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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.

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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

Planner or Pantser? That is the Question

            So you have an idea for a novel, but you’re just not sure how to proceed.  Should you start with an outline plotting out the entire book or just start writing, making it up as you go along?  If you take a survey of writers, novice and expert alike, you will get a plethora of answers on how to successfully start and finish a book.  The correct way, however, will depend upon the type of writer you are and your personal preferences.

            If your personality dictates that you must know precisely where you are going and how you will get there, you are a planner by nature and will tend to lean toward outlining your book before you attempt your first paragraph.  Outlines are like roadmaps.  They can be as detailed or as sketchy as needed.  If you are a AAA trip-tick or Mapquest enthusiast, this is probably your preferred method of writing madness and you are most likely a planner.

            Some planners like to write chapter outlines where they list the main events of each chapter under the chapter title.  This gives them a good overview of their story’s sequence and allows them to get from point A to point B in a nice orderly succession.  Other planners like to put down the “skeleton” of their story first and then fill it in with the “meat” or details, taking a general to specific approach.  Still others work backward, knowing the ending before they begin.  They start at the conclusion and backtrack, detailing the events that lead up to the grand finale.

            Many agents and publishers require an outline of a novel before they will look at anything else.  And though the outline might be an excruciating chore, it does make writing the novel much easier.  Some writers, however, feel that once the outline is written, they are married to it.  Unless the outline is chiseled in stone, you can change it and your story however you see fit.  There is no outline commandment that says, “Thou shall not change your mind once thou typest The End.”

            But there is something to be said for those writers who fly by the seats of their pants and do it with finesse.  These are known as pantsers.  These masters of the imagination can spin a yarn as easily as your grandmother crochets an afghan–intricate, flawless, and off the cuff.  Even when they write themselves into a corner, they find a trapdoor and escape.  These writers enjoy the freedom and excitement of the unknown.  And though they may not know where they are going or how they are going to get there, they enjoy the ride.

            But do not fear if neither approach appeals to you, for there is any number of degrees between the two extremes that are productive.  Scores of writers practice varying combinations of the two methods with great success.  My personal preference is to have a basic beginning, middle, and end in mind, while letting my writing take me where it will.

            When planning out a novel, I am not one to take the time to fill-in a sheet full of Roman numerals and letters, but I do have a vague mental roadmap in mind before I begin to type.  I like to start with my protagonist, making him or her a reluctant hero with genuine flaws.  The plot of my story revolves around this character’s problem and how it is resolved. 

            Second, I add conflict.  Someone or something has to stand between the protagonist and his or her goal.  Without a villain or obstacle, there is no story.  The conflict can be man verses man, man verses nature, or man verses self.  Regardless of the type of conflict, there needs to be drama.  Without drama, a plot dies.  No one likes a story where everyone is content and happy from beginning to end.  But tell a story about someone facing a crisis, and you’ve got an audience.

            Third, I create my setting.  Though I am a fantasy writer, I do not design my story locations from scratch.  I like to research real places and time periods that fit my needs, and tweak them to fit my stories’ purposes.  For example, in my young adult fantasy novel, Island of Tory, I needed to set my story in a remote and mysterious place to suit the requirements of my plot.  I researched various Irish islands to find a real location that would lend itself to my story’s purpose and mood.  When I read about Tory’s history and legends, I knew I had the makings of the perfect setting for my book.

            Once I have the protagonist, conflict, and setting of my novel nailed down, I improvise and adlib the rest, adding characters and events like pavers in a road to the finish.  So if I had to define myself as one or the other, planner or pantser, I guess I’m a Mudblood.  My flavor of writing is a fusion of the two in varying degrees, depending on the story at hand.  And if a random survey of writers was taken, I doubt that most would fit neatly into one of the two categories. 

            So, planner or pantser?  That is the question.  I say…yes.

The Voices in Your Head

            Ghosts, spirit guides, mental illness?  There is any number of explanations for hearing voices.  Gift or curse, the phenomenon is very real for some, and most cultures do not consider it normal.  In his song Voices in My Head, Bruno Mars expresses the question “Is it strange I believe them again?  Voices in my head.”

            The most widely accepted theory for the cause of disembodied voices is mental illness.  Whenever someone experiences sensory perceptions outside of the norm, society chooses to label them with any number of mental disorders.  At first, the individual may be diagnosed with excessive stress.  Post-traumatic stress syndrome is a condition attributed to individuals having an adverse psychological reaction to a highly stressful event.  It is characterized by depression, anxiety, flashbacks, recurrent nightmares, and hearing or seeing things that aren’t there.  Schizophrenia is another mental illness associated with hearing voices.  A schizophrenic individual may experience hallucinations or delusions.  Schizophrenics are characterized by a loss of contact with their environment and a disintegration of personality.  For many, hearing voices equals mental incompetence.

            There are, however, those of the thought that hearing voices is the special ability to tune into beings from another plane of existence.  Some people, referred to as sensitives, claim the ability to communicate with the deceased as well as inhuman spirits such as ghosts, guides, angels, and dark entities.  The voices may sound like an echo or emerge as sudden and unexpected thoughts.  Cases have even been noted where the voices appear as block print inside an individual’s head.  Some individuals can have conversations with the voices, while others can only listen.  Electronic voice phenomenon or EVP’s are sited by many as further proof of the existence of disembodied voices.  EVP’s are said to be at a frequency unintelligible to the human ear, but may be audible to some sensitives.

