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!

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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

Distinguishable Characters

My very first guest appearance on an author’s blog! Many thanks to my friend and fellow writer Ari Meghlen for having given me this opportunity. For any of you who are writers looking for a place to be a guest blogger, I highly recommend her site.

via GP: Distinguishable characters by Andrew McDowell

Edit, Revise, Rewrite

Any writer who takes their craft seriously will have edited their work many times over. I can pretty much guarantee that any bestselling novel or literary classic you take off the shelf is not in its first draft. Novels go through several drafts before they are published. It can be said of any form of creative writing too, really.  It can even feel at times while you write that you are editing too, and the editing takes over the writing process. Some say to not edit at all with the first draft, to just write it and get it done. Also, others will say that you eventually have to stop editing and move on, otherwise you never will. Both of those sentiments make total sense, but editing is still a vital stage of the writing process.

Perhaps you remember from writing school papers the concept of rough drafts and final copies. Editing enables you to polish a rough draft so that you have a final copy. It is the same with novels. So what chance does a work have without being edited, or without at least one other pair of eyes not your own offering critical feedback? Taking feedback is never easy, but it should be constructive, so you can see it as a way to ask yourself what can be done better.

Going beyond grammar and spelling, the book itself goes through many drafts. Plot points are altered. New ones come in. Old ones are eliminated. It’s same with characters, names, and the elements and rules of world-building. Plot holes are identified, along with anything that does not fit. The problem is tackled, usually more than once. It might be necessary to start over from scratch, using the old draft for reference. Format can change too: chapter titles come and go, length can be altered, and the format of chapter numbers (word numbers, Roman numerals, number numbers) can change.

With Mystical Greenwood, I’ve learned the power and importance of editing. It’s always beneficial to have another pair of eyes look at what you wrote, so you might see what potential readers might say. Whether they’re beta readers, critique group members, or professional editors, their opinions will go a long way. At a time when I thought Mystical Greenwood was good and the plot solid, an insightful and encouraging critique from author John DeDakis showed me that more work still needed to be done. To quote Ewan McGregor’s character in The Ghost Writer, I came to think of it as a case where “all the words are there. They’re just in the wrong order.” Some scenes were moved around and rewoven together as a result.

Originally I had around half as many chapters that were twice as long, but then I started to wonder if they were too long. I’ve read books with really long chapters and found it to be frustrating finding a place to stop before bed. So about two thirds through a draft, I split those I had in two (excepting the prologue). I also switched from word numbers to number numbers. I once had chapter titles, but grew to dislike them, and after failing to think of new ones, I discarded them altogether. I felt they had become unnecessary.

The main reason I approached Mockingbird Lane Press was its founder, Regina Riney-Williams, has a great reputation as an editor. Over the course of two rounds of editing, I have found her insights and opinions invaluable. She has been constructive and encouraging, and I’m very grateful for her feedback as much as her willingness to take my book on. I’ve learned not only that so much can change through editing, but as a writer to never stop with one draft. To be a good writer, one must seek and accept feedback, subsequently editing, revising, and often rewriting, which must continue with every novel to come.

Fact vs. Fiction

Among the genres I intend to try my hand at is historical fiction. Within this genre, the characters witness actual events from our past. Some could be real figures (or based on them). Often books and movies include the subtitle “Based on a true story”. I’ve noticed with literary and cinematic successes there’s often a subsequent wave of interest and research aimed at separating fact from fiction. For a writer, the dilemma presents itself beforehand. With the goal of telling a story and telling it well, can historical fact get in the way of telling good historical fiction? How far should writers go if they cross the line?

Fiction can actually run the risk, with time and new generations, of becoming thought of as fact. In my junior year at St. Mary’s College, I took classes discussing how literature and history have been analyzed and interpreted. In the latter, I recall us discussing how history has been “romanticized” even in America. People record events with their own beliefs and motivations. It’s human nature. To this day there have been cases where real events and figures were altered, or the truth stretched, to create a better story. Facts are sometimes selectively preserved or obscured altogether.

