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Journey to My Writing Niche

            When I first began writing, I hadn’t a clue on what I should be doing or what I wanted to write.  I only knew I loved the craft and believed I had the potential to be good at it, but my beginning efforts were all over the place.  I didn’t know if I wanted to write essays, short stories, or novels.  I hadn’t even nailed down a preferred genre.  I just knew I wanted to write and be published.  But where to begin?

            I started with short stories.  They were compact enough to keep me interested and the length allowed for repeated editing in a reasonable time frame.  From there I expanded into novellas, though at the time I had no idea that was what I was writing.  I found and joined a writers’ critique group who not only helped me hone my skills, but also introduced me to the many styles, techniques, and genres of successful writers.  I also started attending writing conferences and author talks.  After a time I felt confident enough to attempt a full-length novel, though I still did not know what genre I preferred.

            My first novel turned out to be dystopian, though at the time, I simply labeled it as science fiction.  That was eight years ago, pretty much before anyone had heard of the dystopian genre.  I finished the story in ten months, sent it to one agent and one contest, got rejected by both, and threw it in a draw where it still sits to this day.  Had I known then what I know now and took the time to rewrite and polish it, I might be riding high on the crest of the current wave of dystopian novels hitting the market.  Hind sight is truly 20/20.  But it was my practice novel.  Most writers have one and if you’re afraid to start one, don’t be.  It was my best learning experience.  Editing it would probably have been more work than totally rewriting it, but it was my starting point.  I had written and finished a novel, and I was sure I could do it again, but with more skill.  I was on the path to being published.        

            My next novel was an Arthurian Legend.  Talk about an ambitious biting-off-more-than-you-can-chew project.  Inspired by The Mists of Avalon and the countless other versions of the King Arthur tale, I wrote a whopping 466,000 word manuscript in alternating points of view between Arthur and his sister Morganna.  It took me approximately three years, seventy-six agent rejections, and hundreds of late nights, early mornings, and summer vacation days to realize the genre had had its day in the eighties and was no longer in demand.  Though well written, it wasn’t what people wanted to read.  It too sits in a draw, right next to my dystopian novel.

            Finally, my next attempt was a young adult paranormal fantasy.  I had always been interested in ghosts, alternate realities, UFO’s, cryptozoology, parallel dimensions, and the like.  And being a reading teacher, I knew what kids liked to read and, more importantly, what they did not.  I saw which books were popular, I took what I was interested in, and voila–Island of Tory, my first published novel, was born eleven months later.

            The journey to finding my writing niche was by no means a straight path, but each detour brought me closer to my ultimate goal of being published.  No one has a crystal ball to see what will be the next genre trend, so my advice is write what you like, do it well, and create your own trend.  A good book is a good book, and readers will recognize it when they see it.  And don’t be discouraged when you get a rejection.  A rejection is an opinion of one person at one point in time.  Many great novels and novelists have been rejected by people who now wish they had said “yes” instead.  And if at first you don’t succeed–yeah, you know the cliché–but it’s sound advice that every aspiring writer should remember and live by.  It’s been my writing mantra for years.  It’s helped me reach my goals even when they’ve seemed incredibly impossible.

Real Versus Fictional Settings

           Many writers question whether it is best to set their story in a real location or a fictional one.  There are advantages and disadvantages to each.  In the end it really boils down to preference, but here are a few of the pros and cons I have weighed in my writing:

Real Setting Pros:

1.  The setting is already laid out for you, so site maps are readily available.  In writing my novel, Island of Tory, I used a variety of online maps to get an accurate feel for the location of key points of interest.

2.  People who are familiar with your setting may be intrigued by a story set in a place they know well and are fond of.  This could increase your readership.

3.  The history, folklore, and local stories of a real setting can be woven into your fictional story, giving it authenticity.

Real Setting Cons:

1.  In choosing a real setting for your novel, you risk being inaccurate in your description if not careful, and this could invoke the wrath of readers who demand precision.

