Inspiration

Memory Mining

Like many writers, I draw from my own life experiences for the things I write. As I write this, I’m currently working on the third book in the Dynamistress series. These books are filled with variations of events that actually happened to me as a kid or young adult.

I’d always planned to do this for the books, but some of the things that came to me were very unexpected, things I hadn’t thought of in an awfully long time. For example, at one point in the story, Dyna’s brother is making an analogy and he mentions a particular item from their (my) youth: a bag of marbles.

When I was a little boy, there was a big bag of marbles my dad had. They were old, and I knew that my older siblings (older by 15 and 16 years) had played with them when they were little. Sometimes I actually played with them in game form with my friends, putting a circle of string on the floor and we’d take turns shooting them out. But mostly, I just liked looking at them.

Not the actual bag, but…

There were all sorts. Some were plain glass of white or black. Others were “cat’s eye” marbles, with beautiful waves of color nestled inside the clear glass. There was one that was an old style, made of clay, rough to the touch. There were even a couple steel ball bearings in there.

When the memory of these marbles popped into my head, I allowed myself some time to savor the memory. But then, as I’m prone to do, I went online and started researching marbles, including how they’re made, how much some of them sell for, and so on. One of the things I learned is that some of the marbles being made today are crazy beautiful.

Now, sometimes I do deep research on things for the sake of making accurate points in my stories. Entire scientific articles are studied just for the sake of a single, almost throwaway, line in a book. But no, there won’t be anything about the marbles in the book aside from their use as an analogy. I was doing the marble research purely out of curiosity and fascination. Because I’m insatiably curious. Also, easily distracted.

I admit that when I first decided to use memories of my personal history for inclusion in the books, it was because it would be an easy source of material. What I’ve found, though, is that it not only allows for a richer storytelling, but also a deeper appreciation of my own life, both past and future.

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The Moral of the Story

A recent conversation reminded me of something I’ve long considered to be a very significant event in my life… something that affected my early moral development in a more basic, emotional level than anything else.

Ever.

Now, I do want to say that my family had a great influence on my moral development. They did this largely through teaching by example, rather than edict. For instance, I never heard my father speak ill of another person in my life. That wasn’t something I consciously recognized as a kid, but the older I became, the more that behavior stood out in my mind as an example of being a fundamentally decent human being. I admire my dad deeply and miss him every day.

Kenneth L. Wales, my dad.

But this event went the other way. It showed me examples of another sort. The event itself was a movie I saw when I was seven years old, in the theater, with my twenty-two year-old sister. I thought I was going to see a cool, kung-fu movie. And I was. But the plot revolved around extreme bigotry and racism. It was not, in fact, a movie meant for seven year-olds. The film was Billy Jack.

No… no indication here that it came out in ’71.

I can just imagine the horror on my sister’s face as we sat there watching an extremely violent film, which included a rape and a guy getting shot between the eyes. It was after we left, though, that she discovered what in the film had truly affected me.

I remember saying to her, “Are there really people in the world who believe the things those people believed, and treat others like that?”

And she looked down at me, her face sorrowful, and said, “Yeah, honey. I’m afraid there are.”

In that moment, I began to die a little, inside.

This is the face of a boy who doesn’t yet know how awful humanity can be.

You see, racism was a totally new thing to my young mind. This was 1971 and I lived in a very small town that was pretty much entirely white. It was surrounded by many other small towns that were also mostly white. I never saw racism because of that relative homogeneity.

It wasn’t the violence that affected me. It wasn’t seeing bare boobs. Rather, it was watching racists verbally and physically abuse non-whites, of watching them humiliate these people in public, and in some instances, outright murdering them. Just because of the color of their skin.

So yes, I died a little inside that day. But another part of me woke up. I learned that day just how powerful an impact made-up stories could have on someone. That day, it was a movie, but in later years, it would be novels.

I have always tried to write stories that have that sort of effect on people, stories that present unusual concepts or different viewpoints, and of course, stories that stress acceptance of those different from ourselves. In a very real way, all that is because of Billy Jack.

