Tag Archives: Imagination

Star Wars and the Future(s)

Last week was the 40th anniversary of the release of Star Wars, and since (as you will know if you read this blog much) it’s a movie series that I have loved a great deal, I thought I would write a little more about it today. I’ve written some about why I like these films so much before; I like the very clear good vs. evil of the stories and the idea that power always carries a price with it. (We saw a rather more shades-of-grey take on the setting with Rogue One, which was fun, but I hope they won’t continue that with Last Jedi.) I’m not sure I have anything new to say along those lines today, though.

Ok, so something new for this time around. I love the way the Star Wars movies (thinking primarily of the original trilogy, Force Awakens, and Rogue One) look. Specifically, I love the way the technology looks. Most of it is beat up and a lot of it is covered in grime. There’s no touchscreens and not a lot of chrome. In fact, not all that much looks shiny at all (C3P0 being the obvious exception), and the stuff that does mostly belongs to the Empire, to the bad guys. The good guys’ stuff is oil stained and scratched and dinged up, which I think helps quietly and consistently underscore the desperation of the Rebellion.

It’s pervasive through a lot of the tech in the movies, though. The outside of starships are not sleek and streamlined, and certainly don’t have giant bird paintings. There’s pipes and hatches and various flange-y bits sticking out everywhere. In general everything looks (to me, anyway) like tools rather than showpieces; this is all stuff that gets constant heavy use and is designed primarily for function rather than form. I like that a lot.

Now, there’s also arguably a bunch of stuff that is missing from the tech in Star Wars. The touchscreens are one example. There also doesn’t appear to be wifi or anything like it, R2 has to physically plug into computers with those very satisfyingly mechanical, rotate-y ports. There’s no hi-def recordings either, the very best you get is a flickery, blurry, mostly monochrome image, if you get that at all. This is, somewhat paradoxically, a retro-future, and although that sometimes ends up seeming silly, to me it works out.

Another recent example of this being done very well was the Battlestar Galactica TV series, with the corded phones and Cold War looking computers. There was an in-universe explanation for it, first of all that Galactica was an old ship, but also that the more advanced gear we’d expect was fatally vulnerable to Cylon shenanigans. That worked fine, but I don’t think it was necessary. One of the players in my Star Wars RPG likes to think about why there are no touchscreens in the game world, and although I enjoy hearing his thinking, I also don’t think I ultimately need an explanation. There isn’t because there isn’t. There isn’t because it’s cool.

That may be the reason why they continue to keep the retro-future, clunky tech in the new Star Wars movies. Consistency is of course part of the deal, and I like to think that part of it is that technology isn’t the solution to the problem in Star Wars. A lot of the time, technology is the problem, and so maybe that’s why the movies don’t glamorize it. Part of the reason, I also suspect, is that the clunkier tech tends to look more dramatic in action. There was a lot to like about Star Trek: The Next Generation, but no matter how furiously you tap on a touchscreen, it doesn’t convey a great sense of urgency, not like flipping some big chunky switches or slamming a receiver into its cradle.

I also know a lot of the props for Star Wars were scavenged or modified from real world bits and bobs, with the blasters being tricked-out pistols rather than purpose-built future guns. So some of the look is also probably practicality in set building. They used what was relatively easily available and could be used as-is (or as-was, I guess) rather than scratch-building a bunch of stuff that probably wouldn’t look as convincing in the end anyway. I really do like Star Trek perfectly well (not as much as Star Wars, but you probably knew that), but the computers and tech props made for the original series never looked like anything but props to me. Also everything is distressingly tidy. (I wonder whether part of why I like the knocked-about, messy Star Wars stuff is that my spaces tend to be cluttered, and anything owned by me tends to look beat-up in a hurry)

I also think that the way Star Wars looks reflects the way people in the late 70s and 80s imagined the future, which is probably inevitable but is kind of interesting to think about. (Now yes, of course I’m aware the movies are set in the distant past, but I think it’s reasonable to say that in imagining a world of space ships and interstellar travel and intelligent robots we’re thinking about the future of our society to some extent) First of all it’s not unreasonable to say that there are no touchscreens and no wifi in Star Wars because the people writing the scripts and making the props didn’t envision how technology was going to develop. This happens all the time, of course – in one of my very favourite books ever, Neuromancer, no-one in the ‘near future’ setting has a cell phone. That change in tech wasn’t seen coming.

That also gets me to another point, though, because Gibson is at pains to point out that he wasn’t trying to predict the future with Neuromancer, and that it was really a book about the 1980s. I think that’s almost always the case with the visions of the future that we create; they’re nearly always more about the time they were created in than any real attempt at futurism. They reflect the perspectives and assumptions that the creator was immersed in when they sat down to write. Neuromancer imagines a future where the line between technology and humanity is becoming blurry, that dehumanises people and makes the artificial closer to human. Star Wars imagines space as a place where people live and work in their regular lives, doing ordinary work; where there are working-class beings putting in a hard days’ labour. This is not a gleaming future with contemporary concerns solved, it is one that still has poverty and crime as things to be worried about as well as alarming space fascists.

