Unintended Consequences

English: `Stone circle` in a small open space.

English: `Stone circle` in a small open space. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

While doing research for my new novel, I stumbled across something fascinating, and disturbing. One of the primary settings in the book, a church in southern England (which I won’t name because I don’t want to risk spoiling the story) appears at first glance to have a history dating from early in the last millennium. It has classic gothic architecture, with a form and design used in many of the churches that dot the island. But if you take a closer look, you see something doesn’t look quite right. There’s something odd about its foundation.

Around and under the base of the church, in regular intervals, are large, odd shaped rocks that have been incorporated into the structure. A little poking around and you’ll find the answer to what these rocks are. They comprise an ancient stone circle dating from the Bronze Age, used for centuries before the first missionaries reached the English soil by druids and others for worship and burial.

The church is built right on top of a pagan ritual site.

This opens the doors to all kinds of possibilities. Perhaps the early Christians wanted to appropriate this ancient place of worship to convert the people of the area. Maybe they wanted to cover up a religion that wasn’t compatible with their own. Or perhaps, they left the stones on purpose, exposed underneath the base of the church, to proclaim the superiority of their God.

Whatever the reason, the outcome is mysterious. The church was a setting in my new novel before I knew this particularly wicked detail. I’d picked it out from a search of churches in the area due to its appearance, but honestly, I could have chosen a dozen other churches in a dozen other towns. In fact, I’d already had the story plotted, and almost 1/3rd of it written before I discovered the rune stones in a place I’d already featured prominently. I felt as if the story had led me there, as if it had been part of the story all along. I just had to discover it myself.

I have to assume that this isn’t the only church built on pagan ruins. Perhaps it is the way of the world. But I can’t help but think that something remains of those people long ago who prayed to different entities. Call it what you want – spirits, energy, ghosts – but these things remain long after the physical has died. I’ve written about it before, in my post on Sarah Winchester. Here, in this English church, things that are opposed are existing on the same ground.

One of the characters from my new novel, an old woman imprisoned for witchcraft, gave this warning: “Be careful when you mix the gods and the demons. You can’t put them all in one place and expect them to stay happy.”

I can’t wait to see what else I discover about my own story.

What have you discovered while writing? Has something ever snuck up on you, without warning, and made you think that, just maybe, this wasn’t your story after all?

Writing Beautifully Disturbing Things

“Thus strangely are our souls constructed, and by such slight ligaments are we bound to prosperity or ruin.”

—-  Mary Shelley, from the novel “Frankenstein” (public domain)

Although I have read almost more books that I can count by Stephen King, my favorite book wasn’t written by him. I also enjoy books not by “commercial authors,” of which – for better or worse – Stephen King is considered one of. My favorite book is “A Prayer for the Dying” by Stewart O’Nan. He writes dark literary fiction, but when I stumbled upon this book and finished it, I was shocked. This was horrifying to its core. And, delightfully beautiful.

By Stewart O’Nan

It was this book that inspired me to write in a new fashion.

“A Prayer for the Dying” is the story of a lawman, minister, and undertaker – all the same person – in a time of plague. But it’s not just his story – it’s yours as well, because the novel is written in second person.

Not many writers can pull this off, at least, not that I’ve seen. But this book is brilliant. You feel the emotions stronger, you feel the desperation as if it was yours, and you know the horror is real, because you are the one confronting it. Stewart O’Nan scarred me for life with this one, and I liked it.

But more than the unique perspective, this was the first modern horror(ish) novel I’d ever read that paid as much attention to the prose as it did to the events. The way he uses the language is an essential part of the story, for it puts you in the proper time, and the right place to see the things that are happening. It takes place before cell phones and the internet and the automobile. It is about a time when people rode trains, and bicycles, and sent messages by telegraph. I think in that time, attention spans were longer, and people looked to words not just to be thrilled, but to be enraptured.

