Wednesday, March 18, 2015

They Call Me The Wanderer

Have you ever tried to solve a Rubik's cube?

It seems like such a harmless little toy. If you just twist it around enough times, eventually all of the sides should be the same color, right? Don't be fooled. It's a demonic little device sent straight from the underworld to put the brains of its victims through a torture of the blackest kind. It keeps you going by making you feel like you're getting somewhere, offering the false pretense of success with every twist that aligns the colored squares with other squares of the same color. Your excitement mounts as each side of the cube starts to come together. It all seems be going well... until it doesn't. ONE colored square is off. The cube has you in its power. It tantalizes. It teases. It mocks. And all the while, it says not a word. It simply is.

If you can relate to the frustrating example of the Rubik's Torture, you can have some idea of what it's like to write a historical fiction that satisfies both your plot and history. Just when you think you've got everything figured out, you realize that cattle drives were a thing of the past in that particular town you chose during that particular year you chose for the setting of your story, because of the railroad. So then you sigh and think, "Ok, fine, I guess I'll move things back a few years..." But then you realize that if you move things back a few years, your heroin can't possibly be as old as she is because her dad was fighting in the civil war and couldn't have met her mother yet and then a million other things are also thrown off and the more you try to make it work the more confusing it gets until your brain explodes and you just want to yell, "Ah, the heck with historical accuracy!!!" But no! You mustn't cheat.

 So you're back to the drawing board. If changing the year doesn't work, you have to to try changing the location. Then you try a combination of changing the year just a little and the location a lot. This opens gigantic doors of research that you had no idea you'd ever have to touch. Suddenly your little fantasy world is exposed for what it really is: a minuscule cluster of marshmallowey ideas confined to a tiny bird cage that dangles from a massive oak in the middle of a never-ending, breathtaking, awe-inspiring landscape.

I've spent the last few months wandering through the vastness of Texas Past like a lost time traveler, mouth a gape and wide-eyed. I've been from Kansas City to Fort Worth to San Antonio to Gaston. I've seen the Civil War fought and ended, as well as the age of the cowboy. I've traveled along the San Antonio-El Paso Road and stopped at all the forts along the way. I've even become familiar with the price of beef between 1840 to 1900!

It's been quite the adventure.

Finally, I stumbled upon it. Somewhere along the road from San Antonio to El Paso, I found the place and the time that my darling little characters could thrive. My fingers twitching with excitement, I attacked the keyboard to release them (my characters, not my fingers) into their new home. To my chagrin, they were a little hesitant to do any exploring. It wasn't until after several fruitless attempts at forcing them that I realized what the problem was.

I didn't create this setting.

Any made-up village can build itself according to the whims of curious characters as they walk freely where they please. I've been used to building up the backdrops around them. But now that I'm trying to unleash fictional characters on a real world, there are boundaries. The characters don't know where to go because I don't know what the place looks like myself. I don't know where the streets or houses are, what the landscape looks like, or what the population is, and I can't just make them up anymore. At least, not all of them. So I tried Google Maps. That's nice, but what really helps are the few pictures I've found of what the town looked like back than.

Ideally, it would be great to be able to go there physically myself. There's a museum there that shows the history of the town and my mouth waters at the thought of all I could learn there! But for now I'll have to content myself with maps and photographs and the good ol' imagination.

And so, here I am, still in the process of turning things over, trying to make sure there are no rogue yellow squares (or historical blunders) that will make me have to start all over again. At this point I'm feeling good about the time and the place, and I think that maybe... hopefully... possibly... I might be ready to start the actual writing.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Giddy Up!

When did you stop playing with toys?

