October 28, 2010

Guest Post - K.M. Weiland

K.M Weiland, authoress of novels A Man Called Outlaw and Behold the Dawn, recently released a CD on how writers can cultivate a life of inspiration instead of waiting for a lightning bolt to strike them. This is a reposting of a great article she wrote some time ago about inspiration on her blog Wordplay - Opening Yourself Up to Inspiration.

If you’re like most writers, coming up with story ideas is rarely a problem. More than likely, your brain bubbles over with more ideas than you’d be able to use in two and half lifetimes. I’ve yet to meet a writer who decided Hmm, I’d like to be an author—and then sat down to brainstorm ideas. Instead, I suspect most of us first turned to writing as a way to release the pressure of all the ideas already ricocheting around in our brains.

For many of us, the problem isn’t that we have too few ideas, but rather that we’ll never live long enough to write the ideas we already have. Of course, that really isn’t a problem; it’s a tremendous blessing. And if a little blessing is good, a lot of blessing must be even better, right? If a little bit of inspiration has us soaring up near the ceiling, why not go whole hog and open yourself to inspiration in every possible way?

Ultimately, inspiration is an intensely personal experience, unrepeatable and often unresponsive to conscious prodding. You can’t force inspiration. It either happens or it doesn’t. You can’t sit yourself down at your desk, squeeze your eyes shut, and demand that inspiration appear in front of you complete with drumroll and a puff of smoke. Inspiration is a gift, and like all gifts it must be treated with gratitude and responsibility.

But none of this is to say that we can’t position ourselves in the path of inspiration. Instead of just waiting around for the muse to hit us in the head with a lightning bolt, we can ingrain in ourselves the habit of “opening” ourselves to inspiration.

So (as if you didn’t already have too many stories to write), here’s a handful of tips for composing an invitation that Madame Inspiration won’t be able to resist.

Pay Attention to the Details

Writing is the details. Without these little garnishes, most stories could easily be summed up in a sentence or two. (Don’t believe me? Check out Book-A-Minute Classics.) People read fiction because they want to experience life. They want to see the way the dust motes turn to gold in a shaft of sunlight, and they want to smell the delicate spray of an orange rind as it is peeled back.

In order to share all these minutiae with readers, we first have to notice them ourselves. But don’t just notice it; experience it. In the end, a story is about the little things as much, if not more so, than the grand scope of life and death. So pay attention to the color of the sky right before the sun dips below the horizon, notice the way the bass in a sound system thrums in the soles of your feet, absorb the smell of rain so deeply that you can describe it without even trying. Not only will paying attention to the details plump up your prose, who knows when you’ll stumble upon some inconsequential and heretofore unnoticed facet that will spur your next story.

Look Beyond the Cliché

Keep your eyes wide open for the unexpected. Look beyond the obvious in search of surprising juxtapositions. Broaden your horizons; start searching for esoteric and little-known nuggets. When you find yourself with an idea for a story that could easily turn into a familiar plotline, hang onto it for a bit and go in search of some unexpected ingredient you can throw into the mix. Say you want to tell a mystery story. Don’t just settle for a tale about a hard-boiled cop in an inner-city district. Dig deeper. What would be unexpected? What would be out of the ordinary? For me, a story isn’t ready to be written until I’ve been able to add at least two or three layers of juxtaposition.

Subconscious

Never underestimate your subconscious. When you’ve come to a snarl in your plot, don’t think too hard. You can only push your conscious brain so far. On more than one occasion, after I’ve backed myself and my characters into a seemingly insurmountable corner, I’ve sat at the keyboard for hours, racking my brain for an answer that just wouldn't come. But when I return to the problem the next day, after my subconscious has had a chance to mull over the matter for the night, the solution is practically staring me in the face.

When you come across an interesting snippet of an idea that you aren’t quite certain how to develop — toss it into your subconscious for a while. Sometimes ideas stew in the back of my mind for years before suddenly reappearing on center stage as something worth pursuing.