            “I knew the words couldn’t be real, but the sound of their voices still rang in my ears.  I clasped my fist to my ears, blocking out the insanity trying to move in,” from the young adult fantasy novel Island of Tory.  In the book, Arella Cline is haunted by the voices of her deceased parents after she is the sole survivor of a fatal car crash.  Island of Tory is due for release by Loconeal Publishing in March 2012.

Disembodied Shadows

            Out of the corner of your eye you catch a fleeting glimpse of something moving.  You turn to get a better look…but nothing is there.  Chalking it up as just your imagination is the usual first response.  Tired eyes.  Time for a break.  The dark playing tricks on you.

            You go back to whatever it is you were doing without another thought.  But then it happens again.  This time, the shadow lingers for a few seconds longer.  Your brain registers a human shape before the entity disappears through a doorway.  Now, you start to worry.

            Thinking it’s an intruder, you cautiously follow the shadow into the next room.  Check the closet, behind the door, under the bed.  Again, nothing is there.  At this point, you start to question your sanity.  You think that maybe it’s stress.  Perhaps you’ve been working too hard.  Perhaps…but what if what you saw was real?

            Documented sightings of shadow people or shadow beings have become more common in recent years.  What once was an occasional ghost story told around a summer campfire, has now become a frequent, frightening phenomenon in the world.

            Of course there are many scientific explanations for shadow people sightings, including optical illusions, hallucinations, and medication side effects.  The human brain is designed to interpret the stimuli coming into it.  Sometimes the information is incomplete, especially when it is seen out of the corner of one’s eye.  When this happens, the brain automatically fills in the gaps with familiar data, thus making the distorted shadow of a lamp into the figure of a human, for example.

            Yet, there are many that believe that shadow people are real beings.  Most proponents of this theory think that shadow beings are ghosts.  In the 1999 thriller, The Sixth Sense, Haley Joel Osmert sent chills through movie-goers with the famous line, “I see dead people.”  But there are a growing number of people who theorize that shadow people are not human spirits trapped on earth, but are earthly visitors from another dimension.  Some even believe that shadow folk are time travelers from our future.  A few are of the thought that shadow figures are astral bodies projected while the physical self sleeps.  And then there are those who blame it on aliens.

            From my young adult fantasy novel, Island of Tory, due to be released in March 2012:  “The fog still swirled around me, but something was taking shape behind the gloom.  I stopped crying and watched as a human form materialized.  Nothing more than a shadow…”

Auras–Seeing Beyond the Physical

           Ever wish you could read someone’s mind?  What if you could glimpse inside someone’s heart?  Did you ever want to predict what someone was going to do, even before the thought ever crossed their mind?  Of course you have.  Who hasn’t?

            It sounds like something from a science fiction novel, however, there are real people who claim they can read a person’s thoughts and intents like you or I read a book.  They are clairvoyants who see auras.

            What is an aura?  There are many definitions, but most agree that an aura is a luminescent display of energy given off by living and nonliving things.  All matter is made up of vibrating atoms.  It is this vibration that produces the energy that some see in the form of glowing waves of color.

            The auras surrounding humans are composed of both high and low frequency waves.  The low frequency waves are related to body function, such as metabolism, circulation, DNA structure, etc.  The high frequency waves are related to thoughts, emotions, and intentions.

            Auras are not static.  They transform as a person’s body and mind changes.  Auras give warning of developing disease, predict thoughts before they are expressed, and foretell of secret intentions.  Auras are a person’s spiritual signature.

            Each color in an aura has a specific meaning and is a physical, spiritual, emotional, and mental fingerprint of the person it belongs to.  Purple is a very positive color that indicates spiritual thoughts.  It is never permanent, only flaring during divine moments of deliberation.  Blue represents a balanced existence.  Individuals who are relaxed and content display a lot of blue in their auras.  Turquoise is the color of a dynamic personality.  People with turquoise in their auras have a strong influence on others.  Green is a restful color.  Green in an aura signifies a natural healing ability.  Yellow auras correspond to feelings of joy, freedom, and nonattachment.  Halos depicted on saints in art are believed to be yellow auras.  Orange is the color of inspiration and power.  Orange usually goes hand in hand with yellow.  Pink is love.  Unfortunately, pink is rare and is usually a temporary thought.  All of the above mentioned colors are positive and would be found in various combinations in an optimistic, well-balanced individual.

            Unfortunately, there are also negative colors found in auras.  Red is a materialistic color.  It can represent anger and force.  Brown is an unsettling color, and is also a color found in auras representing materialistic thoughts or intentions.  Gray signifies dark and depressing thoughts.  Sulfer or mustard auras indicate pain or anger.  White indicates a serious disease or impending death, a lack of harmony in the body and mind.  Any one of these colors in an aura suggests an unhappy, unbalanced individual.

            Skeptics believe that auras may be seen due to brain injuries or disorders such as migraines, epilepsy, or synesthesia.  Vision problems or eye fatigue are also thought to be a possible cause.  And of course, drug abuse such as the use of LSD is also thought by some to be linked to auras.

            In my novel Island of Tory, Arella Cline begins to see auras after recovering from an automobile accident.  She later discovers that her father had also been a Seer during his time on Tory Island.  Arella’s ability to see auras allows her to know who are and are not her true friends on the island.  Island of Tory is due to be release in March 2012 by Loconeal Publishing.

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