I don’t usually write about my “writing process.” (In point of fact, I hardly ever write things for this blog, but I’m trying to change all that.)
I had someone ask me once if I lit a candle before writing, or had a favorite shirt or something that I wore only to write. As someone who used to get paid to sit in an office and write all day, I find that notion hysterical. I can see me now: sitting in an open workspace in a Cisco Systems building, surrounded by my co-workers, wearing my favorite schlumpfy nightgown and fuzzy slippers, surrounded by rose-scented candles as I feverishly pound the keyboard. If that is what it took to inspire me to write, I would never have had a writing job. At least, I never would have kept a writing job.
My writing process is basically sitting down and writing. However, I do have a process for researching before writing, and it is the most enjoyable part. Until recently, I don’t start out with a story in mind. I decide where I want the story to be and I go there. I let the location tell me the story.
You might say that is an elaborate and expensive process for a fantasy writer. Why not just make it up?
There are a couple of reasons why not. First, I have placed most of my fantasy fiction in the real world (past or present). I have not (until my current WIP) made up an entire world and the way it works like Brian Sanderson, who is a master of world-building and magical systems. My first novel, “The Obsidian Mirror,” took place primarily in Northern California. This was convenient, as I have lived in Northern California for more than 40 years, so I didn’t have to do much location research. I did revisit a few locales to refresh my memory. I also researched Native American traditions and folklore, and also threw in Voudún and meso-American elements just because I find them interesting.
I didn’t have a storyline before I started writing “The Obsidian Mirror.” Actually, I didn’t set out to write a book. I have done that before and never gotten anywhere. This time, I started with the concept of fantasy based on New World traditions and mythologies, which I hadn’t seen much of at this point. The first draft clearly reflected that I had written it by the seat of my pants. (Authors call this “pantsing.” Some writers do it well. I learned that I do not.) I rewrote the entire book and discovered that creating a plot outline is just a swell idea.
During the time I was writing “The Obsidian Mirror,” I also had a full-time writing job at Cisco Systems, and it was tough to write all day at work and come home and write for fun. I took a few “staycations” just to work on the novel. It took me seven years to write, but I did learn a lot about what to do/not to do when writing a novel, so it was hardly time wasted.
After ”The Obsidian Mirror” was published, I decided to locate the next novel in Hawai’i, using the same set of characters. Like a good researcher, I tried to make appointments with a few experts on Hawai’ian culture, but never received any replies to my emails. So I changed all my travel plans and went to Moloka’i. I had never been there, but I found ancient references to the island as “the island of sorcerers,” which sounded about right for my purposes.
I have told this story elsewhere (https://wordpress.com/post/theobsidianmirror.net/381Z), but long story short, before going to Moloka’i, I had an encounter with Pele, goddess of fire, and she blessed my work. Everything from that point flowed like hot maple syrup, so easily, so effortlessly, that I really did not doubt that I had been blessed. I met with every person I had intended to meet, and they gave me information so generously that “Fire in the Ocean” practically wrote itself. (I know that sounds woo-woo, and my husband would be the first to agree with you. I am not normally a woo-woo person, but I stand firm on this point. We still don’t know everything about this world or this life.)
I did a lot of book research for “Fire in the Ocean.” I read as much as I could from older sources about the religion and culture of the ancient Hawai’ians, with an emphasis on Moloka’i. Each of the islands had their own, slightly different culture, and I wanted this novel to be firmly rooted in the traditions of Moloka’i. I also wrote a plot outline for “Fire in the Ocean.” This time, the novel took me about a year and a half to write—a big improvement!
For the third novel in the trilogy, “Lords of the Night,” I had some difficult choices to make that involved whether or not to kill off a particular character. And there were some characters that had been central to “The Obsidian Mirror” and somewhat less involved in “Fire in the Ocean” that I just didn’t want to deal with in a third novel—but I also didn’t want to kill them. They didn’t deserve that. (Yes, these characters became absolutely real to me during the process of writing about them.)
So for various reasons—including that I just wanted to do it—I set the third novel in the pre-Columbian Mayan empire of the Yucatán Peninsula. This meant that I got to go to the Yucatán and wander around ancient ruins, which was irresistible. The story began to come together for me in the ruins of Calakmul, a once-great city in the middle of dense jungle. Calakmul was a peak experience for me. It is so remote that few tourists make it that far. The trees growing throughout the ruins made the heat and humidity somewhat more bearable. I had all the time I needed to wander and think. Calakmul—or as it was originally known, Ox Té Tuun—generated one of the major characters in “Lords of the Night,” a teenaged Mayan girl who was a strong enough character that she nearly upstaged my original characters, Sierra and Chaco. Again, the story almost wrote itself once I had generated a plot outline. The novel took me about a year to write—getting better!
Again, I did an enormous amount of book research for “Lords of the Night.” I read one of the few Mayan codexes still in existence, the “Popol Vuh,” in addition to books and academic articles on Mayan religion, culture, crafts, religion, and folktales.
Sadly, this is where I lost my publisher, which decided to publish only non-fiction going forward. My first two novels are still with them, but “Lords of the Night” is available only as a Kindle book. Talking to agents, editors, and publishers convinced me that no publisher was going to pick up the final book of a trilogy.
I wanted to move on from the characters and premises of the trilogy at this point. I decided the next book would be set in Iceland. I originally had some vague ideas about setting it in modern Iceland and making it a paranormal mystery, but that is not the story that Iceland told me. I went to Iceland and visited many areas associated with the supernatural and magic. In the Settlement days of Iceland a thousand years ago, magic was accepted as normal and necessary, and magicians served an accepted purpose. Even after Christianity came to the island, Christian priests were sometimes known to be magicians without any stigma attached.
I was standing deep underground in a massive lava tube in western Iceland when the story came to me almost full-blown. From that point on, everything I did was aimed at filling out the characters and plot. The people I talked to in Iceland were generous with their time and information—and again, I did the book research and even learned how to read Icelandic runes. (I’m out of practice now, so don’t ask for a reading.) It took me nine months to write “The Spell Book of Thorfinn Bare-Butt.” It isn’t on Amazon because I have been looking for an agent.
If there is a Hades, he makes deceased writers eternally look for an agent in Hell. It’s like Sisyphus rolling the boulder uphill, or Tantalus, who can never reach the water or fruit to quench his thirst and hunger. I have contacted seventy-two agents so far without more than a “thanks but no thanks,” if that. I will keep trying for a while, but it was easier by far to find two publishers than it has been to find an agent.
In the meantime, I am trying my hand at a middle-grade fantasy. This is my first stab at world-building, and also my first serious attempt at writing for young people. My process? There is no location or culture to research, because they are entirely fictional and created by my own imagination. So my process is that I wrote a plot outline and now I sit at the computer and write. Works for me.