Tag Archives: writing

Narrative Time vs. Calendar Time #amwriting

Today we’re discussing narrative time, or what we call tense. Narrative tense subtly affects a reader’s perception of characters, an undercurrent that goes unnoticed after the first few paragraphs. Narrative time shapes the reader’s view of events on a subliminal level.

Time_Management_Quayle_QuoteIn grammar, the word tense indicates information about time. Tenses are usually shown by how we use the forms of verbs. The main tenses found in most languages include the pastpresent, and future.

Consider the following sentences: “I eat,” “I am eating,” “I have eaten,” and “I have been eating.”

All are in the present tense, indicated by the present-tense verb of each sentence (eatam, and have been).

Tense relates the time of an event (when) to another time (now or then). The tense you choose indicates the event’s location in time. Imagine a scene where two women meet. They know each other well but aren’t friends.

Firstperson, present tense:  At the fish market, I find Marie holding a fish, as if she knows what to do with it. I know she doesn’t. I ask, “Did your cook finally quit?”

First-person past tense: At the fish market, I found Marie holding a fish, as if she knew what to do with it. I knew she didn’t. I asked, “Did your cook finally quit?”

Third person omniscient (past tense): At the fish market, Vivian found Marie holding a fish, as if she knew what to do with it. She knew Marie didn’t. She asked, “Did your cook finally quit?”

The above examples detail the same scene but are set in different narrative times and narrative POVs. Each change of narrative time or POV alters the feel of the story.

weak-words-when-used-in-transitonsIf we write a sentence that says a character is hot and thirsty, we leave nothing to the reader’s imagination. However, when we change the tense, we are often inspired to rephrase a thought.

  • They were hot and thirsty. (were is a subjunctive verb – passive).
  • They trudged on with dry, cracked lips, yearning for a drop of water.
  • We walk toward the oasis with dry, cracked lips and parched tongues.

The way we show the perception of time for these thirsty characters is the same – the narrative is in the past tense in the first two cases and the present in the third.

Subjunctives (were, was, be, etc.) are small verbs of existence, but just like adverbs that end in “ly,” they are telling words. These words fall into our narrative in the first draft because they are signals for the rewrite.

The narrative time in which the story is set (past or present tense), verb choice, and the expansion of imagery combine to change how we see the characters and events at that moment.

However, there is more to time than the grammatical narrative tense. Calendar time can get a little sloppy when we are winging it through the first draft of a manuscript.

Readers don’t notice how time passes unless it becomes unbelievable. When the passage of time is a realistic, organic part of the scenery, readers accept it and suspend their disbelief.

We try to reveal aspects of the past that are relevant to current events as the story unfolds. You can do this in two ways:

In a chronologically linear plot, you can have the backstory revealed in conversations or letters, etc., and many authors succeed at this plotting style. A calendar is helpful for this.

Digital Clock FaceOther authors manipulate time. They may start with a chapter of action and commentary set in the past. The experiences shown in the prologue show the reason for present day events and actions that are yet to unfold.

Sometimes, past events require several chapters to show the root of the current-day problem and how things didn’t go well, a “Part One.” “Part Two” begins a new section set in the present time, with the characters shaped by those past events.

If you use that kind of opening, the relevance of those events must be made clear to the reader early on in the current time section. In one forthcoming novel, I’ve employed a three-part division of the book. Part one is set twenty-five years back in time and details the actions that broke my protagonist, a battle mage. It shows why even the thought of using certain elements (magic) as weapons brings on panic attacks. Overcoming his PTSD is crucial to advancing the story.

Other authors will employ mental flashbacks, moments of characters dwelling on past events. These scenes work if they are written as the events unfolded, detailing the moments as the character lived them. The past illuminates the present.

But only if we don’t dump the information in large chunks of exposition.

Meriko's Eyes digital art by cjjasp © 2015I’ve read some excellent narratives where the author uses the flashback to ratchet up the suspense in a danger scene. An example could be a character trapped in a small space while a killer searches for her. She remembers being a small child during the war and being hidden in a cupboard by her father when enemy soldiers arrived. Through the keyhole, she witnesses the slaughter of her family.

A flashback scene like that serves three purposes:

  • It reveals our hero’s severe claustrophobia to the reader and shows her as being human and having an Achilles Heel.
  • It ratchets up the tension. The unbidden memories and the hero’s visceral response heighten her panic.
  • It makes the tension feel intimate to the reader, as if they own those emotions.

Flashforwards move us in time, skipping over mundane travel and periods where the story would stagnate. A new chapter and a jump forward in time keep the story in motion—but only if it is clear that some time has passed, during which nothing out of the ordinary happened. These jumps require attention to how the transitions are handled. Mushy shifts between scenes will ruin the pacing of a story.

A calendar is crucial when you are manipulating time in your plot arc. Pacing becomes tricky when a plot calls for unusual timelines.

I enjoyed reading the Time Traveler’s Wife. The plot revolves around Henry’s genetic disorder, which causes him to time travel randomly and with no control, and Clare, his artist wife. She must understand the paradox and cope with his frequent absences.

It is written with alternating first-person POV. I feel the plot couldn’t advance as well if a different narrative mode had been used.

calendarNarrative time and calendar time are separate entities. Point of view and narrative time work together.

  • Calendar time is world-building. It sets the story in a particular era and shows the passage of time.
  • POV and narrative time shape the atmosphere and the ambiance of a scene.

We often “think aloud” in writing the first draft. We insert many passive phrasings into the raw narrative, words that I think of as traffic signals for future revisions. These words are a shorthand that helped us get the story down when we were writing the raw story, a guide that now shows us how we intend the narrative to go.

When you choose your grammatical tense, you have chosen a narrative time, a part of world-building that encompasses the past as well as the present and looks toward the future. It shapes the mood and atmosphere in subtle but recognizable ways.

Calendar time is the physical passage of our protagonists through the days and seasons of their stories.

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Narrative point of view: who can best tell the story? #amwriting

Sometimes, one of the most difficult things for me when writing the first draft is getting the right narrative point of view. Usually, it unfolds naturally from the proper POV, but sometimes, it does not.

WritingCraftSeries_narrative modeSome stories work best with a first-person point of view, while others are too large and require an omniscient narrator.

I usually begin writing the story the way I see it in my mind’s eye, recording the events and conversations as if I were a witness.

But sometimes, I hit a wall – I can’t figure out how to show what I envision. It helps if I look at it from another perspective, a different narrative point of view. It’s surprising how the mood and direction of a story are altered when you view it through a different lens.

Every story is comprised of several narrative modes. Each is fundamental to the story.

A narrative point of view is the perspective, a “lens” (personal or impersonal) through which a story is communicated.

Narrative time is the grammatical placement of the story’s time frame in the past or the present, i.e., present tense (we go) or past tense (we went). We will talk about time in the next post.

Narrative voice is how a story is communicated. It is the author’s fingerprint. Next week, we will talk about voice and what that encompasses.

Other aspects of the story that are affected by the narrative mode:

  • Action
  • Description
  • Dialogue
  • Exposition,
  • Thought and Internal dialogues

Today, I’m working on the narrative point of view in one of my ongoing projects. I am trying to decide who can tell the story most effectively, a protagonist, a sidekick, or an unseen witness.

