World Building Pantser-Style


Woman with umbrella walking across plaza in the rain
Since we’re getting rainy (and snowy) weather, I thought I’d share that with you with a picture.

A few years ago, I went to a panel on world-building at a con  I was kind of cautious because my experience with any kind of world-building always started with this recommendation:

Buy a 3-right binder and a pack of tabs.  Take this list of questions and answer every single one about your world.  Only then can you write your story.

Pretty much a huge turn off to a pantser like me.  It was one of the reasons I didn’t do speculative fiction for a long time.  By the time I did all that recommended world building, I’d have lost interest not only in the story but even the world.

But this panel did something different, and I was reminded of while I was working on a scene.  They said, first just start writing the story, then world build…because otherwise it’s possible to never get around to writing the story.

They also said to think about why cities or towns were built in a particular location, and this got really interesting because I hadn’t thought of cities like that before.

With a lot of the modern cities, it’s not always that obvious.  If you walked out to Alexandria, VA today and looked around, you would never know that it was site of bustling tobacco trade in the 1700s.   Now pleasure boats are hooked up to the docks and people feed the ducks.

There are also ruins in Egypt for places that no longer exist because the Nile changed course and that part of the world dried up.  Clive Cussler did a novel called Sahara with something similar where there was a river in the 1800s and a Confederate ironclad got into the river.  Shipwreck in the desert!

Still one of my favorite books.  But I digress.

I wandered in this direction today because in my scene I have a town that’s kind of in the middle of nowhere.  And it really is about connecting the dots and making sure all those connections get into the story.  I was surprised at how many pieces were already there…creative brain was just sitting back and laughing at me until I figured it out.

For your reading pleasure, some interesting reading on why cities are built where they are.

 

 

Adventures in History: Old Town Alexandria


For Labor Day, I decided to wander around Old Town, Alexandria. It’s a place where it’s like walking between two different times.  We have all the historic buildings and shops like Starbucks and Banana Republic.

It was a pretty nice day for wandering.  Not too hot and not too cold (we’ll have cold soon enough!).  Everyone was out walking their dogs, so lots of doggy action.

Alexandria was originally part of Washington, DC.   During the 1700s, it was major shipping port.  Those wonderful tall ships came down the river to pick up tobacco and other goods.  It was such a popular port that the city built out the waterfront from Lee Street down.

Visitor map is here if you want to follow along.  That street will become very important soon.

Potomac River from Alexandria

This is the Potomac River from Waterfront Park.  Maryland is that land in the distance.  In the 1800s, the British burned Washington DC.  Then enemy warships came down this area.  Fearing the same thing would happen to the city, Alexandria waved a white flag of surrender.

Statue of the Seafarer

This statue was also in the park.  It was called “The Seafarer.”  Not a specific person, but a beautiful work of art.

Then it was off to check out Point Lumley.  I admit I was thinking that there might be a lighthouse (there is one somewhere in the area).  Lumley was named after the skipper of a ship that moored there.  So I walked down Union Street.

As I pass a hotel, I catch a passing conversation.  A woman tells the concierge if he knows about the Coast Guard ship on the next block.

Wait…ship?  What ship?

Needless to say I have to explore this.

The Coast Guard ship Eagle moored at Point Lumley

I turn left on Duke street and see these masts.  Holy cow!

I was expecting a Coast Guard cutter, not a tall ship.  Magnificent, isn’t it?

It’s called Eagle.  Across the water, I can hear a woman’s voice over the intercom.  There is also a lot of activity on board, with the crew about their business.

After this, it’s time for Captain’s Row.

Historical signage for Captain's Row

This is a sign in front of a two block street dating back to 1783 and preserved for us to have a look.

Captain's Row Cobblestone street

It’s a cobblestone street.  I read about cobblestone streets in books, but this is what one actually looks like . I try to walk on it, a little bit.  The stones are very uneven.  Some have settled in places.  Not good for my feet.

