Listen, writers, this is gospel or my name’s not John Doe

A Facebook friend of mine claims that every story you want to write is sitting “out there” in limbo or maybe Topeka waiting for you to discover it, copy it into a DOCX file, and send it off to HarperCollins for $1000000000000000.

Does that sound crazy or what?

actorsFar be it from me to dispute it because the gospel truth is stranger than fiction. Working writers use meditation, dreams, magic, quantum entanglements and whiskey to meet with their characters once a month and talk about stories. Think of these people as, not beta readers, but beta writers.

Every one of them has ideas. Like actors, they all want to direct. These meetings are like casting calls (when you have a new story to write), brainstorming sessions (when one of them wants to run an idea of the flagpole) or encounter groups (when the sock puppets get out of control).

It’s completely safe because weapons are checked at the front door and watched over by a guy who looks like Dirty Harry. If you get too close to the guns, he says, “Well, you gotta ask yourself, do you feel lucky punk?”

theoaksI meet with my characters at a seafood joint called The Oaks in Panacea, Florida. The real Oaks has been closed for years, but with powerful meditation techniques and/or a shot of Scotch, the place returns out of the Ochlockonee River mist with the same reality that Brigadoon appeared to Tommy Albright and Jeff Douglas in the Scottish Highlands.

Since Eulalie (Conjure Woman’s Cat) is the best cook, she fixes fried mullet, hush puppies and slaw for the crowd while we shoot the breeze over old times, swap recipes for cathead biscuits and saw mill gravy, and stay away from the guy guarding the weapons.

Last night, Eulalie asked how her next story was coming along and I had to tell her it was running behind schedule. Emily (Emily’s Stories) said I promised her she could look for ghosts at the old Perkins Opera House in Monticello, Florida. “I know where it’s hiding,” she said.

nogunsRuby (The Seeker) wanted to know why she didn’t didn’t have a part in Snakebit. “Anne and I are like family,” she reminded me. “Who the hell do I have to sleep with to get another story?”

Laurence Adams (The Sun Singer) showed up even though his story doesn’t take place in Florida and said, “If you had finished writing another story set in Glacier National Park, it would be selling like hot cakes this summer during the hotel’s 100th anniversary. Please tell me you people aren’t eating mullet. High class Floridians don’t even eat mullet.”

You can see why we check our weapons at the door.

Okay, here’s what you do.

  1. meditationChoose a real place for your meeting. Make sure the owners (if any) don’t know about the meeting.
  2. If you know the names of your characters or prospective characters, write them on a piece of paper in blood (hopefully not yours) and bury it (the paper) in a deserted graveyard while nobody’s watching. If you are looking for fresh ideas, include words like “Chainsaw Killer,” “Honest Lawyer,” and “Sexy Vixen.”
  3. Steal somebody’s meditation techniques off the Internet and suddenly feel like your eyes are getting tired, that your brainwaves are entering the alpha state, and that you can “see” your meeting hall filling up with wonderful people and probably a feel wannabees. (Don’t over-do the meditation and go into a stupor.)
  4. Check all weapons.
  5. After finishing your favorite foods and beverages, ask your current and prospective characters if they believe stuff like “every story you want to write is sitting ‘out there’ in limbo or maybe Topeka waiting for you to discover it, copy it into a DOCX file, and send it off to HarperCollins for $1000000000000000.”
  6. When they say, “Does that sound crazy or what?” tell them you’re ready to hear some better ideas. Listen carefully with an open mind and an open heart. (This means not saying, “Hey, dirtbag, what kind of bozo idea is that.”)
  7. tonightshowNow, listen, writers, this is gospel or my name’s not John Doe: When you come out of your meditation (assuming you come out of it), you will have the best darned ideas for the best darned stories in the best of all possible worlds.
  8. This is important: Don’t discuss your new idea with anyone specially friends and family for they’ll share it with everyone and before you know it, some clown from Chicago or Miami will be sitting in a chair on the “Tonight Show” telling the world about YOUR BOOK. Well, it would have been your book if hadn’t blabbed the storyline to people who can’t keep a secret.
  9. Write the thing. Then give Jimmy Fallon a call. I know, I know, he’s no David Letterman or Johnny Carson, but he’s probably good for couple hundred grand in sales.