In this story, I have more than one protagonist, so I used an omniscient point of view in the first draft. Each character’s thoughts and conversations are separated by hard chapter breaks. I make hard scene breaks when the narrative point of view changes because it’s easy to fall into head-hopping, which is a serious no-no.

UntitledHead-hopping occurs when an author switches point-of-view characters within a single scene. It sometimes happens when using a third-person omniscient narrative because each character’s thoughts are open to the author.

The Third Person narrator has four main subsets. In writing, some people will use the words objective narrator (outside observer) and omniscient narrator (god view) to describe non-participant voices. This writer’s tool is like a good wrench: it can be used in several ways for our descriptive passages.

  • The third person point of view provides the greatest flexibility. It’s the most commonly used narrative mode in literature.
  • In the third person narrative mode, every character is referred to by the narrator as “he,” “she,” “it,” “they,” or other gender terms that best serve the story.

The third person omniscient narrative mode refers to a narrating voice that is not one of the participants. This narrator views and understands the thoughts and actions of all the characters involved in the story. This is an external godlike view.

I try to use a less expansive mode—third person limited. In this mode, the reader enters only one character’s mind. When I must change viewpoint characters, I start a new chapter and keep only to their POV for that entire section.

Third person limited differs from first person POV because while we see the thoughts and opinions of a single character, the author’s voice, not the character’s voice, is what you hear in the descriptive passages.

David remembered Selina’s instructions, but things had changed. He turned and dropped the gun into the nearest dumpster.

Some third-person omniscient modes are also classifiable as “third person subjective,” modes that switch between the thoughts, feelings, etc. of all the characters.

This mode is also referred to as close third person. At its narrowest and most personal, the story reads as though each viewpoint character is narrating it. Because it is always told in the third person, this is an omniscient mode.

Close third person is comparable to first-person in that it allows an in-depth revelation of the protagonists’ personalities but always uses third-person grammar. Remember what I said about head-hopping? This is the danger zone.

Rosler-LeFlaneur

Paul Gavarni, Le Flâneur, 1842.

The final aspect of the third-person narrative mode is often the Flâneur (idler, lounger, loiterer.) This is traditionally a form of third-person point of view found in more literary pieces, but it can work when setting a scene.

Sometimes an outsider’s perspective is the right one. If you have had some advanced writing courses or studied theater, you have heard of it as third person objective or third person dramatic.

The flâneur is the nameless external observer, the interested bystander who reports what they see and overhear from the sidewalk, window, garden, or any public place where they commonly observe the protagonists. They are an unreliable narrator, as their biases color their observations. In some of the most famous novels told by the flâneur, the reader comes to care about the unnamed narrator because their prejudices and commentary about the protagonists are endearing.

On Saturday mornings, at seven o’clock, Wilson passed my gate, walking to the corner bakery. He bought a box of pastries, which he carefully held with both hands as he returned. I imagined he served them to his wife with coffee, his one thoughtful deed for the week.

This brings up the two terms, reliable narrator and unreliable narrator. The first-person narrator and the flâneur are unreliable narrators, as are all participant narrators/observers.

The first-person point of view is common and is told from one protagonist’s personal point of view. It employs “I-me-my-mine” in the protagonist’s speech, allowing the reader or audience to see the primary character’s opinions, thoughts, and feelings.

I like writing in the first-person point of view. The story is revealed through the thoughts and actions of the protagonist within their own story, as if they are telling it to me.

Although it will involve a lot of re-writing, my current story needs to be told by the protagonist. I’ve tried to write it from an omniscient POV, but it just won’t come together.

But there is one more narrative mode to look at:

The second-person point of view is commonly used in guidebooks, self-help books, do-it-yourself manuals, interactive fiction, role-playing games, gamebooks such as the Choose Your Own Adventure series, musical lyrics, and advertisements.

Second-person POV is where we guide the reader using “you” and “your” rather than other personal pronouns. It is rarely found in a novel or short story. However, it can be an effective mode when done right.

IfOnAWintersNightOne example of a bestseller written in second person POV is If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler by the late Italo Calvino.

I have to say it is a brilliantly written book. I warn you, it is literary fiction written by an Italian author and translated from Italian to English. (It’s probably not everyone’s cup of tea. I’ve mentioned before that I am an Odd Duck when it comes to my reading material.)

Anyway, in second person POV, the reader sees the story unfold as if through their own eyes.

You think, “I could have changed that.” It doesn’t matter. Here you are, stumbling over the wreckage of your life.

When I am stuck trying to go forward in a first draft, I try changing the narrative mode. I am always amazed by how a story’s tone and direction are altered with each change of point of view.

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When Good Advice Goes Bad #amwriting

The craft of writing involves learning the rules of grammar, developing a broader vocabulary, learning how to develop characters, build worlds etc., etc. Most of us don’t have the money to embark on an MFA program in writing. Instead, we educate ourselves as well as we can.

Jack Kerouak on writing LIRF07252022Even if you have an MFA degree, you could spend a lifetime learning the craft and never learn all there is to know about the subject. We join writing groups, buy books, and most importantly, read. We analyze what we have read and figure out what we liked or disliked about it. Then, we try to apply what we learned to our work.

Most writing advice is good because it reinforces what we need to know about the craft, and simple sayings are easy to remember. They encourage us to write lean, descriptive prose and craft engaging conversations.

The same advice can be bad because it is so frequently taken to extremes by novice authors armed with a little dangerous knowledge.

  • Remove all adverbs.

This advice is silly. Without descriptors, you can’t show mood, atmosphere, or setting. Remember, not all adverbs end in “ly,” so use a little common sense and don’t use unnecessary adverbs.

I am a wordy writer and a poet. I love words in all their many shapes and forms. I know readers like lean prose, so I work to trim it, sometimes more successfully than others. In the second draft, I use the global search (find option) to look for each instance of ‘ly’ words and rewrite those sentences to make them more active.

Margaret Atwood on writing LIRF07252022

  • Don’t use speech tags.

Well, that makes things pretty confusing. Who said that, and why are there no speech tags in this nonsense?

  • Show, Don’t Tell. Don’t Ever Don’t do it!

We’ve all experienced intensely painful feelings, such as fear, sadness, and anger. If you have shared your work with a writing group, you have been admonished to show these emotions rather than saying, “Joe grew angry.”

You can see their point. So, you sit down and rewrite your scene graphically: Joe snarls, cheeks going hot, brows pulling together, eyes glaring, lips curling in a sneer, and fists clenching. Edith sits hunched in on herself with drooping shoulders, downturned quivering lips, shaking hands, nausea rising, and tear-streaked cheeks.

Maybe that much detail is necessary, but maybe it’s not. Set that scene aside and come back to it later. Then look at it with fresh eyes and decide what will be enough to show their emotions and what is too much.

An avalanche of microscopic showing can make your characters seem melodramatic and sometimes cartoonish. Truthfully, that much physical drama doesn’t show a character’s emotions. What is going on inside their heads?

You must either relay the thought process that led to those physical reactions or lay the groundwork with some crucial bits of exposition.

  • Write what you know.

Your life experiences shape your writing, but your imagination is the story’s fuel and source.

  • If you’re bored with your story, your reader will be too.

Flaubert on writing LORF07252022You have just spent the last year or more combing through your novel. This is another example of silly advice that doesn’t consider how complex and involved the process of getting a book written and published is. I love writing, but when you have been working on a story through five drafts, it can be hard to get excited about making one more trip through it, looking for typos.

