Entering the Dark: Are You Ready?

Get ready, everyone… Because I’m about to make some changes around here.  I’ve decided that, in order for people to truly understand where my stories come from, you all really need to be able to take a peek inside my head.

I’ll warn you now, it’s not a pretty place to be.  It’s a maze full of half-forgotten terrors, boxed up and locked up pain, and a host of personal demons I’ve been working long and hard to banish over the years.

But if you’re brave enough, and willing to tread the darkened passageways of my mind and my past, you’ll see the one thing I’ve always been certain of — the bright light that radiates from the center of my life — the soul I’ve clung to and returned to time after time.  Hope, love, and joy — tucked away at the center of my being, in much the same way those same bright lights weave through even my darkest tales…

So, if you’re ready… prepare to enter the darkness…

CONFESSIONS OF A BOOK GEEK: World-Building Is More Than a Hobby

Yes, I am a book geek.  A certified research nerd, known to haunt the stacks in search of that one footnote in the back of a book on ancient Egypt that makes obscure reference to a rumored religious practice or bizarre habit of some pharaoh or other that can then get turned into the entire basis for a work of fiction. :)

I’m proud of my ability to ferret out entirely useless trivia, because to me, it’s the Mother Lode, to be mined for true fictional gold.  I’ve based entire worlds around one seemingly-useless piece of information, before.

But world-building isn’t just a hobby.  I believe it’s something essential to every fiction writer’s arsenal, whether you’re writing in the “real world” or in a world you’ve created completely on paper.  It’s not something to be taken lightly, or shrugged off (just ask George Lucas – the flack he’s gotten for the inconsistencies between the original Star Wars releases and the 3 “prequel” movies should be a huge, neon red flag to any writer!)

“But, Esther, I only write CONTEMPORARY fiction!”  I hear you yelling through the monitor.

And, what?  You think that excuses you from the exercise of world-building?  Consider this:

Are you using an established town/city?  Or are you creating your own fictional town somewhere in a real country?

We’ll run both, in two different hypotheticals. For today, let’s deal with the first hypothetical… It’s going to take a while… :)

Hypothetical Setting A – Established town/city:

For example, let’s say your story is set in modern-day Chicago.  Here are questions to ask yourself before you even begin:

1.  Do you live in Chicago? (If yes, get your jacket and walking shoes ready, because you’re going to be hitting the streets in short order.  If no, you’ve got a LOT more work to do…)

2.  If you answered yes to #1, before you begin writing, you need to decide what landmarks you want to use, and then you’re going to take a tour.  Walk and drive the route your characters are going to take several times over the course of a week.  What’s traffic like, at different times?  Are there any interesting people who you see regularly along the streets?  What about landmarks along the route? You’re going to need a map and a pen, to jot down notes and impressions about certain locations.  You’re going to want your characters to have similar experiences.

3.  If you DON’T live in Chicago, have you ever visited the city?  If yes, you need to figure out if you have any photos of the locations you want to use, and you’re going to either have to study a map and  try to remember sights, sounds, and impressions, or you might want to plan another trip.  If no, you have two choices – If you can afford it (I know it’s difficult.  I have problems with this very issue), take a trip there.  Nothing beats a first-hand impression.  If you can’t afford the trip, it’s time to hit the stacks.  You’re looking for the MOST CURRENT information available.  Check out websites for Chicago, look at maps (Google Maps is good, because they’ll give you a street-level view of an area, which is an invaluable world-building resource for contemporary fiction authors), haunt your local library or bookstore for books on the locations you want to use.  Network, and try to find people who live there and might be willing to talk about their favorite places to go, what traffic’s like, what the weather’s like, etc.

4.  Now that you’ve done the first part of your research (tired, yet? ;)..), it’s time to start putting it together.  Set your locations, and the routes your characters typically take between them.  Also plan a couple of alternate routes, in case you need them for any reason.  As you put together these pieces of location information, you’ll probably encounter even more things you need to know, more details you’re missing.  Any time you run into these questions, go back to your sources (I keep a file on my computer that has nothing but the logs of what books, periodicals, websites, and people I use as sources for a contemporary novel).

And don’t think that a particular genre of fiction excludes you from this research.  I’ve seen authors in some genres try to shortcut the research and world-building phase because they think it doesn’t apply to them.  Believe me, the readers can tell the difference! :)

That’s all for now.  Later, we’ll deal with building a world from literally the ground, up (as found in most Fantasy and some Science Fiction).