There you go.

–Malcolm

KIndle cover 200x300(1)99centsMalcolm R. Campbell is the author of the Jim Crow era novella, “Conjure Woman’s Cat,” which is on sale on Kindle today (July 18th) for only 99 cents. Eulalie claims she gets a 50% cut of the action or else.

 

 

How to destroy the pacing of your story

thrillerNovelists trick us in multiple ways in order to ramp up the suspense of a story. Important facts are concealed, backstories aren’t revealed, and point of view is shifted from one character to another keeping readers outside the head of the person whose thoughts would reveal important clues.

One trick annoys me, probably annoys others, and disrupts the pacing of the story. Let’s call this “hurry up and wait.” Here’s an example:

The Bomb

Joe opened the suitcase. There is was: enough C4 to level the building and a timer with ten seconds left in the countdown. The timer was old, sounded like a plastic clock.

The tick tock, tick tock reminded him of summer evenings at the lake when Dad not only woke him at the crack of dawn, but kept him awake most of the night with a loudly ticking alarm clock. Every time it woke him, he lay there waiting for it to go off in an explosion of bells and sunshine. Before the left the old cabin, he threw that darned clock in the lake, hoping a gator might eat it. He had to smile in spite of the bomb in the suitcase. If Dad were alive and sitting here next to him, he would love the sound of that timer.

When a story is racing toward a critical moment, stopping the action for an absurd reason cheats the reader, for it builds tension where there should already be enough tension to cover the action.  In this example:

  1. No sane person faced with a bomb with just seconds to defuse is going to walk down memory lane in his thoughts. He will run, throw the bomb out a window, or defuse it.
  2. Some novelists don’t pay attention to the time it takes a reader to read a passage. I always note it. In this case, the bomb will explode before Joe finishes his thoughts about the lake and the clock simply because the thought takes more time than he has.

A similar sin, somewhat less grievous, is the insertion of backstory information into a scene where, in reality, there’s no time for it. Now, if you’re a reader or a writer who isn’t concerned with the amount of time thoughts and memories take to occur, this won’t bother you as much as it bothers me. Consider this:

The Highway

Sue lit another cigarette and blew the smoke out the open window of the car. Goodness knows, she was driving fast enough for the wind to draw everything out the window including her soft voice, her hair and the gnats that took over the car while they were parked at a rest stop.

“What are we going to tell our parents when we get there,” she asked.

“If you’ll slow down,” said Jim, “we’ll have more time to come up with an elaborate lie.”

She laughed, looked at him sideways, and punched his shoulder gently.

“I’m eight months pregnant,” she said. “What kind of elaborate lie do you propose.”

Other than how she happened to get pregnant, Sue was forever practical. He preferred jokes and delays and white lies. If he could think of a real whopper, he would resort to that. This road was a highway of lies because it connected their hometown with the beach cottages. Things happened at those cottages. Always had. The road home, lined with saw palmetto and scrub oak and a few longleaf pines, was a fertile ground for fibs, large and small. They literally fell out of the trees. If they’d been fish, they would have jumped into his boat. Sue felt uncomfortable with lies. That’s why she drove down this road faster than the law allowed.

“You’ve been overeating,” he suggested.

Okay, maybe there’s some relevance in the fact Jim uses the road as a time and place for covering up whatever he did at the beach.

  1. Nonetheless, this diversion destroys what was developing as a back-and-forth dialogue of short sentences. The pace one can create with that kind of dialogue gets derailed with the intrusion of a giant paragraph of information.
  2. Plus, I feel like asking the author exactly what Sue is doing while Jim has this multi-sentence thought. Yes, sooner or later such conversations have to end. But not before they’re naturally over.

Pacing can help a writer’s work or destroy it. Sometimes, it’s a matter of personal taste. If you read your stuff aloud, you’ll hear the pacing as surely as you hear the rhythm of a song on the radio. The pace not only needs to feel right, it needs to make logical sense. I think it’s illogical for a man defusing a bomb to think about something else, and I think most people having a conversation would be saying “Jim, Jim, Earth to Jim” before Jim finished his thoughts about the road and the lies he found on it.