  • Kill your darlings.

I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating. We can’t be married to our favorite prose. When a paragraph or chapter we love no longer fits the story, we must cut it, save it in a separate file, and move on.

However, cutting a passage just because you like it is stupid. Maybe it does belong there—maybe it is the best part of that paragraph.

  • Cut all exposition.

BE reasonable. Some background information is essential to making the story understandable to a reader. How, when, and where you deploy the exposition is what makes a great story. Hold the deep history back – like a magician, only produce the backstory at the time and place where the characters and the reader need to know it.

Good advice taken to an extreme has become a part of our writing culture. This is because all writing advice has roots in truth.

  • Too many descriptors can ruin the taste of an author’s work.
  • Too many speech tags can stop the eye, especially if the characters are snorting, hissing, and ejaculating their dialogue.
  • Too much telling takes the adventure out of the reading experience.
  • Too much showing can be tedious and is sometimes visually revolting.

Our task is to find that happy medium between too much and not enough. Our voice and writing style reflect our thought processes and the way we strive for balance.

Neil_Gaiman_QuoteWhen we first embark on learning this craft, we latch onto handy, easy-to-remember mantras because we want to educate ourselves. Unless we’re fortunate enough to have a formal education in the art of writing, we who are just beginning must rely on the internet and handy self-help guides.

Something to remember: most readers are not editors. They will either love or hate your work based on your voice, but they won’t know why. Voice is how you break the rules, but you must understand what you are doing and do it deliberately. Craft your work so it expresses what you intend in the way you want it said. So, the most important rules are:

  • Trust yourself,
  • Trust your reader.
  • Be consistent.
  • Write what you want to read.

F Scott Fitzgerald on Good Writing LIRF07252022We can easily bludgeon our work to death in our effort to fit our square work into round holes. In the process of trying to obey all the rules, every bit of creativity is shaved off the corners. A great story with immense possibilities becomes boring and difficult to read. As an avid reader and reviewer, I see this all too often.

Great authors work to learn the craft of writing and apply writing advice gently. Their work stays with the reader long after the last line has been read.

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5 thoughts for a Zen writing experience #amwriting

Every writer is different, with a unique approach to getting their work on paper. There is no one-size-fits-all method for taking a story from an idea, a “what if” moment, to a finished piece. Each of us has to find our own way. I have found a few tricks to jar things loose, organize my ideas, and make a coherent, logical arc out of a story.

But I’m like everyone else; I can’t write creatively when life is too stressful.

ICountMyself-FriendsHowever, I can always write a blog post—which is how I keep my writing muscles in “fighting form.”

When I reach a point in a manuscript where I’ve run out of ideas, I stop forcing it. As an indie, my deadlines are self-imposed, so my production timelines aren’t as finite as a writer who is under contract. I begin a different project and come back to the other one when I am inspired.

Thus, I always have several projects underway. Even if one goes unfinished, I can relax and enjoy the act of creating something from idea to completion. My goals are for me, not for anyone else. I choose to embrace a Zen writing life.

One book I began several years ago feels like it will never be finished because I’m stalled at the halfway point. I have a vague idea of how it has to end, but now that I’m halfway there, I don’t know how to arrive at the end. The original outline just doesn’t work.

So, one goal for that novel during the rest of this year (2022) is:

  • First: Get a new outline completed, with a choreographed ending.

In January, I hope to begin the next phase:

  • Second: Write and revise the manuscript.
  • Third: Self-edit the manuscript.
  • Fourth: Have the manuscript professionally edited.
  • Finally: Have the completed edits proofread.

Nowadays, I hang on to a finished manuscript, let it sit unread for a while, and go back through it a fifth time, looking for typos and cut/paste errors. Then, if I am happy with it, I will have it professionally formatted and will publish it.

Hydrangea_cropped_July_11_2017_copyright_cjjasperson_2017 copyI’m always learning. While I love to talk about writing craft, I am a far better editor than a writer. Free-lance editing is like being a hired gardener—with a bit of work, a trim here, pulling a few weeds there, you enable an author’s creative vision to become real.

Still, I need to write, so I do.

My work doesn’t appeal to readers of action adventure. My stories are internal; the characters and the arc of their personal journeys are the central elements of their stories. While I love the action and the setting, they are only the frame within which the characters live and grow.

The real action is in their heads. I write what I want to read, and I am an odd duck when it comes to literature.

So, I know my work is written for a niche reader: me. It’s not something everyone is looking for.

In the old days, I didn’t understand that. I rushed to publish my work when it wasn’t ready. Not only that, but I marketed it to the wrong audience. Readers of action and adventure aren’t interested in slower-paced work.

With each project that I complete, whether it’s poetry, blog posts, short stories, or novels, I grow in the craft of writing. Blogging about the art of writing from a reader’s and editor’s point of view offers me the chance to discuss the areas I am working on in my own writing journey. Writing craft is something I can write about when I am stalled on my other work.

cropped-cannon-beach-haystack-rock-2010.jpg

The Needles, Cannon Beach,  © Connie J. Jasperson

The first hard-earned bit of wisdom I have to share today is this: you must develop perseverance. No one will satisfy every reader, so write your stories for yourself and don’t stop trying.

The second bit is a little more challenging but is a continuation of the first point: Write something new every day, even if it is only one line. Your aptitude for writing grows in strength and skill when you exercise it daily. This is where blogging comes in for me—it’s my daily exercise. If you only have ten minutes free, use them to write whatever enters your head, stream-of-consciousness. Write a journal entry.

The third bit is a fun thing: learn the meaning of a new word every day. You don’t have to use it, but it never hurts to learn new things. Authors should have broad vocabularies.

The fourth thing: is don’t sweat the small stuff when you are just laying down the first draft. I know it’s a cliché, but it is also a truism. Let the words fall out of your head, passive phrasing and all, because the important thing is to finish the story. Don’t share that first draft with anyone you can’t unconditionally trust because it is yours and is still in its infancy stage.

The fifth thing to remember is this: every author begins as someone who wants to write but feels like an imposter. The authors who succeed in finishing a poem, a short story, or a novel are those who are brave enough to just do it. They find the time to sit down and put their ideas on paper. As time goes on, we overcome the roadblocks that life tosses at us, and we have more time for writing.

Sunset_Cannon_Beach_05_August_2019

Sunset Cannon Beach 2017 © Connie J. Jasperson

Every author I know has struggled in their personal life. Car wrecks, illness, divorce, fires, and floods–things come along. During the years I was raising my children, I had three failed marriages, worked three part-time jobs, and struggled to find time to write poetry. Just when life was getting better financially, two of my children developed adult-onset epilepsy.

Over time, I have learned not to “freak out” when I get the dreaded phone call letting me know something has happened. We pull through, but each episode interferes with my adult children’s ability to do many of the activities we take for granted. I keenly feel their stress, but I let them work it out for themselves.

My stress comes from forcing myself to not be an interfering mother.

For many of us, writing is a way to make sense of the twists and turns of our human experience. It helps me process the complications in a non-threatening way. I don’t write to win awards, and I don’t expect to earn a lot. I have the choice to write and not feel guilty about the goals I don’t achieve. The story is the goal; everything else is a bonus.

