What’s it like to visit historical sites for a story world you’ve only imagined?

Men in red and gold and blue medieval woolen tunics accompanied by shield and spear bearing knights
The Middle Ages come to life in Arezzo, Italy. ©Jan Decher, 2002.

After I moved to Germany, I planned a trip of a lifetime to visit the physical places in my children’s adventure story set in the early Middle Ages. I wrote the story with spreadsheets, maps, Google, and libraries. It was a work of imagination based on research.

The itinerary included the most important and accessible places in the story:

  • Bologna (nearest airport and unexpectedly beautiful)
  • Casa Cares near Tuscany (a family visit to this retreat center brought me to Arezzo and the story)
  • Camaldolì monastery (an 11th century monastery and hermitage)
  • Arezzo (Birthplace of Guido d’Arezzo and my main character’s home. Site of an annual medieval festival that clothes the whole city in the Middle Ages.)
  • Pratovecchio (a beautiful medieval town with arcades)
  • Poppi (site of an ancient castle, and on the route my characters traveled over the mountains)
  • Classe (known for its byzantine mosaics and churches. Site of the Basilica of Sant’ Apollinaire with the mosaic mural of a shepherd with sheep that Bella admires on her way to Venice.)
  • Ravenna (the modern city near Classe and the sea. Organic market under the arcades with medlars, sausages, ricotta cheese and Napoleon squash.)
  • Pomposa Abbey (a powerful medieval Abbey, today much further from the sea)
  • Venice (colors, light, flavors, a museum of boats and the beginning of the sea journey)

I hoped to collect images, recordings, and maybe video to use on a new website. My husband and child #2 are photographers and agreed to be pressed into service.

My goals for the trip were to experience my story world with all five senses and to resist the temptation to go overboard and drive my family crazy.
What actually happened surprised me. Here are some quotes from my trip journal:

Imagination: How does it work? What is it good for?

“I’m constantly adjusting to two sets of ‘memories’: the set from a visit here in 2002 with my parents and the set from Bella’s [my main character’s] imaginary journey.”

“My husband said, ‘Your imagination is important’ meaning, it needed to be recorded and cared for in the midst of confusing landscapes and facts.”

Validation: I got some things right.

“I felt hopeful for the first time in a while when I saw Guido d’Arezzo’s house is close to the church and the park with the Medici fortress. It is downhill to the piazza grande from there.”

“The friendly man in the tourist office agreed that the Cathedral School might have been up where the Medici ruins are now.”

It was so much fun to talk to someone who knew and cared about the real Guido d’Arezzo. I had no idea how much it would help me with the story to get that boost.

Fortune from a Baci chocolate: ‘Metti il cuore in tutto ciò che fai.’ Or ‘Put your heart in everything you do.’

Disappointment: Some things have changed since the 11th century. In many cases, the particular medieval landscape I wanted to photograph didn’t exist any more. The places that felt most like my story were sometimes in the next village over.

“We didn’t get to Camaldolì because we would have been too late getting home.”

Note: we drove a car and my characters walked, went by donkey or in a litter. So much for the spreadsheet distance and travel time calculation!

“The winding roads slow the pace of modernity. Not that much faster than Bella.”

Generosity: the balance between getting it perfect and letting it go

“My husband is very generous to take me places when he would like to sit in the sun and talk to people.”

The experience: What it feels like to travel in unknown places:

“Luke Skywalker could drive a rental car through tunnels surrounded by trucks traveling at top speed. The Death Star is nothing to this.”

“My daughter’s order of ‘latte freddo bianco’ [cold white milk] came with a teacup and saucer and a spoon.”

“A list of things that could bother Bella: mosquitoes (+ malaria), fog and poor visibility, the smells of pig farms and old fish, injuries, cut fingers, blisters, wasp stings, the feeling of being cheated, the need to re-group, trying to recall what she’d seen, angry drivers. . .what is the medieval equivalent of a road with a slow bicycle, a Vespa between lanes, a heavy truck in front and another passing from behind?”

I never expected to walk around in my imaginary world with my family. It was hard to talk about things I hadn’t put into words before and to make a claim that my imaginary people existed in a real landscape. It was magical for me and I think it helped my family understand better too.

This trip reminded me that a story is a kind of hospitality. We invite people in and try to make them comfortable before they embark on adventure.

What makes you comfortable when you set out on adventure? What sparks your imagination?

Adventure Awaits. Click here to enter your e-mail. See behind the scenes of THE WOUNDED BOOK.