Conscious

Nobody says you always have to wait for inspiration to come to you. Put your conscious mind to work and brainstorm. Give yourself “idea deadlines” (e.g. I’m going to come up with a new story idea every day). Buy a book of journaling prompts (such as Jack Heffron’s The Writer’s Idea Book) or google the Web for one of the hundreds of websites that offers prompts. Schedule idea-hunting day trips and sally forth with notebook and pen in hand.

I will admit that most of my best ideas have not been the product of a conscious effort. But that doesn’t mean I haven’t benefited from brainstorming sessions. Even if I don’t walk away from every session with a viable idea, at least I’ve given the ol’ brain a good workout.

Don’t Wait for Inspiration

Finally, and most importantly, don’t wait for inspiration. We’d all like to take up permanent residence in that rarefied atmosphere where the “inspiration high” is a constant state of being. But, as all writers discover sooner or later, that high will inevitably run dry. If we allow our writing to dry up with it, we’ll never so much as finish a story, much less be read by anyone.

Inspiration is much more likely to strike when your mind is active. So even on the days when the mental well seems to have evaporated and blown away in clouds of steam, sit yourself down at your desk and keep writing. Inspiration, after all, is really a very small part of the big picture.

- Check out K.M. Weiland's blogs Wordplay and AuthorCulture for more posts on writing! -

October 26, 2010

Jane Austen's Manuscripts

Jane Austen (1775-1817) is perhaps one of the most popular of classic British authors today: her novels are nowhere near as difficult to get through as those of Charles Dickens, do not wade through moral and social problems like Elizabeth Gaskell's, and are, quite simply, light and enjoyable reads. Her classic novel Pride and Prejudice has been adapted as a movie or a television serial numerous times, and then there are all the spin-offs that line the shelves of Barnes & Noble (though how one fits zombies into Pride and Prejudice is beyond me, and I prefer not to find out).

For the past few years the University of Oxford and King's College London have been working together on making digital versions of Jane Austen's original manuscripts, spanning from the age of about 12 to her death in 1817. The collection includes the Juvenilia (short or unfinished stories written early in Austen's life), scraps of her more famous novel Persuasion, and other unfinished works like Sanditon and The Watsons. The manuscripts show an amusingly large amount of blotted words and scratched out lines, dashes all over the place, and randomly capitalized letters until the pages are all but illegible. In fact, modern researchers have concluded that, contrary to Austen's brother's claim, not everything "came finished from her pen" - in short, the editor had a lot to do with Austen's polished style.

Of course, in the late 1700s/early 1800s, spelling was not as strict as it is today and the English language was fairly fluid; also, writing by hand does not leave much room for neat edits and revisions, so Austen's blurred style is understandable. The manuscripts shown on the Jane Austen Fiction Manuscripts website are very similar to the Oxford Jane Austen Collection, where the idiosyncrasies in her style are preserved, and it is fascinating to see how Jane Austen wrote. It certainly does not detract from the charm of her writing, nor, I'll wager, does it do much to lower her in the opinions of her faithful fans. It just puts the editor in a more heroic light.

October 16, 2010

Research - Stephen Decatur

The Age of Sail has intrigued me for a long time, but I had never studied it in-depth or read many books about it, nonfiction or fiction. Recently, however, I read Six Frigates by Ian W. Toll - a history of the founding of the U.S. Navy - and remembered just why, and how much, I enjoyed reading about the wooden ships of the time. What I knew about them was concentrated on the British navy, naturally enough; I knew very little about the development of the United States'. But in my reading I came across the interesting character of Stephen Decatur, Jr., who is to play a fairly important role in my NaNo novel The White Sail's Shaking.

Stephen Decatur, Jr., was born in 1779 in Sinepuxent, Maryland, to parents Stephen and Ann (Pine) Decatur. His grandfather, Étienne (Stephen) Decatur, was French, but renounced that citizenship to marry Priscilla Hill; her family had been in Rhode Island since the early 1600s. Stephen Decatur, Jr., studied at the University of Pennsylvania and was encouraged by his mother not to go to sea; however, both Stephen Decatur's father and grandfather had careers on the sea, and in 1799, during America's Quasi War with France, Decatur became a midshipman on one of the famous six frigates of the United States, the USS United States. A mere month later, he was promoted to the rank of lieutenant.