When you think of horror as a genre, a few authors come to mind – Lovecraft, Stoker, Poe, Shelley. None of these writers would be given a chance today, because “literary horror” is not considered marketable, at least, by many in the business. But I wonder why? “Dracula” still scares me when I read it, and I’ve read it more than once. The words keep bringing me back. Poe frightens me with poetry – an art form that is decidedly on the out in popular media – and the line I presented at the beginning of this post – a line from “Frankenstein” – shows how deeply we can connect our fears to the beauty of our existence.

I wonder what you think? Is there a place in the market for a book that tells what could only be considered a “horror” story, and yet does not follow the pattern or the style of modern commercial fiction?  Would we have such staples of our culture as Count Dracula and Frankenstein’s Monster if writers of a century ago were concerned with churning out as many novels in a year as they could? Or is it our fault for wanting something much simpler to read, that doesn’t challenge us to take note of the more subtle uses of the language? Will literary horror – like a mummy rising from a tomb – live again?

To Save a Dream

Endless road

Endless road (Photo credit: BuBcSek)

How do you save a dream?

You know what I’m talking about. If you haven’t had the moment, you will, someday. You might find yourself on the edge of a failed relationship, and all of the hopes you had for the future feel like they are dying. All of the unrealized things you will never be, all of the forever you planned your life around.

You may be facing the loss of a job, a job that gave you your identity, provided stability to your family, and allowed you to be who you’ve become.

You may even be facing the loss of your health, knowing that there’s no turning back to the way things used to be. No rescue from the suffering that has come, and will come.

Or, you could have that moment, that realization, that your possibilities are still farther away than you’d hoped they’d be by now. You look into the distance, and see only miles of road, when you’ve already walked for endless miles. And you know other’s have already made it to their destination. You begin to wonder if you’re on the wrong path.

It would be so easy to stop, and begin the walk back home. So easy to sit down on the roadside, and wait for the first car to take you back to where you started.

What do you do then? There are as many answers as there are people, and I’m interested in yours. How do you save a dream?

The Valley of the Shadow of Death

Denali Rainshower - Alaska -  Mountains

Denali Rainshower – Alaska – Mountains (Photo credit: blmiers2)

That place told of in those common words, always associated with suffering, the phrase a concoction of old English and ancient Hebrew, changed many times in modern translations, but never meeting the poetic formulation that has seared these words into the vernacular.

What is it like there?

It means many things to many people. Struggle, disappointment, heartache, fear. To those of us who’ve endured the trials of sickness, it means something more. It is a place we know well.

I have some very unique views on life and purpose. I’ve tried to voice them here, but I know sometimes my words seem dark. Like a painter, writers also give impressions of the things they see, the view surrounding them. They pay attention to the nuances of light, and the subtleties of color. And they try to describe, the best they can, what they see.

Many people fear those words “…walk through the valley of the shadow of death…”  But there is something more that comes after. “I shall fear no evil.” That isn’t to say you embrace evil, or celebrate evil. It means you aren’t afraid to paint its face, or say how it looks. Because in that valley, you see it every wrinkle and scar on its face.

I’ve seen things and felt things that were a privilege to experience. The lifeless struggle of a hospital bed. The agony of hurting the ones you love with your pain. The joy of taking a drink, and having it stay down. I’ve been to the Valley, and now, I find myself recalling those scenes, remembering the stories I heard there, and writing of the darkness.

But I try, I always try, to show how the darkness doesn’t stay. We may believe it will, but it won’t. A valley is a low land between hills or peaks. On the other side of any valley is a rise. It may be a gentle slope, or it may be a mountain. On the way to the mountain, we all pass through some valleys. Most of us, when we do, are afraid.

But we should not fear evil. It can’t follow us up the mountain.

Psalm 23:4

Climbing

Mountains - Autumn in Denali

Mountains – Autumn in Denali (Photo credit: blmiers2)

Every day I sit down in front of my computer and look at the screen. There are remnants of what I wrote the day before scattered across a Word document, scratches across the soil of my excavation. I’m trying to unearth a story, and it’s not an easy task.

When I look at that screen, almost every time, I experience a profound fear. I glance over the words, and I wonder where they came from. Sometimes I wonder who wrote them. They look so unfamiliar.