What’s in a reversal? Exploring Leigh Bardugo’s RUIN AND RISING.

Gasses bubbling the water at the lakeshore. Geothermal activity at Maria Laach caldera in Germany.
What bubbles to the surface? Geothermal activity at Maria Laach caldera in Germany. ©Laurel Decher, 2015.

Just finished reading Leigh Bardugo’s RUIN AND RISING, the 3rd book of her Grisha trilogy. If you haven’t read it, go read. (Note: This is a YA, not a middle grade title.)

SPOILER ALERT.

Last night, I stopped reading at the end of Chapter 8. Earlier in the chapter, things are looking up for Alina. She takes definite steps to be less isolated from her friends. The reader thinks things are looking up. But after this scene of light and laughter, the friends leave, and there’s one little paragraph:

Later, I could never be sure if I’d done it deliberately, or if it was an accident, my bruised heart plucking at that invisible tether. Maybe I was just too tired to resist his pull. I found myself in a blurry room, staring at the Darkling.”

For whatever reason, Alina has decided to reach out to the antagonist, the Darkling, through the tie that binds them to each other.

This moment in the story felt so real because we all know what it’s like to do something stupid when we just should have gone to sleep. After reading this story moment, I couldn’t sleep either because I knew this decision would ruin her. My reader brain was busy trying to rescue her from this choice.

I almost didn’t pick up the book again the next day. But I was on a train to Cologne and it was on my e-reader. So I did. When the scene didn’t turn out the way I expected, I was so relieved.

So, how did Leigh Bardugo do that?

How did she make the reader SURE that something dreadful was going to happen, without a doubt, and then REVERSE, without losing credibility?

This morning, I finished RUIN AND RISING before I finished traveling, so I had time to ponder.

Megan Whalen Turner’s ATTOLIA series and Dorothy Dunnett’s LYMOND CHRONICLES also have this trick of pivoting the whole story world on a character’s decision or a line of dialogue or an unexpected action.

Middle grade authors, Sage Blackwood and Angie Sage, also pull off this trick.

I really, really want the recipe.

Reversal ingredient list:

  • Reader expectations about the main character’s choices. Which ones look good from a reader perspective?
  • Consequences bubble up naturally early in the story. The reader experiences dread at the moment of choice rather than information overload.
  • Tension: The chapter that follows this passage has a feeling of I-should-not-be-here-but-I’m-too-tired that creates forboding.

Mix in reader expectations to form a smooth batter. Let consequences ferment. Set story aside to rise. Fold in a challenging choice and bake in a hot oven until done.

And then there’s Author Brutality, a.k.a. making things worse.

In his WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL workshops, superagent Donald Maass asks:

“What’s the worst thing that could happen to your main character?”

“It just happened.”

Collective groans and sounds of grief from writers killing off their main characters.

“Now–what happens next?”

Because whatever happens next HAS to be a reversal. The main character has gone as far as possible in the original direction.

Any thoughts about more essential ingredients? Do you like stories with reversals? If you feel like sharing in the comments, I’d love to know your favorite examples.

 

Are you interested in middle grade adventures?

Adventure Awaits. Click here to enter your e-mail. See behind the scenes of THE WOUNDED BOOK.

Exploring the world of Angie Sage’s MAGYK and FLYTE

Alley leading to an archway with light shining behind it. In Sage Blackwood’s JINX books, Jinx wanders around inside the magical spells of others to see how they are constructed. As a reader and writer, I’m doing a similar experiment with Angie Sage’s middle grade novels.

If you haven’t read MAGYK and FLYTE, there may be spoilers. Go ahead and read them first. This’ll be here when you get back.

These are classic battles of good and evil, like the one I enjoyed in Lloyd Alexander’s THE BLACK CAULDRON when I was a young reader. Some of the story gets too dark for my taste, but my wimpiness is legendary.

What did I especially like about MAGYK and FLYTE?

The relationship between the Heap siblings was real and positive and conflicted. Reading Angie Sage’s novels is like belonging to a family with a lot of older siblings–you can see their choices and the results of those choices, but no one points them out. It’s all right in front of us, but we can choose whether we want to pay attention to it or to apply any of it to our own lives. There’s no lecturing about what the right choice is. It’s much more like real life where there are little clues to notice or not.