Oregon Sunset Taken August 12, 2016 CJJaspersonIn real life, nothing is certain. Adversity in life forges strength and understanding of other people’s challenges. Having the opportunity to make daily notes in a journal, to write poetry, blog posts, short stories, or novels is a luxury—one I am grateful for.

If I can make it a Zen experience, all the better.


Credits and Image Attributions:

The photographic images in today’s post are the work of the author, Connie J. Jasperson. The hydrangeas are from her front garden, and the ocean images were taken at various times in Cannon Beach, Oregon, USA.

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Pacing and the Function of the Action Scene #amwriting

I love writing action scenes. Even though the first draft is only the foundation of the bigger picture, it is fun to write because of the action and events.

ScenesHowever, (cue the danger theme music), once I have set it aside for a while, I will have to begin the revision process. That is when writing becomes work. This is the moment I discover the child of my heart isn’t perfect – my action scenes are a little … confusing.

As I mentioned in Monday’s post, Pacing and the Function of the Transition Scene, we don’t worry about the details when we are in the zone and writing the first draft. We just write it as quickly as possible and get the story’s basics down before we forget the good ideas we had while we were at the store.

It’s a little terrifying how many things I find in my early drafts that must be changed to enable a reader to see the story the way I envision it.

I think of a story as being like an ocean. It has a kind of rhythm, a wave action we call pacing. Pacing is created by the way an author links events and transitions. Now we are going to look at how each action scene flows.

Our raw manuscript has a beginning, middle, and ending. We have linked our scenes with transitions, but our manuscript is not ready for a reader. We still need to flesh that skeleton out.

The functions of the action scene are:

  • to propel the plot forward,
  • to provide stumbling blocks to happiness,
  • to force change and growth on the characters.
2560px-Sargent,_John_Singer_(RA)_-_Gassed_-_Google_Art_Project

Gassed, by John Singer Sargent, via Wikimedia Commons and Google Art Project, PD|100

Genre fiction has one thing in common regardless of the tropes: characters we can empathize with are thrown into chaos-with-a-plot. Scenes of conflict are crucial to the advancement of the story. They should be inserted into the novel as deliberately as if one were staging a pivotal scene in a film.

Arguments and confrontations in real life are chaotic, leaving us wondering what just happened. We want to convey that sense of chaos in writing, but we must consider the reader. Readers want to see the scene and understand what they just read.

Readers want to see the logic behind a book’s plot. So, we must design every action scene to ensure they fit naturally into a narrative from the first incident onwards.

  • Book- onstruction-sign copyWhat motivated the action?
  • Why was the action justified in the character’s mind?
  • What could they have done differently?

Clarity is crucial. Threats can’t be nebulous. Whatever you have the characters do, their reasoning, even if it is flawed, must be made clear to the reader at the outset.

Vague threats mean nothing in real life other than causing us to worry about something that will never happen.

I look for info dumps, passive phrasing, and timid words. These telling passages are codes for me, laid down in the first draft. They are signs that a section needs rewriting to make it visual rather than telling. Clunky phrasing and info dumps are signals telling me what I intend that scene to be. I must cut some of the info and allow the reader to use their imagination.

220px-Sir_Galahad_(Watts)

Sir Galahad, by George Frederick Watts, 1888. PD|100

So, did the knowledge our characters and readers require emerge gradually with each action and transition sequence? Did each clue and vital piece of knowledge fall at the right point in the arc of the scene?

Once you understand the ultimate threat to our characters’ survival, you can dole out the necessary information in small increments, teasers to keep the readers reading, and the plot moving along.

Rumors and vague threats should be the harbinger of future events. But they only work if the danger materializes quickly and the roadblocks to happiness soon become apparent.

Resolving disaster is the story. Once the inciting incident has occurred, hold the solution just out of reach for the rest of the narrative until the final confrontation. Every time our protagonists nearly have it fixed, they don’t, and things get worse.

I use a spreadsheet to design action sequences, which takes a little time. You can use any way that works for you, but I suggest you do it on a separate sheet and save it in your outtakes file with a name specifying what that page details. HG_Tor_vs_dragon_.docx (It signifies: High Gate scene, Torvald vs. dragon. I use MS Word, so its file extension is .docx).

When I put action into a scene, I hope the reader doesn’t say, “She wouldn’t do that.” Random gore and violence muddy the story. Nothing should be random; everything must fall into place as if the next event is inevitable based on what has gone before.

The arc of an action scene is like any other: it begins, rises to a peak, and ebbs, ending at a slightly higher point of the story arc than when it started.

LIRF07172022_B

Whenever you must write scenes that involve violence, ask yourself these questions:

  • Is this scene necessary, or am I desperate? Am I trying to liven up a stagnant story arc?
  • What does this scene show about the world my protagonist lives in?
  • Will this event fundamentally change my protagonist and affect how they go forward?
  • What does this event accomplish that advances the plot toward its conclusion?
  • Why was this event unavoidable?

Blood and sex are often featured in the most profoundly moving stories I have read. However, those scenes only worked for me because they occurred for a reason. They were watershed moments in the protagonists’ lives.

Action scenes are not only about violence and chaotic events. They can convey the setting and mood and offer information about relationships without bloated exposition. Scenes of quiet action can change everything and still act as transition scenes.

LIRF07172022

Here we have a character who wants no part of anything remotely hinting at romance. Yet, there is an attraction that must be shown. We have the warning that significant events will occur later, forcing them to work together. However, in the meantime, one character is standoffish.

I get the most mileage from transitions when I make them scenes of action and information, and I have less of a tendency to dump information – my personal curse.

Large, violent events demand a purpose. Scenes of nonviolent action used as transitions can provide the characters and reader with the reasons for that action.

That ebb and flow of upheaval and relative calm that occurs over the arc of the story is pacing.

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Pacing and the Function of the Transition Scene #amwriting

The transition scene is the most challenging part of the narrative for me to devise in the first draft. I get stuck, trying to decide what information needs to come out and what should be held back. I forget that the first draft is only the foundation of the bigger picture.

transitionsWe add the details when we begin the revision process. One of the elements we look for in our narrative is pacing, or how the story flows from the opening scene to the final pages.

Our manuscript is finished in the regard that it has a beginning, middle, and ending, but it’s not yet ready for a reader. Now that we have the story’s skeleton, it’s time to flesh it out.

Stories are comprised of a string of moments that are connected by common themes. These moments are scenes, and when you put them together in the right order, they combine to form a narrative.

story as an ocean of wordsThis string of scenes is like the ocean. It has a kind of rhythm, a wave action we call pacing. Pacing is created by the way an author links actions and events, stitching them together with quieter scenes: transitions.

Genre fiction has one thing in common regardless of the tropes: characters we can empathize with are thrown into chaos-with-a-plot.

But while the characters might be immersed in turmoil, the reader needs an underlying order in the layout of the narrative. This pacing is subliminal, but without it, the book is chaos.

  • action,
  • processing the action,
  • action again,
  • another connecting/regrouping scene

The scene’s arc is like any other: it begins, rises to a peak, and ebbs, ending at a slightly higher point of the overall story arc than when it started.

If you ask a reader what makes a memorable story, they will tell you that the emotions it evoked are why they loved that novel. They were allowed to process the events, given a moment of rest and reflection between the action. The characters can take a moment to think, but while doing so, they must be transitioning to the next scene.