    My sister Rebecca remembers a specific day in her childhood when she was playing with a toy and the thought suddenly occurred to her, "What am I doing?" She looked at the inanimate object in her hand as if for the first time and then dropped it on the floor before going in search of new purpose in her life. She'd recognized that the object of her fantasy wasn't real and her imagination could no longer sweep her away into believing it to be any different than a plastic mold. She later found a new channel of creativity and told stories in the forms of dance and drawing. To see her on the stage is to be swept away in the world she creates through graceful turns and elegant leaps. Her drawings have so much life to them that one half expects them to move or laugh or cry.
     I can't say that I remember a specific moment when fairy tales stepped down from the forefront of my mind to make way for more life-like stories. It might have begun with my reading of the American Girl Dolls books, or my sister Reana telling me the story of Anne Frank. Perhaps the seed of it was planted when my sister Rachel told me that princesses were real and that they really did live in castles with princes a long time ago. But, she said, it wasn't all rosy back then like I imagined it. The castles were dark and had tiny windows. There were no fairies or Merlins to make things bright and comfortable. But that didn't matter to me. To become lost in and fall in love with a world and then find out that it was real--!  I began wondering what it had really been like back then.  What had those princesses gone through?  I started devouring historical fiction wherever I could find it. 

 It's hard to describe the thrill that shoots through me when I follow a character through true historic events and then later find out that the parts I thought must have been fiction were actually real-- ah! 

                                                                         It's the best.

     So when I was about 13 or 14, my imagination found itself among the signers of the Declaration of Independence, huddled in foxholes during WWII, climbing the rolling hills of 17th century Ireland, tapping my foot to the big band music at a USO dance, or running away on a cattle drive in the Old West. 

     Throughout high school I wrote several historical novels. It sounds more impressive than it was. I took a lot of artistic liberties for the sake of my plots and at the end of the day, let's be honest, they were little more than a teenage girl's airy romantic fantasies displayed on a manipulated historical background. As hard as I worked on them, and as fun as they were to write, I knew even back then that they weren't anything great.

Except for, maybe, one....

      All of my stories were posted on a self-publishing website called Fictionpress, where a community of aspiring authors would read and review one another's works. Shout out to the greatest thing I gained from that website, my dear friend and pen pal of 10 years, Renee Borage! You're the best! 
     The second greatest thing to come out of fictionpress for me were the many offers to buy one of my stories from me. I thought it was pretty cool when I was a teenager, but now, so many years later, the fact that I'm still getting these offers and that this one story is still getting so much attention has caused me to take my own work a little more seriously. Several times I considered publishing it for real, but the thought of having my first published work be a cheesy romance novel always made me abandon the idea. 
Then, a couple of months ago, as I rejected two more of these offers to buy my story, I decided to pull the old thing out, blow off the dust, and see what it was that these people seemed to see in it. I figured that if there were so many people out there willing to buy it and fix it up for publication, well, by golly, then I might as well fix it up for publication myself!

     The first step was to remove the story from That was sad because I still had a tiny handful of followers who would return and re-read it every once in a while.
     Next, I had to read through it to find out why it was still getting so much attention.

What was so special about this book?

      Sure it's fun. I mean, with the Wild West setting and the hootin', hollerin' cowboys and the saucy main character, how could it be otherwise? But there has to be something beyond that. What would keep that little band of faithful followers coming back again and again after all this time? Does this book have the potential to be something more than just a cheesy romance?

 Reading through it now, there is something there. I'm not quite sure what it is yet, or how to bring it to the surface, but under all the cliches, sloppiness, bad writing, corny lines, and patchy plot, there is something intriguing. But it's going to take a lot of work to resurrect it. At first I thought it was going to take a lot of revision. Now I'm realizing that it's going to take a complete re-write. 

Challenge accepted. 

     I know it's going to be a big project, and it will take some serious dedication for me to make time to actually do it, but now that inner author has woken up inside of me and she's so happy to be reunited with her babies. I'm afraid she might get violent if I tried to smother her again.

     Another shout out to Duckie Sheppard, my long-time writing buddy who's been trying to convince me to take on this project for the past several years. Thank you for all your nudging and confidence-boosting, Duckie! This girl's going to be famous someday. I aspire to be as dedicated a writer as she is.