A closeup shot of cobblestone

And a closeup of what it looks like.

Bizarrely, as I look at cobblestone from three hundred years ago, jets are roaring overhead.  I’m on the flight path for Reagan Airport.

Next up is George Washington.  I’m on Lee Street again, so I follow that to Cameron, then turn left.  I know George had a townhouse here.

From the perspective of today, it seems like a long ways. But if he lived here before the waterfront was built out, then he might have been pretty close to the water.

View of Gatsby's Tavern

My trip up Cameron takes me past Gatsby’s Tavern.  It’s actually a museum and a restaurant.  I’ll spend a whole post on that, since there’s a lot to see.

Sign saying George ate here

And, as you can see, this was a place that George Washington visited.  Hmm.  Maybe I need to check out the restaurant when I visit the museum.

Replica of George Washington's Townhouse

And here is George’s townhouse.

It’s actually a replica of the house and privately owned.  But note in the left window that George is peeping out.  George would stay here when he traveled in from Mount Vernon.

It’s also amazing because I never knew this was here, and I nearly always pass by it trying to get out of Old Town.

By the time, I’ve done a lot of walking, so I’m heading back.  But not without one last stop.

Historic city hall, fountain, and American flag

This is City Hall.  The building is historic.  The fountain and the flag is pretty cool.  It’s a lot of water, and the air is filled with the scents of it.

Back down to Lee Street and my car.  Parking for 90 minutes was fourteen bucks!

A Writer/Veteran Looks at History: Fort Ward, Virginia


I’ve been disturbed at the attempts I’m seeing to destroy history.  In Baltimore, there’s talk of removing statues.  Remove history and you take away who we are.  Since Virginia has a whole lot of historical sites, I thought I would visit them and talk about them.

First up is Fort Ward, which is in Alexandria, Virginia.  I like places where I can walk the area and try to picture what it was like for the people who were there.  Plus I get some good walking in.  The weather was nice and sunny, so it was pretty fun checking everything out.

This was a Union fort during the Civil War.   Today, it’s a park where you can walk around with your dog or even have a picnic.  The buzz of cicadas do battle with the sounds of cars racing by just outside the park.  It’s like an island in the middle of busy.

Fort Ward was an earthen fort built to defend Washington DC during the Civil War, though it never actually saw an action.  Construction was completed in September 1861.

This is a picture of the original design.

A diagram of the 5 pointed star shape of Fort Ward.

Time’s now worn down the earthen walls, and it’s hard to picture.  But this design was so that on the star’s points, soldiers could catching approaching enemy in the crossfire.  Very old military technology.

Gated entrance to Fort Ward
Starting at the entrance to the fort.  You can see what a nice day it was out–that sky is a pretty blue and clear.  Warm, but not muggy.

This gate was the only entrance to the fort.  The fort was surrounded by a dry moat.  I can imagine this being a guard post with two Union soldiers on duty, watching for arriving visitors.

Dry moat surrounding Fort Ward.

This is where I start imaging what the soldiers did.  This is the dry moat.  The picture doesn’t show the height really well, but it’s actually pretty steep.

Imagine running up to this berm and dropping down against it, your muzzle loader rifle at the ready and the enemy coming on the other side.  The berm would stop any bullets headed your way (hopefully), but you would still have to stick part of your body up over the berm to fire back, making yourself a target.

Rear view of Fort Ward

I wander on and come up to the fort itself.  This is from the rear view, from inside, so it’s what the Union soldiers themselves would have seen.  That white wall has a shelf in front of it for guard duty.

I get up and walk along it and this is what I see:

What I might see on guard duty from Fort Ward. All grass and bushes now.

And I stop here and think about being a soldier on guard duty.  It’s cold out, because whenever I was on guard duty, it was always cold!

And I’m scared because I don’t know what’s coming, except that I know that my enemy might be coming over that next hill to kill me.

