Skip to content

Archive for

Storytelling for All (Or As Many As Possible) Ages – Chris Nuttall

Storytelling for All (Or As Many As Possible) Ages – Chris Nuttall

 The youngest fan I have, at least as far as I know, is fourteen.

The oldest fan, again as far as I know, is in his eighties.

What struck me as interesting, when I started looking back at my emails, was that they shared interests in the same books: Schooled in Magic and The Zero Blessing.

This surprised me, although – in hindsight – it probably shouldn’t.  I wrote both of those series to be YA, with The Zero Blessing originally aimed at younger readers.  On the other hand, I did my best to avoid many of the things I disliked in YA (and younger books) and worked hard to build up a semi-plausible pair of universes.  The characters may be young – Cat is twelve – but they’re not childish.

I was still thinking of this when a fan asked if I’d ever read a book called Bras and Broomsticks.  The title didn’t sound very promising, but the blurb – two sisters, one of whom has inherited her mother’s magic – sounded good.  So I got a copy, read it and … well, I want that hour back.  <Evil Grin>.  There’s nothing particularly bad about it, but the main character is very much an irritating teenage girl with stereotypical concerns (friendships, breast sizes, boyfriends, etc), the plot is depressingly predicable and the moral at the end somewhat trite.  I have no doubt that teenage girls will like the story – it has some good reviews on Amazon – but it wouldn’t have appealed to me when I was a teenage boy.

This started me off thinking about other YA books I’d read as I grew up.  Like most kids in my school, I read Judy Judy Blume and Paula Danziger.  And yet, most of their books have not aged well to me.  The one I loved most, when I was 10, was This Place Has No Atmosphere, a story about a girl who moves to the moon.  This was no Heinlein novel of struggle and survival against the odds.  No, it was a typical ‘teenager moves town, makes new friends, comes to terms with it’ set on the moon.  When I looked back at it, a month or so ago, I found it hard to believe that I had ever loved the book.  The handful of glimpses of future life do not make up for the simple fact that the story itself is just like thousands of other stories along the same lines.

And so I looked back through my old reading lists (and what part of my collection from those days remains intact.)

The books that still spoke to me were written at a number of different levels.  The Worst Witch and its sequels and Hood’s Army are very clearly books for preteens; The Chronicles of Chrestomanci, Little House, The Demon Headmaster and Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone are aimed at older children and young teenagers; Discworld, Heinlein’s juveniles and other books along those lines remain in my collection.  They still speak to me, even though I am no longer part of the targeted audience.  I still smile when I reread Matilda or Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. And why should I not?

(Is it actually a coincidence that most of these books didn’t turn out well when adapted for television or the movies?)

The books that no longer speak to me are legion.  Judy Blume and Paula Danziger are no longer on my list of favourites.  Enid Blyton is now thoroughly absurd; Milly-Molly-Mandy is ridiculously twee.  Nicolas Fisk has not aged well.  There are so many books that I have forgotten, over the years, that have made no impression on me at all.  (And most of them don’t have the excuse of being jammed down my throat at school.)  I vaguely recall reading a teenage romance novel when I was fourteen, but I have forgotten the details.  And don’t even get me started on Twilight …

 Thinking about it, most of the books I still like – and reread, sometimes – have a few things in common.  On one hand, they don’t talk down to their readers.  The Worst Witch is written for children, but it doesn’t treat kids as idiots.  They also have likeable characters: Mildred Hubble, Christopher Chant, Matilda, Dinah Glass and even Harry Potter are likeable and, more importantly, relatable.  (Christopher Chant, Harry Potter and Matilda have moments of delinquent behaviour, but they’re not openly malicious.)  It’s easy to follow their stories and feel for them, even if they live in very different worlds.  One can believe in them.  And, perhaps most importantly of all, the stories aren’t focused on a particular age group.

The books I don’t like break some or all of these rules.

This Place Has No Atmosphere and Bras and Broomsticks, for example, feature teenage girls who are, in many ways, whiny self-obsessed little brats.  The same can be said for most of the other books by the same author (the male characters have the same problem, with predicable results.)  It’s difficult to like such characters, particularly if you happen to be twenty years older than them.  You want to pick them up and shake them for being such annoying little morons.  Other books, such as Twilight are so intensely focused on their target demographic that there’s no appeal to younger readers (who probably find it soppy) and older readers, who are aghast at all the unfortunate implications.