Pitch-perfect pacing keeps the thrills in your thriller.

My two cents for a Monday afternoon.

–Malcolm

 

Perhaps we’ve lost too much of the magic

“‘The ancient world was full of magic,’ writes novelist C.J. Cherryh.  ‘Most everyone north and northwest of the Mediterranean believed that standing barefoot on the earth gave you special knowledge, that the prickling feeling at the back of your neck meant watchers in the wood, and that running water cleansed supernatural flaws.'”

–On Myth and Magic in Terri Windling’s post

Since we, as a world, have grown up, most people no longer believe this; or, if they do, they don’t admit it.

Ignorant superstition or pagan religion: that’s how such ideas are often categorized.

fantasyartIn one of my novels, I said that we’d exchanged magic and wonder for science and technology. Goodness knows, there have been benefits to some of that. But it seems a little skewed to me.

Too little magic. Too much technology. Some say, that our technology will one day rule us (literally, not figuratively as it does now) and will become so self-aware that it (the computers and machines) will decide that humans are no longer needed.  Kind of like the Terminator movies.

I’m subversive when it comes to magic. I put it in my fantasy novels where it seems almost natural enough to be real. I hope some readers think it’s real by the time they finish the books. If not that, I hope they are willing top ponder the question of its reality with open minds.

Perhaps we’ve most too much of the magic because we never believed enough in ourselves as individuals. Did we assume scientists, inventors, governments and corporations knew more about everything than we did? Did we see ourselves as too small to trust what our hearts suggested to us?

Hard to say. The magic discussion can get very circular because it’s often said, you won’t find magic if you don’t believe in it. That may be true, but it’s also convenient because it’s a false method of trying to prove a point.

Maybe we don’t have to believe in magic to find it. Maybe all we have to do is entertain the possibility that it’s there. It’s not too difficult to walk barefoot across a field or a beach and see what happens. Naturally, doing that with our arms crossed and our minds cynical isn’t going to help. Better to play. To dance there or enjoy the scenery with all of our logic on hold.

In my stories, I suggest magic is there waiting for characters to see it. Some do, some don’t. Maybe those who see it are crazy fools, but what if they’re not? If we dismiss things out of hand, we’ll never know.

–Malcolm

Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of the upcoming folk magic novella “Conjure Woman’s Cat.”

Tell me a story

Hey! Mr. Tambourine Man, play a song for me
 I’m not sleepy and there is no place I’m going to
 Hey! Mr. Tambourine Man, play a song for me
 In the jingle jangle morning I’ll come followin’ you
–Bob Dylan

We who write are tambourine men, poets, liars, con men, dreamers, pied pipers, spinners of yarn, spinners of mirages, tinkerers with reality, profane disciples of all that’s engraved in the sand on a beach, creators and destroyers of worlds, demons and tricksters and gods, snakes in the grass, and golden eagles flying high above the divides between night, day, worlds, sleep and consciousness.

minotaurWe who write intend to lead you astray for that is where you will find yourself, your salvation, your journey’s beginning, your lover, your treasure and everything that matters and gives substance to life.

If you read our words, if you follow the jingle jangle of our stories, we promise you that whatever you thought was engraved in stone was in fact fluid and that whatever you thought was fluid was your imagination and that reality is always a deck of cards that you can choose to play face down or face up depending upon your penchant for fate and destiny.

We who write cannot be trusted to give you a straight answer for we only know dark and crooked roads and the stories that live alongside them. But do not take care or look behind you for the prize comes with the unexpected, the epiphany hidden amongst devils and the light that shines on the darkest night for those who walk with their eyes wide open.

Believe what you will, but when you follow tambourine men, poets, and liars there is no turning back though you may believe some dream or illusion that you have turned back as we all go deeper into the labyrinth toward Minotaurs that will–if the gods be kind–tell us the secrets of life if we survive the journey.

We who write are always en route to the center of the labyrinth where all stories lead us, and where they will lead you, too, if you dare to say, “Tell me a story.”

Malcolm

Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of “Conjure Woman’s Cat.”.

