Tag Archives: wikipedia

History Is Something That Happens To Other People

19 May

Two quick announcements from Shannon before today’s guest blogger takes over:

I have joined Tumblr, so please join me by clicking here. Also, my headshot pictures have changed. I recently did a photo shoot with Colt Coan Photography. Check out his website by clicking here!

Today’s guest blogger is Misha Burnett, author of the Catskinner’s Book and Cannibal Hearts, science fiction/urban fantasy novels. He will also mention his co-author, Jessika O’Sullivan. Please click on their names to visit their websites.   

I have always been intimidated by historical research for fiction. One of my favorite authors is Tim Powers, who writes an unique form of historical fantasy, blending real events with fantastic elements so seamlessly that you finish his books wondering just what the hell really happened.

I would read something like The Anubis Gates (about a secret society of Egyptian magicians in early 19th Century London) or Declare (the career of Soviet spy Kim Philby explained as a cold world battle over the control of a colony of djin in the Arabian desert) and be utterly blown away—and completely convinced that I could never attempt anything like that.

Recently however, I found myself having started a historical novel. It’s kind of a funny story. An indie writer friend of mine invited me to join a Google+ group called “Legendary Author Battles”. The purpose of the group was to writers working together on short stories. One would pick the setting, the other the characters, and they would take turns adding to the story. These “battles” weren’t intended to be serious, they were simply a writing exercise.

However, a writer named Jessika O’Sullivan and I found ourselves with the beginning of a very interesting story, with characters that we cared about, and both of us decided that it really ought to be given a change to become a novel.

Fortunately Jessika is well educated and willing to shoulder the brunt of the research. However, as I was going I found myself needing to know things in order to figure out how events would unfold.

Our novel is set in East Berlin, in 1947. We have a diverse mix of characters, English, German, Russian, ranging in age from their early 20’s to their mid 50’s. Suddenly I have to know things like what was going on in St. Petersburg, Russia in 1917 or how extensive was the firebombing of Dresden, Germany in February of 1945.

Thank God for Wikipedia. Not only do they have pages on everything, they have links to actual source materials and archive pictures. Did you know that you can get lists of articles that appeared in The Lancet magazine going back to the 19th Century?

Translating the cold data into a character’s experiences, however, I have begun to realize that looking up facts is only the first half. There is a phrase used by military writers; “Ground Truth”. They use it to refer to the difference between knowing something because your intelligence agencies tell you so, and getting physically into an area and seeing it with your own eyes.

Obviously, I cannot physically walk the streets of East Berlin in 1947. I wouldn’t even be able to swing the airfare to visit Berlin today. I’m a writer, though, I travel via my imagination. Looking at the photographs of the devastation wrought by the war, I can project myself into the shoes of the figures dwarfed by those piles of rubble. Those lucky enough to have shoes, that is.

That’s when I realized that history isn’t history to the people who live there. It’s obvious in retrospect, but that’s what I think is the key to writing historical fiction—the characters don’t know they are characters in historical fiction.

To take just one example, our character Helmut doesn’t know anything about The German Revolution as a historical event. What he knows is that one day his father went to a political rally and never came back, and he had to become the sole support of his mother and brothers at seventeen.

It isn’t the things that make headlines or chapters in history books that make up a life, those are things that are only seen afterward, by people who hadn’t been there. Helmut reads in the paper that the UN is voting on the establishment of the state of Israel, and he mentions it in conversation, but what his wife Amalia is going to make for dinner that evening is a thousand times more important to him.

I am realizing that I have to keep asking myself not only, “What was going on in that place, at that time?” but also “What effect, if any, would those events have on my characters?”

What is the Ground Truth? To a young girl in the Bund Deutscher Mädel, National Socialism isn’t an ideology, it’s the thing that makes her work after school making bandages for the troops instead of playing outside with her friends.

Now don’t get me wrong—good research is important, and it’s hard work. If I write that my characters are standing around watching the Soviets build the Berlin Wall, a lot of people are going to point out that construction on the Wall wasn’t begun until 1961. If I’m writing about a character driving a car I need to know what sort of controls that car would have, and how they differ from modern vehicles. Would the car have a radio? Air conditioning? Automatic transmission? What sort of lights, and how are they controlled? Seat belts?

A million details, and there’s a temptation, when researching, to include everything. On the 12th of November, 1947, the writer Emma Orczy, creater of The Scarlet Pimpernil, died. As a writer and a lover of esoterica, I find that a significant event, given Orczy’s influence on popular adventure and mystery stories.