A variety of strong and unlikely friendships came up in the story. Friendships exist between boy #412 and boy #409, girl and boy, student and past teacher (now a ghost), an experienced boatbuilder and the Heap boy who loves boats, and an aunt who is a terrible cook and the child who loves her cooking. There’s also a the tentative friendship (or frenemy relationship?) between two fathers over a rare magical board game.

Characters have different ways of knowing and the official “smartest” people don’t always come out on top. The most important magical person in the story world oversteps in front of many people and has to face the consequences.

People who are afraid to speak gradually find their voices. This was subtly done and I hate to mention it in case it spoils someone’s reading experience. It’s quite brilliant.

I do like these books, don’t I.

They made me realize I want secondary characters who are more conflicted or at least with different backgrounds and philosophies from each other than I might have already.

Maybe some of my own characters need more differentiation. A trader, a courtier, a warrior, a shipmaster all have world views. Here are a few questions for writers:

  • Have I brought my characters’ worldviews to bear on the story?
  • How does the next generation subscribe to or deny their parents’ values?
  • Have I shown them making mistakes, apologizing (or not), and influencing each other?
  • What kinds of friendships are in the story? Could more be added?

Sage Blackwood’s Jinx is right. It’s definitely worth while to climb around inside someone else’s magic spells.

Looking for an adventure for a young reader?

Adventure Awaits. Click here to enter your e-mail. See behind the scenes of THE WOUNDED BOOK.

What do Babies and Manuscripts Have in Common?

Baby gray flamingoes in a flock of pink adults.
Baby flamingoes are gray and wobbly. But then they grow up. Weltvogelpark Walsrode, Germany. ©Laurel Decher, 2015.

How is a manuscript like a baby? These baby flamingoes in Weltvogelpark Walsrode don’t look anything like their parents.

I’m thinking about the time when my mom came to visit and I had a new baby in the house. I was obsessed at the time with the number of errands I could accomplish before the baby put an end to them.

We lived in snowy Minnesota and doing errands with a new baby was a major expedition. It meant packing the snow-suited child in a thrift store perambulator with a down pillow as a blanket. The snowplows clear the streets, but they throw up snow walls on either side, blocking the sidewalks’ connection to the streets.

The snow is a mix of salt, sand, ice, and snow and, after a few wind-chilled days, settles into a concrete-like mass only accessible to goats. (No complaints, mind you, this sort of physical activity can help a new mother avoid depression and find her waistline.) The other advantage to packing up a child is that you don’t have to heave them in and out of the car and wake them up. I proved very early that three errands were the maximum allowed.

The other option was the car. It’s embarrassingly unenvironmental and wickedly convenient. I once took a visiting Dutch conservation biologist on a tour of all available drive-throughs in our neighborhood. We had a pay-at-the-pump gas station, and a drive-through drugstore, bank, and county library. That’s four.

My mom made a mild comment. “Babies grow up you know. One day, the baby will suddenly be able to do something she couldn’t.”

I didn’t know. Our children are now 21 and 14 and they do all the amazing things other peoples’ children do (and more 🙂 of course). You’d think I knew how this worked by now, but growth still takes me by surprise.

Right now, many #pitchwar contest hopefuls are waiting to see if their manuscripts have unexpectedly grown-up. Like any field of endeavor, writing fiction involves a long list of skills to practice. Maybe today, our strengths are dialogue, pacing, and persistence. Tomorrow, we may find a new vehicle for our story, and achieve a new high in plotting, humor, or voice. “No” doesn’t mean failure. It means “not yet.”

We may yet find a way to delight.

Good luck Pitch Warriors! Many thanks to Brenda Drake and the 108 Amazing Mentors! (They have to be capitalized because they are.)

 

Looking for adventure for a young reader?

Adventure Awaits. Click here to enter your e-mail. See behind the scenes of THE WOUNDED BOOK.

Solve writing jitters the same way you solve speaking Jitters

Rope climbing course in Cologne's Rhine Park
Motion chases the jitters away. Rope climbing course in Cologne’s Rhine Park. ©Laurel Decher, 2015.

In Toastmasters, a community organization that helps people learn public speaking, I learned to move around during a speech. It really does make you feel less nervous. Your large muscles burn up the adrenaline and energy so you aren’t standing there, trembling, with your voice shaking.

If you think about it, doing something that frightens you while standing still makes no sense. It’s like playing freeze-tag with a saber-toothed tiger. Your body is trying to tell you to run away.