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Finding Characters in the Real World

Writers often struggle with character creation, and they should, since it’s a crucial part of writing fiction. Good characters need to be fully developed, not flat and simple things. Part of this development is to give your characters memorable traits.

There’s a danger, here, though. Novice writers often make characters that are nothing but a collection of traits, with one of them to be the character’s “defining” trait, often exaggerated to the point of being a caricature, not a character.

Yes, that’s really me. I used to have hair.

Still, traits are important, and they should be more than the typical likes and dislikes, verbal tics, and so on. And a great way to find these is to be a people watcher. Study the people around you, not just your friends, but strangers, too. You might end up finding characters in the real world. Or at least parts that you can use to flesh out your characters.

For example, my first girlfriend had a number of odd traits, one of which was particularly curious. After she said something she felt was clever, she would say, “Um…” and pause, smiling, as though waiting for the applause to stop or the laugh track to wind down. It was a bit pretentious and a little annoying. But it was memorable.

Or throw money. Whichever.

On the grosser side of things, when I was quite young, I knew a kid who would surreptitiously stick his pinky up his nose, pull out a stringy ol’ boog, and stuff it in his mouth. We were about six years old at the time, and trust me, that was a long time ago. Yet, that image has never left me. I rather wish it would.

Not posting a pic of that.

Who among us has not had a school teacher who was memorable for things he or she said? I can think of three or four of my own, including a math teacher who would say things like, “Balls on toast, kids!” We did our best not to chuckle, and many of us were just at a loss as to why he’d say that in the first place.

In this case, turkey balls.

None of these examples, of course, are anything more than interesting tid-bits. They aren’t characters, but they certainly can be injected into a growing character to help flesh them out.

Being a good writer means being a good observer. The world around you is chock full of fiction fodder. Take it wherever you find it.

Posted by vmwales in Characters, Inspiration, 0 comments

Characters Based on You

I would imagine that one of the most common questions a writer gets is, “Are any of your characters based on you?” And I imagine most writers will give answers quite similar to mine: “Yes. Almost all of them.” When you consider how complicated any single human being is, it’s not hard to take one aspect of an individual’s personality and use that facet to create any number of characters.

I see bits of myself in each of these guys.

When I was in college, writing The Book That Remains Unpublished, I had four major characters. None of them were much like me, really, but each of them was the result of deliberately taking one part of myself and blowing it up into a complete character.

And in some instances, a writer will make characters often who have a lot of things in common with themselves. How many Maine writers has Stephen King written?

Of course, I realize the questioners really want to know if there’s a character who specifically represents me, i.e., am I a character in any of my books? And the answer to that is yes. For pretty much all of my books.

If you’ve read Wish You Were Here, you know the protagonist is named Vincent. And he is and isn’t me. By that, I mean that he’s representative of who I was at seventeen. But by the end of the book, he’s experienced things I never have, so – while still being essentially the same person – we’re quite different.

In One Nation Under God, there’s a character named Jude who is definitely based on me. Jude is responsible for a website called The Voice of Reason, a secular-centric site that points out the problems with what’s going on in the government and society. This is reflective of a site I ran for many years called The Atheist Attic, which was aimed at pointing out the entanglement of church and state, among other things.

I often joke that Dynamistress is just me in drag. And it’s not that much of a joke, honestly. She’s got an awful lot of my personality traits. Her brother, Dana, is also based on me quite a lot, too.

So this gets us to the question of egotism. In truth, I equivocated for a long time about naming the protagonist of my first book after myself. But as I mentioned in my last blog, the idea for the story came as a result of years of playing Dungeons & Dragons. And after playing a character named Vincent for so many years, it would have been somehow wrong to give him a different name for the book.

So does this make me – or any writer – egotistical? Perhaps it does. I think all writers have a bit of egotism inside them, as do all entertainers and performers. If we didn’t, we wouldn’t put ourselves, or our works, out there.

So if you feel there’s a need to put “yourself” in a story, don’t be afraid to do so. Just make sure there’s a good reason for it.

 

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Where Do You Get Your Story Ideas?

This is one of the more common questions I’ve gotten from people over the years, so I thought I’d address it, here.