War is both very personal and very impersonal.

Defensive position with cannons at Fort Ward.

Back down the stairs to check out what we in the military calls the “defensive position.”  This position was set up to defend Little River Turnpike (which turns into Duke Street) and Leesburg Pike (which turns into King Street,  Obviously named after General Lee).  All those streets are still here, but it’s hard picturing how it must have looked in 1861.

Time to get closer.

Cannon

This is one of the bigger cannons.  War then was definitely not for short people!  I can barely see over the cannon to where the enemy is coming.

So I try a smaller cannon.

Following a cannon's line of fire.

Cannon fire is very loud.  I was on Fort Lewis, walking on the sidewalk across the street from the parade field.  Someone was test-firing the cannon.

Boom!

I jumped and was going, “What the heck?”

I’d been in front of the cannon, so it was much noisier.  If you ever go to a cannon demonstration, make sure you are on the side you see in the photos above.

The door to Magazine No3

This was where the ammunition was packed with black powder.  It was very hazardous duty.  Then the military didn’t have the safeguards to protect the soldiers, so people often got killed.

Door labeled "Filling Room No5"

And this is where the ammunition is stored.  Also not a particularly safe place to be.

The front of Fort Ward, though bushes

Then I walk around to the front of Fort Ward.  If this fort had seen action, this is the view the approaching Confederates would have had.

More of the fort is visible at winter when the plants die off, so I can’t see much now.  But there’s that trench I’d have to cross if I were on the Confederate side, with cannons pointed down on me and probably soldiers with muzzle loaders.  Look on the left for a cannon poking out.

The last part of my trip I don’t have any pictures for, because there’s nothing left other than the story.  After the war ended, the African Americans who had been freed established what became known as “The Fort” around the remains of Fort Ward.  It was their home and a place where they raised their families.  They emphasized faith, education and moral codes.

As the Civil Rights Era kicked off, they were displaced by time.  All that’s left is a sign and a graveyard of a church in the area.  But some of the new generations still live in the area, and the street names mark the location (Seminary Road).

Here’s the link to the Fort Ward site.

I’m thinking of hitting Leesylvania Park next (you guessed it–named after General Lee, who lived in Virginia).  It’s a pretty area, a bit of challenging walk, and some interesting history that involves–of all things–gambling!

What do you think?  Is there anything you want me to wander off and check out (safety permitting)?

 

 

 

This and that for last week of September


This week …

Lots of rain for Washington, DC.  Alexandria’s King Street flooded, as usual.  The street ends right at the Potomac.  In the 1700’s, it was a big, important port for shipping of tobacco.  The city built out then, so the street goes in a deep slope at that point, down to the river.  It also floods every time it rains heavily.  The first picture in the link is deceptive, because you can see the pavement.   The river is on the other side of the fence.

Pantsing turned up twice this week.  I suppose as we’re approaching Nano in November, people are starting to think about process.  One of the writers, who was a pantser, said she’d been told that the only way to write was to outline.  That’s what following the “rules” imposed by other people gets you.  The only wrong way to write is the one that doesn’t work for you.

The one thing I don’t like when any of the discussion comes up is that it tends to be an outliner who’s heard about pantsers.  They try to define it, but it’s obvious they’re scratching their heads and checking the rule book, and can’t make sense of it.  And this is what most of the pantsers see!

There are exactly three books on writing without using outlines.  Most of the other books start out with the definition of a pantser and an outliner, and then give outliner advice, which tends to mean they’re written by outliners.  It’s very hard to advise someone how to write a certain way if you haven’t done it!

So I define my selection as books being specifically about writing without outlines.

Story Trumps Structure: This is a more generic book, typical of the craft books you will find, though it assumes you’re not outlining.

Writing into the Dark:  This one gives actual tips that you can use.  Interestingly, nearly all the tips are the ones outliners say not to do.