Thinking about it, there’s actually a further issue caused by focusing.  It can and it does turn people off.

There are people who try to ban Judy Blume because she discusses – frankly, particularly for her era – issues such as menstruation and sex.  On one hand, writing about this is a good thing.  Children who are growing into teenagers, then adults, need explanations of what is happening to their bodies, instructions on how to handle it … and, most importantly, reassurance that they are not alone.  On the other hand, these issues are often off-putting if you’re not part of the target audience.  I found Judy Blume’s female-focused books to be uncomfortable, in many ways, and I suspect that many girls think the same of her male-focused books.  Now, I feel that they haven’t aged well (which probably explains why so many parents want to ban them, forgetting what things were like when they were young.)

This has wider implications.  Books tightly focused on a particular demographic will not always appeal to people outside that demographic.  A teenage romance story would not have appealed to me as a teen, still less now.  A story focused on a homosexual character grappling with his sexuality wouldn’t appeal to me either, even though I would have a great deal of sympathy for anyone caught in that position.  I suspect that female readers are put off by exaggerated masculinity – although the success of Fifty Shades of Grey may argue that I’m wrong – just as male readers are put off by exaggerated femininity.  If nothing else, a teenage male who reads Bras and Broomsticks will come away with some pretty silly ideas about teenage girls.

One does not need to discuss adult situations – either in the conventional sense or this – to write a children’s or YA book that appeals to all ages.  But one does have to remember that focusing the book on one demographic tends to limit its appeal to other demographics …

… And that it isn’t the fault of those demographics that they don’t like the book.




Where do story ideas come from?

Or, probably more importantly, how do we make them our own?

No, I’m not going to lecture you on how to find inspiration or how to file the serial numbers off of something to make it your own. What I am going to do is give you an example of how inspiration can hit without warning and when you aren’t looking for it.

Those of us in the United States just finished the Memorial Day weekend. This is seen as the official beginning of summer, a time when schools are let out for the year (or they used to be). A time for sales and picnics and family. It is also a time for remembrance and tradition. One of my family’s traditions is to watch the Memorial Day Concert from Washington DC.  The first concert, aired by PBS, was held in 1989.  The emotional impact of the concert comes not from the music but from the stories, real stories, read by actors, of the men and women who have sacrificed so much for this country. It is their story, and the stories of their loved ones, that remind us so powerfully of the reason behind this holiday.

This year, one of those stories was that of a young girl growing up in during the Viet Nam War. Her father was in the Army, a Green Beret if I remember correctly. She loved her daddy and missed him so very much. Every day, she wrote him. She waited by the mailbox for his next letter to arrive. Then, one day, her letter came back unanswered. She asked her mother about it and, like most of us would, her mother did her best to put on a brave face and reassure her daughter there was nothing to worry about.

Then the call came in one night not long after that. Her father had been on a mission and he, along with others, were missing. MIA. Missing in Action. No one knew what happened or where they were. They didn’t know if this little girl’s father and his squadmates were alive or dead. They were just gone.

The family waited, as so many others did during those long days of the war, for word of their loved one. When news came that the North Vietnamese were releasing a number of POWs, the little girl ran into her room and started packing her bag. She knew they would be going to meet her daddy. Finally, after so many long months and years, she was going to see her daddy again.

Only they didn’t make that trip. One of the hardest things her mother had to do was tell this lovely little girl, this daughter who never gave up, that her daddy’s name wasn’t on the list of POWs being returned. Their wait continued. When the girl’s brother was old enough, he followed in their father’s footsteps and joined the Army. I can only imagine the fear the girl, now a grown woman, and their mother felt as he was sent into harm’s way in service of the country.

But they didn’t try to stop him. They understood he was driven by the same values as the much beloved father had been.

That phone call, the one they’d been waiting decades for, finally came. The North Vietnamese had released remains and a tooth — A TOOTH — had been tested. It was their father’s. He’d been dead so many years. Their questions had been answered and yet, in many ways, knowing was no better than not knowing. At least before there had been hope, fading yes, but hope he might one day return.

The son, still in the Army, escorted their father’s body home. Daddy was laid to rest with all appropriate honors.