Some of these visions of the future become obsolete as time goes by. I don’t think you’d get a lot of traction with a story about the gee-whiz, rockets everywhere, meals in a pill, spandex jumpsuit future of the 1950s any longer. There’s parts of it I think we actively don’t like and parts of it readers would not believe. (Although, I would also love to be proven wrong!) It’s not a version of the future that has aged very well for us. Almost universally (it seems to me), if someone does present you with this bright, shiny, perfected future, it’s because they’re setting up to jerk back the curtain and reveal some horrific underside.

It’s not always a case of future visions simply not aging well. Not all that long ago the futures we imagined seemed to almost always include the idea the virtual reality would become endemic, that we’d be constantly immersing ourselves in digitally created worlds to work and play. I don’t understand the technology enough to get why, but it didn’t happen (Gibson is interesting on the road we may have taken instead), and our VR fantasies seem vaguely silly, now.

On the other hand, we seem to like the 1980s futures a good bit more. That new Blade Runner movie that I fretted over a couple of blogs ago is very much cut from that cloth, for example. There’s something about that grim, crumbling future that still appeals to us, on some level, some part of it that fits with how we either think about our world or think about where we’re headed. You could argue that the steampunk genre takes a Victorian vision of the future as its inspiration. I don’t know why we like certain futures more than others, but it’s been something I’ve been thinking about lately, and I’m hoping to put together a discussion along those lines at Can*Con this fall. We’ll see.

However all that may be, the 1970s future portrayed in Star Wars is obviously one that works for today’s audience, or at least a good portion of it. When the two most recent movies came out, I remember hearing from more than a few people that they were glad to see that the tech was all chunky and beat the hell up. Captain Andor’s U-Wing looks like it has been used for many hundreds of hours by hundred of people and it is glorious. When we meet Rey, she lives in a junkyard of wrecked and abandoned ships. The Rebel base, when we get there, is once again in a dingy, dark concrete bunker. Saw Gerrera’s partisan stronghold was filthy and his gear looked like it might stop working any second now.

40 years is a fantastic run for any imaginary world, and it says something about the basic quality of the Star Wars story that both the original movies and the newer additions to the franchise seem to be as popular as ever. I hope they keep making Star Wars films for us as long as they have good stories to tell, and I hope all of them have that clunky, battered, busted-looking tech as part of them.

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If you’ve missed me talking about it before, the Limestone Genre Expo is in Kingston this weekend, and it’s not too late to register! This will be my second year attending and if last year is anything to go by it will be a marvellous weekend of time spent thinking and talking about reading and writing. I’ll be on a few panels and hanging out at the Renaissance Press booth if you’d like to say hello, and it’s a great opportunity to meet writers and fans of great fiction. Details are here.

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Time For Art

Ok, so, rough week last week. I mean, relatively speaking I am more than fine, but I would be lying if I said that the past several days didn’t shake me, and I’m not likely to be in any particular difficulty or danger any time soon. I know there are lots of people that are. From my own little point of view, I have seen lots of artists, some that I know and some that I don’t, say that they don’t know how to keep creating when they are faced with such discouragement, hostility, and disillusionment. Again, it is relatively easy for me to say this, given my situation, but I know that I am certainly not going to stop writing. If anything, I’m extra determined to keep creating. I hope if any other writers are reading this, you all will too.

I will keep writing because, among other things, this is something that cannot be taken from me. Elections can go bad, jobs can go bad, friendships can end, whatever – I will still be able to write. I will still have imaginary worlds to create and stories to tell. I think they’re interesting and entertaining and hopefully fun to visit and maybe in some small way significant, but at a minimum they are significant to me, and the one thing the world will absolutely not take from me is my ability to create and tell stories and to write. If you take this laptop away (and I mean, it’s a luxury) I will write on paper like I used to. If you take the paper away I will tell the stories in my head like I already do anyway. This is mine. You can’t have it.

I assume it’s similar for other sorts of artists. I can’t draw and I certainly can’t sing or play an instrument, but it strikes me that if you are one of those kinds of artists, you’ve got the same freedom. You can always create. The only thing that can ever stop you is you, so don’t stop.

I think it’s important not to, in part because (and here I’m generalizing what’s true for me to artists overall) creating is a vital part of who we are and we are healthier, better people when we express that gift. I know I always feel better when I’ve written something, because part of me is (on whatever level you want to put it) intended to write and so the whole organism feels good when some writing gets done. To stop doing art is to be a bird that stops flying.

I also think, slightly trite though this sentiment may be, that it is in times of crisis that we (as a society) need art the most. We need things that amaze and astound and delight us when things look bleak. We need things that challenge us when there seems to be only one way things can go. And we need a wide, rich, wonderful diversity of voices and stories especially in times when we’re being threatened by bigotry and discrimination. They want us, me, you, to shut up. Artists have to say no.

A lot of artists are sad or frightened or in pain right now. Take that and make something out of it.

Melodramatic an idea as it may be, there might be someone waiting to hear what you have to say. Something you write may be able to inspire or encourage a person out there who needed to hear it, or even just amuse or entertain them for a brief space of time when they needed a break from the world.

Artists can be part of the voice that speaks up against things that are wrong, can advocate for the causes we know to be right, and take a message to people that otherwise might not hear it. It’s who we are, it’s what we do, and it’s a powerful gift as well as a responsibility.

Out here, a lot of things hurt. Pick up what you can and create.