BEYOND FAIRY TALES: Changing the Face of Romance

During the 1970s and early 80s, Romance gained a stigma that, while at the time deserved, has been hard to shake.  When people who’ve never read a Romance think of the genre, they sadly think of the books jokingly referred to in Romance circles as “bodice rippers” – namely, because the front covers of most of them looked like the heroine was about to rip right out of hers.

These heroines were vapid, empty-headed idiots who believed that the only way to make their lives complete was to snare a man.  And the men they chose were probably about the most unsuitable ideals of masculinity out there.  I’ve read some of those books (in the name of research and curiosity, back when I believed the books couldn’t POSSIBLY be as bad as the covers made them seem – I was wrong!), and I have to say, if that was my first or only exposure to relationships or Romance, I’d be terrified.  As it is, I was appalled by what I read.  Stories of what, in the end, amounts to rape, leading to love?  As a survivor, I will tell you – not happening!

There is nothing manly or heroic about using one’s strength or larger body mass to intimidate someone else into doing what you want. In fact, that’s the textbook definition of a bully.  And yet, in many of the Romances of the 1970s and early 80s, these bullies were somehow the “ideal” man.  All I can say is, thank goodness those days are over!

Romance has evolved (in most cases) beyond the “Purple Prose” Era, and the days of fainting heroines and churlish heroes.  While you still find a die-hard or two who refuse to alter what’s not-so-lovingly referred to as the “formula Romance,” most Romance novelists would rather die than write that drivel.

Today’s Romance is a different breed entirely.  Today’s heroines kick butt all on their own.  They’re smart, savvy, sometimes hardened, and often carry a weapon of their own.  They’re the sword-toting vampire-hunters, the gun-brandishing detectives and spies… They don’t NEED a man to complete them, and they certainly don’t need one to provide for them.

Likewise, today’s Romance hero is a different breed.  He’s still tough.  He’s still a bad-ass (or bad boy), and he still has attitude.  But in today’s Romance, he doesn’t get away with it.  Today’s hero has a softer side, as well.  Where heroines have toughened up without losing their feminine hearts and compassion, heroes have gained another dimension of their own, finding the ability to actually treat women and children with respect.  They’ve learned to help old ladies across the street, and not be threatened by a woman who’s just as tough as they are.  In other words, they’ve finally gained an equal partner, and not a responsibility.

However, though Romance has come out of the shadow of the 1970s and 80s with a new vibe that’s full of energy and sass, there are still some troubling areas.

Romance, as a genre, tends to abhor radical growing pains more than any other genre.  It took nearly a decade for the changes I just mentioned to happen, and  that wasn’t without a struggle from the dinosaurs who stubbornly dug in and said “this is the way Romance is supposed to be.  That new stuff isn’t Romance.”

 

The same stubborn heel-digging still takes place today.  You have your die-hards who believe that EVERY Romance MUST end with a “Happily Ever After” to be qualified as a Romance.  You have your fanatics who claim that a couple can’t already be in a relationship or married at the beginning of a Romance, for it to be a Romance.  And you still have your writers who ar first to stand up and cry “But this is how it’s always been done.  You HAVE to do it this way!”

I’m a rebel, when it comes to Romance.  Not only do I not shy away from truly gritty and terrible pasts for my heroes and heroines (especially the latter – statistically, women face a much greater risk of harm in daily life than men), but I don’t shy away from those aspects in the character’s present, either.  I refuse to sugar-coat life because people believe Romance should be about escapism.  To me, Romance is about finding someone who loves you, warts and all.  It’s about finding that one person who gets you, in a world that’s run mad.  Romance is about two people finding each other, despite overwhelming odds against them.  Without the troubles, terrors, and pains of real life, love loses all its magnificent beauty and awe.

Nor do I believe a Romance needs to end with a “Happily Ever After.”  This isn’t a fairy tale.  If the characters are meant to be real, if the love is meant to be true, then it’s going to face adversity, both before and AFTER the couple gets together.  I tend to write series that focus on the ongoing relationships of the characters – the ups and downs of trying to make a life together work, against the odds.