Decatur was an interesting character in personality as well as his naval career. In his biography of Decatur, Spencer Tucker quotes one man as saying,

"[he] possessed, in an eminent degree, the happy art of governing sailors rather by their affections than their fears. He was averse to punishment, and rarely had occasion to resort to it, being usually able to rely, for the preservation of discipline, on the reluctance of his inferiors to displease him. It was remarked of him at this period, by an officer, that 'he seemed, as if by magic, to hold a boundless sway over the hearts of seamen at first sight.'"


In an age where most leaders found it necessary to resort to floggings and the like to keep their crew out of the rum, free of mutinous thoughts, and on their proper ship, a man who could run his crew merely by the effect his own person had on them is an interesting one to study.

What is probably the most famous event in Decatur's career came during the first Barbary War, or the Tripolitan War, when he, still a lieutenant, commanded the USS Enterprize during the commodore-ship of Edward Preble. After the massive USS Philadelphia ran aground off the bay of Tripoli and its crew and officers were taken by the Tripolitans, Decatur led a night expedition in the converted Tripolitan boat Intrepid to burn the Philadelphia before the enemy could make use of it. He was successful, surprisingly so, and the event soon earned him a two-rung promotion to the rank of captain that bypassed the rank of master commandant.

Just a few years after the end of the first Barbary War, Decatur served in the War of 1812, during which he commanded his old ship, the USS United States. In October he captured the HMS Macedonian, fulfilling a bet that had been made by the Macedonian's captain, Carden, years before that if the two ships were to meet in battle, Carden would win; but he lost, and Decatur refitted the Macedonian to return to the United States. Both ships were driven into a Connecticut port by a British blockade and stayed there for the rest of the war.

British blockades during the war made it difficult for individual ships, and certainly larger squadrons, to leave their home ports. After Decatur moved his command to the frigate President, stationed at New York, he and his small squadron were commanded to sail to the Caribbean; attempting to run the blockade, he was forced to surrender to the massive ships outside port. He spent the rest of the war in Bermuda as a prisoner and then was released in February of 1815. That May, he commanded a squadron that sailed to the Mediterranean again to positively show the Barbary nations that the United States would not pay tribute; he was successful in his mission and earned himself the title of "Conqueror of the Barbary Pirates."

Perhaps the next most famous event of Decatur's life came in 1820 - his duel with Commodore James Barron, and his death as a result. Barron had commanded the USS Chesapeake (thought to be an unlucky ship) during the famous Chesapeake-Leopard Affair, when Barron had not ordered his men into readiness and had subsequently been captured by the British in the Leopard with no fight. Due to criticism Decatur gave on the subject and the fact that he had served on the court martial that found Barron guilty of unpreparedness, Barron challenged Decatur to a duel. Dueling was technically illegal in the United States at the time (Alexander Hamilton had died in his duel with Aaron Burr in 1804), but it was a matter of honor, and Decatur accepted.

His plan, apparently, was only to wound Barron; Barron had bitterness on his side, however, and he shot Decatur in the abdomen. Decatur soon died, only forty-one years old.

My coming novel The White Sail's Shaking takes place during the First Barbary War, and while it doesn't follow Decatur, the main character serves aboard his ship, the Enterprize.

Note: Copies of The Soldier's Cross are now available for pre-order on the blog sidebar. If buying more than one copy, remember to select the correct drop-down section to get a discount, and put the number of copies you would like in your PayPal shopping cart. Thank you!

October 7, 2010

What is "Christian" Fiction?

I don't read many contemporary novels, Christian or secular. It's difficult to find ones of any worth amid the muddle of copycat authors, immorality, and skeleton-strewn covers, so I primarily stick to those whose authors have been dead for, oh, at least forty or fifty years. But I also run a review site and I wanted to get it set up to receive free copies of books to review, and, of course, those books are contemporary - hot off the press, actually; so, since I received a copy from a publishing house, I recently read a contemporary Christian novel.

