Guest Barista, Andrew McDowell on Writer’s Resources

Check out this guest post I did for the Go Dog Go Cafe! Many thanks to Stephen and his associates for this opportunity!

Go Dog Go Café

Writers must read and conduct research to build their stories. No matter the genre, writers need to build plot and characters to create something that will appeal to readers, and there are many books offering tips and insights into these elements. I will discuss those titles I have listed for my own recommended resources and why I think they’re helpful.

Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces is one of the most well-known and influential books in the world. It draws upon many myths, identifying common characteristics and story elements to form what we know as the hero’s journey. Perhaps one of the most famous examples of Campbell’s influence is with George Lucas when he created Star Wars. There’s a reason why this book is helpful to writers: the hero’s journey appeals to people. It’s been depicted in many different ways, and stories do deviate at certain points (Frodo…

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Love is in the Words

Romance has long been considered an important component of literature and drama. It draws them in, including me. People love to praise those who make huge sacrifices for love. Readers like to see it blossom and endure amid great trials and hardships, to see it conquer all. Unfortunately, sometimes fans can get so obsessed with notions of romance that they can lose their hold of reality.

Modern adaptations of classic stories alter characters for the sake of romance. Helen of Troy has been portrayed as falling genuinely in love with Paris rather than being under a spell, as she was originally in The Iliad. In some adaptations of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, Ichabod and Katrina are in love, with Ichabod as a noble hero, whereas in the original story his motives are anything but honorable, and it’s implied Katrina, who was rather vane, merely used him to make Brom Bones jealous. Even villains like Dracula, who originally had no qualms over their actions, have become “humanized” and anti-heroic via romance. Romance appeals to people.

Within fandoms and fanfiction, I’ve seen “shippers” when there’s a love triangle and even with characters who either didn’t end up together or weren’t in love. Margaret Mitchell was hounded by Gone with the Wind fans wanting to know if Rhett and Scarlett reunited. She never gave them a definitive answer, because that wasn’t the point of the story. It’s been suggested some (but not all) fans don’t care about reason, wanting a romantic ending no matter how much it defies logic.

So is there a danger when writers incorporate romance into stories? Yes. There have been articles and books discussing how reading romance novels can be dangerous for one’s physical and psychological health, because in searching for love in real life, readers may aspire to an idealized image found only in fiction. Some try to play it out, thinking it’ll end like in stories. The result is grave disappointment, because in real life nothing is perfect. In Sense and Sensibility, the romantic Marianne falls for the handsome, dashing Willoughby and wears her heart on her sleeve. When he leaves her and marries for money (after being disinherited for abandoning another girl he got pregnant), Marianne wallows in grief, to the point where she endangers her health and nearly dies.

So what can writers do? Recognize the power stories have to shape readers’ views on love. Perhaps aim to show love isn’t perfect, with fights and disagreements, but still satisfy readers. Marianne finds love in Colonel Brandon and gets a happy ending, but she matures and sees the error of her past conduct. Another thing to bear in mind is that sometimes relationships don’t work out. Seldom is a first love everlasting, especially with teenagers. At other times, there isn’t a happy ending but hope for a better future.

I don’t dismiss the power and importance of romance. It’s needed in some (but not all) stories. But writers and readers alike need to understand genuine romance is gradual, with ups and downs. As Shakespeare says, “The course of true love never did run smooth.” And as I learned in church, love is an umbrella term used for many situations that aren’t identical. Furthermore, what may appear to be love isn’t necessarily love. They say love is blind; so is obsession. Love not built on a solid foundation of friendship, mutual trust, and respect, is the easiest—and fastest—to crumble.

Updates on Works in Progress

Hopefully by now, most of you have read Mystical Greenwood and are eagerly awaiting the sequel. Well, I thought I’d talk a bit about where I am presently with my current projects. Uh oh, spoiler alert! Hopefully these aren’t big spoilers but teasers. I’ll do my best to refrain from giving too much away. Consider it an early holiday gift.