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Momentum

I have hit what I feel to be a key moment in the new WIP, and that it has generated some critical kind of creative momentum. It is now spontaneously generating ideas, or at least that’s how it seems to me. What I mean is that even when I’m not sitting down for Writing Time and deliberately focusing on the book, scenes and scraps of dialogue will pop into my head. I think of it as my imaginary people demanding to have their story told. Both of the novels that I’ve written to completion had stages where they went this way, when the ideas started coming whether I wanted them or not.

I am not in the least complaining. Having the ideas behind the work (if not always the actual writing down of the ideas) coming easily is a wonderful way to feel, especially in contrast to the times when I can’t seem to drag a sentence out of me. This means that even with a relatively full schedule these days, I am making significant progress with a story that I’m genuinely excited about. It is, perhaps, just a tiny bit frustrating when I get a great idea for how to do a scene when I’m meant to be writing a lecture, or a nice exchange of dialogue pops into my head right when I need to be going to sleep.

This phenomenon is interesting at the same time as it is frustrating – although I think of these unsolicited, unprompted ideas being the story writing itself, or the characters telling me their story, obviously it is all coming from me and there aren’t really any other minds or entities at work, but it really doesn’t feel that way when, as I said above, something about a character pops into my head while I’m trying to concentrate on something else.

No doubt a psychologist or someone who understands the physical processes of the brain would know exactly what’s going on here. I doubt I’m the only one who experiences moments like this, when the brain starts firing up thoughts and conclusions on a topic other than whatever we were intending to be focused on at the moment. Certainly I know it happens to me involving things other than writing – thinking about things that I would really prefer to forget, or put aside, that I not only haven’t chosen to focus on but would absolutely choose not to focus on, if I could. Those last can be especially frustrating, particularly when you remember the times when you couldn’t get ideas on something you were interested in. It seems like your brain is being contrary – no, you can’t have what you want, but here’s a bunch of stuff you definitely don’t want.

I don’t really understand why thinking works this way, at times, but ultimately even though I find it frustrating at times, in the end I don’t mind. For one thing, I would never want to do anything that might disrupt my ability to create new ideas to write about, so if it has to be an erratic and nebulous process, I can live with that. If I’m honest, I also kind of enjoy the thought of my characters telling me about themselves and explaining their stories to me, so even if rationally I know that it’s just me talking to myself, I’ll happily pretend to believe in the illusion instead.

I’m not sure how to assess the times when some of these revelations are (or at least seem) genuinely surprising to me – I honestly do have ‘oh, I didn’t know that would happen’ moments thinking through plots and scenes, or ‘wow, ok, I hadn’t realized that about them’ realizations about some of my characters. It does make it seem like there’s a part of my mind operating outside my supervision, which is both fun and slightly disturbing. Again, I know there’s a rational explanation in there somewhere, but I doubt knowing it would really affect the experience, and those revelations can be very exciting, so I think I’ll keep them.

Anyway. However things are happening, at the moment they’re flowing well and I feel like I can have a complete or complete-ish draft of the next book by the springtime, and perhaps spend the summer trying to find a home for it. I know there will be tougher stages ahead so I’m trying to just enjoy the ride for now.

That’s what I’ve got for you this week – thanks for reading.

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As much as I’m excited about my new project, this Saturday is the launch for Bonhomme Sept-Heures! If you’re in the Ottawa area it would be great to see you at the huge event Renaissance Press is doing for my book and seven other local artists. Details here.

If you can’t make it to the launch, watch this space for details on how else you can get your hands on a copy. I’m really looking forward to sharing this one with you.

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Driving with the top down

As I’m continuing to write the new WIP, at the moment I’m having a great deal of fun. In part this because I’m mostly at the stage of the project where I think it is A Fantastic Idea and Statler and Waldorf haven’t weighed in too much yet, partly it’s been because I’ve had wonderfully encouraging feedback from its very limited audience so far, but in large part there is another reason. Some characters are just fun to take out for a spin.

If you read the blog regularly (first of all: my sympathies), this is still the project with Easter Pinkerton, Victorian-era spy as its protagonist. I’m greatly enjoying writing Easter at the moment because she’s very unlike the lead character of King in Darkness and Bonhomme Sept-Heures, and the other project that got stuck in the mud summer before last. In all of those cases my lead tends to be thoughtful, arguably intellectual, but certainly not hard cases or much good at physical confrontation.

Easter is clever, I hope, but she’s also dangerous and that’s a very fun change for me. Easter responds very differently to crisis and to her enemies and it is (I imagine) like driving a different kind of car for a while, one that handles differently and has more power and acceleration. It’s not necessarily better (I am still very fond of Adam Godwinson) but the different experience is exciting.

This is one of the joys of writing, of course. One of the cliches about being an author is that you get to live a great many lives, vicariously, through your characters. I’m not sure I entirely agree with that, but you certainly get to play with a lot of different bits and pieces of the range of human experience without, you know, actually having to do them. You can write someone who is not the least bit afraid of perilous situations and get at least a sense of what that might be like, as one who generally tends to run for cover. You can create a character who speaks their mind no matter the consequences, and sort of know what that is like, even if you really tend to be shy. Of course it’s all pretend, and all you really know is what you imagine those things to be like, but these are still rewarding explorations to go on, and one of the pleasures of being a writer.