Their story became part of our nation’s history, and hopefully our conscience, with the reading of the letter that little girl sent and had returned unopened.Seeing Mary McCormack, the actor who read the girl’s letter and told us her family’s story, embrace that girl now grown, her brother and mother, brought tears to my eyes. It also reminded me of other stories I knew, some of which I’d forgotten. Stories of those I went to school with during Viet Nam, of those whose older brothers and fathers went off to war. Many of those returned, some injured some not. Others never returned. Each one had a story behind them, a story to remember and, in some cases, to tell.

It reminded me of my mother’s friend who opened her mailbox one day and pulled out the latest Life or Look Magazine and saw her son’s death in Viet Nam documented. It reminded me of my Uncle John who, during World War II, ran away from home to join the Navy at the age of 13. When the Navy realized what he’d done, they returned him home where he told my grandparents they either signed the waivers to let him officially and legally enlist or he’d run away again. He served from the end of World War II through Viet Nam. He was a POW more than once and, when he had the chance to leave Nam and return home, he refused as long as the rest of his men — he was a senior non-com — remained.

I remembered Uncle Joe, my father’s older brother. He who enlisted in the Army in World War II and served in both Europe and Japan. He was part of those troops who, as they pushed through the territory held by the Japanese, saw the atrocities we tend to forget. He came back changed and suffered from what we now call PTSD for the rest of his life.

Being a writer, as I remembered these stories, my brain went to work. By the end of the evening, I had not one but two novel ideas in mind. I hadn’t meant to do anything other than watch a concert with my mother and remember our own family and friends who have stepped up to serve the country the love so much. Now, I have two books to write and I pray I can do not only the stories but the inspiration for the stories justice.

Heaven Weeps

Heaven weeps

(or it is raining. It’s a matter of perspective and characterization, if you think about it)

We’re in a world where real tragedy, from Muslim extremists who find murdering little girls something to celebrate, to the little personal tragedies – not making ‘phone call to your mother until that tomorrow – which was too late, that can cut us to the quick. For many of us, we read to escape this, not to have it dragged up again.

Yet it is a very real part of great writing.

One of the things I am weakest at, and yet both admire and hate in the work of other writers who do it so much better than me, is the effective use of tragedy. It’s, probably, of the literary forms, slightly easier than comedy. That’s not hard to understand: we at least have some common ‘buttons’ across at least most of western civilization that make us want to weep, or at least get dust in our eyes. That’s not true of humor, where one man’s joke can easily be another man’s chosen political candidate.

Of course, as has frequently been observed, nothing is simple, and then you die… which is almost inevitably tragic from at least one perspective. Tragedy too can be a question of perspective, but, for the writer anyway, that a controllable perspective. The character suffering, or dying, is a character we have built. Everyone but rare psychopaths find suffering or dying pretty unpleasant if they identify and/or care about the character. (Yes I know. Poor psychopaths, sadists, masochists etc. so left out. Especially the intersectional ones. Look, feel free to start a hashtag campaign on twitter for them: we’re trying to sell books, preferably a lot of them, and that means that we worry about large enough chunks of the demographic to make a living selling to. Outside of Political Correctness, there is little point in endless appeasement of microscopic parts of the population, if you want to make a living selling books. Don’t worry, traditional publishing will cater for them.)

As I said, heaven weeps, or it is raining – depending on perspective of the reader about ‘Heaven’ (if you the author have managed to apply anthropomorphism to the sky and clouds, well, you’re following in ancient traditions. If you’ve carried the reader along, maybe a theological career is for you after all.) Whether the reader cares will depend on character that you, the author have created for ‘heaven’.

Of course, this is where it starts to get complicated. Obviously, not all readers are the same, and a substantial part of getting readers to care is some degree of being able to identify with the character and thus their distress. I suspect the slew of traditional authors contracted by angry, tearful publishers to write horrifying, tragic distrumpias (it’s the new big thing with traditional publishing. I suspect it will be for at least the next few years. It has a ready market with 95% of NY publishers. I wonder how it’s going to do outside that bubble.) may come to some startling discoveries. I’m sure it will be the readers’ fault, the insensitive boors, because the features that make a tragic tearjerker in NY publishing and their social and political circles… mean nothing to ¾ of the readers. In fact it may well be like the politician who gave the Guardian reporter a ‘body-slam’ (AKA a good shove). The media saw it (their perspective) as making the fellow an un-electable villain. Plainly – as he got comfortably elected, this was not the case from the perspective of many people.