While I am not always successful, I work hard to make each scene as emotionally powerful as possible without going overboard.

Here are a few things a transition scene can show:

  • Capitulation (defeat, surrender, change of heart, retreat, giving in).
  • Catalyst (spark, stimulus, goad, incentive, the means by which we can fire things up).
  • Confrontation (disagreement, opposition, conflict, dispute, sorting things out).
  • Contemplation/Reflection (thinking things through, analyzing, seeing events from a different perspective).
  • Decision (making a choice for good or ill).
  • Emotions (Feelings, passions, reactions, sentiments).
  • Information (receiving or offering knowledge, news, the data we must have to go forward).
  • Negotiation (mediation, arbitration, “I’ll do this if you’ll do that”).
  • Resolution (answer, solution, end, outcome, upshot).
  • Revelation (the “oh my god” moment).
  • Turning Point (the “it’s now or never” moment).

Make one or more of these functions the core of the scene, and you will have a compelling story.

Plot points are driven by the characters who have vital knowledge. The fact that some characters are working with limited information can create high emotional tension.

A scene comprised only of action can be confusing if it has no context. A properly placed argument or dispute gives the reader the context needed to process the action and understand why it happened. The reader and the characters should receive information simultaneously when they need it.

What concessions will have to be made to achieve the final goal? A transition scene must reveal something new and push the characters toward something as yet unknown, but which is unavoidable.

I picked up my kit and looked around. No wife to kiss goodbye, no real home to leave behind, nothing of value to pack. Only the need to bid Aeoven and my failures goodbye. The quiet snick of the door closing behind me sounded like deliverance.

The character in the above transition scene completes an action (departing for somewhere). It reveals his mood and some of his history in 46 words. Don’t waste words on empty scenes. This is why I find the revision process the most challenging aspect of writing.

Don_Quijote_and_Sancho_Panza

Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, Gustave Dore PD|100

We can’t natter on about nothing, but conversely, we can’t have non-stop action. Pandemonium is exhausting to write and more exhausting to read. The characters and the reader both need to process information, so the character arc should be at the forefront during these transitional scenes. That period of relative calm is when you allow your characters’ internal growth to emerge.

We allow the characters to justify the decisions that led to that point and plan their next move, making it believable.

The transition is also where you ratchet up the emotional tension. Introspection offers an opportunity for clues about the characters to emerge. It opens a window for the reader to see who they are and how they react. It illuminates their fears and strengths. It makes them real and self-aware.

Keep the moments of mind wandering brief. Go easy if you use italics to set your thoughts off. A wall of italics is hard to read, so don’t have your characters “think” too much if you use those.

Characters’ thoughts must illuminate their motives at a particular moment in time and explore information not previously discussed.

conversationsInternal monologues should humanize our characters and show them as clueless about their flaws and strengths. It should even show they are ignorant of their deepest fears and don’t know how to achieve their goals. With that said, we must avoid “head-hopping.” The best way to avoid confusion is to give a new chapter to each point-of-view character. Head-hopping occurs when an author describes the thoughts of two point-of-view characters within a single scene.

Visual Cues: In my own work, when I come across the word “smile” or other words conveying a facial expression or character’s mood, it sometimes requires a complete re-visualization of the scene. I’m forced to look for a different way to express my intention, which is a necessary but frustrating aspect of the craft.

Fade-to-black is a time-honored way of moving from one event to the next. However, I don’t like using fade-to-black scene breaks as transitions within a chapter. Why not just start a new chapter once the scene has faded to black?

One of my favorite authors sometimes has chapters of only five or six hundred words, keeping each character thread separate and flowing well. A hard scene break with a new chapter is my preferred way to end a fade-to-black.

Chapter breaks are transitions. I have found that as I write, chapter breaks fall naturally at certain places.

The struggle to connect my action scenes into a seamless arc with good pacing is why writing isn’t the most uncomplicated occupation I could have chosen. But it is the best job I’ve ever had.

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Why you should consider writing a narrative essay #amwriting

Many highly respected, award-winning authors began as freelancer authors, writing narrative essays, and other articles, humorous or serious in nature. Narrative essays are drawn directly from the author’s real-life experiences but aren’t necessarily factual or accurate.

narrative essayThey often detail an experience or event and how it shaped the author on a personal level. For those of us who wish to earn actual money from writing, the narrative essay appeals to a broader audience than short stories, so more magazine editors are looking for them.

I have mentioned one of my favorite narrative essays before, 1994’s Ticket to the Fair (now titled “Getting Away from Already Being Pretty Much Away from It All“) by the late David Foster Wallace and published in Harpers. It is a humorous, eye-opening story of a “foreign” (east coast) journalist’s assignment to cover the 1993 Iowa State Fair. Wallace wrote it from his own point of view.

At the outset, Wallace tells us how he was born several hours’ drive from the fair but had never attended it. He was a slightly arrogant city boy without knowledge of farms, farm culture, or animals.

In pursuit of his dream, Wallace left the Midwest for the East Coast and never looked back after graduating high school and college. He was overjoyed when he was assigned to report on the fair for Harpers. As a naïve young correspondent, he didn’t think about the fair beyond the fact that he was getting his first official press pass, making him a “real” reporter.

Wikipedia summarizes Ticket to the Fair this way: Wallace’s experiences and opinions on the 1993 Illinois State Fair, ranging from a report on competitive baton twirling to speculation on how it represents Midwestern culture and its subsets. Rather than take the easy, dismissive route, Wallace focuses on the joy this seminal midwestern experience brings those involved.

He was shocked and repelled by some aspects of showing farm animals in a fair. Raising and caring for hogs or sheep can be a dirty business and he was unprepared for the sights and smells.

But he saw the joy and pride people have in their livestock and their skills. By connecting with their enjoyment, he was able to write a narrative that made his name as an author.

A-supposedly-fun-thing-first-edition-coverBut just what is an essay in the first place? The primary purpose of an essay is to offer readers thought-provoking content. The narrative essay conveys our ideas in a palatable form, so writing this sort of piece requires authors to have some idea of the craft of writing.

That means we must understand and write to the publishing industry’s standards of grammar and mechanics.

A narrative essay is a story that begins with an experience. You know how that experience began and ended, so you must plan how you want your account to be perceived. You must develop both content and structure.

Just like any other form of short fiction, a narrative essay has

  • an introduction,
  • a plot,
  • characters,
  • a setting,
  • a climax,
  • a conclusion.

It’s not a memoir, so we can’t ramble on. Authors must choose words that convey the intended mood concisely.

We must be intentional with how we phrase things because narrative essays often present profound and (sometimes) uncomfortable ideas. A skillful writer can offer these concepts in a way that the reader feels connected to the story, even if they disagree.

A good essay is a conversation in an entertaining form, one that expresses far more than mere opinion.

Names should be changed, for your protection, as narrative essays give readers the author’s personal view of the world, the places we go, and the people we meet along the way.

An honest narrative essay contains an author’s opinions. Sometimes those sentiments are not glowing accolades.

Those who write narrative essays can make a living because literary magazines have open calls for them. Editors and publishers are seeking well-written essays with fresh ideas about wide-ranging topics.

Some will pay well for first publication rights.

Original_New_Yorker_coverHOWEVER – if you want to be published by a reputable magazine, you must pay strict attention to grammar and editing.

