasy Kitty Norville series, about a werewolf who hosts a talk radio show, includes a playlist of songs at the beginning of each book that help set the “flavour” of the story to come.  James Roberts, writer of IDW’s “Transformers: More Than Meets the Eye” comic series, tweets a selection of songs that inspire and inform the newest issue right before it comes out.  Stephen King has used song lyrics as epigraphs in his novels or in the text of his fiction (with permission from the copyright holders).

If you’re not Stephen King, the legalities and potential fees involved in directly quoting songs might be prohibitive for you.  Still, songs are excellent potential sources of inspiriation.  Familiar music can help you get “in the zone” while you’re writing.  Sometimes a song can help you imagine the kind of mood, emotion or situation you want to portray in your story.  And sometimes a verse or even a line can spark the idea for a story.

The first story I published, “Blood Runs Thicker” in the ebook edition of “When the Hero Comes Home 2” by Dragon Moon Press, was inspired by a single line in a song.

Jim says some destinies should not be delivered…

The song is “In Thee” by Blue Oyster Cult.

Every time I heard this line – and I’ve been listening to this song for years – I wondered about this line.  Why “shouldn’t” they?  “Should” is a value judgment, compared to “are” or “are not” which are merely statements.  The song goes on to suggest that these destines are delivered just the same as those that “should be.”  What would be the difference?  What would it mean to have this kind of destiny?

“Blood Runs Thicker” is the story of a reluctant war hero who became famous in the service of a cause she doesn’t believe in, in a failed attempt to save the person who mattered most to her.  It’s also the story of her best friend, who finds himself forced into a choice of his own:  helping his friend salvage what’s left of her life is going to come at a heavy cost.  The hero has received one of those destinies that should not be delivered, and now the narrator finds himself pulled into the aftermath of that deliverance.

Songs can be excellent sources of inspiration.  Songs can help form ideas for characters, moods, or as in the above example, even plot.  But songs don’t have to be direct quotes to provide inspiriation.  Tomorrow, I’ll talk about the role of music in culture and how playing a certain kind of music helped me build a world for a story.

Six Degrees of Separation

Make friends with your fellow writers.

Who, the people I’m competing against for publication contracts, agents’ attention, spots in magazines and anthologies?

Yes, them.

Why?  I need publishers, editors, reviewers and readers.  But I’m the writer.  Why do I need other writers?

Very few people are good at everything, and, particularly when you’re starting out, you can save a lot of time, money, and or mental strain by getting some advice from someone who’s done something before.  If you’re in a tough patch, a fellow writer may be more than a sympathetic ear:  they may actually know a coping strategy that worked for them.  And who will know your field better than a fellow writer?

I remember expressing frustration that I couldn’t take part in a book launch event because, at the time, my only publications had been in anthologies and the event was for novelists only.  If I’d been on my own, my aspirations might have ended there.  Instead, I vented to a writer friend of mine.

She said she knew two other writers in the same position as me, and maybe we should get together and do our own launch.  We could call it an “Author Launch” since the books we were in had multiple contributors.  I was in.

Where could we have it?  At the time, I was working for a Business Improvement organization.  One of our member businesses provided us a meeting space, free of charge, on the proviso that the invitees purchase a certain dollar amount worth of food and drink.

Another person knew a guy who specialized in film and photography.  Another person knew a bigger-name local author who agreed to be our master of ceremonies.  Another person designed and printed some posters, which we all helped to distribute.  The authors were invited to be on a radio program.  The local sci-fi community came on board.

We packed the room.  We sold books.  We had fun, and got our names out there.

I could never have pulled off that event all by myself.

Fellow writers can introduce you to key people:  agents, publishers, editors.  They can let you know about new markets, calls for submissions, convention events.  If you want to know who designed their web site, their book cover, their business cards:  you can ask them.

Going to a convention is a lot more affordable when there’s four people splitting the cost of  a hotel room and gas.  This blog is created by a group of writers who met via Superstars Writing Seminars and decided to start a blog together.  I certainly couldn’t maintain the demands of five blog posts a week all on my own!

One big caveat.  The idea is that writers help out other writers, but nobody wants to be friends with someone who is just using them for contacts.  If you take and take and never give back, people will notice.  If you only talk to someone when you want something, people will notice.

In order to benefit from the Six Degrees, you have to be willing to give back.

In every group you will find people you click with and people you don’t, and that’s okay.  If you spend time with people who have a common interest (writing), you will naturally gravitate towards some of them.  It’s likely you and they will have other interests and commonalities–the foundation of friendship.  Some people may not be interested in getting to know you, or may be too busy.  That’s okay too.  Let them go, and focus on the people who return your interest.