2.  There is no room for deviation in a real setting.  If you put a coffee shop or church in the setting, for the sake of your story, where in reality there is none, you chance confusing or even turning off readers who are familiar with what the real setting looks like.

Fictional Setting Pros:

1.  Your imagination is the limit with a fictional setting.  You can put any buildings, landmarks, or points of interest you choose in a fictional setting to accomplish your plot goals.

2.  No one can dispute the location of items in a fictional setting as long as you are consistent in where things are.

3.  You can add any back story to the history, lore, or culture of your fictional setting without being wrong.

Fictional Setting Cons:

1.  You have to make up the location, history, culture, and anything else associated with your setting.  You can get ideas from real settings, but you have to be careful not to be too obvious in copying everything about a real location, or your readers will see through a simple name change and think you are being unimaginative.

  2.  You have to map out where everything is located in your fictional setting and be consistent in distance and timing throughout your story to make it believable.

            Before starting to write my ya novel, Island of Tory, I was perusing the internet trying to get ideas for the basic plot for my next book.  I hadn’t decided on a real or fictional setting, and I wasn’t even sure what I wanted to write about yet.  The one thing I did know was my story had to have elements of the paranormal in it.  Immediately, I thought of Ireland. 

            Ireland has always been, for me, synonymous with all things magical, supernatural, and mysterious.  The land and its people embrace their myths and legends as part of their history and culture like no other.  And because of this, Ireland is the one place on earth that seems to keep a precarious balance between reality and fantasy.

            In my internet searches, I began looking for remote Irish islands.  Just as Ireland evokes a sense of mystery for me, so too, do islands.  With being cut off from the mainland, island inhabitants evolve their own set of beliefs and lore, making their cultures unique from that of their motherlands.  My searches brought up a variety of Irish islands, all of which had their own distinctive folklore to boast of.  Upon reading the stories and traditions of Tory Island, I knew it was the perfect setting for my novel.

            The lore of Tory Island is uniquely rich, full of tales of fairies, wishes, curses, and ancient rituals.  As I read deeper into Tory’s folklore, I realized the hard part of developing my story was already done for me.  All I had to do was weave the different pieces of island lore into a single plot line, and after eleven months of twisting, turning, and adjusting, the puzzle was complete.

            No, I have never been to Tory Island, and no, I have never been to Ireland.  But, with the help of Google Earth, Facebook, and Shutterstock, I feel like I’ve gotten pretty close.  In writing Island of Tory, I spent untold hours researching the island and its history.  I studied island maps, questioned residents and tourists of Tory via Facebook, scrutinized pictures of the sites to the point of feeling like I had lived on Tory. 

            In writing, Island of Tory, I could have created an imaginary setting, but as Tory Island proves, sometimes truth is stranger than fiction.  Everything I needed for a mysterious island setting was already there.  Why reinvent the wheel when one is just waiting for you to roll with it?  And in using a real place in which to set my novel, along with real events and folklore to plot my story, I place the question in the reader’s head of where to draw the line between reality and fiction.  It’s this blurring of the lines between truth and perception that adds to the story’s air of mystery that brings the reader back for more.

Creating Imperfect Characters for the Perfect Story

            Characters are the heart and soul of a story.  Any book, no matter how good the plot, how interesting the setting, or how clever the twist, must have characters that are distinct, believable, appealing, and imperfect.  Yes, imperfect.  Readers need to relate to the characters in a book within the first few pages.  They need to be able to identify with the character.  And one way a writer can do this is to give a character flaws.

            We’re only human.  Right?  Well, the characters in a book should be too.  No one likes someone who is wonderful in every way, because none of us are.  And having a flawless character will turn off a reader quicker than they can turn a page.  We all have good and bad qualities, talents and limitations, strengths and weaknesses.  And we like to read about characters that are like us–flawed and human. 

            A well-known and well-liked character such as Harry Potter is a perfect example.  Harry is likeable not just because he is kind and friendly, but because he’s just a little messed-up.  Harry is an orphan, he is mistreated by his aunt and uncle, he hangs out with the geeks of Hogwarts, and he has a dark side that he constantly has to wrestle.  We like him because each one of us can see a tiny part of ourselves in him.  All of us feel alone or rejected at one time or another.  Every person feels neglected by friends or family on occasion.  Very few of us are popular and hang with the “In” crowd.  And we all have a not so nice side that we struggle to overcome.  We identify with Harry Potter, and that is why we love him.