Never submit anything less than your best work. After you have finished the piece, I suggest you set it aside for a week or two. Then come back to it with a fresh eye and check the manuscript for:

  • Spelling—misspelled words, autocorrect errors, and homophones (words that sound the same but are spelled differently). These words are insidious because they are actual words and don’t immediately stand out as being out of place.
  • Repeated words and cut-and-paste errors. These are sneaky and dreadfully difficult to spot. Spell-checker won’t always find them. To you, the author, they make sense because you see what you intended to see. For the reader, they appear as unusually garbled sentences.
  • Missing punctuation and closed quotes. These things happen to the best of us.
  • Digits/Numbers: Miskeyed numbers are difficult to spot when they are wrong unless they are spelled out.
  • Dropped and missing words.

If you want to work as a freelance author, don’t be afraid to use your words – readers of narrative essays have a wide vocabulary. That said, never use jargon or technical terms that only people in certain professions would know unless it is a piece in a publication geared for that segment of readers.

Above all, be intentional and active with your prose, and be bold. I enjoy reading works by authors who are adventurous in their prose.

And on that note, we must be realistic. At first, you will have trouble selling your work. This is because you haven’t gained a reputation yet, and your work might not appeal to the first editors you send it to.

If you put two people in a room and give them the most exciting thing you’ve ever read, you’ll hear two different opinions about it. They probably won’t agree with you.

1915NatGeog (2)Don’t be discouraged by rejection. Rejection happens far more frequently than acceptance, so don’t let fear of rejection keep you from writing pieces you’re emotionally invested in.

I always say this, but it is true: the way you handle critiques and rejections tells editors what kind of person you are to work with. Rejection gives you the chance to cross the invisible line between amateur and professional. Always take the high ground.

  • If an editor has sent you a detailed rejection, respond with a simple “thank you for your time.”
  • If it’s a form letter rejection, don’t reply.

When you receive that email of acceptance, do that happy dance, and don’t be shy about it.

There is no better feeling than knowing someone you respect liked your work enough to publish it.


Credits and Attributions:

Wikipedia contributors, “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=A_Supposedly_Fun_Thing_I%27ll_Never_Do_Again&oldid=1093971404 (accessed July 12, 2022).

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Camp NaNoWriMo #amwriting

July is Camp NaNoWriMo Month. (NaNoWriMo = National Novel Writing Month.)  I have a small project going, nothing too daunting. So why would I want to do NaNoWriMo twice in one year?

what is camp nanowrimoFirst of all, camp is relaxed, not an ordeal. You are only tied to the loose goals you set for yourself. You can choose any kind of project, whatever word count goal you feel comfortable with, and there is no pressure.

This year, I declared I would write 30,000 words, and my project began as a series of short stories, but now I don’t really know what it is. But you could declare your intention to write as few as 100 words.

Camp NaNoWriMo is a training camp that happens every year in July. If you plan to write a 50,000-word novel next November, you may find it harder to make time for writing than you planned. Participating in a Camp helps you develop time management skills before November’s big deal.

Family Camping Clipart

Family Camping with tent and campfire Clipart

The website, https://nanowrimo.org, offers Camp Counselors to help you through the difficulties of developing a writing routine. They have a terrific team of published authors to act as your guides, cheerleaders, and mentors during each Camp NaNoWriMo session. This year, they share advice via Camp Care Packages and live events. They’re doing Instagram takeovers, Zoom meetups, and more throughout July.

We know that daily writing is more manageable once it becomes a habit. Making the best use of your time requires a little self-discipline, which is something we all could use a bit more of.

If you are interested in participating, the link for that is https://nanowrimo.org/what-is-camp-nanowrimo. To participate in Camp, just announce a project, then make sure to check “Associate with a NaNoWriMo Event” and select the current year’s Camp NaNoWriMo event.

It’s the middle of July, but you could choose to write 10,000 (or fewer) words. Once you’ve done that, you should be ready to start your project. You’ll be able to start tracking your writing on their website.

The site will automatically confirm your win when you reach your writing goal. You will receive a certificate celebrating your achievement, along with other winner goodies.

Do you want to connect with other authors? If so, you could become part of the broader NaNoWriMo writing community by participating in their forums.  Check out the Camp NaNoWriMo forums.

Also, you have the option to start or join an existing writing group. Check out the “Writing Groups, Assemble” forum for open groups and much more.

Whenever we begin talking about NaNoWriMo, I always feel the need to mention saving your files. If you are a new author or are unfamiliar with using a computer or electronic notepad, saving your files is an important habit to develop.

Participating in camp is a great way to develop the good habits that will save your sanity farther down the road:

  • File_names_save_master_file_screen_shotEven if you don’t have a title, name your manuscript with a good, descriptive working title, such as The_Vampire_Story. You can call it something else later.
  • Never deletea manuscript. If you suddenly decide to make such radical changes that you need to start over, save it in the same master file but with a new descriptive name:

Save each new version separately so that you don’t lose the work you might need later if you change your mind.

Losing your files is a traumatic experience. Some authors lose several years of work in a surprise computer crash, which is an unimaginable tragedy. Entire manuscripts can go missing when a thumb drive is lost, or a hard drive is corrupted.

You must save regularly. This won’t be a problem if you are using a Chromebook or working out of Microsoft’s OneDrive. But if you’re using an ordinary word-processing program such as Word or Open Office, you should hit that ‘save’ button regularly.

I use a file hosting service. I have a lot of images on file, so I pay for an expanded version, but file hosting services have free versions that offer you as much storage as a thumb drive. I like using a file hosting service because my work can’t be lost or misplaced and is always accessible.

nano-computer-word-count

November’s Goal

I work out of those files, so they are automatically saved and are where I want them when I close my programs. But you can use any storage system that is free to you–Google Drive, OneDrive, or a standard portable USB flash drive.

The important thing is to save regularly.

The story I am currently working on is set in the Tower of Bones world. It began as a short story but edged into novella length (go figure). It’s nearly done and currently sits at just under 20,000 words.

In previous years I repurposed outtakes from existing projects. These were chapters, about 1500 words in length, that I cut because they had taken my novel in the wrong direction. With character name changes, two of my outtakes grew into novellas set in that world.

The option to repurpose work that no longer fits is why I never discard any manuscript.

A great deal of what I discuss here on Life in the Realm of Fantasy is how I devise a plot, build a world, and create characters. I like to do these things in advance of November, spending a few days on that part of the project.

But maybe you prefer to write by the seat of your pants. That is how I write poetry, so I understand “the joy of pantsing.” My favorite characters came into existence in 2010 for my first NaNoWriMo. Writing what became the Billy’s Revenge series was an exhilarating experience. I began with no plot, no characters, and no idea of where that story was going.

Julian_Lackland Cover 2019 for BowkersBut that first book was a nightmare to edit and straighten out. It became three books, Huw the Bard, Billy Ninefingers, and Julian Lackland.

The experience I gained in 2010 taught me that a bit of advanced preparation means I won’t lose sight of my story arc when I sit down to write it in November. Participating in Camp NaNoWriMo helps writers get organized and also gives you the confidence that you can finish a project.

There are 20 days left in July:

  • Perhaps you will add 10,000 words to that unfinished novel.
  • Or maybe you will write a haiku each day.