Some characters are just fun to write, as well, and I hope that Easter will continue to be one of those. I guess by this I mean their personalities are such that its entertaining to think of what they might say or do next and fun to put it down on the page. Another character from King in Darkness, Dr. Todd Marchale, turned out to be a great joy to write because he’s such a sarcastic grump and coming up with his next grumble never fails to amuse. Fortunately readers seem to have liked him too. I’m enjoying writing Easter in a somewhat similar way, too – hopefully in time her audience will like her just as much.

It is one of the great pleasures of indulging ones imagination and writing to take the time to come up with all the bits and pieces of background for characters that we like and craft every facet of their personality. At least for me, a great many of those details will never make it into the story – I think I’ve said before that I don’t particularly like it when stories bury me in reams of backstory, most of which has no real impact on the tale at hand – but still come up with them. I was delighted to discover that George Miller, the creator of the Mad Max franchise, has detailed backgrounds for just about every character that appeared in Fury Road, even though you don’t get even a hint of most of them. It sounds very familiar.

There are times when characters are not fun to write, of course. I talked about this a bit in the process of writing Bonhomme Sept-Heures – some characters are genuinely unpleasant to ‘be around’ and so the task of writing them down is (for me, anyway) also unpleasant. In a narrative sense it needs to be done, because I need that character and the story requires them to be a certain way, but that doesn’t mean I have to like doing it.

I suppose it’s a tiny tiny downside to writing fiction with some darker elements to it; from time to time I have to slither around in dark parts of the human psyche to create the made-up people I need to give the story the villains to go with the heroes. The temptation is to do it quickly and get it over with, but I have always thought that a good villain needs depth just as much as a hero does (perhaps more, because we’re more likely to ‘naturally’ grasp the hero’s motivation) and so it’s not an experience I can rush through.

I guess I hope I do justice to all my imaginary people, in the end. It isn’t their fault if the story requires them to be awful and I hope I treat them with somewhat the same care as I do the character who are fun to create. It’s also a kind of comfort that I know they aren’t real and are safely in my imagination where they can’t really do any lasting harm.

Now I think I’m going to go see what Easter wants to do for a while.

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It’s just a few days until Word on the Street in Toronto! If you don’t know, Word on the Street is a fabulous open-air literary festival and this year, Renaissance Press will be there for the first time. I’m very excited to be able to make the trip down and to hang out at the Renaissance table all day; we’ll be in the Fringe Beat section if you’re looking for us on your map. If you’re in the area I don’t think there’s any way you’ll be disappointed if you come down, soak up all the wonderful reader-y and writer-y stuff going on, and pick up some awesome stuff to read. I’d love it if you came and said hi at the table.

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My Companion

So this week I’m going to write about my oldest, constant companion. It is both a wonderful gift and, at times, a trial, but even in the moments when it drives me crazy I also know I wouldn’t change it if I could. This companion of mine, always with me even in moments when it might be best if it wasn’t, is my imagination.

(This is going to be one of those kind of weird mind-rambly entries, so buckle up and/or bail out)

I have always – or at least, as long as I can remember – had a very active imagination. I’m not sure whether a good imagination is something one is born with, or learns to have, although I do know some people don’t have them. I grew up in a house with a very good example of that: my father has basically no imagination. (I write this secure in the confidence that he will never read this blog.) My dad never reads fiction because he can’t get past the part where the people don’t exist and the events never happened. I guess he just doesn’t see why he should spend any time on things that aren’t real. (Which is, to be completely fair, a solidly practical point of view on things) Even though he is deeply, deeply fascinated by World War Two, my mother failed to get him interested in a historical novel about a fictional WWII fighter squadron, because again: not real. Even though you could hardly have tailored a book more specifically to my father’s particular interests, I don’t believe he ever finished it. (I did. It was ok.) (I will read almost any book that isn’t actually on fire)

So I know some people don’t have much of an imagination, and therefore (I assume) not much of an imaginary life. I don’t know exactly where mine came from, whether through the genetic slot machine or learned behaviour – my mother always encouraged me to read and was immensely tolerant of imaginary games that routinely took over big parts of the house – but I have it now and again, for the most part, I regard it as a tremendous gift that I cherish.

I guess it isn’t a huge surprise that a fiction writer has a good imagination, and of course that’s where all the strange things I scribble down come from. A lot of times (as I think I’ve discussed in previous blogs) some fragment of the real world gets plucked up (for whatever reason) by my consciousness and dipped into my imagination before becoming part of a story. But obviously, it all comes from there or through there and as I love to write and increasingly love to share my stories with other people my imagination something I simply could not do without.

It has also given me a wonderful escape from the world and my problems throughout my life. It’s easy for me to wander off into a place that doesn’t exist and explore that for a while when the planet is too stressful or too disappointing or too thoroughly awful to deal with for a while. It’s a great coping mechanism and also just vastly entertaining; growing up I had space explorations and dinosaur Olympics and scientific expeditions and much more all without needing to go anywhere at all. It has let me go places and do things that I’m pretty confident no-one else ever has.