As I said, there is a sequel to Mystical Greenwood in progress. From the beginning, I’ve wanted the One with Nature series to consist of three books. I know how I want the second to end, but it won’t be the end of the story, so the third book has that purpose already (and I even have a vision of how I’d like it to end). Having focused on forests, I intend to take my characters to another important realm of Nature: the sea (as well as emphasize other bodies of water). So there will be an exploration of and emphasis on aquatic life, and as I hinted before, I’d like to include some more mythical creatures. Taranis will raise the stakes of his fight, and the sequel will include an element Mystical Greenwood lacked: romance.

Anyone who’s seen my works in progress page knows there’s been another story in the works, set in the real world dealing with pets who are neglected and abused. I started it as a class project back at St. Mary’s College. Anyone who knows me knows how much I love animals, and it pains me to think of how many pets—not just dogs—suffer in this world and are deprived of love and comfort. A number of other projects and short works are also in the early stages/idea phase. Things to look forward to in the future!

In addition to these large works, I have short ones too that I’m trying to publish. I’ve had some poetry published this year, and there’s a lot more. I also have two completed short stories. As I’ve said from the beginning, I want to explore various genres and forms of writing. I’ve had a wide variety of interests throughout my life, and perhaps that’s due to my Asperger syndrome. But I definitely want to explore them in writing. I’ll be sure to post updates when they come.

Be sure to check out my Events page for upcoming appearances! Also, registration is open for the 2020 Maryland Writers Conference. Early bird prices go until New Year’s Eve! If you’re interested, go to the MWA website to learn more!

And of course, if you haven’t yet, I hope you’ll read and review Mystical Greenwood! And if you know someone who loves reading fantasy and loves Nature, books make great gifts during the winter holidays! In Iceland, a country with a high reading and publication rate, there is a tradition of exchanging books on Christmas Eve known as Jólabókaflóð, or the Yule Book Flood.

Mystical Greenwood is available in Paperback, Kindle, and Nook:

US$: Amazon  |  Barnes & Noble  |  Books-A-Million

UK£: Amazon.co.uk  |  Foyles  |  Waterstones

CA$: Amazon.ca

Be sure to add it to your to-read list on Goodreads! The cover art is available at Deviant Art. Don’t forget to subscribe to receive notifications of new blog posts! You can also follow me on social media:

Facebook  |  Twitter  |  YouTube  |  Tumblr  |  Goodreads

Further Reading
  1. De La Mare, Guinevere. Jolabokaflod: Meet Your Favorite New Holiday Tradition.

Establishing Characters’ Motives

It’s probably a question you’ve asked yourself before when writing, and certainly one you must answer: what drives your characters? They all want something, just as people in real life want something. It can be love, hatred, power, wealth, knowledge, patriotism, disillusionment, honor, or something else. To help bring characters to life, good and bad, they need to have at least one thing that drives them, which can later on change, but ultimately helps bring the character to life as much as their individual personality traits.

You can begin with basic human emotions or desires and build them into one of many possibilities. As an example, if a character seeks knowledge, it could be knowledge of something or someone or oneself. It’s important for villains to have motivations as well as heroes. In Beowulf the titular hero seeks everlasting glory, while each of the monsters is driven by a dark desire: Grendel by envy (of the Danes celebrating, which links him to his Biblical ancestor, Cain, who killed his brother Abel out of envy), Grendel’s mother by anger (for the death of her son), and the dragon by greed (a single golden cup was stolen from his treasure hoard).

When characters are driven to commit crimes, they have simple motivations, which have different versions. Sometimes characters with similar motivations act differently upon them, or the other way around. In The Count of Monte Cristo, Danglars wants Edmond’s captaincy while Mondego wants Edmond’s fiancé. So they conspire to frame him for conspiring to help Napoleon Bonaparte. For Danglars it’s a crime of profit; for Mondego it’s one of passion. Villefort realizes there actually is a conspiracy to help the deposed emperor, not involving Edmond but his own father, which would hurt his political ambitions if revealed. So he has imprisoned Edmond without trial to protect himself. Edmond is therefore motivated to enact revenge upon them all.

