Writing the Story
Sword and Sorcery, weighing in at 3,600 words, called “Skull Cavern.”
I can’t say I started with an idea for the story. Last Sunday, inner critic panicked because I didn’t have ANY ideas. I still had to produce a story, so I had to figure something out.
That’s one of the biggest things about this challenge of a story a week for a year. I suppose it was the same for the pulp writers who produced hundreds and hundreds of stories so they could make money to live off of. You can’t wait. You can’t dither. You can’t get stuck. You have to produce.
So when I was hunting for temple images last week, I ran across an image of a giant skull carved out of a mountain. Having just watched a Smithsonian Channel documentary on the construction of Mount Rushmore, my first reaction was, “Why would anyone carve a giant skull out of a mountain?”
But it’s a fantasy trope, so I went with it.
The first scene was incredibly hard for me. I included a rope suspension bridge the characters have to get across. I’m afraid of heights, so this plugged straight into that fear. I had to find a way to pull the reader down into that fear but also make sure it stayed enjoyable.
Researching for the Story
It’s hard to believe I loathed research at one point. People brandishing three-ring notebooks and treating it like an academic paper just sucked out anything that would make it fun.
I started this story by using a technique that almost no one teaches—and it really should be the first thing on all those listicles out there.
Start with what you know.
Setting is the backbone of the story. Without the setting that gives me the skull cave, I don’t have a story. So I started with what I know: Northern Virginia. I live here. I’ve been all over the place, so I’ve eyeballed everything. If I need a tree, I can plop in an oak, a sweetgum, or a maple without thinking about it. A cardinal can be blood red against snow. Or a character can meet for a secret exchange at the decaying limestone lockhouses downtown.
Since the cave needed to be somewhere, I plopped it on the other side of Mather Gorge. That’s near Great Falls, which I’ve been to a few times. The gorge is where the Potomac River narrows. Lots of cliffs, swirling and violent waters below, perfect for a bit of action.
I wanted a rope suspension bridge because bad things can happen on one when a monster is chasing you. It’s also a staple of any action-adventure film. It was one of the few things I needed to see before I started the first scene. So that was a quick trip to a site to look at ten different rope bridges and pick which one I wanted. I’d never been on one, but I’d climbed a cargo net. Close enough.
Then I started writing. From there, everything was on the spot research (stop, go look something up, come back and write.)
- Needed a name for two characters, and the name of the gorge. I picked up my copy of The Complete Book of Christian Baby Names and pulled names from it. I bought the book because of the preview I got on Amazon. It’s a thin book with an easy to read format and a limited number of names.
- Distance across Mather Gorge. I could have probably tossed in a number, but I thought having the real thing was better. I saved this page into Evernote.
- Luray Caverns. I’ve been out to see the caverns (highly recommended if you visit), as well as the Shenandoah Caverns. But it’s been more than a few years, I needed a joggle and some telling details. Off to the official site and a 4-minute video. No Evernote for this page. If you’ve got a few minutes, watch the video. Pretty cool looking around the cave at all the formations. I’ll have to plan for another in-person visit.
- As I headed into my climax, I circled back to Mount Rushmore to refresh my memory on how they carved the faces. I only wanted enough that I could translate it into someone doing that with magic. This was a piece of the cycling I did while I was drafting. I wasn’t sure until the monster showed up what it would be or how the characters would kill it, so that happenstance of seeing the documentary turned out to be important. Also added this to Evernote, though only the page about the construction, not the rest of the article.
This was about thirty minutes of research, not including the documentary.
Why didn’t I save Luray Caverns page to Evernote like the others? I actually don’t know, except that it felt right not to do it. My collecting the information is not about fear of missing out on something but rather on pages that interest my muse.