Fiction writing: is it about the money?

Yes and no.

moneyYes, because unless you’re writing stories for your children, for your own amusement, or for small, non-paying newsletters and magazines, full-time fiction writers consider their career a business even if they are partially supporting themselves as teachers, researchers and other jobs.

No, because focusing on money–for most writers–gets in the way of developing and telling a story. This is not to say that we’re unaware of the realities regarding salable novels and short stories by writers at one stage of their career or another. One reality is that, without a strong platform or a lot of friends in the business, most unknown writers will not be able to sell novels as long as those written by Diana Gabaldon, Eleanor Catton and Donna Tartt. Another reality is that, if we’re writing in a genre, we know what’s more or less acceptable within that genre and what isn’t.

So, while we can choose to stray outside the “rules” of genres, especially as defined by the mainstream of out intended readers and we can choose to write 500,000-word first novels, most choices about characters, plots, settings, dialogue and themes are (or should be) divorced from the question: will this make me more money or less money?

I dislike the trite phrase that “writers must wear multiple hats.” But it’s short, sweet and true. At some point–and perhaps this usually comes from experience–we learn how to compartmentalize our writing business. While those compartments–marketing, sales, research, writing, editing–obviously interact with each other, having such divisions in our work allows us to concentrate on one or the other without being distracted by concerns that don’t relate to the task of the moment.

Worrying About Work That’s Already Completed

New writers worry a lot about rejection slips and why it’s taking publishers or agents so long to respond to manuscripts and queries. Quite often, they’re spending so much time checking the mail and e-mail for a yes/no response about the last story they sent out, they find themselves unwilling or unable to work on the next story. Then, if the response they’ve been waiting for finally comes in as a NO, they’re in the worst possible place to be thinking up something new when, if they had something new already in progress, they could go back to it.

Writers also learn–and maybe this is another experience thing–to separate the kinds of writing they do. Those of us who have partially supported ourselves by writing feature articles, grant requests, news releases, computer help files, and training materials can step from one to the other without having to re-learn approaches and styles. The same is true when fiction’s involved. We can transition from writing news releases during the day to writing a Gothic novel at night without getting mixed up about what we’re writing any more than a tennis player worries about using different techniques and equipment when s/he plays a round of golf.

Compartmentalizing our work not only helps us organize the work week rather than trying to run a business by randomly jumping from one task to another, it helps us tell stories without thinking about money. If we write commercial fiction as well as literary fiction, we learn to step into the needs of the story and genre we’re dealing with. We know before we start what the rules are and we know that the commercial fiction is probably more salable, but then we put that knowledge aside and tell the story.

If money’s a concern while we’re writing the story, the story will probably suffer for it.

–Malcolm

thesailorcoverMalcolm R. Campbell is the author of contemporary fantasy, satire and paranormal stories and novels, including “The Sailor.” The novel tells the story of a pacifist who ends up serving aboard and aircraft carrier during the Vietnam War. Truth be told, friends and family cause more trials and tribulations than most of the demands of shipboard life.

 

 

On location: your childhood growing up place

“Everywhere that July in 1963 there were the pines, their long needles shimmering in a faint wind under the hot subtropical sun. In the country there were empty dirt roads, rutted by mule carts. In the towns, sprawled unpainted shacks without windows. Ancient Negro women sat fanning themselves with palm leaves as they stared drowsily from rickety porches at their zinnias and coral vines and heavy-scented honeysuckle bushes. Moss-draped oaks and lacy chinaberry trees shaded sandy dooryards. Scrawny dogs, the flies buzzing at their noses, slept among ragged-feathered chickens poking for scratch feed. Locusts whine from tall magnolias and the steady pitch of power saws. But mostly it was those pines and the tang of their resiny branches and the dark straightness of their trunks. All of it looked like the south of the novelists and the poets, heavy with antiquity, romance and misery.” – Gloria Johoda in “The Other Florida.”

longleafforestI was in college in 1963 when my friend Gloria Jahoda wrote those words. Like me, she wasn’t born in Florida, but in her now-classic book about the state’s panhandle she observed and wrote about what many long-time residents no longer noticed or took for granted. “The Other Florida” was other because it wasn’t filled with tourist attractions, widely known beaches and movie stars.