I recently noticed that the same thing seems to work on the page. When I start a new sketch or scene or revise a new section, I often move from one chair to another or one room to another or, best of all, from inside to outside on the balcony. Moving helps burn up the nervousness, the resistance, and the hesitation that shows up as soon as I try to challenge myself with something new.

A Scrawl Crawl is what happens when a group of artists and/or writers wander around and create word and picture sketches. It’s the ultimate writing or drawing prompt because it happens in three dimensions. The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Ilustrators members had a few all over Europe this last weekend.

A Scrawl Crawl lets you move from place to place while you write or sketch. This is what I do when I write at home in three different places. Maybe this keeps the editor brain busy with bookkeeping. On my own, I let my writing determine when I move. In a group, it works a little differently. Maybe knowing you will move at a certain time keeps the editor brain busy too?

I’ve been getting lots of chest pains during revision. I’m anxious about finishing it—I think I physically NEED to finish the edits and revisions. Mostly what helps is allowing myself to be immersed in the project. Moving helps me stay immersed.

Caught myself looking at Facebook and Twitter because I had the jitters from a new scene for my current work-in-progress. (Dumb bunny.) Surfing is the electronic version of wandering around the house to jumpstart your project. Except it doesn’t work. It just feels like moving away from the saber-toothed tiger.

On the other hand, a walk or an hour-long seminar that physically takes me away from a project often leads me back into it.

Fortunately, I know of at least two more Scrawl Crawls planned for this year: September 19th in Cologne and November 7th in Düsseldorf. More details soon on Twitter. 🙂

How about you? Does moving from place to place make you more or less productive?

Pitches and Promises: making our writing visible

Cologne Botanical Garden Waterfall Fountain
Cologne Botanical Garden Waterfall Fountain ©Laurel Decher

Pitches and promises that align the story, the agent, the publisher, the reader and ourselves will make our work visible. Last year, I participated in some writing contests for queries and for pitches and for the first 250 words and 5-page excerpts. Agent feedback surprised me:

“If you use a comp title I love, I will request more, BUT you are more likely to disappoint me, unless you can DELIVER at the level of that comp title. A hook, a comp title, a pitch: these are all promises.”

Alignment seems to be the key to becoming visible. When I write a short story, revision is about combing the story from front to back, looking for unity and reinforcing it when I find it. Making metaphors match word choice match internal character change match story problem. The same process happens in a longer book on a slightly different scale.

“Be yourself,” someone told me when I was writing a query the other day. “It’s the only way to get the right agent.”

The trouble is: we are all writers of fiction. There are so many characters inside us to choose from. How do we choose the one we will still be in 10 years?

It’s not possible. The “marriage” with an agent will have to grow as we do. So, we choose one of the people we are now. Paul Tournier’s THE MEANING OF PERSONS writes about the different personas we all are capable of assuming. This is not lying. How many children know their parents as their peers do? Or vice versa?

So, the process to find the agent who can connect to the publisher who can connect to our ideal readers is not that different from the process we use to create and refine and align our work with itself. I think people used to call this integrity. It might be less intimidating to think of it as alignment. We will certainly fail. We will certainly present ourselves in ways that we regret or that will be misunderstood or both. This is the risk of art.

We can choose to be visible, but we can’t choose to be partially visible. I recently visited the picture book museum in Troisdorf and admired the wonderful paintings of the illustrator, Janosch. A beautifully imagined city street with cobblestones and lampposts and windows that rang delightfully true. Our tour guide pulled another sketch out of her bag that was much more controversial and—dare I say?—ugly. It revealed a side of Janosch’s character that was off-putting and it did it clearly.

If we try to cover up the ugly parts of ourselves, we become cloudy and confuse people. An artist’s talent is about communication and a good artist—like a good teacher—shows his or her quirks because it is unavoidable. In high school, my friends and I used to say that the best teachers were all a little odd. This is because excellence doesn’t come in beige.

This is why we hide, even though it is fruitless. The things that hurt us and keep us from growing are under wraps. If we let them out into the light, we may not conquer them at once. We can recognize them when they ambush us. We can call them by name. We can ask for help. And the people we are asking will be able to hear us because we are not hiding.

If we want to get something across, we have to become visible and risk showing what everyone else probably already knows about us. We think our foibles are hidden, but every child knows what his or her parents can’t quite do. Every spouse knows their partner’s blind spots.

Spending so much time with our work can blind us to its strengths. Alignment might help us find them again. Tracing the chain of related character motivations, images, plot points and our own original inspiration might make the strengths visible to us, and to agents, publishers, and readers. It’s re-vision–a process we all know well–only a little more challenging because we have to re-see ourselves as well as the work.