And then I begin to feel sick, like I’m lost, like I’m just pretending. Because I have no idea how to make words like that appear on the page again. I know I’ve forgotten how to do it, that my story will die in the middle of a random page because I’ve forgotten how to write the lines, the words, just like I’m feeling now, trying to finish this sentence.

Sometimes it takes more time, sometimes less, and then a thought will come. I write it down. I take a note. Then a few more thoughts come, building off of the first. I write them down, and then change my mind. I move the cursor back to the place on my manuscript where I left off and begin again.

Many people compare writing a novel to climbing a mountain. When you begin, the climb seems so high that you don’t know how you are going to make it up the thing. But with each step you get closer and closer. And if you just keep climbing, you’ll eventually be able to see the peak.

That’s what they say.

I also believe writing is like climbing a mountain, but not in the way I mentioned above. To me, as a writer, every morning, you have to start again, from the bottom.

Today

Driving Into the Sun

Driving Into the Sun (Photo credit: Travis S.)

Today, someone will wake up and be afraid.

Today, someone will wake up and know they can’t change what’s wrong.

Today, someone will see someone they love in pain.

Today, someone will not see the sun, for they thought the wrong thoughts, and have been imprisoned for it.

Today, someone will learn that love is a hurricane, and not everyone survives hurricanes.

Today, someone will wake up and have no one to say ‘good morning’ to. Or ‘good day,’ or ‘good night.’

Today, someone will hate God, but not know why.

Today, someone will hate themselves, and blame God.

Today, someone will wish that they were someone else, maybe someone like you.

But today, you have a chance to change the world. Today, you can redefine yourself. Today, you can be someone to admire, someone to respect, someone with strength. Today, you can help someone in need, you can comfort someone who is sad, you can fix something that’s broken.

Today, you can do what you’ve always wanted to do, you can try something new, you can start over.

Today, you can forget what you can’t change, and start living to never want to change another thing.

But most of all, today, you can be thankful for what you have, and if you have nothing left, you can be grateful that you have another chance to have something. Because someone admires you. If no one does, they just haven’t met you.

Because some people will wake up, and have nothing to dream about. But you do.

So be thankful that, at least, you can dream.

Unintended Consequences

English: `Stone circle` in a small open space.

English: `Stone circle` in a small open space. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

While doing research for my new novel, I stumbled across something fascinating, and disturbing. One of the primary settings in the book, a church in southern England (which I won’t name because I don’t want to risk spoiling the story) appears at first glance to have a history dating from early in the last millennium. It has classic gothic architecture, with a form and design used in many of the churches that dot the island. But if you take a closer look, you see something doesn’t look quite right. There’s something odd about its foundation.

Around and under the base of the church, in regular intervals, are large, odd shaped rocks that have been incorporated into the structure. A little poking around and you’ll find the answer to what these rocks are. They comprise an ancient stone circle dating from the Bronze Age, used for centuries before the first missionaries reached the English soil by druids and others for worship and burial.

The church is built right on top of a pagan ritual site.

This opens the doors to all kinds of possibilities. Perhaps the early Christians wanted to appropriate this ancient place of worship to convert the people of the area. Maybe they wanted to cover up a religion that wasn’t compatible with their own. Or perhaps, they left the stones on purpose, exposed underneath the base of the church, to proclaim the superiority of their God.

Whatever the reason, the outcome is mysterious. The church was a setting in my new novel before I knew this particularly wicked detail. I’d picked it out from a search of churches in the area due to its appearance, but honestly, I could have chosen a dozen other churches in a dozen other towns. In fact, I’d already had the story plotted, and almost 1/3rd of it written before I discovered the rune stones in a place I’d already featured prominently. I felt as if the story had led me there, as if it had been part of the story all along. I just had to discover it myself.

I have to assume that this isn’t the only church built on pagan ruins. Perhaps it is the way of the world. But I can’t help but think that something remains of those people long ago who prayed to different entities. Call it what you want – spirits, energy, ghosts – but these things remain long after the physical has died. I’ve written about it before, in my post on Sarah Winchester. Here, in this English church, things that are opposed are existing on the same ground.