Other than a few childhood poems, I wouldn’t write about the other Florida until recently. My family moved there from Oregon just in time for me to enter the first grade. Out of the culture shock of the move, I also saw the place I would live for 18 years through the eyes of an outsider.

Yes, my family went to St. Augustine, Tampa, Daytona Beach and Key West, stopping at many gaudy tourist attractions in between. But all that was crowded and nearly fake with an overlay of commercial glitz and I was always happy to be home even though much of the panhandle was considered backward and impoverished in spite of having the state capital in the middle of it.

The place is abandoned now, but this was my favorite place to eat down at the coast
The Oaks is abandoned now, but this was my favorite place to eat down at the coast

I haven’t been back to north Florida since the mid-1980s when my parents died and my brothers and I closed up and sold the house the family had lived (by then) for some 35 years.

In my childhood days, I learned the territory like most kids did…swimming in clear, cold sinkholes, camping with the Boy Scout Troop in the piney woods, hanging out with friends at our pristine and uncommercialized beaches, exploring the Florida Caverns at Marianna, deep sea fishing in boats that went out from St. Marks, learning the voices of Snake Birds and Limpkins at Wakulla Springs, delivering newspapers throughout my neighborhood, marching in parades downtown with the high school band. . .

We lived in Tallahassee in a day when mule wagons were still on the streets and many homes were built on unpaved, red clay roads.
We lived in Tallahassee in a day when mule wagons were still on the streets and many homes were built on unpaved, red clay roads.

I saw what Jahoda saw, partly because I was new, partly because the outdoors was our playground in days before the Internet, and partly because my folks arranged day trips to may special places within the confines of this map. In the days before high gasoline prices, my best thinking place was my 1954 Chevy on a dark country road at night. I don’t know what I solved anything, but I saw a lot on the hundreds of miles of roads I saw every week.

Looking Back

There were 40 pine trees in our yard. Plenty of pine straw to take.
There were 40 pine trees in our yard. Plenty of pine straw to take.

If you’re a writer, I urge you to look back to your childhood places and ponder what it was like, what there was to do, what the people were like, and what kinds of stories and legends you heard. Whether you were happy, sad, or borderline average during those days, the memories are potentially very potent.

In looking back, I’ve written (or am in the process of writing) stories on that map set in Carrabelle and nearby Tate’s Hell Swamp, Marianna and the nearby Bellamy Bridge and Chipola River, Tallahassee, St. Marks, Wakulla County, and the barrier islands. My novella in progress is set at a fictional town not too far from Weewahitchka. You can probably find a similar handful of towns near your childhood home. Each has its unusual traditions, the stories people hope everyone has forgotten, legends, ghostly tales, and plenty of Mother Nature.

Florida seems strange to those who did not live there. The same can be said for other places I’ve lived, worked or visited: Northern Illinois, Minnesota, San Francisco, Montana, North Carolina, and North Eastern Georgia. For a writer, a lot of the appeal of going home (literally or figuratively) for stories is the differentness of the place. That adds a lot of appeal to a story. Take a Florida tradition, add in the weather and the pines, toss in a ghost story, and pretty soon you are telling something fresh and knew and page-turning.

You can ramp up your stories with old memories, smiling again with the the joys, possibly even finding closure for the sorrows; your issues, your cares, your friends, your slings and arrows, your memories can be puzzled and camouflaged into your story. They bring strength and depth because you lived them and know what they were all about.

I’ve about wrapped up my Weewahitchka-area story. It gets a potent childhood issue off my plate of memories. More about that later if the publisher likes the story. I think I’ve written some of my best stuff about the places where I grew up because there is so much “material” there I can turn into fiction. That’s why I often urge other writers to look at the towns where they grew up with fresh eyes and see if they can find some stories there.

–Malcolm

$1.99 on Kindle
$1.99 on Kindle

My stories with Florida settings include “The Seeker” (Tallahassee, Carrabelle, Tate’s Hell), “Emily’s Stories” (Tallahassee and St. Marks), “Cora’s Crossing” (Marianna), “The Land Between the Rivers” (Tate’s Hell) and “Moonlight and Ghosts” (Tallahassee).

