Write what you know?

author wearing sunglasses

I would rephrase that: feel free to use your existing knowledge and experience to strengthen the authenticity of the text, and strongly consider doing some form of research when you’re working in unfamiliar territory. It sounds so much less snappy that way, and too long for Twitter.

I would never phrase it in a way that excludes using a combination of imagination, knowledge, and personal experience to push the boundaries of the text beyond what you have experienced in your life. I feel like this can’t be a major revelation for fantasy authors; I don’t directly know about being in the heart of an empire in political turmoil, being a highly skilled warrior, or being a woman, but I have taken a running jump at writing all three experiences/perspectives.

What’s true is that something of my life experiences finds its way into the text, often without conscious effort. Life is the well I go to when my imagination is thirsty to fill in the blanks. It’s no coincidence that without much of a character plan from the start, my discovery writing style led me to write a privileged character who doesn’t get out much and hides in her books, as well as a character of average means who’s still living with his parents and lives much of his life in legends, tales, and (sometimes bizarre) daydreams. When I need an emotional thread, especially an emotional response from a character in the heat of an argument, I am probably writing what my best response might be if I was that person in that situation (and with the benefit of being emotionally detached from the stakes of the argument, so that I can write intense comebacks quickly).  Sometimes, the less I go to that well, the more cardboard cut-out the character can seem. In this sense, the most alive characters were given life with a bit of role play.

“Street Rules” sample

The Crown Princess' Voyage proposed cover by Rona Dijkhuis

My second book, The Crown Princess’ Voyage, picks up right where The Gift-Knight’s Quest leaves off. In it, Derek finds that he continues to struggle with cultural identity and sense of belonging, going so far as to request being formally knighted by Chandra instead of just being a gift-knight representing his old homeland. However, there are bigger problems in the world that will not necessarily put his personal struggles on hold, but frame the context in which he will personally struggle for the near future. One of those problems is the growing unrest among the lower classes of Kensrik, and also the middle classes which have the time and energy to create unrest and impose it on people who are more desperate than them. No matter where unrest is coming from, it’s dangerous to have ties to the Kenderleys even in parts of their own empire’s capital, and I sought to illustrate this with a scene that could have gone a lot worse for Derek than it actually did.

“Lord Michael” was a top contributor to The Gift-Knight’s Kickstarter, and paid for the right to make an appearance as a character.

Derek woke up that morning feeling a sort of heightened self-awareness. It was his first morning as Sir Derek, and he wanted to catalogue anything that felt different.

As he brought Gale out of the Palace stable and mounted the horse, he thought the only difference was the clothes. They were neither uncomfortably itchy nor the riding leathers he was used to. The sword, perhaps, was the other thing of note—it was longer and wore differently. It looked like a wonderful ceremonial piece that he hoped never to rely on in the thick of battle.

Derek admitted to himself that he felt no different.

He needed to try his best to feel different, though, because Chandra might press him again if he seemed less than satisfied with life. He forced his anxiousness downward until he could picture a small smooth stone in the pit of his stomach. That was the mass of his unwelcome feelings, segregated from the rest of himself and compressed into a dull ambient discomfort of the gut.

“Well, Gale, up for a trot through the city? Lots to see.” He patted his horse and spoke while waiting for guards to open the Palace gates.

The errand for the day seemed simple enough: ride until he saw a sign that read The Son of the Sun, a pub some ways distant from the Palace. He supposed it wouldn’t do for Lucen to seem too close to the Kenderleys, physically or otherwise. He also thought these meetings of the cabinet, a sort of council, must be rather more fraternal than what he once witnessed in the Plains.

Haggling with dozens of others to pass laws would probably drive one to drink.

He missed the feeling of the road and the wind rushing through his hair; the ride stirred old ghosts for a moment until he needed to slow down for the safety of others. The streets of Bayrock were busy as people went about their daily tasks on foot. Sellers had already set up their shops, and the few that did not already have regular business loudly hawked wares and catches to passersby. There was an all-encompassing odour of fish that one had to live with in such a city. Derek supposed, to be fair, that people living in Bayrock might feel the same way about the smell of manure wafting into the towns of the Plains from nearby farms. He would have enjoyed the crisp mountain air best on his first journey to Kensrik, if he wasn’t in the thick of battle with his own fears.

Indeed, Bayrock was the same hive of people he remembered it to be. No, nobody was rioting in the streets, so Lucen must be doing his job well enough. Derek could not help but notice, in peripheral vision, the glances in his direction. The glances seemed innocently curious back when he was closer to the Palace, but as he rode along, they became shady.

If knights were once highly regarded members of society, that time was nearly gone. Derek was a curiously dressed thing; a gaudy expression of an era almost done, perhaps. It might not be clear to most of them that his title had changed at all. The pieces of conversation snatched by his ears were even less comforting.