I think in some ways having a good imagination made me reasonably self-sufficient, because I’m very good at keeping myself amused and keeping myself company, or at least conjuring up imaginary people to keep me company. That’s also been a great gift, at times. I also wonder whether being able to spend so much time engaged with my own imaginings, and therefore not needing to interact with actual real people as much, helped make me into the rather shy person I am today. Probably the two things reinforce each other.

There are times when my imagination is not helpful. It has made me an elite world-class worrier. I can think of roughly 1000 worst-case scenarios for any situation or any decision, and experience them in gruesome detail. I can usually think of very, very many possible outcomes to any course of action I might want to take, which is sometimes good, but sometimes also leads to ‘analysis paralysis’ as I pause and consider all the various ways (some not good) that something might work out before doing it. There are times in my life where I know my imagination, and the many maybe-future roads it let me see, led me to wait and wait and wait before doing something, because I wasn’t sure how it would work out, and then the moment to do it was gone and will never come back.

It’s at times like these, or when I am lying awake in the night considering the 437th way that That Thing I Said will lead, inexorably, to my demise, that I can get very frustrated with my imagination, and wish it had an ‘off’ switch or at least a volume button. I have, in these moments, even tried negotiating with my imagination (look, can you cool it for a few hours so I can Get Things Done and then we’ll get right into it) but it is, I am sure, an inherently irrational thing and so they never work out.

In the end, though, if forced to choose I know I wouldn’t change it, at all. My imagination has been my companion for as long as I can remember, and it has made my life an endless amazing, fabulous, and deeply odd place. I’m grateful in many different ways for that, and can only hope it continues on for all the years ahead.

However many there are.

(Don’t start, you.)

That’s what I’ve got for you this week. Thanks for reading.

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In case you have somehow failed to notice the approximately 500 times I have announced this already, here is the cover for my upcoming novel, Bonhomme Sept-Heures.  There’s a blurb for it over in the ‘Books’ section of the blog as well if you’d like to give that a read.

I’m very excited about it and to have the book ready for you to read later in the fall.

bonhomme kindle cover

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Me vs. The Speckled Band

As part of working (slowly) on the Easter Pinkerton project I wrote about a couple weeks ago, I have been re-reading some Sherlock Holmes stories (a thing I tend to do anyway) and a night or two ago I got to ‘The Speckled Band’. I am told that Conan Doyle considered it the best of his Holmes tales, and while I don’t agree with this (something Sir Arthur and I can no doubt debate when I reach the great Writers’ Hereafter) it is a good un.

There is an issue, though. (This next bit is arguably spoiler-y but I think the Holmes stories are old enough that I don’t care) At the climax of the story, Holmes discovers that the murder weapon in this particular case is a swamp adder, ‘the deadliest snake in India’, as our hero describes it, that has climbed down a bell-rope into the bed of its victims. Which is pretty cool.

The problem is that there isn’t actually a snake called a ‘swamp adder’ in India or any place else, nor indeed a snake that looks all that much like the one Conan Doyle describes. Herpetologists and Holmes fans have wrestled with this problem and come up with a few snakey options for what the creature might actually be, but there’s a larger issue yet. Apparently snakes can’t climb ropes. (I didn’t know that either!) Thus, the whole premise of Conan Doyle’s story is impossible. Despite this, ‘Speckled Band’ was his favorite (I assume he didn’t know it was impossible) and despite the problems with the made-up snake and the made-up snake behaviour (the snake is also trained to respond to a whistle, which is also a problem because snakes are, apparently, deaf) people have been reading ‘Speckled Band’ for over a century, and it is routinely mentioned as a favourite.

Presumably at least some of that is the readership not knowing about swamp adders and snakes, and thus not knowing where Conan Doyle has gone wrong. However, I still enjoy it very much even knowing the issues with it, because Conan Doyle was right and it is a very good story. The central mystery is good, we get some opportunities for Holmes to show his deductive brilliance, as well as the somewhat rarer example of Holmes being (temporarily) mistaken. The atmosphere and tension of the climactic scene is very well done. In other words, the thing works, if you can put aside or cheerfully ignore all the snake-related issues.

This gets me to wondering (probably in part because I’m writing a story that will be set in the Victorian period, a period I am not expert on) whether we get too hung up on factual precision, getting every fact and word exactly correct, when we create. The example of ‘Speckled Band’, along with very many others, suggests that if you’ve got a good story, your audience will follow you, even if there are cases where you have an, ah, elastic relationship with the truth.

If you have a good story, I wonder if it might not be better to just write the thing and worry less about the facts. I know an overriding concern with accuracy can kill creativity. I think I wrote here a long while ago about a story of mine I wrote for a creative writing class with an opening scene that I set in Vladivostok, purely because it sounded like a suitably William Gibson-y place to stick a cyberpunk-ish story. My teacher pointed out (probably accurately!) that Vladivostok looked nothing like that. The story, which was meant to be the first piece of a novel, never recovered and I hardly did a thing to it or with it after that, because I couldn’t let the Vladivostok thing go. In this case, I don’t think the world lost a great story (I’ve written elsewhere about why my phase of trying to write cyberpunk was irredeemably bad) but the point I’m thinking about at the moment is that from a creative point of view, it probably would have been better to cheerfully ignore the whole issue with Vladivostok and just write the story. If it was a good story (it was not a good story), most readers would have cheerfully ignored it right along with me and enjoyed the narrative they were being given.