Fiction being fiction, some lines will be crossed. But some writers, like Rafael Sabatini, believe historical fiction should be kept close to fact. Sabatini used real events and drew inspiration from a number of historical figures when writing Captain Blood. Another novel that has been criticized for historical inaccuracies is Ivanhoe. Though several historical points ARE accurate, compared to some of his other novels it seems Sir Walter Scott took liberties. However, he DID admit he had taken liberties when Ivanhoe was published in the book’s “Dedicatory Epistle”. Some believe he wanted to reflect both his support for British unity and his Scottish patriotism through the book’s Saxon-Norman conflict.

Folktales and legends are a part of human culture and the human psyche. We need something to believe in so we may strive and rise to something better. In America, it has been noted we root for underdogs and rebels as symbols of freedom. Pirates and Wild West outlaws were almost exclusively thugs and killers. Nevertheless they’ve been popularized as romantic heroes. Captain Charles Johnson’s 1724 book A General History of the Pyrates has had a considerable influence defining how we perceive pirates today, along with Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. However some believe Johnson used artistic license. Pirates seldom buried gold. More often they sold stolen commercial goods on the black market and spent all their money on vices.

My father pointed out to me a common observation that history is written by winners. This notion is especially apparent to me, together with how fiction can become fact over time, in William Shakespeare’s Richard III. I remember the news story of how Richard’s skeleton was found beneath a parking lot. I subsequently learned there are societies who believe he was wrongfully maligned by history and Shakespeare. In the play, he is depicted as an evil, scheming tyrant who has his nephews murdered after usurping the throne from them, as well as harboring an incestuous desire for his niece.

But was Shakespeare to blame? When he wrote Richard III, he was living under the reign of Elizabeth I, the granddaughter of the very man who overthrew Richard. Henry Tudor, who became Henry VII, had to justify why he took the throne. What better way than by painting his defeated opponent as a villain by playing upon rumors of his nephews’ disappearance or incestuous desire (that rumor Richard had denied)? We still don’t know for certain what befell the Princes in the Tower, although Richard certainly had opportunity and motive. By Shakespeare’s time, this image must have been considered fact. Even if Shakespeare doubted it, he almost certainly couldn’t offend his own monarch’s grandfather without putting his neck on the line.

In other cases however, Shakespeare, who’s living depended upon entertaining the masses, did deliberately ignore fact or simply filled gaps. In King John, the hero is Richard the Lionheart’s illegitimate son, Philip Falconbridge. He did actually have an illegitimate son, named Philip of Cognac. Yet little is known of him, not even his mother’s name. Shakespeare took the name and father then created his own character. In Henry IV Part I, he made Harry “Hotspur” Percy and Prince Hal close in age so they would be better character foils, when Percy was actually many years Hal’s senior.

There are exceptions to the rule of winners writing history. At St. Mary’s I took another class on the Lost Cause. Ex-Confederates initiated the movement after losing the American Civil War to whitewash their image as heroic, conveniently ignoring slavery and racism. Once again, it is a case of people recording events with bias.

As readers, we must bear in mind fiction is fiction. Historical fiction and drama shouldn’t be taken completely at face value. But that doesn’t mean writers should ignore historical fact either. I want to try and reconcile my respect for history and the goal to tell a good story well as much as possible. I know it won’t work in every way, but I’ll do my best to be accurate, particularly with worldbuilding, and any real events or figures should I use them. When I cannot be accurate, I will acknowledge it. Good historical fiction is built upon historical fact. Fiction in turn can inspire a search for the fact.

Further Reading
  1. The Richard III Society.
  2. Higgins, Charlotte. Scotland’s image-maker Sir Walter Scott ‘invented English legends’.
  3. Sabatini, Rafael. Historical Fiction.

Building Worlds

Writers create more than stories and characters. They create places, sometimes within the world of today or the past. There are also places, and whole worlds that never existed, except within the imagination.