“Did you hear about them bringing in Friedrick the other day?”

“Oh, terrible. Beat his son stupid, he did; young man’s on death’s door.”

“Who just figures out to resign from the Army now? Far too late if you ask me.”

“The way I see it, hard to argue with Frieddy. They’re Chandra’s sons now.”

“Yeah. One thing if they got out after the last boss died; that’s when it should’ve been clear…”

“Look at that rider. Who does he think he is…?”

Derek pretended not to hear them. At least they had not yet escalated to direct jeers, or casting stones. He was not about to start anything.

Fortune aligned properly for him on this first part of the journey. First, no angry mob picked a fight; then again, his attire was far removed from that of the hated guards, far more ornate. Second, Lucen was in his office, and had received the message telling him to expect Derek. Gale was tied to a proper post and Derek was let in with little delay.

“There was a strange matter of this letter recently sent to us.” Derek explained. “The Crown Princess wonders if you were aware of anybody liable to send something like this our way.”

Lucen accepted the letter for perusal. He examined the symbol on the broken seal and the calligraphy, his eyes finding nothing that had yet to be noticed.

“This looks quite elaborate, whatever it is. Too serious to be a joke, or it has me fooled; too well-written and phrased to be from just anybody. Somebody paid someone well, yet it doesn’t look like it has a clear purpose. No name or title to the sender? No place to which Chandra was invited…?”

He handed the letter back to Derek. “But if it’s real, Sir Knight—and congratulations—and I know you look out for her welfare more than I: she’s not going to have a pleasant time anywhere else in the world with the attitude I saw the other day.”

“Well, far be it for you to lecture gentry on how to behave.” Derek quipped.

“It’s no light matter you discussed the other day. And the only disappointment is that she acted unusually like how an ordinary person would if the best suggestion given was to legally kick herself out of home. You know her a lot better than that, Prime Minister, probably as well as I do. You know that’s not how she usually is.”

He nodded. “It’s fair, I never saw this before either. I just say it out of concern. People in extraordinary situations can’t survive by just being ordinary. They must rise to life’s challenges.”

“Well, what do you suggest Chandra should do? I hear what people say. I know you must hear more than I have during one short ride here.” Derek put the question to Lucen.

The Prime Minister sighed.

“Does it matter what I suggest in the end? Chandra will do as she sees fit. I would like you to keep this in mind, though: it’s getting more and more difficult for me not to formally ask her to leave, for her safety. You can believe me or not. I might not wholeheartedly trust that invitation, but if the map arrives? It sounds like somewhere she’s welcome to go.” He replied.

“What little I’ve heard makes me want to head off the streets for my own safety, really. What was that about a man named Friedrick?” Derek observed and asked.

“Friedrick and the soldier boy? That should be the least of your worries.” Lucen advised.

“Did you know that two wealthy traders and their wives were found murdered in their beds this morning, and four other families have gone into hiding? The Upper Chamber’s adjourned until the Lords and Ladies can return from hiding; too few sitting members to give anything a fair reading.”

Derek wondered if any of the dead were the other mysterious figures from his knighting, who were on the upper level with Chandra.

“If you’ll excuse me, I’m fighting this undertow of paperwork, and sorry that I know nothing of the letter…” Lucen concluded the meeting.

The meeting was short and fruitless. Derek knew Lucen could not be responsible for the letter, as it didn’t seem like something Lucen would do, but any information would have been helpful. At least Derek could enjoy the ride back to the Palace. He wished that simple pleasure could make him happier.

He hardly felt superior to Chandra for her outburst earlier in the week. It was the sort of display Derek might have put on, not too long ago. And yet, it showed cracks in her façade; her power derived from the perception of emotional balance was waning. Things were likely to get worse, too.

Derek left the short meeting to find that Gale was not tied to the post as expected, nor was the horse gone. Some figures were trying to lead the reluctant horse away.

“Hey!” He called out.

The figures let go of the horse and lined themselves up in Derek’s way. They were rather stout, and not wanting for height.

“Oh, this one yours?” One of them asked.

“We both know he isn’t any of yours.” Derek quipped.

The man took a quick look around.

“‘Ey, lordy? D’you see where you are? Ain’t a palace. Ain’t where you should be.”

Derek let his hand approach the hilt of his sword, gradually, as he talked.

“I should be on the back of that horse.” He said.

“I wouldn’t draw that out,” bellowed a voice, “it’s what they want. Street rules, once you’ve got a weapon out and they don’t, they feel justified. You never know how many more of them are watching.”

Derek let himself look away from the stout men when he saw six guards and heard some hoofs.

The next statement was meant for the would-be horse thieves.