Having had Guardian writer Damian Walter attempt to damage my career by attacking my book without actually reading more the first paragraph of CHANGELING’S ISLAND… I know who I would probably have voted for. A bit of defenestration, with a nice picket fence to land his derriere on and it would have been even more vote-grabbing, if hard on the fence. #NotAllFences!

That of course is an example how tragedy is a matter perspective… when the character is a stereotype of whom we see an ‘upper’ layer. It’s a lot harder – no matter what your perspective is, when the writer tackles the characterization well, from the basics up. Because yes, most of us are, at that level, remarkably alike. It is far easier to get a reader to identify with and care about a character after showing him or her, for example, trying to comfort a crying baby – especially if that is at 2 AM and the adult has no idea what is wrong, and is full of that odd mixture of helpless despair and utter exhaustion that every parent dealing with this goes through. You’ve done all the obvious (diapers, feed, attempt to wind, cuddle, sing, check temperature, panic a little, etc.). Pretty much every decent parent has been there. If I’ve seen these aspects of character, showing their human-ness, I care at least a little, even if they are the villain, or a Guardian reporter.

If all the reader has seen of them is at a busy day villaining (or being a hero, depending on perspective) at least to some, if not all of your audience, that tragedy you agonized over writing, is either ho-hum or a comedic interlude.

Another aspect of tragedy within the novel – besides eliciting the sympathy of reader, or providing motive or shock value a la GRRM (I disapprove. It’s like adding cocaine to your bottled soda recipe to sell it. It’ll work. But by next month you need add a little more. And the month after, more.) is one that I think is often missed. It is that of contrast. Now, I’m a mediocre to poor tragedarian, as I tend to be too involved and fond of my characters to be as nasty as I probably should be. I’m also pretty poor at this style of drama, as I tend to blunder into comedic interludes. I stand in awe of authors who can hold me while it is nothing but drama, the whole way. I fail at that. But tragicomedy (both in the ‘happy ending’ and the Satyr play sense) is my natural métier. This is where ‘contrast’ really comes into play.

Take a bottle of white paint, and a bottle of black. Mix them equally and your picture is gray. Do various proportions and you can achieve a wonderfully complex picture. If you want elements to stand out… you put extremes against each other. A piece of music with the same dynamics, same pace… makes a good lullaby, which is great if you’re selling your books as soporifics. Otherwise – a tragicomedy is an orchestration, a balancing act of pathos and humor, of fast and slow pace (slow – used judiciously makes the fast seem a lot faster).

It does require sometimes killing beloved characters (I have never quite forgiven Diana Wynne Jones for the death of Olob – even if it was a key feature of that book. She did it well in the Dalemark Quartet. Worth learning from.) which is never easy.

However – the good aspect of tragicomedic writing, for me anyway, is that one can – at least in part, resolve the tragedy, or ease it. That’s not always true in real life.

I guess that might explain why Ilike to write it and read it.

Telling truths through story

I don’t have much for you this week. Other than remembering something one of my editors (who became a friend) said to me very early on in my fiction career. He said (and these are not the exact words, just a summary) “Fiction writers are making up lies as they go along — but these are lies which tell the truth.”

That’s always stuck with me. Especially as we progress toward the end of this century’s second decade. Who now dares to tell the truth? Especially in story form? Your average fledgling author, upon setting sail for publication, is promptly surrounded by a host of rhetorical U-boats — all demanding that the fledgling author conform to a blizzard of “correct” artistic and political expectations. Lest (s)he find herself on the “wrong side” of any number of editors, agents, other authors, etc. At which point said fledgling’s career will be sunk.

So, what remains? What’s the point?

Some people write for money. Others write for awards. Or prestige. Or to influence society. Or a combination of the same.

When I look at the stuff I’ve written over the past 8 years, I realize that I was — unconsciously — forever trying to speak the truth. About how ordinary, decent folk react to extraordinary, difficult circumstances. About how the universe is not just some happy accident of physics. About the timeless dance of romance, between men and women. About the noble dignity of a straightforward life, lived according to straightforward values. Even when the roof is caving in, or the bottom is dropping out.

Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl said, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

To choose one’s own way . . .

Ours is the era of, “It’s not my fault!” and “This was done to me!” and “It’s somebody else’s job to make my life better!”

But all of the quality literature on self-improvement, tends to reflect Frankl’s premise. That we alone, as individual human beings, still retain an underlying level of oneness and dignity. Which no earthly power is capable of stripping from us. So long as we do not forget who we are.

My protagonists tend to remember who they are, in the clutch. When it really counts. Not without bumps and bruises, mind you. Nobody goes through this life unscathed. Pain, or damage, don’t end the world. Each of us is fated to get it, in one way or another. That’s the state of existence. We can allow it to destroy us, or we can find within ourselves Frankl’s hidden, practically invincible freedom.

That’s probably the truth I want to tell. Because the world seems crazy, and it’s filled with people who react crazily.

Except, none of us has to fall off the cliff. We can look that crazy in the eye and say, “No thanks.” Re-button our collars, cinch up our ties, and get back to the business of building and preserving civilization.

What truths do you find yourselves unconsciously (or consciously) speaking through story?

Good Books for Young Readers

I had a question posed over on my blog yesterday, and I thought that I’d ask for help here (and on social media) in answering it. Here’s the question:

Thanks mainly to Sarah’s blog introducing me to writers like you, I’m on top of SF for my g’daughters, ages 11 and 12, but are you aware of other kinds of fiction that would be age appropriate? Or even any idea where I might start looking? So far almost everything I’ve found appears to be written by and for The Young Radical Feminists Guild, if yaknowhatImean, and the books I read in the 50s and 60s have been “edited” or are just hard/impossible to find in their original form.

*Any* suggestion would be gratefully appreciated. I’ve run out of ideas! The younger g’daughter does not like SF or even fantasy, and we wanted to do a little family book club this summer.

I have compiled a fairly nice curated list of books for young men, but I’ve neglected books for young Ladies in training. With some help, I think we can come up with great reads for them, ones that will inspire them to grow up into loving women who respect men just as they themselves earn respect. Far too many of the current crop of girls books infantilize boys, if not portraying them in more negative lights.

Actually, reading some of the ‘books for boys’ is a great place to start, I know I read a lot of those as a girl. But sometimes a princess wants a story about cats, horses, and that ‘castle ambiance.’

Please put your suggestions in the comments below!

The First Reader and I were talking about this, and he pointed out that as much as we all love the Heinlein juveniles, they don’t work well for most young people these days. The children find it hard to connect with the concept that not everyone has a phone in their pocket and a computer to boot. He’s right – I have coaxed and cajoled mine, and they have turned up their noses at “Have Spacesuit, Will Travel”, “Star Beast” and others. On the other hand, my son did start reading Mackey Chandler’s Family Law, and was enjoying it (he stalled out because of the length, but that’s a maturity issue, not the book which wasn’t written for children).

So what I’m looking for are good books that were written more recently than the 50s and 60s. Or perhaps ones that have a timeless setting that kid readers can identify with. Nobody expects an elf to have a cellphone, my First Reader points out. I respond with, wouldn’t that be a fun story to write?

I know from personal experience that young adult books don’t sell terribly well as a small-name Indie author. I also know that my daughters (currently aged 16 and 15) love angst and teenager stuff, so I hold my nose and buy it for them. I just can’t bring myself to write it for them… however. Younger kids – the 10 and 12 yo of the question above – want and need the more hopeful, happy, inspiring tales of courage, love (and not in a romantic sense), and adventure. Pam Uphoff’s Barton Street Gym is a good example of a Indie YA that gives all that – but of course it’s also SF with an artificial intelligence that manifests as a T-Rex. Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome is a glimpse into another world, one that offered even young children responsibility, freedom, and wholesome adventure with adults rarely present.

If I ever have time, I’ll write more for kids. Even if the books don’t sell well, it’s important to have good books that focus more on story than pushing formative-stage minds into molds the social issues of the day dictate. That way lies indoctrination and madness.