Story ideas, of course, can come from just about anywhere. Writers pretty much play the “what if” game all the time. It’s just how we think. And it doesn’t have to be anything as grandiose as, “What if Germany had won WWII?” It can be something as simple as, “I found a shoe at the side of the road. What if there had been a foot in it?”

Er… okay. That works, too.

We find inspiration for story ideas in our own lives, of course, and that’s been a treasure trove for me. For example, One Nation Under God was directly a result of where I happened to be living at the time, which was Utah. I’ve long been an activist for freethought causes, especially the separation of church and state. And Utah… well… there’s not much separation, there, to put it lightly. I also began writing it around the time when George W. Bush was elected, and I saw a lot of writing on the walls, so to speak. My book was written essentially as a warning against the dangers of mixing government and religion. I’m not happy that some of the things I wrote about actually came to pass.

Story ideas can come not only from life events, but also from our hobbies. For example, people today know George R. R. Martin primarily for his book series, A Song of Ice and Fire, and the HBO Series based on it, Game of Thrones. But I first heard of the man many years ago when he was editing a series of books called Wild Cards. This series of books was inspired by, among other influences, a super-hero role-playing game that Martin and several other writers played together. And I can totally relate to this.

My first novel, Wish You Were Here, was inspired by my college days playing Dungeons & Dragons. At some point in our playing, one of the guys in our group decided it would be fun to create characters based on ourselves. Granted, they were idealized and exaggerated versions of ourselves, but in this way, “we” became adventurers in our games.

It didn’t take long for me to see the potential for a story, here. I’d always been a big fan of the “fish out of water” concept of stories, and one of my favorites was the John Carter of Mars series by Edgar Rice Burroughs. John Carter was a Civil War captain who found himself mystically transported to Barsoom, the planet we call Mars, where he had all sorts of awesome adventures. So, with our D&D characters, I simply wondered what would happen if a teenage boy from Earth was somehow transported to a world of magic and monsters, with no idea how he got there or how to get back. The rest came pretty easily.

But Wish You Were Here isn’t my only game-inspired book. Many years later, I discovered an online MMORPG called City of Heroes. Creating my own hero and play-acting them with a bunch of others doing the same thing was an absolute blast. And the character I first created for the game, Dynamistress, was always my favorite. I played her for six years before the game was canceled. And now, she lives on in a series called The Many Deaths of Dynamistress.

I figure George R. R. Martin would probably dig it.

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Actors and Writers

Two neighbors of mine (a couple) are actors. Last night, I accompanied one of them to see her boyfriend in the opening night of a new play. After the show, the two of them, plus the leading man and lady (who are also a couple) came to my place for drinks and socializing. It was great fun. They’re really nice folks, all of them.

But as we were sitting around the table, I couldn’t help reflecting on the differences in our creative fields. To be an actor is to be a team player. In preparation for a play, you rehearse with the rest of the cast. You support them and they support you. For the period of time when you’re involved with that production, you have a second family, almost. You form relationships that may last the rest of your lives. It is an art for the gregarious.

Gosh, we’re happy!

But writing is an art for the introverted. To be a writer is to be solitary. In preparation for a book, you research, by yourself. Your supporting cast is test readers and editors, not a pseudo-family. Interactions with them are not social, but professional, typically not in-person and usually brief. Writing is, ultimately, a lonely gig.

Gosh, they look happy.

I don’t know if introversion is a universal attribute of the writer, but I suspect it’s far more common than not, just as I’d imagine there aren’t all that many introverted actors. For those writers, such as myself, who are at times too introverted, having some actors as friends can be a refreshing, balancing, social outlet. I highly recommend it.

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Writer’s Cul-de-Sac

As an extension to my last entry, “Writer’s Detour,” I thought I’d mention another hazard on the road of writing. See, I have a tendency to get tripped up in my own plots. I seem to write myself into a plot corner at least once in every book. Writing my way out of it is sometimes easy, sometimes not, but never is there a clear way out.

I’m unclear… What are you trying to say?

When I was writing the previously mentioned unpublished first novel, I’d written myself into a doozie. I was utterly stumped. I had an event that absolutely had to happen, or else there was no story. In order for this event to occur, two other events needed to take place. Problem was… one of them couldn’t happen.

