19 September 2015

How a Devious Muse Tricked Me!

It's like that common meme: so-and-so went to someplace and all I got was this t-shirt. This past summer I went to Beijing, China to teach a writing course at a university there and all I got was half a novel about an Inuit girl in Greenland. I felt deceived by my Muse. 

One would expect I'd be filled with some Chinese story and take the opportunity of being in China to write it out. That did happen to me when I lived in Japan; while there, I wrote a story set in Japan (that would be AIKO). And my vampire novel A DRY PATCH OF SKIN is set in Oklahoma City, where I now reside, as well as Utica, New York, where I previously resided. So I knew those locations well and could write about them with confidence. But does a writer need to be in a particular place to write effectively about that place?

In these days of easy access to the wealth of knowledge contained in a few massive servers spread around the world, probably not. Sure, one could absorb some of the ambiance of a place by being there, I suppose. I did that when I spent a few days in Iceland --but my novel A BEAUTIFUL CHILL, which used some Iceland locations, was mostly finished by then. Research used to take a lot of time and trouble for writers: trips to the library, interviews with experts, travel, and so on. Of course, that was always part of the fun of writing about an exotic location. You could also charge it on your tax report as business expense. 

But not now. The internet makes it too easy. You can check facts, see pictures of a place, read articles, peruse maps and even satellite images to save you from the costs of an air ticket and rental car, hotels and meals. For example, while writing my vampire novel, which culminates in Croatia (a place I have never visited), I simply went to Google maps, selected the satellite view, even turned the angle of the image as I liked, and I could see for myself that the landscape my protagonist was driving over was not mountainous but rather flat. Indeed, much of it was sectioned as farm land, not wild forest as I had hoped. Knowing the true terrain there made a big difference in plotting the final sequence of scenes.

The same is true of my newest novel A GIRL CALLED WOLF, which opens on the rugged east coast of Greenland. I have never been there, to be honest--although now that I've written about it and thoroughly ensconced myself in Greenlandiana, I definitely want to visit. Again, I made use of online maps to choose locations for filming--err, uh, mmm, you know, writing the story. Several websites, tourist-focused and other-focused provided a wealth of information, including photos of locations. I also got several print books via my old friend Mr. Amazon, explorer travelogues, history books, and reference books. For example, This Cold Heaven by Gretel Ehrlich, from which I read a chapter or so each night before going to sleep and which often caused me to have dreams of Greenland, some of which prompted me to rise early and start writing even before my first cup of coffee.

This is not to say that I simply threw a dart at a map of the world tacked up on the wall and decided to write a story about whatever place the dart happened to hit. No, I'm not that good, definitely not that masochistic --although it would probably make an interesting experiment. I did actually have a starting point. Spoiler: The story began on Facebook with a friend of a friend interacting with other friends and me noting the unfolding events and related information. After months of interaction, I started to get the sense that it all might make an interesting story--if only someone would actually write it.

The idea bugged me for almost a year--indeed, likely going back to the character of Alma in my vampire novel. The heroine of this new story seemed to have the same personality, at least as a point of departure for the story, a place for me to dive in. The next step was to decide how to lay out the story and where to begin to tell it. Plotting, I believe is what this is called. That part was a little easier because I could just follow her actual life events--just dramatize them.

For me, however, it is a far less scientific process. It is much more random; I have to feel it and when it feels right, I write. I wrote what I like to call "test writing" --especially necessary if the story is to be told in the protagonist's own voice. I had to get the voice down just so. I write until I believe I am "speaking" in his (A Dry Patch of Skin) or her (A Girl Called Wolf) authentic voice. For Stefan, that was a high-brow learned voice. For Anuka, it is a rough semi-literate voice. Then I got permission to tell her story. 

So there's this Inuit girl (Inuit is the proper name for the people sometimes called Eskimo) who is born "on the ice" rather than in a village or other small settlement. Her mother is a shaman, ostracized by the village, and one day a strange man washes up on the shore. The way nature works, soon a baby is born: our heroine! Like all legendary heroes and heroines, there must be an unusual birth and a harsh childhood that steels them for the adventures to come. So it is for our young protagonist. 

Once she becomes an orphan, she is eventually forced by hunger to enter the world of the village where people try hard to socialize her. It is an awkward proposition. Besides her resistance, she is tormented by some of the villagers, thus prompting the village leaders to send her to the orphanage in Nuuk, the capital. There, the Catholic Sisters attempt to teach her skills that will be useful for employment once she reaches the age of emancipation. Meanwhile, her teacher back in the village has located a relative of hers. Remember that man who washed ashore? Her father? Turns out he has another daughter back where he came from, a woman who has since moved to Canada, believing that he drowned rather than ended up in Greenland. Needless to say, things get complicated.

I have danced around a fistful of spoilers, but this is enough to give you the basic direction of the novel: a girl born of humble beginnings, forced to learn and grow and depend on herself, enters a world not of her choosing and adapts to it in fits and spurts until finally she realizes what she wants most is to be recognized for what she can achieve. In the end, she manages to save the world in classic legendary fashion. Using all she has learned and a lot of sheer guts. [Major spoilers avoided!] 

(Did I mention that the heroine in A BEAUTIFUL CHILL is the long-lost sister to our Inuit heroine? I guess that kind of crossover novelization would be some kind of spoiler but I doubt it will ruin the story for readers. Crossover novelization is a thing, isn't it?) 

(C) Copyright 2010-2015 by Stephen M. Swartz. All Rights Reserved. No part of this blog, whether text or image, may be used without me giving you written permission, except for brief excerpts that are accompanied by a link to this entire blog. Violators shall be written into novels as characters who are killed off. Serious violators shall be identified and dealt with according to the laws of the United States of America.