There is probably a minimum standard here somewhere, some tipping point past which even a well-written story gets dumped down from ‘enjoyable’ and ‘entertaining’ into ‘unbelievable, and in a bad way’. Some things do (to judge from internet reactions) seem to get particular subsets of readers particularly energized – getting facts wrong with guns seems as though it will get a reasonably large number of people excited, and computer-y people routinely point out all the problems with any kind of scene involving the internet and hacking. I freely confess to being scolded for ‘ruining’ the Clive Owen King Arthur movie by objecting to its problems with the truth throughout the film. (I still maintain that movie was pretty much self-ruining, though) If you get certain parts of your story wrong, people will notice, and it may bother them enough that they either give up on your story, or switch focus to finding all the other mistakes you’ve made, and then (often) pointing them out, a task which the internet certainly assists.

Part of this is (I think) that we love to point out our own knowledge. Part of this, though, is that places where a story strays from the factually possible is kind of a challenge to the reader: how ‘in’ are you, with this story? Are you bought in enough to stay with me through this, er, creative interpretation of the truth? You can, I think, only challenge your audience in this way so many times, or to a certain degree of severity, before the answer becomes: ‘nah, I’m out’.

I’m not sure if this is some precise calculation that a writer needs to constantly make, or (as I suspect) that this is one of those intuitive processes where you have to decide how essential certain facts may be to your story and to what extent they can – or in some cases must – be fudged in favour of your story. I am sure that in the end, if you have a good story, you probably have an audience that will follow it despite any factual blips that may be in there. If you have an immaculately researched, factually unassailable piece of work that isn’t a good story, all the research doesn’t matter because people won’t want to read it. I guess the more I think about this issue, and how to budget my time and energy as I work on this current project, the more I think I need to spend it on creating rather than on graduate-level research into the Victorians. I gotta have a good story before I need anything else. If I have one, I think my readers will forgive me for any swamp adders.

That’s what I’ve got for you this week.

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The Strange Course of Ideas

This is going to be one of those ‘process’ entries that may or may not be of any particular interest, but I do get people asking from time to time where my ideas come from. A lot of times I just go with ‘my crazy brain’ as a response, but over the last week there was a fairly self-contained example of how the ol’ mind-gears work and I thought I would share it today.

To somewhat set the stage, I had just finished the first round of edits for Bonhomme Sept-Heures and fired the manuscript back to the publishers for the second go-round. My plan was to revisit the project I had started writing last summer and then put aside because I got kind of stuck and had more ideas for Bonhomme Sept-Heures. So much for the plan.

Instead a dear friend of mine posted on Facebook that they had driven through a town with a name that they loved: ‘Easter Meikle Pinkerton’. (A town, by the way, that I have since been unable to find out very much at all about, but never mind) For whatever reason I latched on to that and wrote back a hilarious (not really) observation that this sounded like the love interest in an obscure Victorian spy novel. Another friend commented that I was now obliged to write said novel.

And there the trouble began.

I started thinking about Victorian spies and the first thing I decided was that Easter Meikle Pinkerton should be the protagonist rather than the love interest, because a) it’s too awesome a name to not be the main character b) the ‘Pinkerton – not of the agency’ line only works from the lead and c) a female spy in the 1800s is a pretty interesting character. Also kind of d) I haven’t written a female lead in a very, very long time, and not in anything that I have shared widely, so that’s attractive right there.

Now, I make hilarious (not really) comments like that all the time and most of them don’t go any further than amusing me and perhaps exasperating others, so we now reach the part of the process that I honestly don’t understand. Where a lot of ideas and musings and concepts just kind of flicker and vanish, certain ones set the mind-gears humming away, without (honest) me thinking about it, and then gradually more Stuff that goes with the idea starts getting thrown up from whatever strange subconscious alchemical part of my brain does these things to where I can notice them.

So it was with Easter Pinkerton. I started having ideas about what the general plot of the story could be and in general I like it. I know where Easter lives, I know she dresses as a man sometimes (sometimes out of necessity), has little patience for those who aren’t as quick-witted as she is (which is nearly everyone) and has a Welsh butler (whose name I need to nail down) whose main role in life is to smooth over the social upset she causes. Like most fictional spies she can kill you with a knife (and various other ways) but she’s rather unlike most fictional spies in that she builds model wooden ships. (There’s a reason) I know who our villains are and have a broad sense of how the story will play out. I need to start making a plot diagram to help me keep things straight, and I especially need to come up with Easter’s background. I’m trying to decide how many Holmes references to put in there.

I wrote a very rough teaser/prologue thing and sent it off to some friends to see what they made of it. They were foolish enough to say encouraging things and so now of course I have more ideas coming. I am at that point where I know the mind-gears are fully engaged because (among other things) I’m thinking through scenes as I’m running. (Sorry, reset the ‘days since Evan made a running reference’ sign to zero)

So I guess that other project is getting put off for a while again, even though I do like the idea and (because my brain is crazy) do feel guilty about those characters having to wait, again, while I write another story. On the other hand I think I need to jump on this idea that has me excited right now and get as much of it done as I can. I’m even taking the advice of (yet) another friend to write the bulk of this story now, while I’m enthusiastic about it, and do repairs and edits based on research (which will have to be done) afterwards. This goes against my instincts of How to Do Things, but one of the things that helped the other project run into the sand was realizing how much research needed to be done to get it right, and thus my mind wandered off to other things, so this may work out better. We’ll see.

