Characterizing a Queen

I ran across a discussion recently (sorry, could not find it again) that mentioned how royalty is often presented in books.  The king or queen is often corrupt, arrogant, or haughty.  This was something I picked up on when I was reading fantasy books, and I wanted to steer clear of it.  I’m in Washington, DC, so it’s very easy to get exposed to a very different viewpoint on what senior leadership is like — just even by reading the daily newspaper or listening to the radio.

So when I created my character for the Queen, I wanted to do someone who didn’t fit into the traditional role of the royalty that we usually see in books.  She’s not corrupt or haughty — she’s essentially a politician and a businesswoman.  A type A personality who knows what time it is to the minute and dresses in a suit.  She probably spends most of her days in meeting after meeting after meeting.

But, being in DC, I’ve also seen what politics do to women.  There was a lot of discussion that popped up about women candidates, especially during the last election.  One of the most notable things was that men got reported on what they said (or muffed up) or did; women got reported on what they wore.  The women often couldn’t experiment much with clothes because if they went outside of Washington Black/Gray Suit, they would either not be viewed as one of the boys or get blasted in the press for wearing something different.

So my Queen has to have a hard edge because she’s essentially herding cats — the Chiefs, the press, the leaks.  That created its own problem, which was that a hard edge might make her into unlikable.   I still remember one suspense novel I read where the author tried to have a female character be “one of the boys,” and she turned into the nastiest heroines I’ve seen.  My Queen is a secondary character.  Since she likes the main character, those scenes with him are where I soften her up a bit.  He’s one of the few people she doesn’t need to project a particular image with.  But when she’s got a crisis at hand, she’s right on top of it, seeing the big picture of how it all fits together and keeping people on track.  She’s also willing to seek out experts to give her advice.  The main character in the story is unofficially her Magic Adviser (which just means she doesn’t want to advertise she has one, since the press would not be polite on this).  If something happens that looks like it might be magic-related, she consults with him for his opinion.  If there’s a magic disaster (which is, of course, the case in the story), she looks for his guidance on what she needs to do to ensure the safety of the country.

If you had magic, what would you do with it?

The main character in my story Miasma has magic.  He tries not to use it because it often causes more problems than it’s worth.  Bad if people witness it, given that comes with armed people wanting to kill him.  And bad if it messes things up, which is most of the time.

But some of the fun above is thinking about what I would do if I had magic.  Sometimes I’m standing in line at the grocery store, thinking ‘What if the store gets held up while I’m here?’  Then that plays out, not with me turning into action girl — despite liking to read and write action novels, I’m more likely to fall in a foxhole than dive in one.  So if I had magic, I’d keep low behind something, probably one of those annoying middle aisle displays and wait for an opportunity.  Then zap!  Crispy bad guys!

If you had magic, what would you do with it?

3 Differences Between Omniscient Viewpoint and Third Person

I’ve been writing in omniscient viewpoint now for at least a couple of years, and it’s been a real learning experience.  When I started Miasma, there were some things I didn’t know, mainly because the information isn’t available, or worse, just plain wrong.  When I a search on the viewpoint, I got a lot of sites giving quick examples — but the writers not really understanding what it is.  Writers can easily compare third to first — just change the “she” to “I.”  Admittedly, I think that’s overly simplistic and doesn’t get into the benefits and pitfalls of each.

But omniscient viewpoint is the strange bird — it’s actually a category under third, but it doesn’t work the same way as third.  Writers often have trouble with it because they try to  make it fit into their knowledge of a traditional third person, and it’s like trying to fit a peg into a hole that isn’t even there.

These are the things that cause conflict when omniscient is compared to third:

Eyes in the story

THIRD: The viewpoint of a character who is in the story.  That character is making decisions that directly affects the story.

OMNI:  The viewpoint of a narrator is who is outside the story, telling us what’s happening.  This narrator can choose what it wants to tell us about the story or omit, but the narrator doesn’t have any impact on decisions being made in the story.  If it helps, imagine a storyteller sitting down to tell us a fairytale.

Who Sees What

THIRD: The world is seen through the viewpoint character’s eyes.  We only see what he/she sees, know what only that character knows.  So the viewpoint character may have a reaction to what someone looks like, but they aren’t going to describe themselves.  This particular problem of trying to describe the viewpoint character often ends up with the mirror scene — character looks into the mirror and assesses what they look like.

OMNI:  The world is seen through the narrator’s eyes.  The narrator can see everything, and knows everything.  So the narrator can show us what the main character is doing, or what other characters in the same scene are doing.  Because the narrator is telling us the story, it can move from one character to another in the middle of the scene.

Changing Viewpoint

The above two categories cause writers to have a lot of problems with this next one.

THIRD:  More than one character can have a viewpoint in the story.  Often, this can be used for subplots.  When a viewpoint changes, a new scene starts, which is pretty standard.

OMNI:  It’s one narrator telling the story.  That’s it.  That narrator may move from one character to another in a single scene and let us know what that character is thinking — but because it’s one narrator, it never changes viewpoint.