So what does this philosophy have to do with finding a publisher? It’s the same problem we have when we write a novel. First we set readers’ expectations with the opening hook. Then, after an enjoyable ride, we keep our original promise.

These common questions are about finding connection points for the agent, publisher and reader:
•    Why did you write this book?
•    Why are you the best person to write this book?
•    What inside of you drew you to this topic, this story problem, this main character?
[Thanks to the amazing literary agent, Marietta Zacker, for this insight!]

The connection points must be true of our story. Imagination is a way of knowing, but it needs a corrective. The things we dream at night don’t necessarily work in the world we live in during the day.

There is no one right way to describe a story. It is like choosing the scale for a map or unraveling the threads in a Turkish carpet. There are probably many solutions that work. I’m guessing that the ones that work best have resonance and unity. But maybe the contrast of dissonance makes it richer. We’re back in vulnerability territory.

Writing Process Blog Tour

It’s fun to follow the epic and perhaps infinite Writing Process Blog Tour backwards. My favorite description is by Bethany Hegedus. “[T]his collection of blog posts offers tips of the trade, confessions on what makes a writer’s process unique.”

Thanks to Jenni Enzor who tagged me for the Tour. Jenni’s a member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) and I met her on the SCBWI discussion boards. She writes YA historical fantasy, MG mysteries, and historical nonfiction. You can see her answers to the epic Tour questions here.

Here are my answers and a link to Amanda Hill’s blog where she will answer the same questions:

What are you currently working on?

I’m querying THE WOUNDED BOOK, a middle grade historical novel, right now and starting to think about what I want to write next. A novel in the same vein or something in a different genre that popped up after a visit to a natural history museum in Bologna? It’s relaxing to dream on an empty slate.

The front of the Museo di Zoologia in Bologna, Italy

How does my work differ from others of its genre?

THE WOUNDED BOOK is a historical fiction for upper middle grades. My main character was inspired by the innocent and intrepid Philippa Somerville of Dorothy Dunnett’s The Lymond Chronicles. Dorothy Dunnett’s series is set 600 years later than THE WOUNDED BOOK and her work is definitely not middle grade. An award-winning historical writer, she is a master of the genre I call “overly complicated with a fine sense of humor.”

Tracy Barrett’s Anna of Byzantium has a similar setting but is written for older readers than THE WOUNDED BOOK.

Both Tracy Barrett and Dorothy Dunnett have more knowledge about history, Latin, Italian, byzantine literature and geography in their little fingers than I will ever have in my head. The best spin I can put on this is to hope that readers will find my work accessible because I am forced to stay on the fringes.

Men in medieval dress, shield and spear and long, blue, and red and orange tunics parade through an Arezzo street as part of the jousting festival.

I love a snappy, witty exchange between characters when I’m reading and am delighted whenever my characters spontaneously oblige. Dorothy Dunnett is amazing at this.

Why do I write what I write?

I’m still guessing, but the things I don’t seem to be able to stay away from are Italy, music, libraries and cultural differences. It always interests me to know that there is more than one way to do everything–with all the tension that can create.

Story ideas tend to come to me as metaphors, helping me understand one part of life by comparing it to a very different part. Life is fairly mysterious and writing helps me metabolize my experiences. I like to read about characters who are working out their courage to try new things and to take risks in their lives. I hope this comes out in my stories.

How does my individual writing process work?

It would be so convenient to know this. A few things I’ve noticed: 1) When I get uncertain, I look for tools*. As if there were one right answer. It is dawning on me that it is more productive to acknowledge the risk. 2) A fast draft helps me get out of my own way and find out what the story is about. (NaNoWriMo) 3) Twyla Tharp (The Creative Habit) writes about detachment and engagement. She’s so right! I call this the Hokey-Pokey school of fiction writing: you put your whole self in to draft, then take your whole self out to revise.

Walkway on top of Bad Münstereifel city wall, Germany
Walkway on top of Bad Münstereifel city wall, Germany

*I use outlines, spreadsheets, markers, notebooks, and collections of flashbulb moments for the rough draft. My favorite tools are Scrivener (for writing and revision) Toggl (for time tracking), Hiveage (for invoicing) and libraries.

TAG, you’re it!

Amanda Hill, author of a rollicking, fairy-tale mash-up I can’t wait to read: THE WOODSMAN

See Amanda’s answers here.