 

 

 

The power in stories that are told to us

“Modernity and electronic media in particular is killing the storyteller. ‘When electricity came,’ as they say in Ireland, ‘the fairies flew out the window.’” – Richard Hamilton in “Tell me a story,” Aeon Magazine

Wikipedia graphic
Wikipedia graphic

While reading Richard Hamilton’s article about storytelling, I began thinking about how often my parents read me stories, beginning with the old fairy tales. Hamilton quotes folklorist Joseph Bruchac about the spellbinding power of the story when a person hears it being told: “Unlike the insect frozen in amber, a told story is alive… The story breathes with the teller’s breath.”

When my parents and other great storytellers told stories, the stories came alive because of voice tone, volume, pacing, facial expressions, gestures, and the slight variations in the tale that were being dynamically tailored to the moment and to my reactions. Ghost stories told on camping trips could become really scary when the storyteller merged them in with the landscape we saw in the flickering light of the campfire.

The old myths we read, captured in the figurative amber of the printed page or the Kindle screen were once communicated from storyteller to storyteller. They changed in the telling as did many of the legends we have inherited here in the United States from Indian Nations. Time, audience and circumstances impacted the tale. They lived in the moment with those hearing them.

As authors, we know we cannot exactly duplicate (on Kindle or paperback) the aliveness of a story the way a storyteller can. We hope our words, combined with the readers’ imaginations, will make up for the lack of our oral tradition in an Internet world. I am pleased, of course, that two of my books (“Jock Stewart and the Missing Sea of Fire” and “Emily’s Stories) are available as audiobooks. When the narrators do their work well, the audio book can take one back to their childhood days and duplicate a bit of the pleasure of hearing a story told.

When I’m doing research, I dislike podcasts and videos with a passion. Why? Because my eyes can scan a printed page or a PC screen for the information I need much faster than an audio or video discussion of the same subject will provide it.  Whether it’s the Internet or video game or cell phone texts or something else, we’re all (it seems) developing shorter and shorter attention spans.

Yet audio books are very popular these days even though they take more time to listen to than it would take for a reader to go through the Kindle or paperback version. I suspect a lot of people are multitasking. They’re driving to work while listening to the book. That’s good and bad, I guess. They enjoy more books: that’s good. Their attention isn’t focused on the story: that’s bad.

As an author, I hope that the audio book narrator’s power of delivering a good story will partly compensate for the fact that the listener is watching traffic and maybe even exchanging small talk with others in the car. We don’t kid ourselves when we write stories to be read and/or stories to be told: we know most of our readers and listeners consider stories as a luxury rather than a necessity. We’re happy that people enjoy the stories even though the distractions around them are taking away some of those stories’ power.

What about you? Do you listen to audio books for the experience of hearing a story read to you by a powerful narrator or do you listen to them because that’s the only way you can squeeze novels into a busy schedule? And, when the story is one that resonates with you, do you try to find time to listen to it in a quiet room with no other distractions, almost the way many of us heard stories when we were young?

Malcolm

Available on Kindle and as an audio book
Available on Kindle and as an audio book

Malcolm R. Campbell’s three-story set, narrated by actress Kelley Hazen, is available directly from Audible or from the book’s Audible listing on Amazon.

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Allowing a story to happen

Some writers begin with an outline while others just start writing. Either way, the story is likely to have a mind of its own. Characters will do and say unexpected things. Research will turn up new ideas that alter the original ideas for a scene. Regardless of the overall plan, or lack of a plan, the story will need a bit of space in which to grow.

You’ll know when it’s better to wait patiently than to press on with your typing. This often happens at the end of a scene. Now it’s time for the characters to do something else. But what? Or, it may be time for for the writer to check in on another character. But who? Or, perhaps you’ve written up to the edge of A BIG SCENE and you’re not exactly sure how that big scene ought to get underway.