One evening, a friend and I were sitting at our local restaurant hangout. I had the manuscript with me (written in longhand, this being before I even owned a computer) and was fretting over the problem, staring at the offending pages. My friend was an avid reader, so I thought I’d voice the problem to him. I pointed to relevant lines of text as I described the problem, finishing up with, “But that event can’t happen…” My voice trailed off as my finger traced a line under a few words on the page. I blinked stupidly. “…unless I delete this sentence.”

My friend nodded sagely and said, “Glad I could help.”

In my most recent day of writing, I realized I’d unwittingly set myself up with a seemingly insurmountable barrier to the plot moving forward. It was something I’d (obviously) never thought of before. Damn that pesky thing called factual accuracy!

Maybe I’m getting better at this whole writing thing, because – after less than two days of fretting over it – I had one of those moments of inspiration where the solution came to me. And I’m pretty happy with it, too.

And remember… If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the precipitate.

Let’s hope my next dead end is so easily escaped.

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Leaving the City

It’s spring of 2006. I’m living on my own for the first time in two decades, a divorce pending, struggling to remember how to be single and live alone. I have a job, but lots of bills, and virtually no social outlets. My depression is kicking into high gear.

I need an escape… an outlet… something in which I can invest my time to take my mind off things.

Seriously? Who picks these pics?

I know what you’re thinking. I should be working on that next novel. And that’s true. I should be. But I’m just not inspired. I know that inspiration isn’t particularly necessary, but it would be nice, I think. I do try to write. I work a little bit on the sequel to Wish You Were Here, but my heart isn’t in it. I try, once again, to pull my first novel back from the dead… but it keeps falling back into the same ruts that doomed it before. I have other pieces of books in the works, but none are speaking to me.

No, my escape needs to be something different. Something social. But I have few friends here. And it should be something I can do at all hours, not dependent upon others. And it should be fun. Lots of fun. So that meant…

I said SOCIAL!

Video games.

The ex (fittingly) kept the Xbox. That’s fine, since she also kept the TV. But I had a computer. We don’t need no stinking console.

World of Warcraft? Highly recommended by some friends. Everquest 2? Highly recommended by other friends. But no… My brain reminded me of one I’d seen on a shelf some time ago. A superhero game. What was it called?

City of Heroes.

See… it’s a city… of… Oh, you get the idea.

Yeah, gimme superheroes over sword and sorcery any day. I bought the game. I created a character. Just one, to start, though many more would follow over the next six years. And none of those would ever come close to matching that first character.

For six years, I developed her, with the help of plenty of great (and some not-so-great) role-players online, many of whom I have since met in person and consider dear friends. This character… easily the most complex character I’ve ever created… has a life of her own. She’s on Facebook. She has a Twitter account. Her MySpace page is probably still there, too. For a while, she had a personal website, but I took it down recently in preparation for a major remodel.

Why? Because this character is the protagonist of my next novel.

Oh, I removed her from the game world and planted her firmly in “our” universe. I wasn’t about to steal any intellectual property of the game company. Not that I had any inclination to stop playing the character in the game. In fact, I looked forward to the book becoming popular and readers coming to City of Heroes to “meet” her.

Sadly, that will now never happen.

Today, it was announced that City of Heroes will be defunct by the end of November.

I learned this perhaps two hours ago. And it’s a surreal feeling. Yes, it’s a game. But it’s far more than that. It’s a community in which I made some great friends. It’s a creative milieu in which I created an amazing character. And even after six years, it was still a welcome relief from the daily grind. In fact, ninety percent of my time in the game for the past few years has been role-playing, not really playing “the game” part of it.

And in three months, that will all be history.

Of course, it already is, really. The past six years are history for this character. The book is her memoir, you see. And while it will not be about the world of that game, the stories I came up with for her on the screen certainly served as inspiration for her story on the page.

The next three months will be bittersweet. They will hold the final days of her life in the game, but usher in the first days of her life in a new form. I expect the final chapters to be done by the end of the year, with the book making its appearance almost exactly seven years after its protagonist first took form on my computer.

I’m excited as heck about that. But today, my heart is heavy.

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