Pantser’s Guide for Writers: You Are Not Alone.  This one’s mine.  I never thought I would do a writing book because I feel like I never know enough.  But I was tired of seeing books that treated the way I write like I didn’t know what I was doing, just because the writer didn’t understand how I did it.

And here’s one website, The Extreme Pantser’s Guide, by Kate Paulk.  She’s been on panels at conferences I’ve attended.  In fact, I’d found this site a few weeks before a con, and she was on panel, and I’m looking at her name and going, “Wait a minute…” We chatted for a few minutes after the panel.

This morning …

Early this morning at about 4:36 I woke up to a woman screaming from somewhere outside.  Close.

I tried to see if I could spot her anywhere from my window, which has a pretty good view of the corner, but she was not in view.  I called 911, and the operator said that other people had called in, too.  Hopefully if she was in danger, the police arrived in time.  They have a fast response here, but even two minutes is a very long time when anything is happening.

How This Pantser Does Research


Research came up as a topic on Facebook, one of those things where the writers want to know how you keep your research notes.  I suppose I’m an oddity, because I don’t keep any research notes.

To start with, I don’t plan out my stories at all.  I have no idea what will happen in them, or how they will end.  Consequently, I also wouldn’t know what I needed to research.

I could try, but I would waste a considerable amount of time.  I learned that on one of my book projects.  I researched several subjects to death, dutifully wrote down cool things that caught my interest.  Even went to a college campus, hit their library and looked stuff up, took notes.

Then I made first contact with the story.  Used none of that research.

So what do I do instead?

Most of it is long before I write the story, and it’s not for any specific story.  I go to some place like Old Towne, Alexandria, Virginia and wander around.  Enjoy myself.  Look at stuff.  Smelled the malt of beer being made at a distillery. Be horrified at the cobblestone alleyways—how did people walk on them things? 

Then, when I come with an idea, I do the reverse of what I think a lot of writers do. They get the idea and shape the research around the idea.  If the idea involves a doctor doing surgery, they go out and learn everything about that type of surgery.

On the other hand, I start with the setting, which is where most of my research would be needed, so I can pick some place that I’m well familiar with and intersect other elements, then plop an idea there.  I’m also not going to pick occupations for characters where I have to do research just to do the character.   

As I write, the details filter into the story through my subconscious.  I think that’s because I had fun at these places.  Fun leaves an imprint.

I’m working on a story that started with Old Town as a basis, and I added bits from a fascinating lecture on Civil War maps I attended ten years ago, and  the visit of a three masted sailing ship (isn’t the ship below glorious?).   Oh, and also a Civil War fashion show from a few years back.  Clothes are always interesting.

18th century replica ship

After that, it’s the writing.  It’s a fantasy, so some of it is made up (magic and swords; no repeating rifles or muzzle loaders). Still some research, but it’s on the spot, as I discover what I need while I’m writing the story.  For the story, that’s been food.  I just look it up and put what I need directly into the story.

On the plate for the future is to visit the masted ship in Baltimore.  I really want to walk on board and see what it was like to live there.  Some of my ancestors came over on sailing ships like that.  And it would be really cool to write a pirate story one day…

A Tall Ship and Humidty to Sail Her By


This week, the Hermione was docked in Alexandria, Virginia for tours and picture taking and lots and lots of people:

Hermione, an exact replica of the ship that brought the Marquis de Lafayette to George Washington with news of full French aid in 1780, turning the tide of the American Revolution.

I was hoping to get a ticket for a tour on board, so I left home at 7:30 and got there probably about eightish.  There were already 200 people in line for the stand-by tickets.

It was also headed into the eighties and very humid.  So I walked around and took pictures of the ship.

18th century ship

It was a lot bigger than I expected.  There is truth to John Masefield’s poem line, “And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by.”  The masts were easily three stories tall.

18th century replica ship

It was so big I was having trouble getting a picture of the whole ship.

Full shot of 18th century ship

Aelxandria overlooks the Potomac River