So there you go. The idea for this one, which I hope I will be able to share with you at some point, came from a fairly offhand comment in the most mundane of places, and for whatever reason engaged the mechanisms of my strange little mind to the point that a story has started to form. I wish I could predict what will set that process off, but I can’t. Perhaps that will come in time, and perhaps not.

Perhaps you enjoyed reading that. I hope so.

—–

This weekend I am excited to be at the Limestone Genre Expo in Kingston along with a whole passel of accomplished authors like Jay Odjick and Tanya Huff, talking about reading and writer related things for a few days. I’m going to be participating in a couple of panel discussions on Sunday afternoon and will be around the whole weekend, including spending some time at the Renaissance Press table, where you will be able to get a copy of King in Darkness and say hello if you’d like to.

Online registration is still available and you should definitely come if you can!

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Running with my Grandfather

If (god help you) you are a long-time reader of this blog, you will know that one of the things I do in addition to writing is distance running. I started running for pure recreation (it being a kind of fitness activity that is incredibly easy to get started on) and over time this worked its way up to doing some organized races of various distances. I’m certainly nothing remarkable as a runner, but I enjoy challenging myself to do a little better and seeing if I can improve my own performances over time.

Spring here has been (and continues to be) very reluctant in really arriving properly, but it has (mostly) gotten warm enough that I’m back to running outdoors and getting ready for my first race of the season in a few weeks. I think I’ve mentioned before on here that I do a lot of thinking while running; I write things in my head and my brain wanders all sorts of places.

One of the things I think of most often is my grandfather.

My grandfather was way more of an athlete than I could ever hope to be; he did (and won) competitive bicycle races and canoe races and snowshoe races, as well as being a runner and speed walker himself. I remember when we would visit his farm in the summertime, sometimes on the drive in we would meet him on the road training. No gym or workout program for him, just hard miles on the road. I keep meaning to try using a bandana instead of a headband myself, sometime.

Sometimes on a difficult run I will think about my granddad and things from his athletic career and somehow whatever I’m doing doesn’t seem like such a big deal any more. Sometimes if I’m doing well that day I’ll also think about him and wonder if, somehow, a little bit of my performance has come down, through the slot machine of DNA, from him. I like to think Granddad might have been interested in some of the runs I’ve done.

He lived a very different kind of life than I have. He raised his family on a farm with no electricity and no running water, supporting them with his own hard labour. The last house he lived in, he built himself, from cutting the trees right through to the finishing touches. He went to war and came home. My grandfather was never wealthy, never had much in the way of luxuries or Stuff, but he lived a long, full, remarkable life surrounded by people who respected him (he held several local government offices) and cared about him.

I am constantly in danger of feeling hard-done-by in life and thinking that I’m not enough of a success and haven’t, I guess, racked up enough of a high score in life. My grandfather reminds me that basically none of it matters if you have what you need (and you need a lot less than you may think you do, and certainly less than you’ve been told you do) and that life probably doesn’t need to be as complicated as we are often determined to make it. I’m doing all right, and more than all right by most standards. I shouldn’t let other people’s standards and the loud, loud world take that from me. Granddad never did.

I keep thinking I should write a book about it all, except for one problem.

The thing I regret is that despite everything I’ve just written, I never knew my grandfather as well as I would like. When we visited, I remember him being very quiet. He would sit with us all (when not working), but usually silently, watching much more than he spoke. Every so often he would, quietly, share a story or a memory and then let the conversation slide away from him again. He had a broad smile that appeared infrequently.

I didn’t understand until much, much later that the thing was that Granddad was shy around people he didn’t know very well, and he certainly didn’t know me well, seeing me a couple times a summer. I’m not surprised, thinking about it now, that he wouldn’t have known how to relate to me, coming from a very different lifestyle than he had ever led, interested in all the weird things that have always interested me, and of course being shy and quiet myself, and so unlikely to reach out from the other direction. I hope that he was nevertheless happy to have us kick around the farm on our visits; certainly those visits will always be part of my treasured storehouse of memories and, I suspect, they continue to affect the kind of person I am today.

I do wish that we’d known each other better. I wish I had made a really good try to engage with him, once I was old enough to know what was going on, although perhaps that wouldn’t have worked out. Working out that Granddad had some of the same issues with people that I do made me feel a little closer to him, in the end, even if it maybe kept us from knowing each other real well in actuality.

I’m not sure where this particular entry is going except that I’m grateful to have known my grandfather as well as I did and to have had his example to draw on from time to time. I suppose I’ll always have some regrets about lost opportunities in the past, but I also have treasured memories that never fail to make me smile and glad I was there.

Thanks, Granddad. I’ll see you on the road.

Anyway, that’s what I’ve got for you this week. Thanks for reading.