            Love or hate the books, we can all identify with the characters from Twilight, as well.  Bella is an ordinary girl who wants to be extraordinary.  She is clumsy and insecure and sees herself as plain and unattractive.  Sound like any teenage girl you know?  But Edward, the handsome, dangerous, bad boy finds her irresistible.  Even Edward, the two hundred year old undead vampire, appeals to our human side.  He is seen as evil by most of the world, except by the one who loves him.  And he struggles with his carnal urges because he is inherently good.  Don’t we all?  And of course there is Jacob who must protect the one he cares about knowing he will never have a real chance with her.  He also struggles with his carnal urges and even sides with the enemy to protect the one he loves.  Stephanie Meyers, for all the flack she has taken about her books, has the human psyche figured out.

            And what about the characters of the Hunger Games?  Can’t we all relate to one or more of them?  First there’s Peeta?  He is kind and good, but not so athletic.  He is a great talker, but not so skilled with weapons.  You just can’t have it all.  Then there’s Gale.  Gale is the strong, hard working, good looking guy who has to sit back and let the girl he loves make all the decisions.  He’s not in the driver’s seat, and he knows it.  Sounds like marriage material to me.  And of course, there is Katniss, our heroine.  Katniss is your typical strong female character, but with a twist.  She, like Bella, is in the middle of a love triangle and must balance her feelings with her obligations to family and friends.  She is stuck in the middle of the Capitol’s plans for control, and no matter what she does, she is set-up to hurt someone she cares about.  Talk about a no win situation.  I’d say that Suzanne Collins has our human nature pegged, as well.

            In my young adult novel, Island of Tory, Arella Cline is the main character.  She struggles with your typical teenage angst.  She is an only child who has trouble relating to her parents, and when her parents are killed in an accident, she feels regret and loss.  Arella doesn’t like rules or authority and rebels against them every chance she gets.  When she is forced to attend a stringent academy, she breaks the rules and then quits.  But in the end, Arella must make a choice.  She must decide whether to side with good or evil, and she knows that no matter her choice, someone she cares about will get hurt.  She is caught between a rock and a hard place, in fact, between a wishing stone and a cursing stone.

            So a writer must keep in mind that readers like their characters flawed.  Readers want to rub shoulders with fellow narcissistic, insecure, rebel loners who redeem themselves in the end by putting others’ needs first.  That’s what makes them human to us.  They are a reflection of who we are, or at least, who we strive to be.

            Island of Tory is available at Amazon.com, Barnes and Noble online, and Joseph-Beth Booksellers online.  Autographed copies are available on this website.

 

Collaging: Finding Your Writing Muse

            I’m often asked where I get my ideas for writing. I wish I could say, “Off the top of my head,” but that’s not true at all. I’ll admit that I am creative, but I need a little inspiration to get the artistic juices flowing. Being a very visual person, I find my muse in pictures.

            I never considered my brainstorming methods to be collaging, until I looked to see what other writers did to come up with their story ideas. When I saw that many of them used a collection of pictures, maps, scraps of fabric, and key words or phrases gathered together in a visually appealing arrangement called collage, I suddenly realized I had been unwittingly using the same writing technique.

            There is no right or wrong way to collage. Talk to ten different writers who use collage to inspire their writing, and you will get ten variations on the “correct” method. But there are some basic components all effective collages have in common. So…here is the Geither recipe for a successful writing collage:

Canvas

            First, you need a base upon which to glue your collection of images. Poster board, tri-fold display boards, cork boards, shoeboxes, manila folders, or even spiral notebooks will work. There is no right or wrong choice. You need to decide which base works best for you.

            I prefer a tri-fold display board due to the fact that it is large, freestanding, and can be folded up and tucked under the bed when not in use. I have, however, also taken the manila folder route on occasion.