If you say you are going to do something for someone, do it unless an extreme circumstance arises.  Being hospitalized is an extreme circumstance.  Putting it off until you feel like it is not.  Most people will be understanding of an unexpected emergency, but if over time you develop a reputation for not making good on your word, it will be hard to shake.

Every writer has to strike a balancing act between writing (what we’re all here to do) and non-writing activities in support of our writing.  Some of those activities may include blogging, conventions, writers’ groups, and hanging out with our writing friends.  It’s your responsibility to decide how much socialization is important (because career-related discussion, venting, support and advice is very important) and how much is procrastination posing as time well spent.  You can’t volunteer for everything if you hope to get your writing done, so choose carefully what you’re going to do:  pick things that will support your career, allow you to give back to your fellow writers, and still leave you time for the writing itself.

Character Names that Mean Something

Sometimes it’s hard to think of a good name for a character, location, or object.  When I first started writing, I would ponder for days, sometimes weeks, trying to find the right name.  Once I got on the Internet, though, I realized that the World Wide Web contains all sorts of resources that can make the task of naming your characters (and locations, and McGuffins) easier.

First and foremost is the wide variety of baby name sites on the internet.  If I know a bit about my character’s personality, I can search “baby names meaning warrior, baby names meaning beautiful, baby names meaning leader, baby names meaning sorrowful.”  I’m often able to come up with a name that suits my character and yet doesn’t sound painfully obvious (hint:  if you’re naming your male character “Rad” then you’d better have more to that choice than just wanting to be sure your readers understand that this character is awesome.)

I’ve often wanted a character to belong to a particular real-world ethnicity (including Indian, Polish, Anishinaabe, and Celtic) and had difficulty naming them, because I don’t like to give characters the same names as real-world people I know from those cultures, and I really don’t like making up some nonsense word that “sounds Chinese, Polish, Celtic, etc” as that can be truly offensive.  Online resources have provided me with lists of authentic names from those cultures.

Three cautions for baby name sites:  as with much information on the Internet,  verification is key.  It’s easy for someone to say that a name or word means something when it doesn’t, and some names have a variety of interpretations (like my own, Mary, which means “chosen by God,” “bitter,” or “rebellion,” depending on who you ask).  Cross-check your source to be sure it’s reliable.

Secondly, consider the culture of the character(s) and the setting of the story.  If your setting is a modern medical school, it’s relatively easy to explain a character with a Greek name, a character with a Swahili name, a character with an Arabic name and a character with a Sri Lankan name as co-workers.  If your setting is in Steampunk England at the turn of the 20th century, the explanation becomes more challenging.  If your setting is a fantasy village and your characters are all natives of the same village, it’s almost impossible to explain why their names are from completely different languages.  And while there can be interesting character hooks in, say, the Italian boy with the Pakistani name, or the Chinese girl whose name, translated, becomes a boy’s name in English, it can be confusing at best and insulting at worst if characters have ethnic names, but no other links to those ethnicities.  Conversely, if your character has immigrated to a society where there is prejudice against her ethnicity, she may deliberately choose a new name that will be easier to pronounce and “fit in” with the majority of that society—or she may be forcibly given one.

Thirdly, recognize that some names carry pre existing associations.  I love the idea of a girl’s name that means “to think like a man”—but the name in question is “Andromeda.”  Andromeda’s already a well-known mythological figure and if I don’t want to conjure ideas of constellations and sea monsters in the reader’s imagination, perhaps another name is a better choice for my character.

Google can also be an invaluable tool if you’ve just made up a name that you think sounds really cool.  The subconscious can play tricks on us; it’s possible that we might be borrowing a name that we’ve heard somewhere before and not realize it.  Do you really want the star of your space opera to be named Luke or Kirk?  Or the name that sounds neat to us might be similar to a word that’s embarrassing or offensive in another culture (witness the word “slag”, where the word’s literal definition is waste material from coal production.  Sounds like a badass heavy-industrial name for, say, a fighting robot–except that in Britain, “slag” is a derogatory slang term for a promiscuous woman.  Oops!  And this is why a certain Dinobot has recently changed his name to “Slug.”)  When I make up a cool-sounding new alien species, planet, or character name, I always run it through Google to see if it’s already part of some other franchise, or if it has meanings or associations that I didn’t realize.

The World Wide Web can provide writers with all kinds of inspiration for naming characters, places and objects.  Search engines also provide a quick and easy way to double-check that the neat and totally original new name you just thought up hasn’t already been used by someone before you.