I'm not going to go into rant-mode about the atrocities of modern writing, etc. I was more shocked by the realization (I had known it before, but, sticking to the classics as I do, I had never witnessed it) of how the word "Christian" is used as a label, on books, on music, even on churches. The book I read was basically a romance, sprinkled with prayer and a few moral revelations, such as "Oh, lying isn't a good thing!" and "What do you know! God is sovereign!" This, apparently, makes a book "Christian," despite the fact there was no hint of the Gospel message in the pages.

Now, I can very easily appreciate a novel without its depicting a clearly Christian worldview. Most classic novels take a moral stance in looking at the world, like Dickens and Austen, but not one that is founded on the heart of Scripture - the complete depravity of man and the need for the gift of redemption through Christ's sacrifice; rather, they are built on the basic moral code set in every man. Not that these writers were utterly godless, for Dickens often speaks reverently of God in his works; Jane Austen wrote some very stirring prayers and defends the Church in some of her novels; Charlotte Bronte's novel Jane Eyre had many facets that seemed to be more than just moral; and Louisa May Alcott's stories are extremely moral and works-based. But are they Christian? No; they merely reflect the emerging deistic or theistic philosophies of their time.

So how do contemporary novels of the same brand gain the right to be labeled "Christian"? There are several different possible answers that spring to mind immediately. The first is what I already posited - they get called "Christian" because they're moral and they have God as a fairly central figure (even if He does seem like a bit of an afterthought crowded in there). But does that really count as Christian? If an unbeliever picked up a book after seeing that it was labeled "Christian" and read it, might he not come away with the misunderstanding that the God we claim to worship is really nothing more than a sort of appendage stuck on our lives, or a prayer machine, or perhaps that it is mere morality that we are celebrating? And even if we say that unbelievers aren't likely to be reading it anyway, and that it is for believers, I can't help thinking that the result isn't going to be much better for Christians, either. These sorts of novels with a bit of God shoved in cultivate an attitude of regarding the Sovereign, Almighty God - the One who "holds all things together by the word of His power" and "in [whom] we live and move and have our being" - of regarding Him as something less than the focus of our lives.

The second possible reason is that the books are called Christian because their authors profess to be Christian, and perhaps they feel guilty writing something that doesn't at least have some Christian teaching clearly tacked on. I don't believe that this is a valid argument, for two reasons. One is essentially what I talked about above: if you paste that label of "Christian" onto a book, you have to remember the possible readers and consider what they will take away from that novel about what Christianity is. And the second is that, generally speaking, not every story that comes to mind is going to deal with the Gospel itself, and it is not necessary to try to wedge it in where it doesn't fit. I do believe that no story a Christian writes ought to be written for shock value, defy the truths of Scripture, or go against the principles of our faith in any way, and I think that this cleanliness of our literature ought to stand as a light amid the general darkness of secular books. This is our witness: not our stuffing the Gospel where it really doesn't fit and showing ourselves awkward through the awkwardness of our writing, but keeping our works pure, letting the themes come as they will, and boldly allowing our faith to show itself in the pages when and where it fits.
 
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I am a writer of historical fiction and fantasy, scribbling from my home in the United States. More importantly, I am a Christian, which flavors everything I write. My debut novel, "The Soldier's Cross," was published by Ambassador Intl. in 2010.
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The Soldier's Cross: Set in the early 15th Century, this is the story of an English girl's journey to find her brother's cross pendant, lost at the Battle of Agincourt, and of her search for peace in the chaotic world of the Middle Ages.
finished writings






Tempus Regina:Hurled back in time and caught in the worlds of ages past, a Victorian woman finds herself called out with the title of the time queen. The death of one legend and the birth of another rest on her shoulders - but far weightier than both is her duty to the brother she left alone in her own era. Querying.
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Wordcrafter: "One man in a thousand, Solomon says / will stick more close than a brother. / And it's worthwhile seeking him half your days / if you find him before the other." Justin King unwittingly plunges into one such friendship the day he lets a stranger come in from the cold. Wordcount: 124,000 words

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