“Let the fancy man back on his horse and he’ll be on his way. And so will you, none the worse for it,” said the man on horseback.

The thieves traded glances at each other, and decided to flee. They liked three against one better than being outnumbered. Besides, Gale had been most uncooperative.

Derek nodded at the mounted man, impressed.

“You’d best get mounted before another group thinks different about it.” The man said, before Derek could begin to thank him.

“Yes, I believe I shall,” Derek said before mounting Gale.

“Has it always been like this?” He added in query.

“This sorry turf was once my home. I’m Lord Michael. Ride with me, fresh knight, and I’ll see you to the Palace.” Lord Michael said, and introduced himself.

They rode slowly, the six guards on foot surrounding them in formation.

“Thank you, Lord Michael. I’m Sir Derek.”

“I know who you are. You’ve been a knight for one eve and part of a morn. I can’t say street wisdom must have been a requirement, though at least you’re fighting fit; not hiding much of a belly under those fresh garments.” Lord Michael smiled.

Derek suppressed a blush. It was good to know that not every stranger who witnessed the knighting had been slain. Embarrassing to meet one, but good that Lord Michael still lived.

“I’m fortunate you haven’t gone into hiding like the others.” Derek observed.

Lord Michael explained. “Some of us went to the country, while others make plans to move into the Palace just to say they never truly fled their home city. I was undecided until one of my guards sighted you. I thought you would get into trouble. As much as I want to spare my own hide, I don’t believe we should just call ourselves noble by birth unless we’re willing to do noble things.”

Derek nodded. “I’ll tell the Crown Princess of this. Ride nowhere else; bring what you have to the Palace.”

There was a moment of silence.

“That’s exactly what I’m doing, Sir Derek. What you see, these six men, the horse and the clothes on my back, that’s all that survived the fire.”

New excerpts get posted to my Wattpad library before they get reshared here. Feel free to follow that account for new shares as they happen.

Currently reading: The Last Unicorn

the blogger shows off peter s beagle's autograph on the last unicorn

I suspect the main reason most of us who grew up with the Rankin Bass animation of The Last Unicorn still remember it so well, is because even when presented for children, the themes in it speak to us as adults. The further I get into the book (page 80 as of this post), the clearer that gets.

Granted, I wouldn’t show the animation to young children today, because the young children in my life are easily scared and, well, that harpy, you know. It really depends on the child. I’ve also had younger cousins get really bored with the kinds of things I used to watch as a kid, so it can go both ways.

But the way the book is written would have gone over my younger head entirely. 30-something Schmendrick still hoping he can be a real magician after all that time wouldn’t have spoken to me. Molly Grue saying that of course, it’s only the last unicorn in the world who would appear to Molly Grue, wouldn’t make me feel very sad. The spider who’s convinced of being Arachne and can’t/doesn’t want to give up the illusion when all the other caged animals are freed of theirs, well, I just wouldn’t have got that back in the day.

Despite looking like such a small book, everything seems more in-depth.

I just have to be careful with this copy, though. That autograph doesn’t read “To Dylan” for good reason.

Practical questions about reading

the blogger holds up a copy of the last unicorn by peter s beagle

One of the things I see a lot on Twitter and elsewhere is an attitude toward people who don’t read, and by extension writers who don’t do a lot of reading. I suppose the problem with privileging short messages is we cut out a lot of qualifiers, and the result looks like a blunt, blanket statement that’s probably bound to bother somebody even if you didn’t intend that.

Since this is a blog post and I get more wordspace, I want to ask a few questions instead.

When have you read? 

I don’t mean time of day, I mean time of life. There are very compelling reasons from my psychiatric history why I did a lot more reading as a child than I can possibly handle today. Like many people, I’ve read so many books that I often remember the gist of them without recalling a title or a single character’s name; I just know the feeling of having read a particular book which I’m sure existed, and when presented with the topic or concepts, or the same cover art as my edition had, it feels really familiar. I had a library card for a time, I had parents who owned a modestly sized private elementary school with a library of donated books (some of which were donated from my childhood library, and others, I read as if they had been put on my shelf); I had books in abundance which made it very easy to read them, especially in the stone age when I had no personal computer, no internet, and one handheld gaming console that I would frequently lose.

I also had book reports. For some silly reason my thoughts privilege “self-starter” reading but then I self-correct. In fact, if you read a book for a book report, that officially counts too. And the bottom line is, if you’ve had a life of reading but just haven’t done a ton of it lately, all that childhood reading doesn’t suddenly get disqualified from existence. It still impacts the way you think and live today even if you can’t consciously recall many of the finer details of what used to be your favourite Lloyd Alexander series; it’s in your brain, doing something or other. And you can find ways to start reading more again, without spending any period of time feeling particularly bad about it.

Do you understand what stops you from reading more now?