At times like this, I find it better to stop writing for 15 minutes, an hour, or perhaps for the rest of the afternoon and do something unrelated to the novel or short story I’m working on. If the next scene of the story seems close, but isn’t quite resolving into my thoughts, I’ll do something relatively mindless like playing a game of Freecell, hearts or Angry Birds. If I think the scene needs more time to come to mind, I’ll go do errands or mow the lawn.

When I distract myself, the next scene in the story always occurs to me out of nowhere.

I suppose there are many theories about this. I really don’t want to know them. If I did know them, the whole process might simply stop working. Anyhow, I have my own theory about it.

If you think about some of the methods people use to relax, especially those who do psychic readings or are using biofeedback to get rid of a headache or a sore back, the process begins with visualizing a relaxing place, slowing the breath, and then follows through various self-hypnotic methods that will slow one’s brainwaves and heart beat.

Now, I’m not suggesting Tarot card readers ought to begin with a game of hearts on their computers before spreading out the cards or that Freecell will send energy up and down your chakra system to improve your well being. Perhaps. At any rate, my mindless activities tend to produce the same results as structured or unstructured meditation. The result? I’ve stepped away from the story, relaxed, and allowed it to happen.

My won/lost percentage for Freecell, hearts, chess and other games on my computer isn’t good because once I begin playing them, the next scene of my story is likely to occur at any moment and to be so compelling that I can’t wait to get back to my Word file and start typing again. At that point, I’m ready to quit the game in a second and get back to the larger-order of fun: writing.

I suppose we all have our little tricks and superstitions. One way or another, they seem to be in our writer’s tool kits as the magic behind the curtain that allows our stories to happen.

Malcolm

a heroine’s journey adventure for your Kindle

Knowing the history of your favorite states makes your stories better

I have been a member of the Montana Historical Society for at least 25 years even though I live in Georgia. Why? I fell in love with the state after working two summers in Glacier National Park. Since the state’s history and environment fascinate me, I look forward to each new issue of the Society’s award winning Montana The Magazine of Western History.

The places where my novels are set always figure strongly into their plots and themes. Much has been written about the Rocky Mountains and Glacier National Park. I try to keep up so I can make my descriptions as accurate as possible and to ensure that my plots are viable within those settings. Even though I don’t write historical novels, I also feel that knowing the history of an area adds to my understanding of a state or region and enriches my storytelling.

Unlike many of our high school and college history classes that focused a great deal on remembering dates, reading the articles and reviews in a historical magazine is a joyful experience. There’s no pressure to take notes and/or to guess which five facts will be on a pop quiz or the final exam. In the  Summer 2012 issue of Montana The Magazine of Western History, the lead article “The End of Freedom: The Military Removal of the Blackfeet and Reservation Confinement, 1880” by William E. Farr features the Indian reservation on the east side of Glacier National Park.

One can hardly visit Glacier without learning about the tribe’s association with the park. If you reach the park by car or train from the east, you’ll pass through the Blackfeet reservation. This well-written article definitely increases my sense of place and the people who are important there.

As a writer, I want to know what I’m writing about—in depth. Obscure facts come to mind long after I read an article and influence plot development in ways I can never predict when each issue of the magazine arrives. My membership in the Montana Historical Society has, I think, been an important component in shaping my three novels set partly within the state: The Sun Singer, Garden of Heaven: an Odyssey, and my recent contemporary fantasy, Sarabande. I always hope that readers, especially those who live in the places I write about, will think that I live there, once lived there, or have spent a great deal of time seeing the sights on multiple vacation trips.

Most states have state, county and local historical societies, tourism departments, and preservation groups that are worth their weight in gold for writers who see place almost like another character in each story.