What writers often do when they first try to understand omniscient viewpoint is they put third into it and try to make third fit.  It doesn’t work because the omni narrator isn’t a character in the story, nor is it more than one viewpoint.  We also hear all about head hopping from message boards, so when we see an omni book, we don’t have any other frame of reference other than, ‘Start a new scene for a new viewpoint” — instead of realizing the viewpoint never changed.

So omniscient viewpoint isn’t just about changing pronouns, but really, it’s about changing how we think about the approach for a story.

Right Brain Organizing: Using Color

Being right-brained can make it difficult to organize a book — or for that matter, anything — because the process just doesn’t work the same way.  But one of the best tips I’ve run across is simple: Color code.  Right-brainers tend to be more visual, so color is ideal for instant recognition.  Instead of having to remember where I put something, I just go to the color.

My first introduction to this was when I ran across File Solutions from The Container Store.   I’ve gotten very picky about organizing solutions because so many of them have been a waste of money.  But this system was four color-coded categories on pre-printed labels.  I didn’t have to think about where I was putting papers because there were labels for it.  When I brought it home, I decided I’d just get the folders ready for the first colored section.  I ended up doing everything in one day, and it was amazing having places to put things where I could actually find them.  I’ve had the system for 4-5 years now, and when I need something I just look for the color.  Better still, I don’t lose things as often any more.

So for stories, color can also be a useful tool.  When I start a project, I assign it in a color in my head.  Miasma is Irwin Allen Yellow.  Masks (or whatever it’s going to end up being called) is Navy Blue.   Some general guidelines for using it:

  • One project = one color.  Keep it simple.  It’s easy to remember that a project is green.  It’s not so easy if there are three other colors involved.
  • Pick colors you like. They have to excite you and make you want to refer to it.  That’s part of the fun of using colors.
  • If you’re working on more than one project, make sure the colors contrast so they don’t get mixed up.  Even if the two spiral notebooks are diverse shades of blue, it’s very easy to grab the wrong one.
  • Pick colors you can easily find.  If you need to pick up a spiral notebook and then later file folders, you want to be able to find the same color again.
  • Always listen to yourself.  I really like patterns, so I tried getting spiral notebooks in patterns.  While I liked the patterns, it actually made it harder for me to instantly recognize the notebook in a pile of other stuff.

I’ve used this for composition notebooks, file folders, and even in Scrivener for Windows (you can color code the cards and turn it on for the icons).   A lot of this is going to be trial and error, but when color is involved, it’ll be a lot of fun!

Pirates and Rain Forests

I went to the Smithsonian’s Museum of American History recently and saw the exhibit America on the Move.  It’s a large exhibit consisting of two sections — wheeled transportation like cars and ships.  In the ships’ section, they had a display on pirates.  Did you know …?

  1. Real pirates never said “Aargh!”  Especially problematic because I had just seen a History Channel special on pirates, and they all talked like this.
  2. Real pirates didn’t walk the plank.  What they did to prisoners was often a lot worse.

So where did these urban legends for pirates originate?  Movies!

It’s amazing at how something that appears — incorrectly — in a movie ends up being regarded as factual.  What do pirates have to do with rain forests though, other than maybe hiding treasures in them?  Well, I have a rain forest in my story.  An action scene takes place in it.  Because of movies, I was thinking of a person hacking their way through dense undergrowth with a machete.

Then I did some research …

Seems that in the rain forest, there actually isn’t much growing on the ground at all because of the tree canopies.  It doesn’t look at all like the way movies describe it.

So, off to rethink how I want to deal with the change in my setting.

Magic not Volcanoes

When I visited Hawaii in the 1980s, one of the places I went to was Devastation Trail.  The photo (PhotoBucket: tpilews) looks pretty desolate, and that’s the way the place looked.  During a volcanic eruption, lava rained down on the trees and destroyed the area.  Nature is slowly recovering, but the image is still haunting.   The memory of seeing it is still with me, so it came into my story — originally as simply a place to show how magic could devastate the land.  It was one of those things that not-outlining gave me — I just tossed it in and didn’t know what I was going to do with it.  After I took the novel through HTRYN, that small strip of land eventually became the story itself.

Magic Systems and the Nazis

When I first started Miasma, I really wasn’t thinking much about magic systems.  A magic system is essentially how the magic works:  What does the character need to do to create his magic?  What is the cost when he uses his magic?  Instead, I was thinking more about the effect of magic.  Since I wanted to show how people misused magic during a war about the time of the Civil War, I wondered what kinds of horrific things people could do.  There might have been some people who would have done experimentation, really to just see what they could d0.  That made me think of the Nazis, and there were photos online (looking at them once was enough).  The result was this:

The skeletal remains were along the back wall of the room, stacked like firewood.  Like they were unimportant.  The three men tried not to look too closely, but it was difficult not noticing that some of the remains belonged to children.