Every Author for Branding

No, this isn’t about body-modification. That’s next month. This is, well, it’s less about writing, and more about the author-as-public-figure. Now, for those who aren’t aware, former NYC mayor and billionaire in his own right Michael Bloomberg formed a gun control advocacy group a number of years ago. They’ve lent weight – and money – to any number of state and national political campaigns and legislative efforts, as well as bankrolling other astroturf gun control groups.

Recently, Everytown has announced the formation of an Author Council. 130 authors have signed on to prevent gun violence. Notables include Jodi Picoult, Lev Grossman, and Tim Federle. (Truthfully, those were the only names I recognized. I don’t know whether that reflects the make-up of the group, or of my reading tastes. (I’d also like to note that I’ve never read a Jodi Picoult novel. Not my fandom.))

I’ve seen a middling amount of reaction from my online circles. Everything from shrugs to calls for informal boycott. Me, I don’t care. I’ve never let political leanings get in the way of enjoying (or writing) a good story, and I don’t look to start. That said, as so few names are even on my horizon, I’m unlikely to look to this list for my new favoritest author evar.

Regardless of your opinion on gun rights, Bloomberg’s opinions, or politics in general, the Author Council’s call to action is an important point for writers to consider.

Do you like money? Do you want people to commit egregious commerce with you, turning gobs and scads of their money into your money? I know that’s one of my major writing dreams (too far off to be a goal, at least until I get more writing time into the schedule). I’m really somewhat admiring of this council thingy. They’re rocking their market targeting by doing this. By simply publicly signing their names to a gun control group, they’re advertising what kind of people they want to buy their books. Jodi Picoult could probably drink puppy smoothies for breakfast and not lose her readership, and Lev Grossman has a successful television series based on his big work, so there’s less courage there.

But for anybody less well-known, or well-selling, this is a great way to tell whole swaths of readers that you do (or possibly more significantly, don’t) want them to give you money for your efforts. As an author, causes you come out in support of or opposition to are going to mark you to readers. Some readers. The ones who pay attention to that kind of thing, at least. And among certain genre (like ourn) this is a more fraught venture.

Witness the fallout of the Puppy campaigns.

Any number of writers were outted (rightly or wrongly) as one thing or another, and calls for boycotts were loud and shrill. “Friends” were shunned and writers lost readers. Which is a shame.

How does this matter to you? Simply put: be aware. Know your genre, know your industry, and know your readership. For example, I suspect most of the authors on the council aren’t writing milSF. Joining a gun control group and writing scifi gun porn would be almost as poor a choice as writing stereotypical high fantasy and publicly raging about the evils of western civilization.

Should you then not stand for principles in an effort to gain more readers? By no means. If you’re passionate about something, you should advocate for it. Just be aware that doing so will likely lose you some readers, though that may simply be in potentia. I doubt my eventual milfantasy will get me many leftist readers. Certainly my views on individual liberty and the proper role of government would lose me them.

And I’m fine with that. They wouldn’t have read me in the first place. I’m too publicly associated with the rest of this band of reprobates, and I don’t much care who knows it. I’m also the smallest fry among the MGC.

It likely doesn’t matter, anyway. Who we are as writers comes out in our writing, and people will love or hate that as they’re individually bent. I don’t read Larry Correia for the heart-wrenching scenarios (though I still haven’t forgiven him for Sam), just like I’m not pulling out my much-thumbed copies of David Eddings to read his exhortations about which firearms to choose and how to plan a military campaign (he rightly implies that the most exciting campaigns are often the ones where things go spectacularly wrong. At least for the heroes.)

Look at Sarah’s Darkship books. Written by a statist, they ain’t.

The message to you, the writer, is as I said above. Be aware of your market. Know what they want to get out of your writing. Do they want polemics? Do they want entertainment? And what kind? I read for fun, and tend to avoid certain things. Lev Grossman’s Magicians looks (admittedly, from the television spots) like a rich world with complex characters and a compelling plot. That doesn’t mean I’m going to like it. The way it was first described to me didn’t sound like something I would actually want to read. Which is fine. You can’t snag every reader, and he won’t miss my book budget.

And be wise about how you choose to advertise your causes. I suspect most of the authors on the council aren’t trumpeting their involvement. Certainly not where it’s impacted my life. Maybe a blog post. “Hey, all, I’m in a thing,” is probably the extent of most. I hope. Should your championing of something extend beyond that to, “and everyone must kowtow to my thing for reasons,” you might want to consider dialing back the intensity. Just a mite.

