"Write what you know."
That's the advice a lot of beginning writers hear. But if we just wrote what we knew, our characters would too often have our hobbies, live in our hometowns, and never do things we haven't experienced. Writing what you know limits fantasy, horror, science fiction, even historical fiction if we're not historians. It restricts most of us us from writing about doctors, lawyers, mental illnesses, horses, Peru, farmers, being rich, living in poverty... you get the idea.
(But at least it lets you write a choking-on-swamp-water scene based on the time you almost drowned on Dr Pepper at Qdoba because someone told a fart story.)
So my modification of this advice is:
"Write what you know. If you don't know it, learn it."
And to learn, we research. Sometimes we have to research very specific topics or questions that don't always get us answers. Sometimes we spend an hour looking up names for grey, because we've already used ash and hematite, and the characters have never seen steel or concrete to compare a color to. And sometimes, we make weird searches and hope no one sees in our browser history that we Googled "man shave face how often."
So in the name of getting details right in my fiction, here are some searches I've made while writing Beyond the Mountain, of varying levels of weirdness. Not all of them even made it into the later drafts of the book.
This month I've been participating in #ShareWords, a Twitter game (is that what they're called?) for writers. Each day has a prompt for something to quote from your writing, whether it's a finished work or a work in progress.
Some writers tweet an image of their quotes, with nice backgrounds, but I'm not getting into that at this point. Meredith+technology+visual appeal=spending way too much time. So I tweet whatever I can fit into 140 characters. Usually that means choosing passages just by their length, and sometimes it also means condensing them by rewording or removing phrases.
Today I'd like to share some of my favorite passages from Beyond the Mountain. I won't include all my MOST favorites, whether because of length or spoilers, but here are 10 quotes I can share.
Yania didn’t know she would be chased off her own palace roof that morning.
“Oh, it’s more embarrassment than pain, though I think he’s actually proud of being the first one shot down. Said something about the greatest champions always being the first target.”
Morning elbowed its way through the window onto Ket’s face. It was week’s end, their last day in the village. She pulled her sova over her eyes and ignored the smell of breakfast and smoke outside.
Far beyond the point where all colors hazed blue, the purple horizon rose into a shape Ket would know anywhere, its peak allegedly so cold and strange, water froze hard and colored the whole surface white.
She looked at her fist. Fist? Did she think she could bodily fight her way past two men and out of trouble? She relaxed her hands and shrugged in way that, she hoped, said, Just a commoner here, the non-fugitive kind.
Shek rotated his left arm toward her, and nodded toward the old scars on it. “Ma stuffed a shirt into my mouth to give me something to bite down on, but Da still had to sit on my waist and pin my neck down just to keep me on the ground.”
Of the neighborhoods along the north-south boundary, Ket didn’t know quite where one became the next, but with each sight the ship passed, she knew what would come next. The bend of fishing wharfs piled high with the catches the fishermen brought for their partners to sell, the storehouses with raised floors over beer cellars. The ship slipped through the water, counting the passing buildings, while the buildings lazed and counted the passing ships
“And if I were able to reclaim what was mine? I can’t undo what he’s already done.”
Shek ran to the house from wherever he’d been outside, and stopped in the doorway. When he saw Ket he gripped the frame like he’d had the wind knocked from him. They stood facing each other. After a moment he said, “What in the valley were you thinking?”
Ket thought a string of words she’d never say aloud, in case her mama could still hear the living.
My book Beyond the Mountain is in the beta reader stage now, and I'm exploring ideas for my next project. I'm simultaneously suffering from not enough ideas, and too many of them.
I have a basic setting in mind, with some characters, and two or three premise possibilities. I don't think I can combine them and still have a cohesive story, so I have to decide on just one premise. Yet, whichever I pick, I don't really have ideas where the plot can go from there. I'm afraid of picking the wrong one, and spending all that time planning/writing something that doesn't work out.
I know from experience that I work best without a plan--as in, I actually get words written if I just jump right in. When it's only an idea on a brainstorming list, I'm afraid to get too invested. But when I'm actually writing in the story, it's easier to just pick something and go with it. However, that doesn't mean the words are any good.
I'm afraid of "pantsing"--jumping in without a plan--because Beyond the Mountain was a mess to edit. But so far outlining--looking at a whole story at once--is overwhelming.
I want to get something written, but I don't want it to be rushed and crappy. I want to take my time, but I don't want to base a writing career on publishing one book every few years.
Another dilemma is the length. I want to write a novella, both to sell, and to offer free to readers who subscribe to my mailing list (once I get that going). But I also want to get started on another novel. I'm afraid of starting on a novel, knowing how long the first one has taken--I want to get something finished and added to my backlist. But I'm afraid to write only a novella--what if it has novel potential, and I use up a great idea on something shorter?
I've decided more than once that I'm just going to sit down and write a few short stories. Maybe some will spark into something longer, and those that won't will at least be something I can give readers. I open my notebook or my laptop, and then close it again.
Maybe my well is dry. I've been done with BTM's major edits for a couple months now, but still, the process of doing it all again is just so daunting. I was lucky writing BTM, in that I already had the entire story in my head a long time before I decided to write it down. I want to do that again, know the whole story ahead of time--plus, now I have a better grasp on structure, pacing, and cohesiveness.
Ideally, I'd have several ideas brewing so that when I finish one book's draft/edit I can move on to another without a long unproductivity gap in between.
I feel frozen. I'm trying to get a newsletter started, but I don't have a lot of content or updates to offer subscribers. A lot of people say to start a mailing list before you're published, as early as possible, but until I'm published, why would anyone want to subscribe? They say to offer a freebie for subscribing, but I don't have one yet. I thought about offering visual content, like illustrations of my characters or landscapes, but I got out my drawing pencils and remembered I haven't done pencil drawing in 7 years.
I won't hire a cover artist until I'm just about ready to publish, so after it's formatted and the trim size and spine width are figured out. That will happen after an editor has been through it. That will happen after I find enough beta readers that I feel confident moving on. It's not a process you can rush. (Oh, and the editing-formatting-cover happen after I have the money to pay professionals. Eep!)
Right now, I just want to get one step closer to something.