In the context of “writers should read” type sentiments, my first knee-jerk thought is “I don’t read enough these days”, unless I want to add more information to the context. However, being told you don’t read enough doesn’t make you read more; it might make you resent the unsolicited advice, or decide that people who happen to read a lot can become snobbers over time. That must not be what they intend, I’m sure, but whenever you say or do anything there are usually a spectrum of different reactions to it, and I’m naming a couple of possible outliers just so you’re aware. What they’d really like you to do is read more. Okay, then, let’s ask ourselves personal questions that may relate in some practical way to why we don’t read more. Maybe we could solve the problem that way.

I had unacknowledged trouble just sitting there and reading as a child, because I always wanted to be doing something with my hands, some interactive thing to take my mind off of worries. Lego was a favourite; I never kept anything I built because I wanted the process of constantly having something to build and constantly sifting through disorganized pieces, in order to keep busy and to enjoy imagining what could result, and that meant scavenging pieces off anything I ever built (usually demolishing them outright after a week or two, and starting over, perhaps keeping some design knowledge gained during the previous build). I forced myself to read at times because I was supposed to, and when I pushed that too far, I noticed I would be picking at something with one hand while holding the book with the other, or chewing the fingers of one hand while holding the book with the other, or some other tic I could do one-handed. I can still get that way to this day if I push things too hard, even if I’m forcing myself to sit there and watch TV. It’s the most compelling reason why television is something that must be on in the background while I’m on the internet, if it must be on at all, and why I mostly tend to watch movies in the theater but not at home; unless there’s that vision-filling huge screen and huge sound, and the effect of other lights in the theater being dimmed so that real life is supposed to become lower priority for the span of the feature presentation, I want to keep busy with something more interactive, or a cascade of things in different browser tabs. It’s the same with sports, where the best way to get my undivided attention is to get me a ticket and physically place me in the stadium.

When I’m at home, I’ve found a way to fill most of my time. Especially because my current work is all done at home, and how I spend my time often revolves around what I should be doing, what I’m procrastinating from doing, and what I would rather be doing. This doesn’t take much thinking, and if I’m going to read more, I need to be more conscious about where I can fit the reading.

So it’s no knock on books or TV, but you have to understand that it doesn’t have to be a knock on you, either, if you aren’t doing something “enough”. If you’ve developed a certain routine over the years to manage your anxiety, like me, or a different thing that heavily impacts your life, then it will take a conscious and abnormal effort to crack that schedule and fit something new into it. And you want to do it the right way, in moderation, or else you might end up in a situation where you feel discouraged from reading books because something happened to trigger you while you were reading one, even if it wasn’t the content of the book. Or maybe if you go at it too intensely, you can’t sustain the intensity, and you might forget that maybe you just don’t have to be so intensely dedicated. Reading books a little bit is substantially more than not reading books.

How’s the budget?

I like to buy the music that I enjoy, whenever it’s not a review copy from the zine, and I like to buy the books that I read, even if they’re occasionally used. Any time I move I pare down, and books get sold or gifted or left with my parents; I have to stay lean and mobile when it comes to possessions, because who knows if I’ll move again six months from now or sooner, or how long that living situation holds out? And for some reason the idea of borrowing a few from my sister just doesn’t regularly cross my mind, and that’s why picking up The Last Unicorn, Interview With the Vampire, and Neverwhere was a very spur-of-the-moment thing. We were at her place for mom’s birthday, and once the bookshelf is directly in my view it becomes easier to think/remember to ask. One book that inspired a Rankin Bass production I watched a lot as a child, one book that might be required reading for subculture, and Neil Gaiman needs no explanation.

But then I end up with long periods of no new music, and not having read any books, without having paid attention to the fact that I did neither. I just get used to a certain way of living, and things I need to pay for will not necessarily be a regular part of that routine. Usually when they are, I spend more on them than I should, and need to stop for a while.

The only ereader I ever had, I resold without ever unboxing because that’s how badly I needed the money at the time. Had it been an inexpensive model with little resale value, I probably would have kept it. I haven’t tried to get one since. I find that information I read on a laptop screen must be chunkified and I get restless with book-length type writing on a computer screen; I even find myself skimming longer articles looking for the takeaway, the gist.

It’s a lesser obstacle for me personally than the frequent inability to sit still and focus on one task at a time, but I thought it was worth mentioning.

The gist

If you’ve decided you don’t like that you don’t read enough books, ask yourself some more practical questions why this doesn’t happen, where you can get the books, and when you can make room in your schedule. Questions with answers that can help guide you along, including how much reading isn’t too much at once. Be fair with yourself about why you let some other things occupy all your time, unless you’ve learned that for some reason you respond better to being unfair with yourself. Then I really don’t know what else to say.