Often motives can be influenced by characters’ backgrounds and circumstances. One well-known stereotype is the evil twin, who is the protagonist’s mirror image (though sometimes evil twins have facial hair or scars). But in many stories there are simply siblings—not necessarily twins—where one’s good and one’s evil. When the younger is evil, (s)he tends to be envious at not being the oldest and thus the heir. But when the older is evil (not to say (s)he can’t be jealous of the younger sibling), (s)he is proud of being the oldest and heir, to the point of narcissism and arrogance. When there’s more than one sibling, it can lead to middle child syndrome, where the second child feels unloved and/or like an outcast because the third is the “baby” and the first is the heir.

Then there’s the notion of a character foil: someone who contrasts another character, usually the protagonist. Foils can be villains like evil twins, but they can be good too. They are similar in one or two ways to a protagonist but in every other way aren’t. Sherlock Holmes’s older brother Mycroft shares his amazing power of deduction and more, but doesn’t use it to earn a living since, as Sherlock puts it, he lacks ambition and energy, and hates fieldwork.

As I said earlier, motivation can change, especially if a character isn’t sure at the start what drives him or her. Perhaps they are searching for what it is they want out of life. In every case, having motivation drives characters, and thus readers’ investment in them.

Further Reading
  1. Character Motivation: How to Write Believable Characters.
  2. Marie, Katie. Character motivations and why they are so important.

Happy Veterans Day! Many thanks to all who served!

Beta Readers, Critique Groups

Beta readers help polish writers’ work in preparation for submitting to publishers. Sometimes they work with one another one-on-one. Sometimes they form critique groups, where members share their work and receive critical but constructive feedback from everyone. What makes them helpful and essential is they aren’t necessarily in the publishing profession. They are people whom writers can trust with their earliest, roughest drafts. They are in effect the first step to sharing work with the world.

Some say it’s not a good idea to share drafts with family. Well, family is the first source of encouragement and support, and sometimes there are relatives that can offer constructive feedback. Nevertheless, it’s important to interact with and receive feedback from people who aren’t family, but who are passionate about writing and/or are seeking publication. Sometimes they’re already published, and can offer insights into the process. They will provide more critical and constructive feedback, which is necessary for growth as a writer.

I’m sorry to say that critique groups don’t always last forever. For different reasons, members leave (usually for personal reasons, which is completely understandable). What’s important is whether the groups and members have something to teach you and make you stronger. I’ve have been in quite a few critique groups since I joined the Maryland Writers’ Association, and even started one of my own. I have found it to be an extremely beneficial and motivating atmosphere.

Good beta readers not only state what they don’t like, but explain why and offer suggestions as to how to improve it. They are fair and respect the submitting writer’s feelings. Writers don’t always have to agree with beta readers’ suggestions, but listening to and appreciating them will benefit them. Those who only say they don’t like a writer’s work—if they put the writer down in their work and/or as a person—they aren’t worth staying with. And they are out there, unfortunately. I’ve encountered such people. But in such cases, the best thing was to move on, learning from those experiences and my mistakes what it means to be a good beta reader.

Writers must remain respectful of beta readers. They too have feelings, dreams, and opinions. They build one another up, which is how they all move forward. It’s best to move on when things don’t work out, especially if you receive negative feedback instead of constructive feedback. If someone doesn’t help, or isn’t willing to give you a second chance when attempting to make amends, don’t stay with them. Find people who will.

Further Reading
  1. Meghlen, Ari. Why you need to have Beta Readers.

Author Interview with M. J. Patrick

If you haven’t yet, check out my interview with fellow author and MWA member M. J. Patrick! Many thanks M. J. for this opportunity!

via Indie Author Spotlight: Andrew McDowell

Herbs in Mystical Greenwood

April showers bring May flowers. So this month I thought I’d talk about the herbs that appear in Mystical Greenwood.

Wortcunning is a real term that I found in my research. I liked it and chose to use it in the book. The herbs Saershe employs for medicinal purposes were likewise inspired by real herbs and the treatments for which they were used.

Here they are:

*Photos from Wikimedia Commons.