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Unscripted

I think I’ve written something like this before, but I’ve been thinking a lot the past couple days about how very unlike a fictional story the real world is, most of the time. This is hardly an earth-shattering revelation, but hang with me. Thinking (again? still?) of the wildfire in Alberta, if this was something in a story we would reach a point where there was Stirring Music and then some character or other would figure out a solution to the problem, or a character would suddenly realize What It All Means and come away with some key lesson that would change them forever. In the real world, it’s not really the case; there are lots of stories coming out of Fort McMurray, but it’s also pretty clear that there is no dramatic solution to the problem. The people there just have to wait for it all to be over and the rest of us can try to help if we are able.

Our stories often tend to follow a general pattern – there is a stretch where things look not so good, but then there is Stirring Music and the solution is discovered, people end up in the right relationships, and lessons are learned. There’s a very good reason for this, and as much as I’m putting this in a flippant way, this is how I tend to like my stories these days too. It feels good, as a reader, to see that at the end of the story, things are better, in some fashion, than they were at the beginning. I think it especially feels good because it is so often not that way in the real world; there are plenty of times when things don’t work out for the best and I like to see the opposite when I’m taking time off from reality.

I think that’s also part of the joy of being an author; you get to decide how things are going to work out for your characters. You can create that good ending if you want one (and I do sometimes hear Stirring Music while I’m writing, a little) and have things in the story you create end up just as you would have it, a satisfaction that you will basically never have in the real world. I haven’t consciously done it myself, but I know that some authors also enjoy taking people who have annoyed or upset them in their real lives, dropping them as characters into a story, and taking authorial revenge.

Both things sound more than slightly Dr. Doom-ish, I guess, but I don’t think there’s anything fundamentally different in how authors enjoy getting to create the endings they want to see and how readers enjoy experiencing those endings, except for the level of control over the process. The chance to take a step away from reality and check out an imaginary world where things work a little differently is the attraction.

Of course one of the good parts about there being no scripts or storylines in the real world is precisely that there are no endings pre-written for us. We can each decide how our own story is going to end; obviously not to an unlimited extent, but to a significant one. If there is an author of our personal story, it is us, and that’s pretty cool.

I hope your story this week is a good one.

——-

I’m looking forward to Ottawa ComicCon this weekend; as I mentioned last week I will be at the Renaissance Press table all day Sunday, but you can drop by any time through the weekend (in between doing all the other rad stuff at this year’s con) to pick up something to read, and I’d be delighted if you chose The King in Darkness.

I am counting purchases at the con towards my contributions to the Red Cross for Ft. McMurray relief as well (details in the previous blog entry) so you’ll even be providing aid to victims of a terrible disaster at the same time as you grab something new for your bookshelf. I have had a lovely response to this initiative so far, and I’d love to see it continue right through the month. Although the worst threat of fire to the city seems to be over, it will be weeks until they even start to make a plan to get people back in their homes, and then of course there will still be lots of clean up to do. On top of that, far too many lost everything they had and have nothing to go back to. Everything we can do helps.

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Evan vs. My Brain

This entry is going to be a bit of a ‘me thinking out loud’ one (moreso than usual) so consider yourself fairly warned. However there’s at least some chance this might be useful to other writery types, and so here we go.

With the situation surrounding Bonhomme Sept-Heures relatively static (waiting for additional feedback from Eager Volunteers), I’ve started work on a new project. Or, at least, I’m trying to. The problem is this. My plan was to start working on the idea I wrote about 20,000 words for last summer before setting it aside to do Bonhomme Sept-Heures. I think it’s a good concept, and I think it’s also a reasonably unconventional one, which may help in getting representation for it and a place to publish it.

However, my brain keeps throwing up ideas for this other concept that I’ve had rattling around my brain for about the past 4 years. I do like the concept, but it’s a fantasy story that doesn’t have quite as much of a unique hook to it as the other one does – it’s sort of my take on an Arthurian story. I think it could be a good story, if and when I do write it, but it’s arguably not as marketable and the concept is a bit more pedestrian.

And yet, that’s still the one that ideas keep churning up from the depths of wherever as I go for a run or do a workout at the gym or relax at the end of the day. So I have a bit of a dilemma: should I write the story that I’m having ideas for right now, but will probably be harder to do anything with, or risk losing whatever inspiration it is that’s driving those ideas and try to stay focused on the project that I’m not firing up ideas for quite so readily, but is probably going to be easier to find a home for.

It is of course slightly annoying and bemusing that my imagination works this way – although I can do things to make it more likely that good ideas will flow, I can’t really control when it happens, and sometimes, I can’t really even control what ideas show up. I get what I get, and then decide what to do with it. Some of it gets written up immediately, some of it gets put aside (although I have learned, after losing far too many ideas to my awful memory, to Write Shit Down), and some of it gets discarded. It’s very rare that the idea flow is really under my control, though; even when I was writing King in Darkness and pretty excited about it, I kept getting ideas for the book that eventually became Bonhomme Sept-Heures and books that would follow on after it, and had to take little timeouts to take care of those.

This is, obviously, the kind of the thing that artists have been complaining about since the beginning of time, so I know, and comfort myself to some degree, that there isn’t anything unique about my situation. It is fascinating to me the way the creative process works, apparently mostly uncoupled from conscious direction a lot of the time. Our brains are weird and wonderful things and although it can be frustrating from time to time, I kind of like that I don’t always completely understand what’s going on with mine.

Now, though, I gotta sit that thing down and have a discussion about which goddamn book we’re going to write next.

I’ll let you know how it goes.

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