I also don’t buy the theory that a couple can’t be married or involved before the start of the story.  I’ve dealt with couples torn apart by life, in my work.  I’ve dealt with couples who are already married at the beginning.  I’ve even dealt with couples who’ve been married and divorced (yes, to each other) before the start of the story.  Love doesn’t take place in a vacuum, and I believe in the REALITY of love, not the fairy tale.  Fairy tales lose their shine, eventually.  They may appear so appealing, in the beginning, but when you look beneath the veneer, the traditional modern fairy tale is as vapid and shallow as any 1970s or early 80s Romance.

So, with open arms, I embrace the dawn of another revolution of Romance – an era with no boundaries beyond love.  What else, after all, does a Romance really NEED to be about? :)

Resurrecting Cinderella: Romance is More Than a Fairy Tale

There’s one question I get asked repeatedly as an author.  Why Romance?

It’s a fair question, given that Romance is the only constant in my writing — I’ve scaled the genre range from Science Fiction to Fantasy, to Paranormal, to legal thriller and military fiction.  But there’s always been that element of Romance.

The answer is a little more complicated.  It’s a story in itself.  One of love, and loss.  One of searching for an elusive feeling that came and went through my life so swiftly that it left me with the understanding that something was missing from every other area of my life.

People have spent a lot of my life judging me, for various reasons.  Very, very early on, I learned that the only way to escape that judgment was to become invisible in my own life.  Only by being invisible would I know when someone truly saw me.

Complicated, huh?  Hang on… I’m getting to the point.

From a very young age, most girls are fascinated by the story of Cinderella.  They want that handsome prince to swoop in and take them away, make all their dreams come true.  Problem is, most of those dreams are shallow and involve lots of glitz, glitter, and material wealth.  They want the castle, the fanfare, and they want a handsome prince who can somehow read their minds and know exactly what they want at all times.

The problem is, that vision of Cinderella doesn’t last.  It has no place in the real world.  And, from as far back as I can remember, the glittery image of Cinderella’s version of “Happily Ever After” was something I knew to be false.  I wanted no part of that rich, glittery image.

To me, Cinderella and her story embodied another whole image — one that had nothing to do with riches, palaces, or pomp and circumstance (really, can anyone see me in a tiara?  I know I can’t!).

Do I identify with Cinderella?  In a word: YES.  I was that invisible girl – the one others rarely saw unless she was being punished for some transgression (whether real or a figment of certain parties’ imaginations).  I was the one to be ridiculed and laughed at, when acknowledged, but mostly to be part of the scenery, and never really allowed to blossom.

From a very young age, I dreamed… Not of being swept away in some whirlwind of riches and self-indulgence, but of actually being SEEN.  To me, the most important element of the Cinderella story was that Prince Charming saw Cinderella — not just the glamorous girl that he danced with at the ball, but something more.  He saw the woman beneath the tattered and ignored cinder girl.  He saw her spirit, her courage, and her grace.  In his eyes, she was no longer invisible.

I found my Prince Charming, once upon a time.  I won’t get into the who, when, how, or where.  From the moment it became apparent to us both that we were more than friends, I knew that no one else would understand.  We were both free and available to be involved, but there were other complications — issues I wasn’t willing to face, or to let him face because of me.

Because of this very special man, I learned that love isn’t an easy thing.  It gives you wings, but like Icarus, you have to be careful about how close you get to the sun.  There are equal parts joy and danger, laughter and tears, in loving someone.  The only thing you can count on, when love is true, is that the person who truly loves you will see YOU… They can find you in a crowded room — not because they read your mind, but because they bother looking for you, in the first place.  To them, you couldn’t be invisible if you tried.  And, to them, you never want to be invisible again.

So, I write Romance because I believe in that feeling.  I believe there really IS a Prince Charming out there.  I believe in Cinderella.  Whatever you make of that, I can’t control your thoughts — I can only tell you what I know.  I write heroines who can rescue themselves, who befriend dragons and tigers, and who aren’t afraid to kick a little ass from time to time.  But no matter how flawed or stoic my heroines are, they never completely lose sight of that little girl who wants nothing more than to really, truly be seen.

I’ll wrap this up with a little piece of advice I learned about love and fairy tales, a long time ago:  True love is a treasure that may only come around once in a lifetime.  And whether your “Prince Charming” is a man or a woman, the only thing you need to do in order to find them is simply believe in the possibility.