Posts Tagged ‘writing’

How do we turn the past into stories?

It might sound like a simple question, but the relationship between stories and real events is complex and messy.

The Nature of History

Last week, I received editorial comments on a history article I’m writing. High on the to-do list was making the article into more of a story. As soon as I read that, I knew what they meant, and I knew that they were right. I also knew why I hadn’t done it the first time around.

The past isn’t a neat narrative. It’s a jumple of people, places, and events. At one time these were facts, and what we’re left with is the evidence of what those facts might have been. It’s jumbled and disjointed, but also complex and confusing. Nothing about it is simple. Nothing happens for one reason.

One step removed from the past lies history. This is an attempt to establish facts from the evidence, to put those facts in order, and to squeeze meaning from them. It narrows the focus of what we’re looking at, asserts cause and effect, and prioritises some patterns over others. To do this, it draws boundaries about what’s included in any particular account of history, from the infinite variety of options available.

And then there are stories set in the past, whether told as fiction or non-fiction. These narrow the focus further, to individual people and what happened to them. It turns patterns into narratives, the mechanical procession of events into human experiences. It simplifies some things and exaggerates others so that they come to life for us.

In writing my article, I’d taken the jumble of facts and turned them into history, but I’d missed the next step. I had something that showed patterns in the past, but that didn’t engage well with our humanity.

Framing the Narrative

Whether you’re writing history or a story, there’s also another element to how this works, and that’s framing.

Take the First World War. It’s a messy business. It began and ended at different times in different parts of the world. It was fought in different ways on different fronts, in land and sea and air, was tangled in with events on the home front, and its effects linger with us a century on. Parts of France and Belgium are still inaccessible due to munitions from that war.

Last month, I saw Field Music perform their album Making a New World. Composed for the centenary of the armistice, it’s all about the knock-on effects of that war, from tanks to plastic surgery to sanitary towels. The album tells the story of the First World War not as a self-contained event from 1914 to 1918 but as the epicentre from which vast tremors of change erupted.

My upcoming Commando comic Out of the Woods tells the First World War from a very different perspective. To look at the introduction of chemical weapons, it follows two fictional Canadians from before they signed up through to the aftermath of the Second Battle of Ypres. There are many other ways I could have told that story – from the point of view of the Germans, of civilians, of communities affected for generations by the chemicals. I could have followed a medic, a general, even a gas cannister or a patch of ground. I chose the perspective that suited my purposes, but whichever one I chose, I would have had to cut down and rearrange the history, which itself cuts down and rearranges the facts, in each case forming a different pattern.

Telling Your Story from History

So remember, when telling a story from history, you’re never going to fit in all the facts. You’re already missing some of them and you don’t need them all for your goal. Explore the different ways you could look at the topic, pick a story that will bring the past to life in an engaging way, and let the rest fall by the wayside. You’re not here to tell history. You’re here to tell one story against its background.

 

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From A Foreign Shore - High Resolution

What if someone had conquered the Vikings, someone claiming to be their gods?

What if King Arthur’s knights met a very different metal-clad warrior?

What if you were ordered to execute a statue, and hanging just didn’t seem to work?

These short stories explore different aspects of history, some of them grounded in reality, some alternative takes on the past as we know it. Stories of daring and defiance; of love and of loss; of noble lords and exasperated peasants.

From a Foreign Shore is available now in all ebook formats.

I’ve been making my friends fight each other.

It’s OK though, it’s not as bad as it sounds.

Someone writing outdoors.

I quite often pick the names of characters based on people I know. The names have to come from somewhere, and scanning my social media feeds is a good way to get them quickly. Usually, I mix and match first names and surnames, rather than use one person’s full name.

Recently, I’ve taken a different approach. I put up a message on Facebook asking my friends if any of them would like characters named after them in my Commando comics. I got a lot of positive responses and started using those people in my story pitches. Some became protagonists, others villains, and many got bit parts in the stories I was developing.

This was all fine and theoretical while I was writing pitches, but now Commando have commissioned some of those stories, so I’m writing the scripts. When characters have the names of people I know, it’s hard not to picture them as those people, even if they’re very different in character. In my head, I’m making people I know fight, chase, and argue with each other.

It’s a little weird for me. I imagine it’ll be even more so for my friends when these stories are published.

Sometimes, this can work out really nicely. Years ago, I wrote a flash story featuring a character named Mantaj, after one of my friends. She never saw characters with her name in stories, and so was delighted with it. That made my day.

A lot of people get excited at having characters named after them, and as a writer that gives me an extra bit of fun. Still, it’s never going to stop being weird when I make them fight each other.