Whatever you choose, set a reasonable goal and have fun with it. Camp is a writing free-for-all, something I do that takes me out of the ordinary grind.

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Worldbuilding part 2: The Fantasy Map – Creating Geography #amwriting

Our modern lives are ruled by the geography of our area. Rivers, mountains, lakes, and ponds impede travel, forcing a road to go around them.

Untitled.pngworldbuilding-maps-LIRF07052022Unfortunately, maps have fallen out of favor thanks to satellite technology and the GPS in our cell phones. Many people don’t know how to read a map.

However, maps (and the ability to understand them) are a useful tool for authors of fantasy and speculative fiction, or indeed, any fiction set in any place and time.

1024px-Puget_Sound_by_Sentinel-2,_2018-09-28_(small_version)

Satellite View of Puget Sound by Sentinel 2

Where I live, Puget Sound‘s shoreline determines the interstate highway’s path and the locations of cities and towns. Those detours add to the distance we must travel and increase the time it takes to go from one place to another.

The stylesheet is one of the most valuable tools an author can have to aid them in worldbuilding. It costs nothing to create but is a warehouse of information about your work-in-progress.

I suggest you include a glossary of created words, names, a list of sites where you got your research, and myriad notes related to that novel. Those are bits of knowledge you will be glad you made a note of, as they will contribute to the believability of your narrative.

If you are writing a contemporary novel or historical work set in our real world, this is where you keep maps and maybe a link to Google Earth.

If you are interested, a post on creating a stylesheet is here: Designing the Story.

protomapIf you are designing a fantasy world, you only need a pencil-drawn map. Place north at the top, east to the right, south to the bottom, and west to the left. Those are called cardinal points and the position of north at the top and the directions east, south, and west following at 90-degree intervals in the clockwise direction is standard in modern maps.

Even if your story is set in a town, you need to map it out. Knowing which direction your people are going at the outset is critical if your characters are going from one spot to another. The lines and scribbles you add to your map are the information you can use to check for consistency in your narrative.

If, in chapter one, Hero leaves home and follows the river north to the Big City of Smallville, he won’t reach home in time to save his mother if he then races east in chapter ten. He must return south, and your notes on your little map will help you remember this.

Or perhaps Hero lives in a city and wants coffee at the shop two blocks north of his apartment. He will have to return past the same shops and buildings he passed on the way. If some of the action occurs in those buildings, you want to have your map out and update it as needed.

proto_city_map_LIRF07052022Use a pencil, so you can easily note whatever changes during revisions. Your map doesn’t have to be fancy. Lay it out like a standard map with north at the top, east on the right, south at the bottom, and west on the left.

You may need to note where rivers and forests are situated relative to towns, or in the case of towns, what streets and cross streets our Heroes must travel.

Map of Mal Evol, color full size, no roadsMany towns are situated on rivers. Water rarely flows uphill. While it may do so if pushed by the force of wave action or siphoning, water is a slave to gravity and chooses to flow downhill. When making your map, locate rivers between mountains and hills.

A river may emerge from a mountain spring or a glacier, but it will flow downhill to a valley where it will either continue on to the ocean or will pool and form lakes and ponds. Farms are usually situated near sources of water.

On your fantasy map, rivers, mountains, lakes, and ponds make travel difficult, forcing a road or trail to go around them. This creates opportunities for plot points, because the struggle is the story.

Those detours add to the distance and increase the time it takes to travel using the common mode of transportation.

Having a realistic grip on time is critical to keeping the narrative believable. I keep a calendar of events for each novel, which has saved me several times.

Map of WaldeynMaybe you aren’t artistic but will want a nice map later. In that case, a little scribbled map will enable a map artist to provide you with a beautiful and accurate product. An artist can give you a map containing the information readers need to enjoy your book.

Are changing seasons a part of your story?

In a first draft, it’s challenging to fit the visual world into a narrative without dumping it on the page because you are in the process of inventing it. Don’t worry about fine details when you are laying down the story. Go ahead and write “It was autumn” when you have an action scene that must be shown.

A blunt statement like that is a code embedded there for you to expand on in the second draft. It is there so that you can just get the story out of your head and move on.

However, in the revision process, I take those three words, it was autumn, and change them up, using them to lead into the action.

Ivan drew his cloak around himself, listening to the soft rattling of branches moving with the breeze. The occasional calls of night birds went on around him, as if he weren’t full of doubt and indistinct fears, as if he didn’t exist to them. Leaves fell, brown and harvest-dry, drifting, spiraling down to the forest floor.

3-Ss-of-worldbuilding-LIRF07182021In my part of the world, the native forest trees I see in the world around me are mostly Douglas firs, western red cedars, hemlocks, big-leaf maples, alders, cottonwood, and ash. Because I am familiar with them, these are the trees I visualize when I set a story in a forest.

When it comes to geography, the “three S’s” of worldbuilding are critical: sights, sounds, and smells. Those sensory elements create what we know of the world. What does your character see, hear, and smell? Taste rarely comes into it, except when showing an odor.

Silently, she ran back to the entrance, slipping from boulder to boulder until she disappeared into the shrubbery. Once hidden in the thick undergrowth, she breathed deeply. The metallic aftertaste of terror and bitter air lingered in her imagination, overriding the musty scents of earth and leaves.

What makes up your written world? How does your environment affect the way your characters live?

Seattle_by_Sentinel-2,_2018-09-28

Seattle, by Sentinel 2 Satellite

Cities have complex geography. It is created by the terrain the city was built on and its architecture.

The odors behind the Flamingo Bar and Grill offered a pungent counterpoint to the aromas of burgers and barbecue emanating from inside. Above the back door, the weak bulb flickered but remained on, illuminating the litter.

Seattle is built between the salty waters of Puget Sound, and the fresh waters of Lake Washington, the largest natural lake in western Washington. This geography affects our modern society by limiting where highways can be built, as well as determining the good places to raise tall buildings or create suburban neighborhoods.

Humans have always created communities where resources are plentiful. Rivers, forests, lakes–these geographical places provide resources that allow towns to become cities.

Your narrative will mention all the different terrains and obstacles your characters must deal with. A little map scribbled on notepaper will help you keep things on track.


Credits and Attributions:

Image: Satellite View of Puget Sound, Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Puget Sound by Sentinel-2, 2018-09-28 (small version).jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Puget_Sound_by_Sentinel-2,_2018-09-28_(small_version).jpg&oldid=670161517 (accessed July 4, 2022).

Image: Satellite View of Seattle, Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Puget Sound by Sentinel-2, 2018-09-28 (small version).jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Puget_Sound_by_Sentinel-2,_2018-09-28_(small_version).jpg&oldid=670161517 (accessed July 4, 2022).

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Worldbuilding part 1: Climate and How We Acquire Food #amwriting

When we sit down to write fiction, no matter what genre, we must consider two aspects of worldbuilding: food and how the climate affects what is served for our fictional meals.

WritingCraftWorldbuildingEvery fantasy world has a setting, and that environment has a climate. Certain climates limit the variety of foods available.

First, let’s look at real life. You can’t create a believable fantasy unless you have some idea of reality.

We had a normal June this year, with only one day rising into the 90s and the rest almost (but not quite) as they should be: overcast, rainy, and cool. Climate-wise, we Pacific Northwesterners usually have similar weather as those of you in Wales or England.