I’ve discussed before how fantasy can often be rooted in reality, especially when it comes to world-building. Originally when I was conducting research on herbs and plants for medicinal purposes, I chose herbs primarily for their purposes and didn’t give too much initial thought to where they came form. Eventually though I decided I wanted them to all have a generally similar place of origin to make the sense of reality stronger (similar to how I chose trees sacred to the ancient Celts), so some were discarded and new ones came in, specifically Comfrey and St. John’s Wort. Yarrow, wild mint, and red clover were there from the beginning and I’d decided were able to be kept.

Some are referred to by their proper names in the novel. Others are instead referred to by alternate names (which are given for those who haven’t yet read the novel). I didn’t set out to use those alternate names; I found them when I was reading about those herbs. I chose to use the alternate names because I felt their proper names sounded too modern and would not fit in a fantasy world (similar you might say to how dinosaur species in the Land Before Time films were referred to by names such as “Longneck” and “Sharptooth”).

Their healing abilities may be exaggerated for the purposes of storytelling, as Saershe also uses magic when employing them (it is a work of fiction after all), but I did try to make sure their purposes would be mostly authentic, and so the story did not stray out of that feeling of reality.

Don’t forget to order your copy of Mystical Greenwood!

US$:  Amazon  |  Barnes & Noble  |  Books-A-Million  |  Goodreads

UK£Amazon.co.uk  |  Foyles

CDN$:  Amazon.ca

If you enjoy the book, PLEASE post a nice review and spread the word! And if you’re a fan, order your merchandise on Deviant Art!

Further Reading
  1. Celtic Herbs
  2. Wildflowers of Ireland

Life imitating Art

Some say life can imitate art, or be inspired by it. With Mystical Greenwood, I certainly drew on my love of wild animals and Nature, which in turn has grown and changed as a result of writing that book.

Growing up, I loved reading about animals and watching television shows about them. I was fascinated to learn new things about animals, and to see them in zoos and aquariums. While reading about animals, I also read about climates and ecosystems. I learned how animals, trees, and plants are interconnected with one another, and with the Earth. Eventually I decided that love for Nature would be the story’s heart. In conducting research into natural magic, Nature-based faiths and spiritualism, the spiritual and sacred essence of that connection fit in well with that love of Nature.

In writing Mystical Greenwood, I’ve come to view the natural world in a different way. I respect nature more than I feel I ever did as a child. Green became my favorite color, and that hasn’t changed since. My research advocated communication and interaction with Nature. I now speak to many different creatures, even insects. I find I don’t freak out upon seeing some of them as much as I did when I was younger. I’ve learned to stand still and not give them reason to fear me, as many creatures may try to defend themselves from people if they feel threatened. When I’ve gone walking or jogging, I look more closely at the trees, and I feel a sense of happiness and peace when I see green leaves in spring and summer. Autumn and winter have their magical charm too.

At St. Mary’s College, I was able to continue connecting with Nature. It’s a beautiful campus, and I remember walking by the St. Mary’s River many times. I would sit on benches in the church cemetery and look out at the water. Other times I’d go down and sit by the water. I tried a technique my characters did by sitting and meditating, which I’d learned through my research is called grounding. Although I didn’t sit up against a tree like Dermot and his friends, I listened to the water and felt the warmth of the sun. A few times I can remember hearing birds come close to me, and I did my best not to alarm them by remaining calm. I looked very closely at the river and into the water. It was never a blank stare. I felt a connection, and serenity.

I don’t necessarily share the beliefs of those who follow Nature-based religions today, but I do respect them, and in my own way I get a sense of the Divine in the natural world. I’m glad of the effect Mystical Greenwood has had on my outlook and love for Nature, and I’m sure it will continue to strengthen with the sequels.

I had a great time at the Maryland Writers’ Conference last week. I sold six copies of Mystical Greenwood! Don’t forget to order yours!

US$:  Amazon  |  Barnes & Noble  |  Books-A-Million  |  Goodreads

UK£Amazon.co.uk  |  Foyles

CDN$:  Amazon.ca

I hope you enjoy the book. PLEASE post a review and spread the word! And order your merchandise on Deviant Art!