I’ve been writing a lot of historical fiction lately, both on this blog and for Commando Comics. I’ve also been writing articles for places like History.com. That raises an interesting question – how to decide what to write. For me, there are several factors. One is what I know about. With a few exceptions, I focus on topics I have plenty of sources for or already know a lot about. This narrows the field and helps avoid misrepresenting history I don’t understand. Then there’s what’s interesting – both what I’m excited about and what I think other people will be intrigued by. That means finding novelty in the subject matter. For fiction, it also means finding an engaging character. The audience I’m writing for comes into it. Commando readers mostly want stories about 20th-century warfare, especially World War Two, and they want them action-packed. While I try to make my Commando stories more diverse and varied than they’ve traditionally been, that has to come within the limits of what their readers will go for. The format matters. What makes an interesting article is very different from what makes a visually exciting comic story, and both are very different from prose fiction, where you get inside a character’s head. Then there’s the desire for variety. Editors want stories that haven’t been told, and I want to help show diverse stories and perspectives. That means I’ll sometimes pick a piece of history I don’t know quite so well because I think it should be seen. Picking what history to write about is never as simple as just picking up a book and going with that. It’s a big challenge even before I set my fingers to the keyboard. And that makes it part of the fun.   ***
From A Foreign Shore - High Resolution
What if someone had conquered the Vikings, someone claiming to be their gods? What if King Arthur’s knights met a very different metal-clad warrior? What if you were ordered to execute a statue, and hanging just didn’t seem to work? These short stories explore different aspects of history, some of them grounded in reality, some alternative takes on the past as we know it. Stories of daring and defiance; of love and of loss; of noble lords and exasperated peasants. From a Foreign Shore is available now in all ebook formats.

2901955081_8d6f4cb45f_zA good magic system or weird technology can really make a fantasy or steampunk setting. To try to do this better in my future writing, I’ve come up with five points to consider when creating such a system:

My Five Point Magic System Template

  1. Theme: What am I trying to do or express with this magic? Am I after something exciting, horrifying, humorous? Do I want to use it to explore love, art, vengeance, greed or some other issue? Whatever I pick, that will become prominent in any story using this system.
  2. Cost: All magic and technology has to have a cost. If it doesn’t then it becomes a limitless resource that lets users do whatever they want. So what’s the cost? Do users become corrupted? Do they have limited magical reserves they use up? Must they spill blood or dig up ghost rock to power their machines?
  3. Limitations: What can this magic do, and what can’t it do? Being clear on this stops it becoming a deus ex machina that resolves every story situation in unsatisfying fashion. Knowing the limits means you can set them up early in your story.
  4. Who can do it? Usually, only a select group of people can access the magic of a setting. So who are these people? Is it everyone who trained at the University of Making Things Go Bang? Is it all ginger people? Do you have to be blessed by the Empress to have magical power?
  5. Rules: Points 2-4 are the most important rules for a magic system, but there will be others. Circumstances in which it does and doesn’t work. Taboos around its use. How it looks when it happens. Knowing the rules gives you limitations to explore, boundaries to encourage creativity, and are what separate a system from just hand waving away your characters’ problems.

How About You?

Can you think of other things I should consider when creating magic and technology systems for fiction? Do you have your own list? Share your thoughts in the comments.

The minute they had faces, these guys became more real

The minute they had faces, these guys became more real

One of the biggest mistakes I made writing the early drafts of Guns and Guano was being vague. When I started out I wasn’t confident in getting an American protagonist right, so I fudged his accent and was vague about his background. But such evasion is not getting it right, as became clear the minute I got the book near beta readers. Specificity is what makes characters real, because real people and places are specific and detailed.

You can write something in a vague way from the start and then fix it later. But if you’re doing that then why not write something specific, which you might stick to later? You’ll be no worse off. Pick a name for that random bodyguard, decide which town the action happens in, know which side of the war your character fought on (yes I tried to fudge that, no it did not work). Even with accents, pick one, do a few minutes’ research and then go with it. You’ll still be doing better than my original cowboy-impressionist generic American.

Better to take a risk on a detail and maybe get it right than to be vague and be sure of going wrong.

Terry Pratchett once wrote that rules are there so that you think before you break them. I think the same holds true to any plan or scheme, including my intention to do the Writing Excuses exercises every week this year. This week is very busy with other things, including talking at the Nerd East convention, sorting out website hosting and making preparations to move house in a couple of weeks’ time. So I’m letting myself off and not doing my homework.

Like writing templates, working routines are there to help us, not to follow for their own sake. If a routine isn’t working, maybe it’s time to change it up, or just to take a break. Hopefully I’ll be back from this one next week.

Just one of many images of the apocalypse.

Postapocalyptic fiction is pretty big at the moment. And by ‘pretty big’ I mean among the best-selling books and movies out there in the form of The Hunger Games. Of course there’s grittier stuff as well, scavengers looking to get by in the devastated future of Mad Max or prepper fiction.

Harry Manners, author of the postapocalyptic Ruin Saga, made a good point about this when he said on Twitter that postapocalyptic fiction is a great arena to discuss the underlying fragility of civilisation. In a world where we have become so detached from the basics of survival, it can be terrifying to consider how easily our comfortable lives could be undermined. Postapocalyptic fiction is a way of addressing that terror, of venting and exploring modern fears. Perhaps it also lets us get a taste of the barbaric, as we increasingly come to understand that the rest of the world isn’t populated by backwards primitives, as everyone from the Romans to the Victorians believed.

I find it fascinating that we can see the same themes – the fragility of civilisation, difficult choices between morals and pragmatism – in stories about the rise of civilisation. Rome and Deadwood both brought this to our TV screens, deliberately exploring how civilisation emerges while showing that as a difficult struggle of faltering steps. In both, the path to safety and security was spattered with blood, and the survival of something that might be called civilised always seemed under threat.

As writers, it gives us two ways to explore these themes – with the birth and the death of civilisations. And as readers it provides something familiar and intriguing in wildly different settings.

What do you think? What’s the appeal of postapocalyptic fiction? Are we really so fascinated by civilisation’s rise and fall?

And if you want to see me grapple some more with what it means to be civilised, you can download my novella Guns and Guano for free from Amazon or Smashwords.