Sunday, September 30, 2018

Happy Hour Library

Once upon a time, there was a young couple named Robby and Wendy. We were part of a larger circle of friends at college, went to classes and concerts together, and often hung out at a local greasy spoon enjoying French fries, “Highway 59 Burgers”, and coffee descended from a questionable bean-ealogy.

As our friendship grew into a ‘relationship’, we went on our first fancy date where we wore fancy clothes and drank the fanciest wine we could afford without bankrupting our meager college funds.
(“Make sure you mention the part where I tripped and fell down the steps in my fancy dress, and the restaurant staff were panicking that I might sue,” said Wendy. Okay, sweetheart, if you insist…)
Another time, in the aforementioned greasy spoon, we sketched multiple designs on paper napkins as we imagined how we could convert a railway caboose into a livable space. (Maybe my bass amp could double as an endtable?) The location wasn’t fancy, nor was Mateus involved, but it was fun to dream together about our future.

As the years have come and gone, we’ve evolved a few traditions as a couple. For example: as the first one up most mornings, I brew and hand-deliver a cuppa java to my beautiful wife in bed. Note to any husbands reading: there are few wives who won’t appreciate this.

A more recent invention is what we call “happy hour library”: we sit on our deck in the evening, sipping wine as we read whatever books have caught our fancy. Occasionally, we read a snippet out loud to each other, whenever we discover a thought-provoking question, an inspiring idea, or a particularly well-crafted paragraph.

A few weeks ago, Wendy brought home a bottle of Mateus, and we sat on the deck with our books and reminisced about that first “fancy” date. We’ve never lived in a converted caboose, but we’ve had a lot of adventures together. None of which we could have predicted — or dreamed — back in the days of the ‘caboose brainstorming’.

But now, it’s the ‘little adventures’ that I appreciate the most: the coffee shared at 6:00 in the morning, and Happy Hour Library.

And Mateus — while not our nostalgic ‘go-to’ wine of choice — held up surprisingly well, all these years later.

Saturday, September 8, 2018

Inspiration = Think Weird

Where do writers come up with their ideas? What fuels their creative inspiration?

We’ve all nodded with sympathetic understanding when someone reminds us: “10% Inspiration, 90% Perspiration”, but that doesn’t really address the question about the 10%, does it?

The answer could be as simple as: Think Weird.

Or, to be more accurate, get used to looking at normal, every-day situations, and then asking yourself: “What if…?”

And once you start writing, keep asking the ‘what if’ question. It can open up all kinds of creative ideas, mid-draft.

For example — full disclosure but without spoilers — when I began writing Dissident (the second book in the Tracker trilogy), I wanted to provide readers with a thumbnail sketch of what the Enclave looked like. At the same time, I really wanted to avoid the ‘omniscient narrator’ approach.

And so, the character of Mateo was created, a shopkeeper who worked in the literal shadow of the Enclave’s heavily-guarded wall. Mateo’s role was to give Amos (the point-of-view protagonist) a guided tour of:
  • the physical parameters/description of the Enclave,
  • the ferocity of the guards protecting it, and
  • the societal milieu that had evolved around its borders.
Here’s the ‘full disclosure’: I had already mapped out the majority of the book’s structure. Mateo was a character of convenience, allowing me to describe the Enclave and set the scene through the eyes of my point-of-view protagonist (Amos). Mateo was never intended to go much beyond that.

I had some vague notion of him possibly re-appearing in a minor scene later in the book, but that was it. Mateo was a one-chapter character — an important minor character for the purpose I had in mind, but nothing more.
Until I was about 400 words from concluding the first draft of the first chapter, sitting in a crowded coffeeshop, and I was suddenly ambushed by a ‘what-if?’
I promised there would be no spoilers, but suffice it to say that particular ‘what-if’ resulted in Mateo becoming a pivotal character in the second and third books of the Trilogy. (He really messed up my story outline in the process, but I’ve forgiven him.)

The past two summers in British Columbia have been dominated by record-breaking wildfires. A side-effect has been the dense smoke that has blanketed our city for weeks on end. The sun, when it breaks through, looks eerie, unnatural, almost…
What if…?
What if there was another explanation for the climate crisis — one that was scientifically observable, but ultimately originating from a sinister intelligence from outside? What if the environmental disaster was a symptom of something far worse…?
I went home and started typing: “The unnatural color of the sky caught Jaco’s eye the moment he stepped outside. The saffron-tinged sunlight threw everything – clouds, buildings, foliage – into sharp, brassy relief...”
I am currently well into the second draft of an as-yet-untitled new novel, and that’s exactly how I got the idea. Nothing more profound than noticing the smoky sky, and asking a simple “what if”.

The caste-based society on another world, the forgotten prophecies of a religion based in Nature, the investigation by a local television reporter and her cameraman into a government coverup, and the sudden appearance of a terrified teenager fleeing from unspeakable Darkness — well, that all came later.

But it always starts with a simple ‘what if…’.