Table of Contents – Current Issue

  • The End of Freedom: THE MILITARY REMOVAL OF THE BLACKFEET AND RESERVATION CONFINEMENT, 1880, by William E. Farr
  • Protest, Power, and the Pit: FIGHTING OPEN-PIT MINING IN BUTTE, MONTANA, by Brian Leech
  • Breaking Racial Barriers: ‘EVERYONE’S WELCOME’ AT THE OZARK CLUB, GREAT FALLS, MONTANA’S AFRICAN AMERICAN NIGHTCLUB, by Ken Robison
  • Building Permanent and Substantial Roads: PRISON LABOR ON MONTANA’S HIGHWAYS, 1910–1925, Jon Axline
  • Signs of the Times: THE MONTANA HISTORICAL SOCIETY’S NATIONAL REGISTER SIGN PROGRAM, by Ellen Baumler
  • REVIEWS:  Jiusto and Brown, Hand Raised, reviewed by Jon T. Kilpinen / Hedren, After Custer, reviewed by James N. Leiker / Courtwright, Prairie Fire, reviewed by Sarah Keyes / Schackel, Working the Land, reviewed by Susanne George Bloomfield / Wood, Hunt Jr., and Williams, Fort Clark and Its Indian Neighbors, reviewed by Steven Reidburn / Pasco, Helen Ring Robinson, reviewed by Alexandra M. Nickliss / Flint and Flint, eds., The Latest Word from 1540, reviewed by Thomas Merlan / Harvey, Rainbow Bridge to Monument Valley, reviewed by Lawrence Culver

For me, such articles grab my attention like a page-turner novel. Since the reading is fun, I tend to remember it later on when I’m telling another story about the state.

Malcolm

A contemporary fantasy set in Montana, and available on Smashwords in multiple e-book formats.

Our Stories Make Good Conversation

“We’re all natural storytellers, sharing our stories every time we communicate with someone — whether it’s a casual water-cooler chat or deep conversations with a close friend.” — Mark David Gerson in “When Was the Last Time You Told Your Story?

I read Mark David’s post about our natural inclination for sharing our stories with each other right after getting home from a weekend trip for visits with friends and family. Family visits often include updates about what people we used to know are doing now, leading often to “remember the time when” accounts of things that happened a quarter of a century ago.

Visits with friends begin with “what’s been going on lately?” and, as the evening gets late, morph into childhood stories that come forth as one topic leads to another topic through a myriad of diverse pathways. Saturday night, we ended up talking about pivotal moments, events that had a large impact on our life’s work and our points of view. We learned, among other things that our good friend Gordon had had near brushes with death as a child: these were stories we’d never heard even though we’ve known him and his wife Joyce since the 1970s. It just never came up before.

When I was going to graduate school at Syracuse University, my father quite naturally began thinking about his work as the acting dean of the journalism school there when I was several years old. As I haunted the streets he used to know, he began to think of old stories, things that just never came up during dinner table conversations back home. Every week or so, I received a typewritten letter of several pages not only relating tall tales about Syracuse in the old days, but incidents in his life in Quincy, Washington, Ft. Collins, Colorado and the Colorado Rockies, and the San Francisco Bay Area.

These letters painted a picture of what my father’s life was like as a child and also as a young man the same age I was at the time I read them. Unfortunately, during the summer term, we had to vacate the graduate student apartment building to provide living space for summer session students, and this meant storing a lot of stuff in the locked units in the basement. When I came back to Syracuse that fall, I discovered that in spite of the locks, many of the units had been broken into and the contents had been stolen.

I lost a good pair of “roper’s boots” purchased several years earlier in Browning, Montana, and I lost a briefcase where I had stored my father’s letters. Some scum–in my estimation of the people who committed the burglary–was wearing my boots and maybe even attending classes in the same buildings I was using my briefcase. The letters were, no doubt, tossed in the trash.

Today, those letters would be sitting in a computer and could be printed out again. As it was, there was no way to replace them or even to remember the stories they contained.

I thought of this last night when Gordon spoke of putting some of his stories into a book. No doubt, they would mean a great deal to his sons even in e-mail form. But they would have a wider audience for they’re not only interesting–simply as good storytelling–but they contain details about another time and place…what it was like to work in a steel mill or for the long-gone Nickel Plate Railroad.

As a writer, I see Gordon’s stories and my late father’s stories first as the way they might appear as written accounts–prospective essays, articles short stories and novels. But there’s more to them. For a family, they’re history and legacy; for friends, they’re a sharing of experiences.

Our stories not only make good conversation, they forge deeper friendships. So I ask, as Mark David asked in his post, when was the last time you told your story?

Malcolm

Each purchase benefits Glacier National Park