Images

            Next, start collecting images. Use magazines, greeting cards, photos, old maps, clipart, or images from the internet. Gather images of people, places, and things. Try to find a variety of pictures that represent setting, characters, and mood.

            When writing my novel, Island of Tory, I visited every Tory Island website I could find. I printed copies of maps, pictures of the points of interest, and photos of local people and animals. These images gave me a good visual feel for the island and its inhabitants.  I also printed pictures of Celtic art and symbols.  This helped me develop the mysterious and foreboding mood felt throughout the book. 

Arrange

            Finally, organize your images into categories–characters, setting, and plot. This is where a tri-fold display board comes in handy, because each section can be used to display pictures relating to one of the particular categories.

            Personally, I like to keep each category separate, but some writers like to mix it up. Again, the choice is yours. Just remember, whether you fasten your images with pushpins, staples, tape, or glue, your collage is not set in stone. Change it when you need to. Add, subtract, or start over as the need arises. Remember that your collage is a tool, not a ball and chain.

Utilize

            Look at your collage before, during, and after you write. Jot notes on it. Add comments and captions. Utilize your collage as a springboard, but never feel tied to it. The purpose of a collage is to stimulate and inspire creativity and help you focus on your story.

            Though I begin every writing project with a complete collage, the collage is rarely finished before my story is done. I constantly add new pictures and words as my story develops. I was still adding pictures to my Island of Tory collage even after I signed the publishing contract. And I even sent portions of the collage to my publisher to hand on to the illustrator, so I could make sure he had a good feel for the mood of my novel.

Muse It!

            With practice, collaging can help you develop, organize, and complete any writing project. Whether it’s a short story, essay, poem, or novel, a well developed collage can be just the muse you are looking for.

Collage used for CURSING STONE

The Cursing of the HMS Wasp

            The Irish are known for their superstitious nature.  They believe in blessings as well as curses.  From avoiding black cats and ladders to making the sign of the cross to ward off evil, the Irish have a long history of believing in the power of the supernatural.  The people of Tory Island are no exception.

            Tory’s history is full of mystical stories of blessed clay, magic water fonts, secret charms, and enchanted stones.  But most people believe the tales to be nothing more than folk legends, told to explain the inexplicable and amuse the masses.  However, one tragic incident is still rumored to be the result of a true Irish curse:  the sinking of the HMS Wasp.

            In September 1884, the HMS Wasp set sail from Westport, County Mayo to collect taxes and deliver eviction notices to Inishtrahull Island off Malin Head.  She was on course between Tory and the mainland when disaster struck.  Around 3:45 am, the Wasp hit the rocks directly beneath Tory’s lighthouse and sank to the bottom of the ocean in less than half an hour.  There were only six survivors of the fifty men onboard.

            Was the lighthouse lit?  Reports are mixed.  Some say the light was on, but was purposely turned off at the critical moment the Wasp passed by Tory’s shore.  Others claim the light was never dimmed.  A Royal Navy Court Martial concluded that the HMS Wasp was lost due to a lack of care and attention (her boilers were down, she was taking a quicker but more dangerous course around the island, and junior men were at the helm while senior officers slept.)  No one was singled out for blame, and the case was closed.

            However, rumors soon began to surface, and stories of Tory’s inhabitants invoking a curse against the vessel started to circulate.  Tory was known to have a Cursing Stone called Cloch na Mallacht or Cloch Thorai.  It was believed to be linked to St. Colmcille and the pilgrimage route around the island called An Turas Mor.  On the pilgrimage, islanders would visit various holy sites on Tory.  At the conclusion of their walk, they would turn the stone upside down, a quite benevolent act.  However, a curse was said to be invoked if the walk was done in a counterclockwise direction.  Many believe the islanders used the Cursing Stone to doom the HMS Wasp for fear that Tory would be its next destination for tax collection and eviction.