The bones were human, and yet, they weren’t. Deformities twisted and reshaped each bone in ways that were too horrible to imagine.  A skull with the eye sockets smashed too close together.  A femur that ended in an odd-claw-like shape.  Fingers that turned into talons.

The entire scene ended up coming out on revision, but when I started thinking about the magic system, I returned to the images of Nazi Germany — and Hollywood.  Just look at any alien or monster movie and you can see what the imagination comes up with.  Some of it you’re probably glad it’s only on film!  Then I came across this free ebook of “Visceralization,” and I started thinking about what if they needed to picture what they wanted in order to do magic?   That could have some gruesome possibilities — anyone remember the Star Trek episode of Charlie X?  There’s one very disturbing image of Charlie’s power in there.

However, as I started writing, the magic system mutated.  Everyone in the story has magic does their magic the same way, with pictures — except for the main character.  He does his a little differently, and it allows him to do some things that no one else can do.  Never mind how much trouble some of this is going to get him into …

Why I Chose Omniscient Viewpoint

When I first started my contemporary fantasy Miasma, it was in a traditional third person.  I’d written most of my stories in third, so I went with because that was what I knew.  But as I writing the first fifty pages, something didn’t feel right.  I couldn’t quite identify what it was, except that it appeared to be the viewpoint.  It wasn’t the viewpoint character.  He was right for the story.

Along came a viewpoint workshop.  I took it, and the exercises had us write a scene in different viewpoints.  Some were from different characters, but we tried third, first, second, and omniscient.  Based on comments I got, I switched the story to first person.

Hated it.  First was soooo bad for the story.  It brought out the worst traits in the main character, put a magnifying glass on them, and waved a red flag.  First was definitely not a good choice.

Then came omni.  I went out and got the only omni author I could think of: Clive Cussler.  How did he make the transitions when moving from person to person?  How did he approach scenes?  This time, I picked a scene I was about to start, where first and third weren’t giving me what I needed for it.  By its use, the implication was that the main character was right, and that wasn’t exactly the case.  Tried omni, and the story was magic.

Before I started to switch the story over, though, I came up with about eight reasons why I should use it.  Over the years, all I’d heard was “omni is not used today” (an urban legend); that publishers aren’t taking omni (several agents said in the craft books, “Don’t even try omni.  We’ll reject you.”); and omni is old-fashioned.  So it was a risk when it came to submitting to agents.

Yet, I’d never seen an agent put “story written in omniscient” on any of their top ten lists of what not to do.  Except for the two who published craft books quite some time ago, I’d never even seen any agent discuss omni.  But it was best for the story, so my choices were:

  1. A viewpoint that worked well with the story and have a great story
  2. A more “acceptable” viewpoint and have a not so good story.

The choice was obvious.  Other writers were not happy.  I tried a critique to see if I was on the right track.  I didn’t ask for a critique of the omni, but merely mentioned it was in omni.  Bad.  Very bad.  The writers jumped all over me for use of the viewpoint.  No one said it did it badly or did it well — they just plain hated omni.  They made dire predictions and said no one was using it any more.  One person even said, “I’m sure you know your story, but here’s how you’d write it in third.”  The critique was so negative that I took six weeks off the story to reassess, and still felt omni was the best choice.  All the reasons I’d picked it were still valid.

Now that I’m in final draft of Miasma, the reasons are now blurred.  But I’ve found where other writers naturally jump to first person as their first viewpoint choice, omni is mine.  I feel like I’ve always been writing in it and considering it for my next project.

I hope you’ll check on my article “Critiquing for Omniscient Viewpoint” on Vision: A Resource for Writers.

Treasure Hunting Magic

Many, many years ago, I discovered this bookstore that sold a surprising thing: Treasure hunting magazines.  There were probably about four different magazines, each done on really cheap paper.  Inside, it was about using a metal detector find find, well, treasure.  In this case, it was primarily things like old coins, Civil War buckles, minies (scroll to the bottom for article), and occasionally jewelry.   In those pages, it wasn’t about getting rich quick — you certainly weren’t going to get it from finding pennies.  No, it was about the hunt.  The treasure hunters even had an honor code of things they would do and things they would never do.

The magazines, as far as I can tell, are long gone now, but they reflected some of the things I like about the action adventure novel — things I’ve tried to put into my own book.  There’s a magic about not only the hunt to find something lost for ages, but also finding something that no one else can find.   Add to that danger and high stakes, and it’s an exciting story.

Any lost treasures you’ve dreamed of finding?

One of My Settings

For Miasma, I used Hawaii as a basis for my fictional country — culture, religion, setting, everything.  I went there in the 1980s, so I was definitely enjoying the research.    I started with the tour books and went through not only the ones for the Big Island, but also the other islands.  In one of the tour books, I discovered Chinaman’s Hat or Mokolii Island.  It’s an island that’s only about half a mile away from the shore, so you can swim to it or take a canoe or surfboard.  Kind of cool thinking about an island you can swim out to.  Since one of the first things I came up with for Miasma was a fight on a island, this was a great find to help me with my story.   The photo is from PhotoBucket.