Don’t forget to follow me on social media as well!

Facebook  |  Twitter  |  YouTube  |  Tumblr

The Importance of Names (Video)

Watch my talk on the importance of names for characters, settings, and things at the Annapolis Chapter of the MWA if you haven’t yet:

This was my first talk geared specifically towards writers. I had a wonderful turnout that evening, and I’ve been informed that some of those who attended used what they learned in their own writing.

Here’s the handout from the event:

Importance of Names Handout

Do elements of my talk sound familiar? Read these old blog posts from which it draws upon:

Many thanks to all of you who purchased Mystical Greenwood! If you haven’t yet, please do so! Plus, it’s now available in Nook! Remember, books make great gifts! If you enjoy it, and I hope you do, please post a review! Help spread the word!

US$:  Amazon  |  Barnes & Noble  |  Books-A-Million  |  Goodreads

UK£Amazon.co.uk  |  Foyles

And order your merchandise on Deviant Art!

Gryphons and Dragons and Unicorns!

Gryphons and dragons and unicorns, oh my! Yeah I couldn’t resist. Mystical Greenwood features these three mythical creatures, as was revealed in the book trailer created by Mockingbird Lane Press. So this month I thought I’d discuss their history a little, as well as the personal fascination that led me to include them in my story.

GRYPHONS

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When it came to choosing the “main” mythical species for Mystical Greenwood, from the beginning I wanted one a little more unique than dragons or unicorns. I first truly became acquainted with gryphons while reading about them in the Harry Potter book Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. There was something about them that struck a chord with me. I knew right away this was the creature I wanted for my story.

Gryphons represent courage, boldness, majesty, and nobility, and true love since they were said to mate for life, and only once. Their name can be spelled differently too, as I mentioned before when discussing names in general which is what led me to choose the spelling I did. I also read their nests were reputed to contain emeralds, which I felt would fit well with the “Gaelic” atmosphere I was striving for.

DRAGONS

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When reading about knights in shining armor and dreaming of being one as a child, I read about dragons. There’s that common story line of a knight slaying one, like St. George. They’re undoubtedly the quintessential fantasy creature. Western dragons are often depicted greedily guarding treasure, like Smaug in The Hobbit or the dragon in Beowulf. They’ll embark on rampages when a single item is stolen from their hoard. They’re linked with power and magic, like the dragons of Daenerys Targaryen.

Dragons come in many colors, all of which can be interpreted symbolically. The fight between Wales and England has been embodied by red and white dragons  (the same colored dragons a young Merlin realized wrecked Vortigern’s castle from constantly battling in an underground pool). They can fly, breathe air or fire, dwell on land or in water. There are so many possibilities with dragons!

While living in Japan, I became acquainted with a dragon different from the Western one. The Eastern dragon is often wingless, benevolent, and worshiped. I once thought about having both in my story, but it would’ve been a world-building dilemma so I didn’t (which is also why I used “feline” instead of “lion” for gryphons). Because of the Western dragon’s association with greed, those in Mystical Greenwood are villains. Nevertheless, maybe I can somehow introduce good dragons in the sequels. There’s also the possibility of sea dragons. Maybe I can combine the two. We’ll see.

UNICORNS

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Unicorns represent purity and goodness. In the first Harry Potter novel, drinking their blood extends life, but that life becomes cursed for slaying such a pure creature. Their horns were said to be made of a substance called alicorn, which possessed healing capabilities. Narwhal tusks were once believed to be unicorn horns. Like dragons and gryphons, something about them draws me. Perhaps in my childhood fantasies about being a knight I dreamed of riding one (though whenever I imagined myself on an actual horse, it was white).

I’m considering introducing a few other mythical creatures in the sequels, but I am glad I chose these three for Mystical Greenwood. Please don’t forget to purchase your copy and post your review!

Further Reading
  1. Mythic Creatures: The Griffin at Sarah Sawyer
  2. What’s in a Name? at The Gryphon Pages
  3. Dragon Colors at The Circle of the Dragon
  4. Draconika Dragons
  5. All About Unicorns