            Fuel was added to the fire when the Cursing Stone went missing shortly after the night of the Wasp tragedy.  Many theories abound as to the Cursing Stone’s whereabouts.  It may have been buried locally or thrown into the sea, but all that remains today is its pedestal, Cloch Arclai, and the mystery of the sinking of the HMS Wasp.

            In my young adult fantasy novel, Island of Tory, the legend of the Cursing Stone and the sinking of the HMS Wasp are the foundation stones of the plot.  Arella Cline, an American teenager, finds herself trapped on Tory Island.  The island and its inhabitants are stuck in time because the Cursing Stone was used against the Wasp and its crew.  Arella needs to journey An Turas Mor to reverse the curse.

            Island of Tory is set to be released March 2012 by Loconeal Publishing.  Like Island of Tory on Facebook or subscribe to this site for updates.

Creating Character Names With Character

     Who wants to know about Joe Blow?  Nobody.  So why would you give a character in your book a name that turns people off?  The first step to building interesting characters that will resonate with your readers is to baptize your creations with names that make them interesting and distinctive.

     Every person, place, and thing has a name.  Names designate, describe, label, identify, and illustrate.  When God created man, he first gave him life then he gave him a name.  And in turn, Adam named the creatures of the field, air, and water.  The act of naming is second nature to us.

     But we have taken for granted this powerful privilege of naming.  We flippantly toss out names as if they are nothing more than labels, when in fact names affect personality, appearance, and social capacity.  It was once thought that when a name was given, a mystical influence was exerted over its bearer.  Names give life.  Names condemn.  By naming an object, we categorize it.  By naming a person, we connect him to his soul.

     It is an ancient belief that names hold power.  By knowing another’s name, one could essentially have control over its bearer.  That is why the proper name of God was not used by the Hebrews.  Others believed that evil could be averted by changing one’s name or refusing to reveal it.  In Arthurian mythology, it was considered a breach of honor to reveal one’s name before battle.  But once the battle was fought, the defeated was obligated to reveal his name to the victor.

     When creating characters in your writing, the name should be handpicked to fit the personality of the individual you are bringing to life.  Think about the physical, emotional, spiritual, and social traits of your character, and choose a name that labels your character accordingly.  Using a common or boring name will label your character as such.  

     Choose one attribute to tag your character.  Then find a name that has that meaning.  Baby name books or websites are perfect places to search for names and their meanings.  You may also think of a real person to model your character after.  Choosing the first name of that person or a name similar will fit your character better than pulling a name out of thin air.

     Consider the character’s background.  Where do the character’s ancestors come from?  What does the character do for a living?  Choose a last name that fits your character’s origins and occupation.  Many of today’s last names designate where a person’s family originated or what his ancestors did to put bread on the table.  Consider the surnames Jordan, England, Cooper, and Smith.  There is a reason people have a first and last name.

     In my book Island of Tory, the main character is named Arella Cline.  Arella’s parents are both Irish-American, so I chose an obviously Irish surname.  Because Cline is a very common name, I combined it with an unusual first name to make my protagonist’s name distinct and memorable.  Like the fairy tale Cinderella, my character is transformed by magic and a little help from some kind and mysterious island folk.  I used a play on words to come up with the name Arella.

     The main antagonist of my story is named Declan McQuilan.  He is an island resident who befriends Arella on her first day at the Academy.  Declan appears to be a great guy at the beginning of the novel, but turns out to be a very self-absorbed, evil character.  The name Declan means full of goodness, and that is just the impression he makes on Arella when they first meet.  I purposely used this name to give a sense of irony to the situation. 

     No story is complete without a love triangle.  So I created Cannon Fidelous as my unlikely hero.  Cannon is a fellow American trapped on Tory Island.  He does not like the island or its inhabitants.  He is a loner until he meets Arella.  I chose the name Cannon because he really is a loose cannon type of character.  The name Fidelous is derived from the Latin fidel which means faithful.  And Cannon turns out to be the most faithful of friends to Arella.

     So had I named one of my main characters Joe Blow, would you still want to read Island of Tory when it is released in March 2012? 

     I didn’t think so.

Regina M. Geither is a writer, teacher, and mother of three.
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