07 September 2015

Writing about Greenland while stuck in Beijing

So far this year, I have blogged about Korea, about a new novel set in Japan and Hawaii, and written about my month in Beijing, China to teach a university course. However, the oddest thing about my month in China was how much time I spent in my hotel room writing a new book set in Greenland.

How, you may ask, could I focus on Greenland while in Beijing? I was supposed to be sightseeing as long as I was there, right? I was supposed to enjoy all the Chinese things, right? My mind would be filled with Chinese this and Chinese that. There would be no way I could not be thinking of Chinese stories. Well, you'd be right, except...as my writer friends know, you write the story that wants to come out, no matter where you happen to be.

Of course, the idea came first. I had been intrigued by a story line I happened onto about a year ago. (More on this next time.) The more I learned, the more I felt it would make a good novel. I did some research because, you know, everyone knows about Greenland and the Inuit culture. I was not completely ignorant of it, however, since I consider myself a geography savant, perpetually obsessed with maps and the places they show. 

I started writing, as I usually do, with just a scene--a "test write"--something I thought might be a good place to begin the story. I chose to tell it in first-person, letting my heroine tell her story. I wrote for a while to get the voice down accurately. I had to hear her talking to me, in her natural way of speaking. Even choosing whether she says "yet" or "but" became important to creating her. As a semi-illiterate, her word list would be short yet she had to be expressive. After a few weeks I felt I knew her well enough to imitate her.

So when I finally learned my China trip was a go, I panicked. I feared losing momentum in my writing. I had about 10,000 words by that time but I was going slow, stopping to research the setting as I went. What do you call this part of an Inuit house? What is this garment called? But I had to go to China; I felt rather Nixonian. So I packed the book I was currently reading, This Cold Heaven by Gretel Ehrlich, a contemporary account (1990s) of a woman traveling in Greenland yet also providing generous portions from the travel journals of earlier Greenlandic explorers and residents, namely Knud Rasmussen and the American artist Rockwell Kent. It was truly evocative and spurred my writing. I also took a small book about arctic wildlife and my map of Greenland with me to Beijing.
Where the magic happens. See jacket over chair at so-called desk?
Settling in and getting my class going took up the first week. When the first weekend arrived, I did some sightseeing but the oppressively humid weather pushed me back into my air-conditioned hotel room. I had my laptop and I had a cobbled-together "soundtrack" for my book--music that evoked (at least for me) the cold arctic landscape in both its good and bad seasons. I forced myself to focus. I had to get back on track or loose the story for the next four weeks. I read what I had written from the beginning, editing as I went. By the time I reached the point where I had left off, I was back on track and charging ahead with the next scene. (*Fortunately or not, the limited internet access and non-bilingual TV programming in my hotel room further gave me little else for entertainment than the story I was writing.)

So almost every day I wrote a little or a lot. My teaching schedule was light and most of the sightseeing I could be doing was done on my two previous trips to Beijing. Cranking the A/C as cold as I dared (without freezing the system so it would not work) helped set the mood. The music played through my ear buds and I typed, my head filled with the movie I was watching unfold. 

Sweating at Beihei Park but thinking of ice and snow!
For the second week's days off, I planned major sightseeing, but then the rain came. Thursday through Sunday, rain. I pushed myself out on a darkly humid Saturday only to be accosted by art exhibit "hookers" (see previous blog), but the rest of the time I was writing in my hotel room, on my laptop, and no matter which housekeeper came to clean my room or try to extract me from my writing desk, I continued! My fingers were fingers of fury! 

In the third week, I was so filled with the story that I was awaking early to write what was in my dreams. Yes, I was there inside my story, standing on a mountain watching things play out. And I started typing bright and early, before I was fully awake. Bottles of iced coffee in my mini fridge fueled my writing! I did not stop for the breakfast buffet or the housekeeping intrusion. I typed while they made the bed, etc. and I didn't even hear them wish me a good day and close the door behind me. Yes, for two days straight, I got up early and wrote almost full out (restroom breaks allowed) for six hours each day. 

By the time I was boarding the plane to fly home, I had added 55,000 words to the manuscript. That's worthy of a NaNoWriMo award! Once back home, I did not let up. I still had a week before my own school would call for my presence so I kept my fingers to the keyboard. When I eventually finished it--when I arrived at the final scene and could type The End (FYI, I do not actually type that.)--I sat back quite satisfied. Then I launched into the first wave of revision, rechecking facts, researching, clarifying, adding details, correcting a typo here and there.
Just one of many images I used for inspiration.
And so that is how A GIRL CALLED WOLF came to be written mostly during a month in a hotel room in Beijing. It's all about setting the scene, creating the mood, and focusing on the world inside while ignoring the world outside your head. And occasionally going out to get something to eat. And teach a class in Business Writing American style...if I remember.

Next: What is A GIRL CALLED WOLF all about?

*Facebook, Twitter, Gmail, Google, and YouTube were all blocked on the link my hotel used. My only links to the outside world were Yahoo email and LinkedIn. My one night at the airport Hilton before departing gave me those common links back but by then it was too late to make much use of them.

(C) Copyright 2010-2015 by Stephen M. Swartz. All Rights Reserved. No part of this blog, whether text or image, may be used without me giving you written permission, except for brief excerpts that are accompanied by a link to this entire blog. Violators shall be written into novels as characters who are killed off. Serious violators shall be identified and dealt with according to the laws of the United States of America.