The Hero’s Journey: Departure

Anyone who’s an ardent Star Wars fan will know of Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces and how it influenced George Lucas. He outlines similar steps within what is known as the hero’s journey, which has been found in ancient myths, folktales, and modern fantasy/science-fiction stories. I received my copy one Christmas and poured over it, understanding these points. It’s among my recommended reads for writers! Whilst editing Mystical Greenwood, I tried thinking of the plot I was forming in terms of what Campbell outlined. In the end, I came to see the book as the Departure Phase, which consists of the Call to Adventure, Rejecting the Call, the Threshold Crossing, and the Belly of the Whale.

In my own observations of other fantasy works, I’ve seen two kinds of heroes who receive the Call to Adventure. The first is the protagonist dissatisfied with life and yearning for something more. The other is essentially the opposite, perfectly content. When creating the two brothers at the heart of this story I tried envisioning them as such. But in the end, I had to pick one to be the central hero, and that was Dermot, the one who was dissatisfied with life.

Often the mentor in fantasy is an old wizard with a long beard. Early on, I felt such a mentor at the beginning giving them the Call might be too much of a cliché, so I had that character appearing not until three quarters of the way into the book. The teenage characters instead traveled on their own and chose to do so, though there was a character who did in a way give them the Call to Adventure. But later on, I realized that scenario was not going to work. A mentor figure was needed in order for the hero and his allies to survive and be properly introduced to their world’s magic and their abilities. So that original herald was vastly reworked, evolving into the true initial mentor figure instead of my wizard.

What made me go ahead without risking cliché was that this mentor was going to be a woman. I sought to have her be an embodiment of Mother Nature, who is associated with three stages of womanhood, each of which I gave her attributes: maiden (her face), mother (her personality) and crone (her age/hair). This deviation, if you really want to call it that, shows a story doesn’t need to follow the Hero’s Journey to the letter, such as when Frodo fails the final temptation at the end of The Lord of the Rings. Changes from tradition can make the story stand out and give readers a nice twist.

I hope to continue with the Hero’s Journey in the rest of the One with Nature series, with the next book being the Initiation Phase. This month marks four years since the paperback first came out (April will be the Kindle anniversary). Please read and rate/review if you haven’t yet!

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Further Reading
  1. Winkle, Chris. The Eight Character Archetypes of the Hero’s Journey.

Readers’ Wants

Back when I did my first blog post, I talked about what I called the “Misery Complex” (in reference to Stephen King’s famous novel), and how writers’ and readers’ wants can clash. Granted, not all fans are crazy and obsessive about authors and fictional characters, like Annie Wilkes, but there is no denying that once a story is out there, it can touch so many people in individual ways in that they feel a special connection. And as they become attached to fictional characters, it’s still important to consider their feelings. Or isn’t it?

I’ve noticed this especially in drama and TV shows, like Downton Abbey and Game of Thrones, with fans theorizing and predicting where the story and subplots will go or could’ve gone, along with characters, and expressing their upset when things don’t happen in a certain way. The latter is especially true when characters die, don’t end up together, or character growth just vanishes. To be fair, with killing characters, writers cannot always be hated and blamed the way they have been, especially in drama, when actors decide they want to leave and pursue other projects. It’s not always easy to explain a character’s absence once the actor leaves. There may not be actors in books, but still, it’s easier to put unwarranted blame on writers.

It’s true not everyone has a happy ending, and sometimes one bad turn can in the end lead to a good one, but is there a line that ought not to be crossed? I certainly cannot argue how upsetting it is when a story seems to building something or someone up only to not lead there at the end. When there’s an anticlimax to anything from a story line to a character arc to a romance, it is usually disappointing. I sometimes find myself imagining (not always in great detail) where things could’ve gone in a story where I felt writing was lazy. That’s what’s lead to a number of fans writing fanfiction.

But at least there’s one point on which writers and readers can agree: stories and characters matter, as does what happens to them. Nevertheless, they originate with the writers. I said in my importance of names presentation characters are the children of an author’s imagination. Well, the same can be said of stories as a whole: an author sires them, and then they venture out into the world. That’s why I firmly feel the author should have the final say in what happens in his or her work, and I’d hope readers would respect that.

But I’m not unfeeling towards readers. After all, writers seek out the opinions of others in beta readers and critique groups while they are developing the story. So yes, readers can have input, and sometimes fans’ suggestions can ignite a spark in the writer’s imagination when they can’t figure out where to take the story next (even if it isn’t what readers specifically want), especially within a series. So, in conclusion, they both matter. Readers’ opinions should be considered, but the final decision belongs to the writer alone.

P.S. I want to apologize for the inconvenience for those who saw this post in advance a few days ago. I meant to schedule it at a different time and clicked the wrong button. This was not intentional, but given the post’s subject matter, I can’t help but feel the irony. Happy Holidays!

Dusting Off Stories From History

Many thanks to historical novelist Anne Clare for this opportunity to discuss my feelings on using historical fiction to shed light on lesser known events in history!

Guest Post By Andrew McDowell: Dusting Off Stories From History

These are feelings I hope to follow when I venture into historical fiction someday!

Q&A with Elizabeth Holland

Check out this Q&A I did with author Elizabeth Holland:

Author Q&A with Andrew McDowell

Many thanks for this opportunity, Elizabeth!

Happy Holidays, everyone! Wishing you all a Happy New Year, especially after a year like this. Today is the day of the Winter Solstice, which is the origin of many winter holidays. As the light and warmth of the sun will return, may the new year bring new light and warmth for all of us! I am certainly hoping 2021 brings changes and progress both career-wise and in writing.

And don’t forget: books (and book reviews) make great gifts! My Amazon author page was updated to include more anthologies from past and present, including As the World Burns, which came out last month.

Behind the Book: Mystical Greenwood by Andrew McDowell

Check out this interview I did with my friend and fellow author Ally Aldridge as part of her “Behind the Book” series, in which I discuss my novel Mystical Greenwood. Many thanks, Ally, for this opportunity!

via Behind the Book: Mystical Greenwood by Andrew McDowell

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 are 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 also 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.

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 from. 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!

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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!

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

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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!

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And order your merchandise on Deviant Art!