The creative process is a funny thing. Before college, the only piece I worked on was a medieval fantasy that I started as a sophomore in high school. Because it was medieval and a fantasy, there was little in the world around me that I could pull into the story. It came from the depths of my imagination influenced by movies and other stories that I have seen or read in the same genre. I loved that story – I still do – but I haven’t picked it up in a long time. I kept hitting wall after wall, not sure how to describe a scene or interaction, how to define the magic system, how to lose myself into the political turmoil that is the basis for the story. As much as I love the story, there was very little in it that I could relate to, aside from wanting to run around in castles and wilderness with a bow or sword wearing practical dresses with a cloak – definitely a cloak. If nothing else, at least a cloak. I am not even ashamed to say I have a cloak hanging in my closet. Right. Now.
But, that is besides the point. I have been working on this story, Kingdom Burning, for somewhere around 10 years. Right now it sits around 20,000 words, which equals somewhere around 60 pages – in 10 years. Granted, the amount actually written is much more than that if you count the innumerable rewrites that have taken place along the way. In comparison, Better To Pretend, which I started this last January sits at just under 40,000 words or 120 pages – in less than a year. It is probably more than half done.
So, what is the difference? Why has it only taken 9 months to double the amount of work accomplished compared to a piece in progress for 10 years?
Two things come to mind:
- Better to Pretend began as a short story written in college. I KNOW the story. It has already once come full circle, even to the point of publication. I know where the relationships go, what parts of the plot are essential to the story, the climax, and particularly the ending. Everything was already laid out in short form. The original piece relied heavily on narrative, skipping gaps of time and dropping into current events only when essential. I had already laid the groundwork.
- Better to Pretend is all around me. It is in the music I listen to, the people I see walking down the street, the stores I visit. If Elbin were not a made up town, I could literally get in my car and drive there. It takes place today. The main characters read Harry Potter, drink espresso, listen to modern music. They go to high school: cliques, bullies, crappy classes and all. Most importantly, they are a part of me. Each character, the main three in particular, are influenced by experiences in my life.
Kingdom Burning is a world I dream of living in. Better to Pretend is the world I live in now.
As I started building the world around Better to Pretend, filling in the missing details that would give the characters and setting depth, I realized how easily these details appeared. The Merc, The Bookshelf, Jenna’s attic bedroom: all came from something I had seen or experienced in my life. And for the first time since I started writing seriously I was okay with it. At some point I transitioned from wanting to only write in a fantasy world that nobody could judge or compare to something real to writing what I know. Which is really no different, if you really think about. Someone can always look at a piece of writing regardless of the where it is set and find something wrong with it or compare it to another work of the same genre. But for some reason it was a hang up for me.
In regards to writing I have always heard the phrase, “Write what you know. If you don’t know it research it until you do.” Maybe it is the whole write what you know bit that held me up. I felt like I knew my fantasy world because I created it. I names the kingdom, the villages, the mountains, the forests. It was completely mine and people could not know that world until they stepped into my story. Of course it could be compared to any other medieval work out there, but you would most likely not find another far off town by the name of Glynn in the kingdom of Reseda ruled by the evil king Roen. In working on Kingdom Burning, I found that I had to research everything. How long does it take for a horse to travel 50 miles? What kind of food would you find in a wayward tavern? What type of clothes would a woman wear? Was it strange for a young woman who works in a tavern to trade her busty dress for a tunic and breeches? I had a pretty good idea of how I wanted things to look, but I also wanted to make it realistic. It seems far more likely that it might take two days for a rider to travel 50 miles at a decent speed that make it that far in a couple of hours. You have to account for that.
The strange thing is, writing in the modern world really isn’t that different. Elbin doesn’t exist. I made it up. The instructor of the class I wrote the original piece for actually looked it up because he wanted to know, both if it was real and also if that name held any significance. It doesn’t really, just something that popped into my head. I have heard of a town called Elgin, which is probably as close to Elbin you could get, but I have never even looked Elgin up to see what it is like. I don’t care because Elbin is it’s own special brand of town. If I want to to say that Elbin is 200 miles from Jenna’s hometown, Gainsburg, I can justify that by car, driving around 70 miles an hour, it would take almost three hours to drive the distance. We are all familiar with traveling by car, so it isn’t as hard to determine that bit of information. On the other hand, the attic room that Jenna stays in at her aunt’s house is almost a direct interpretation of a room I stayed in for a while at my own grandmother’s house when I was in middle school. Right down to the magazines and random junk piled along one side of the stairs. There were only two windows and the eves had been converted into storage. There was a couch and a bed and a shelf filled with old Reader’s digest novels. Each of those details was placed directly into Jenna’s story. It just seemed to work for her character, which the further I have progressed, the more I realized she is a lot like me.
Obviously I can’t write every character that ever comes to mind from my memories. My life really isn’t exciting enough to build entire novels about. But it is a good place to start. It has allowed me to get back into writing in a way I wasn’t sure would ever happen after I stepped away from Kingdom Burning for so long. Every time I would sit down to work on that piece and would start writing and become immediately discouraged because I felt out of practice. That is actually a thing, by the way, being out of practice at writing. It is amazing how you have to readjust your brain to sit down and write a story when you haven’t done it for a while. The more you do it the better you get at it and the easier it comes.
The point is, by allowing myself to get lost in this modern world, it has launched my imagination into overdrive. Everywhere I go I see things that draw images in my mind. I wonder if that person walking the other direction down the sidewalk might be someone my character would run into. Is that store somewhere they would spend a lot of there time? Even something as ridiculous as doodling a line in beat to a song can spark an idea for a character (which totally happened this week by the way). I have even started a notebook just for observations I make during the day.
~a girl walking into the grocery store in sweats and a ratty t-shirt with perfectly styled hair and flawless makeup, a strange combination for going to town (I was on my way into the store – just going about my day)
~a couple at the bar in a breakfast restaurant-heads together, ear to ear looking at something on a phone. oblivious to the world around them. subtle touches and body language of being in tune with one another. they forgot to look at their menus. (I was picking up lunch for the office)
~a girl waiting to cross the road on her bicycle – the classic cruiser style, blue with wire baskets on the handlebars and back fender. girl wearing yoga pants and a sweater with blue sneakers sucking on a blue sucker. (I was waiting at the stoplight on my way home)
~ bearded man with dark glasses sitting in his convertible parked on main street. recognize him as the one who sits on the benches downtown almost daily strumming his guitar through a battery powered amp in a plucky style, visiting with anyone who wants to chat while still playing his music. totally content to just hang out and play music for the passers-by. always has a cross attached to his guitar case, open just in case someone wants to drop a buck. (On my way to the hardware store.)
Inspiration is everywhere. I know that I will return to Kingdom Burning. I still think about the story pretty regularly. But right now, I want to write Jenna’s story. I want to write about these people that I see walking down the street, these characters that walk in my shadow every day, co-pilots to my life. For the first time I feel like the end to a piece I have started to write is actually in sight. Not that I don’t have challenges to face in finishing it – difficult scenes that I know have to happen but will also be very hard to write. Better to Pretend is the first piece that has ever had me so emotionally charged by a scene that my insides get all fuzzy and I feel anger or sadness at what is going on. It is the most amazing feeling in the world. It really doesn’t matter if it takes 10 years of 1 to finish a story. The process is half the fun.