I find the key to worldbuilding is how believable it feels. A good setting, however fantastical, must feel real to the writer and reader (with satire and comedy you can get away with this). A few times on the British sitcom Are You Being Served? when the characters would put on theatrical pageants, senior saleswoman Mrs. Slocombe was going to (or wanted to) play a character far younger than herself. Someone would remark that it was “make-believe” to which there were responses of “We’re going to have to stretch our imaginations” and (to Mrs. Slocombe’s chagrin) “Not to the point of incredibility.”

Many considerations are necessary. Every detail must harmonize with the story, style, and themes. Otherwise that sense of reality will shatter. The reader will be left questioning why a certain little thing is the way it is rather than enjoying the story. The Writer’s Circle once posted this list to their Facebook page:

World Building (Writer's Circle)

A contemporary setting, whether fictional or not, is usually pretty easy. With a historical backdrop, I recommend doing research into what life was like back then. Or perhaps the world is science-fiction, set several years in the future like Star Trek, or like Star Wars in a galaxy far, far away. There I suggest looking at the present; not just science and technology but the whole world. Imagine where it could all go in the future. Or it could be an alternate reality: what it would the world like had the past been different?

In fantasy, where the greatest amount of world-building undoubtedly occurs, I find it best to begin by looking at history, or even mythology. Suppose your world could have existed. Where and when would it be? Perhaps there’s more than one possibility. If so, perhaps you can merge them. J. R. R. Tolkien drew on myth, religion, and his own life experiences, from childhood and World War I, to create his stories.

Early on I envisioned my story as an epic adventure that would’ve taken place long, long ago. As a child I’d always been fascinated with knights. So I researched medieval life and society. However when it came to symbolism, names, and other details, initially I didn’t pay as much attention. It was a mix from various sources.

With new drafts of course came changes and the need to make everything fit together. As I mentioned before, I renamed characters, places, and things to strengthen my story’s feeling of “Gaelicness” which came out of a lifelong love for nature. I added details and symbols inspired by Ancient Celtic life and Irish myth. But I was careful not to take them too far so they didn’t feel out of place with what I already had. I looked again to history and symbolism to help refine the “map” of my world. It is at present no longer a purely medieval setting but a mixture of different periods, which thereby makes it more its own unique world.

When it came to magic, rituals, and beliefs, I looked at myth and folklore, as well as numerous books and articles on Wicca, Neopaganism, Neo-Druidism, natural magic and spirituality. This research helped me reinforce the atmosphere I wanted. I’ve found that bridging ideas and sentiments from the modern world with ones from the old helps readers connect with themselves more.

When it came to the environment, I ultimately looked to the flora and fauna of Ireland and Britain. Brian Jacques, the late author of the Redwall saga, once said that he chose creatures native to his homeland for his anthropomorphic characters, rather than trying to use every animal in the zoo. I considered the latter once, until I realized many would never survive outside of a habitat not their own, and it would be too crowded. One or two exceptions won’t hurt. Still, they shouldn’t be too out of place. Herbs were researched for medicinal purposes. Some were later discarded as they were either not native to those lands if not found in a temperate climate. Many trees were chosen for being sacred to the Celts.

In addition to real creatures, I tried cramming in mythical ones too. Earlier drafts of my book included gryphons, unicorns, dragons, elves, dwarves and centaurs. The latter three were dropped as it again was a problem of overcrowding. With too many details, places and characters, a story becomes lost in itself. As a writer, you have to know when to stop.

If you write a series of books with an imaginary setting, I strongly advise you do NOT map out the entire world at the very beginning. Otherwise you’ll be trapping your story (and yourself) in a box from which if you try to expand out of could lead to contradiction or dead ends. Without a complete box/map, you can add newer details with much more freedom. I found it very relieving, as I was able to concentrate more on my plot. Thus the world and characters could grow in conjunction with it.

I will continue to build this fantasy world I’ve created as the trilogy progresses. Other, completely different worlds will no doubt follow with future projects. As in all aspects of writing, worldbuilding is undertaken with trial, error, patience, passion, and dedication. It is all part of a writer’s evolution.