Penultimately, please accept my fulsome apologies for the timing of this missive. I’ve chosen to put family ahead of career, at this point in my life, and that means things like my MGC posts come after the kids are cared for. I’d like to be able to manage things concurrently, but I wasn’t given enough hands for that.

Finally, however you honor my fallen brothers and sisters in arms (or not), this weekend, please be courteous to those who do so differently than you do. Some awesome folks will be found in our national (and other) cemeteries, cleaning, tidying, and placing flags and flowers and suchlike. Y’all rock. Many, many more will be found hoisting beverages of varying levels of inebriability. Or applying heat to flesh, via grill, or outdoors at a beach or park. Or both. This is cool. Most of those who’ve died in service of our country would appreciate that, too. Be well, be safe, keep an eye on your buddy, and if you’ve had too much to drive (read: any) call Chief, or failing that, the Old Man. Both will be happy to make sure you get home alive.


When you stop to think about it, all of us are largely products of our history. We make decisions based to a large extent on our experiences up to that point, and our experiences are influenced by the choices of those close to us – who are making their choices based on their experiences. And so on, all the way back to the first sexually dimorphic organisms. Probably. Possibly further, since even asexually reproducing organisms can be affected by environment and then have that impact propagate through their clones.

The writerly term for this is backstory.

Most authors will figure out the backstory of their main characters, along with some key bits of their minor characters, but it go so wrong its either hilarious or horrible depending on your perspective. And by hilarious or horrible, I mean stuff like granddad who’s eighty or so and has vivid memories of the Napoleonic wars. And the US Civil War. Oh, and it’s late 20th century, and granddad isn’t immortal.

I believe the kindest way to describe this is “um”.

Now, okay, you’re probably not going to do that in a contemporary setting. But you can certainly cram that much living into a character backstory if you’re not careful. Partly it’s the convenience of having granddad able to tell your main characters cool stories about stuff they didn’t experience which turn out to be really useful even though they’ve been groaning to themselves every time granddad starts the whole “When I was a lad…” or “Back in the day…” But there’s only so much, “well… he gets a bit confused, you know,” you can push through. Overdo it, and instead of being pulled into your wonderful story, your readers will be wondering when granddad found time to have kids. And what grandma thought about him being off fighting monsters or wars or whatever all the time.

See, even in the most turbulent eras, there are usually bursts of “ohshitohshitohshitI’mgonnadie!” interspersed with a lot of relatively peaceful times. Even a really adventurous character probably doesn’t spend all his/her/its time battling monsters, slaying princesses and rescuing evil. Um. Or something. More likely there’s going to be a few months of high adventure with several years between times recovering, training for the next adventure, and investing the spoils of the last one (or just spending it and having way too much fun with the persons of negotiable virtue until said spoils run out and another adventure becomes a financial necessity).

Heck, even in the most war-torn areas, it’s not really battles all the time (World War 1 was something of an anomaly) in any single spot. Long sieges were rare enough to be noteworthy, and battles rarely lasted more than a few days. Even during World War 1, actually – as I understand it, the trenches were manned continuously, there’d be as close to constant artillery barrage as possible, but at the same time people were being rotated in and out all the time so an individual soldier would spend maybe a month on the front lines for every three months in the area (I’m dredging this from the stainless steel lint trap of my memory so the details might be fuzzy. If not completely wrong. But the general idea isn’t) – most individual combat engagements weren’t that long.

The point being that no matter how neat that character’s backstory is, if it involved almost non-stop adventure and said character is now elderly and relatively sane, they ain’t human. And that’s presuming you got the chronology right.

I’m not saying you need to write a biography of every named character in your books. You don’t. You do need to have some notes so you don’t accidentally regress someone’s age between novels or have Fred remember doing the thing that George did in book 1. You might not remember, but I promise you at least one fan will.

Now that I’ve managed 600 words or so of digression, I was going to say something about how character attitudes and reactions rise from their past experiences, but you know what? My recent past experiences include a cat with bowel issues, a major software release, and all the cleaning up – metaphorical and physical – both entail. I’m not sure I could manage to return to the topic and post anything sensible.

I guess that will be another post.