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.


  1. You, sir, are a complicated man. You write complicated stories about complicated people, but you keep it all together in a coherent, entertaining fashion, which is why I enjoy your work.