Washington_state_high_termperatures_June_28,_2021

United States National Weather Service via Twitter

Last year in June 2021, we had an unprecedented heat wave that killed much of our locally produced crops. How did that heat wave affect crop production here in the Pacific Northwest?

Wikipedia says:

Farms experienced serious losses, as the heat wave baked the fruits and berries or otherwise destroyed the crop and the drought conditions worsened.

10 million pounds of fruit a day were being harvested in the Pacific Northwest at the time the heat wave struck. Farmers in Eastern Washington, facing a loss of the cherry and blueberry crop, sent workers into orchards at night to avoid the heat in the day.

The British Columbia provincial fruit growers’ association estimated that 50 to 70 percent of the cherry crop was damaged, effectively “cooked” in the orchards.

Raspberry and blackberry farms in the Lower Mainland, Oregon and Washington also endured losses. In Whatcom County, Washington, which produces four-fifths of raspberries in the United States, estimates varied from quarter to half of the harvest; elsewhere, they went as high as 80-90%. Lettuce producers in the Okanagan Valley also reported crop losses, and so did those who grew Christmas trees and apples. [1]

This year, 2022, June had an overabundance of rain, but I didn’t complain because the memories of last year’s heat wave were still too strong. However, the excessive rain and lack of sunshine impacted our spring and early summer crops.

An article by Mai Hoang for Crosscut News (June 15, 2022) says:

This year, the cold and wet spring stunted the development of many cherries, leading to what looks to be the smallest crop of Northwest sweet cherries in nearly a decade. [2]

If I were writing a speculative fiction story set in Earth’s near future, I would look at current agricultural technology to see what is possible and to gauge future trends. After all, climate change is happening and must be accounted for, even in futuristic fiction.

Apples 8-25-2013We know from bitter experience that weather affects the food we produce and influences what is available in grocery stores. Abnormal heat waves across temperate states, category 4 hurricanes along the Atlantic seaboard and the Gulf of Mexico, and category 4 tornadoes down the center of the US and Canada, and even deep freezes in Texas and the deep south have been our lot in the last five years.

We humans must adapt our agriculture to withstand our increasingly unpredictable climate if we hope to survive. And, our fiction must reflect it, whether it is set in the current times or a not-too-distant future.

In real life, a new trend in agriculture is occurring. Farmers in Europe and Canada are increasingly turning to greenhouse agriculture, from small, owner-operated farms to industrial farms. Greenhouses in these countries reliably supply seasonal produce year-round, with far less need for chemical pesticides and highly efficient water use.

The Statistical Overview of the Canadian Greenhouse Vegetable Industry, 2019, tells us that the Canadian greenhouse vegetable sector is the largest and fastest-growing segment of Canadian horticulture. Greenhouse farming produces agricultural products in self-contained ‘controlled environments’ with systems supplying heat, water, and nutrients and often employing artificial lighting (in addition to sunlight) to nourish the plants. [3]

Wikipedia tells us: Greenhouses may be used to overcome shortcomings in the growing qualities of a piece of land, such as a short growing season or poor light levels, and they can thereby improve food production in marginal environments. Shade houses are used specifically to provide shade in hot, dry climates.

As they may enable certain crops to be grown throughout the year, greenhouses are increasingly important in the food supply of high-latitude countries. One of the largest complexes in the world is in AlmeríaAndalucíaSpain, where greenhouses cover almost 200 km2 (49,000 acres).

The Netherlands has some of the largest greenhouses in the world with around 4,000 greenhouse enterprises that operate over 9,000 hectares of greenhouses and employ some 150,000 workers. [4]

Lost_Country_Life_HartleyOnce you have decided your historical era, terrain, and overall climate, research similar areas of the real world to see how weather affects their approach to agriculture and animal husbandry. Look into the past to discover ancient agricultural methods to see how low-tech cultures fed their large populations:

Wikipedia says this about Incan Agriculture: Farmers usually had many different, scattered plots of land on which they planted a variety of crops. If one or more crops failed, others might be productive. In many areas of the Andes, farmers, communities, and the Inca state constructed agricultural terraces to increase the amount of arable land. [5]

Are you writing a narrative set in our current or near-future world? Post-apocalyptic stories often feature food shortages, detailing how starvation leads to civil unrest, making life unsafe for those clinging to their homeland. Refugees are driven to seek better lands where they may not be welcomed. This, in turn, often leads to more civil unrest.

Historical fiction must also be true to the type of food available in that area and era. Many common foods we now consume anywhere in the world were only available in South America, or in Europe, or in Asia, or in Africa. It wasn’t until after the time of Columbus that the cultivation and propagation of many now-common foods began to travel all over the world.

avacado dinner saladAlso, if your story is set in a particular era, how plentiful was food at that time? Famines occurring all across Europe and Asia over the last two-thousand years are well documented. Egyptian, Incan, and Mayan history is also fairly well documented so do the research.

Weather is a driving force in our real world. Rain, heat, storm, or drought—weather in its many forms destroys homes, destroys crops, and costs us billions of dollars annually.

How it affects our food supply is not just news for television. It is a reality our governments must consider if they hope to stave off civil unrest in the future. Subsidizing greenhouse agriculture could help resolve future food insecurity and make the best use of limited water resources.

Cucumbers waiting to become picklesWe have witnessed monumental changes since the turn of the millennium. We know California teeters on the edge of disaster, that a water shortage threatens the lives of millions, as well as one of the largest agriculture industries in the US.

Food and water insecurity leads to volatile politics.

Sit and think about your world, about the climate and how it affects the society you are writing about. Let your mind wander with no apparent destination. You will be amazed at what a mind technically at rest can come up with when it’s allowed to roam.

How well will your fiction hold up in two decades? Will you have the foresight of those who founded the genre of speculative fiction? Will you write another Nineteen Eighty-Four or Fahrenheit 451? How much will you get right?

Build detail into your world in a separate document from your manuscript. Blend what you know about the real world into it. Write out all the details that will never make it into your story.

When you can see your written world as clearly as that which exists outside your windows, that vision will come across in your writing. The food they so casually serve, a meal that involves less than a paragraph, will be a part of the scenery. It won’t jar a knowledgeable reader out of the narrative.


Credits and Attributions:

[1] Wikipedia contributors. 2021 Western North America heat wave [Internet]. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia; 2022 Jul 1, 03:55 UTC [cited 2022 Jul 2]. Available from: https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=2021_Western_North_America_heat_wave&oldid=1095905315. (Accessed July 2, 2022.)

[2] Quote: NW cherry crop this year may be the smallest in nearly a decade, Mai Hoang June 15, 2022, ©2022 Cascade Public Media. All Rights Reserved. https://crosscut.com/news/2022/06/nw-cherry-crop-year-may-be-smallest-nearly-decade (accessed July 2, 2022). Fair Use.

[3] Statistical Overview of the Canadian Greenhouse Vegetable Industry, 2019, Statistical Overview of the Canadian Greenhouse Vegetable Industry, 2019 – agriculture.canada.ca updated, 2020-12-30. (Accessed July 2, 2022).

[4] Wikipedia contributors, “Greenhouse,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Greenhouse&oldid=1095255341 (accessed July 2, 2022).

[5] Wikipedia contributors, “Incan agriculture,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Incan_agriculture&oldid=1095070716 (accessed July 2, 2022).

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