One of the characters from my new novel, an old woman imprisoned for witchcraft, gave this warning: “Be careful when you mix the gods and the demons. You can’t put them all in one place and expect them to stay happy.”

I can’t wait to see what else I discover about my own story.

What have you discovered while writing? Has something ever snuck up on you, without warning, and made you think that, just maybe, this wasn’t your story after all?

 

The View From Halfway

Ludwig van Beethoven

Ludwig van Beethoven (Photo credit: robert.molinarius)

Every skill, every art form, every task has one similarity. I’m pretty sure you know what it is.

I’m a writer, but I’m also a musician. Not a very good one, but I do play several instruments, and I find a thousand analogies between the two activities. Many writers think that they should be able to sit down at a keyboard, without learning about the craft of writing, the history of literature, the evolution of the story, the classics, modern prose, and award winning books, and turn out the next masterpiece. That’s like asking someone who’s never played the piano to sit down at one and play Beethoven’s Hammerklavier. It’s really an absurd thought.

The first time I picked up a trumpet, I simply couldn’t play it. After a month, I wasn’t much better. I was 9 years old. By the time I was 16 years old, I wasn’t bad. Not great, but not bad. That’s a seven year difference. When I first learned the guitar, I was terrible. I know I was, because I still have recordings of myself. After over two decades of playing, I’m okay. I have the ability to be great, I think, but I won’t invest the time it would take to play at that level. I know it would take about 3-5 hours of practice a day, probably for a few years. That’s a lot of time.

Writing also takes practice, just like any other skill. Musicians practice every day for years, sometimes since they were children, and most will never become household names. You probably spend eight hours a day at your job, and after a year or two, you got to be pretty good at it. But many writers don’t have that level of commitment. I struggle to write for 2-3 hours a day. I’m sure it’s not enough.

If you want to know exactly how much practice it takes to be good at something, read Kristina Blackwell’s blog post about 10,000 Hours. For me, it was a wake-up call. I rediscovered what I’d always known. I’ve chosen a very hard thing to do. It’s not easy, nor should it be. No one ever said that writing a novel would easy. You are making art, after all.

“But what about all of those books I’ve read that weren’t any good, and yet sold hundreds of thousands of copies?” Well, if they were so bad, why did you buy them? There must have been something that someone wanted – a certain story, a feeling, an idea. Prose will only get you so far (and not very far) and then you have to have a story to tell. Some people have beautiful words, and no story. But even if your words are lacking, if you have a great story, you are going to get much farther.

Every writer has to decide what kind of artist they want to be, and what kind of audience they want to cater to. You can’t please everyone, and shouldn’t try to. I can read a book, and honestly say’ “Not my thing, but I can see there is something in there of value.” I’m not a Justin Bieber fan. I even admit to making a few Justin Bieber jokes. His music is not my thing. But when I watch him perform, I can see he is the best dancer on the stage. His voice has that “boy-band” inflection down perfectly, even if the lyrics are lacking in emotional depth. He is a master at what he does. And what he does is different then what I do, or what you do, most likely. But the rule doesn’t change with the activity. There is still only one rule for success: you have to be a master.

Until you master something, you won’t be a good teacher, you won’t be a good mayor, you won’t be a good bureaucrat, and you won’t be a good musician. You still might be all of those things without mastering them, but your work will never be commended, you’ll never be noticed, and most likely, your efforts will be unremembered (or worse, be remembered in a negative way). So why do so many people think a writer doesn’t have to work much to become good?

I haven’t reached 10,000 hours yet. I’ve still got a ways to go. But I’ve been writing novels for over 10 years. Hopefully, that is putting me on course to be within range in my lifetime. One way or another, someday, I will master it. I’ve dedicated myself. But the bottom line is – anyone can be successful. Anyone can master this. Anyone – you or I – can do this. We just have to try and try and try some more, until we have it mastered. For all of us, the only way to get closer is to read more, and write more. Your audience will let you know when you are there.