     In conclusion, I don't think any of us ever really stop playing with toys. I think our play just changes over the years. Whether it's ballet, art, computers, books, writing, or any other medium, that desire to imagine and create is inside of all of us. Maybe we should indulge that part of us every once in a while. What do you think?

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Once Upon a Time....

My inner author was born on a bed of pillows beside a cassette player, downstairs in my big sisters' room.
     I was seven or eight years old and I remember waiting outside the bedroom door with my little sister, Risa, giggling with anticipation, while on the other side of the door a world was being created just for us. Our three older sisters, Rebecca, Reana and Rachel, had been in there all day, it seemed. By pressing our ears against the door, we could hear the muffled sounds of voices, music, and laughter. Then we would scramble away quickly as Rebecca came flying out, telling us to "shoo!" as she ran off to fetch something important. She would return with curious things like hard-cover books and empty flower pots and then disappear again into the room.
     Finally, the project was finished and Risa and I were welcomed into the room on a red carpet (or pink towel). We were treated as royalty as we made our way to the bed that had been made plush and cozy for us, complete with food and drink, and there in the middle of the room sat the cassette player. Once we were all settled in, someone pressed play and the magic began.
     The room filled with Rachel's voice narrating a tale about two princesses named Mia and Zephronia, who lived in a beautiful kingdom called Omarrio.  The princesses' voices were done by Reana and Rebecca, whose superb acting brought the story to life. Risa and I were on the edge of our seats as Mia and Zephronia set off on a quest to avenge their brother's death by Tabron, the dragon. Along the way they met many interesting characters, such as little people and giants and talking birds. Background music and the sounds of tinkling glasses created crystal clear images in my little girl mind. My sisters had thought of everything. They even "galloped" clay pots against book covers to imitate the sound of horse hooves!
      I fell in love with the art of story-telling there in that room. When the tape was over, Risa and I wanted to listen to it again and again. We begged our sisters to make more like it and they obliged us only once more before leaving us to our own imaginations.

     For weeks my mind was alive with stories and characters that I wished someone would let out! If only my sisters would record more stories on the cassette tape. If only there were a movie or a book out there that would tell these stories!
      And then something revolutionary happened. My sister, Rachel, decided to write a book.
      Write a book? Anyone could do it, just like that?

      I started right away. With a black binder full of lined paper, a sharpened pencil, and my 8-year-old vocabulary, I released the characters that had been dancing in my head and they spilled out in a colorful deluge of mermaids, princesses, castles, witches, and pet dolphins. My first book was entitled "The Legend of Two Worlds", about a mermaid princess named Lissie and her green best friend, a mermaid witch named Linda. While playing with magic, they accidentally became humans and after being washed up on a royal beach were taken in by the prince who ordered a tutor to teach them how to speak the local language. There was comedy, magic, romance, and several diamond-encrusted seashells. The best part were the illustrations on the bottom of every page, drawn by Rebecca and colored by me. Tragically, as I got older I became embarrassed by this masterpiece and threw it away. I'll never forgive myself for that.
       A moment of silence for the lost work.
       Wow, I hate myself.
       What's done is done. On to a brighter future!
       I went on to create other worlds, breathed life into other characters. By the time I graduated high school I had finished a total of six novels, with several others in the works. My family often lost me to writing comas, when the worlds in my mind would become so real that they would pull me to the computer and flow from my brain, down my arms and fingers, through the keyboard, and onto a self-publishing site, where my small fare of fans would read and comment on each installment. If I wasn't writing, it was because I was curled up on the couch with a book, twirling my hair as I read, lost to reality.
       When I caught myself leaving the "Book Worm" phase and entering the "Schizophrenic Zombie" phase, I forced myself to wake up to reality and find some other, healthier hobbies. I went out with friends, I went to college, I hiked mountains at midnight to reach the peaks by sunset, I repelled off of cliffs, I started running and eating like a hippy, I lived as a missionary in Brazil, I became more business-oriented.
        But all the while, that sleeping inner author dreamed.  She dreamed and snored and snored and dreamed some more, building up her store of ideas, until the day that she would one day reawaken.