Honestly, though, it’s not something that my characters would have noticed at all. So I resist the temptation to put it in the book. It’s not my story, it’s my character’s story.

What matters most about people isn’t when they lived or where they were born or what language they spoke. What matters most about people is that they are people.

History is something that happens to other people. When it’s happening, it’s not history, it’s just life. One of the themes that Jessika and I have discussed is how in the midst of these huge upheavals, wars and revolutions and reconstructions, life somehow still goes on. People still fall in and out of love, work and struggle, argue and make up, wake up each morning and go to bed each night.

The fundamental things apply.

Misha

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Guest Post: Ryan Attard: The Fleeting Muse

21 Oct

Shannon here, just to introduce this upcoming author. Ryan Attard is the author of Firstborn, the first book of the Legacy series, coming out December 13th. You can follow him at his website or check out his novel on Goodreads. It’s also on Amazon. I’m also giving away pre-releases of his highly anticipated novel in exchange for a review, so feel free to email me at shannonathompson@aol.com.  Now, onto his hilarity:

This one is a question I get a lot.

Where do you get your inspiration? What inspires you? What makes you want to write?

I’ve exchanged banter and jokes about the so called muse – usually with regards to a ‘writer’s block’ (which by the way does not exist).

But before I go into a tirade about what floats my metaphorical boat, here’s some history. Muses were Greek goddesses of inspiration. They’re usually in a cluster (as most ideas are) and hovering around some poor bloke trying to sew together the pieces of his mind. I may have added the last part. Two reasons I like using the word ‘muse’.

1. Only a naked dancing woman has enough power to torture me as much as my ideas do. (Too much info into your personal life there, Ryan.)

2. I’m a hunter x  hunter fan and ‘Terpsichore’ is an special ability of a cat-humanoid mass murderer. And one of the bdedebgfcreepiest abilities in the series.

Also, no one can pronounce the name Terpsichore – which represents the muse of dance. See above for reference about dancing naked lady.

My sources on this are on Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Muse). Because I am both lazy and supportive of questionable resources. Also, I like fiction.

My muse is a bitch. She doesn’t transmit ideas, so much as carpet bombs them. I find myself lying awake at 4am writing entire pages of notes and spider webs, giggling like a villain from the Ghostbusters (the cartoon. Cos I roll old-school). I used to sleep with a note pad near the pillow so that when ideas struck, I would just reach over and scribble notes down, without having to roll over, or even open my eyes. Perhaps not the cleanest of ideas but I decided I like my sleep whenever I can get it. An idea is just like a baby: sucks all your time, gives you mood swings and you’re not sleeping. Ever.

I decided to start writing once I caught up to my favourite series, and did not want to wait for those lazy authors to write the next book. I thought ‘Sure I could write a really long essay and divide it in chapters.’

Then I spent the next 2 years figuring out exactly how to write a book and how long it takes to get a GOOD piece of work done. My apologies to the authors – now I feel your pain.

Oddly enough Literature is not my main source of inspiration. I still read, of course, but I found myself unable to properly enjoy books. The inner editor catches errors and proofreading passes like its his job (Well, it is) and I find that I study novels rather than read them. So it largely depends on the author and genre with me. I’m extremely picky.

Anime, manga and movies are my main source. I think in flashes of movement or panels most of the time – then I go about describing those flashes in detail for your literacy pleasures. And I always need music. I listen to a variety of weird crap by artists which are mostly underground, far away from corporate clutches. I was actually thinking of putting up a soundtrack or playlist in my wordpress site, so if anyone knows how to do that, please help me out.

In fact, the title Firstborn comes from a Celldweller song ‘The Last Firstborn.’ (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2qn5PXWBxEA). This is the first ever track I’ve heard from the artist and the dark melodic and upbeat theme just gave me the perfect imagery in my head. Suddenly I was Erik, killing demons and monsters- saving the world, one sarcastic remark at a time. Over the years I may have ripped off a name from the artist. The main character from the Pandora Chronicles, Professor Nick Solomon, is a huge fan of the EDM group Krewella (as am I).

Like Ryan Attard on Facebook

Like Ryan Attard on Facebook

TV shows have also played a huge role in what I write. I grew up on sitcoms, so my sense on humor is pretty tailored for a specific situation. I love it when I come across shows like ‘Lost Girl’ or ‘Supernatural’ which have a dark humor vibe and despite the blood are still family-friendly. Buffy the Vampire Slayer was a classic that shaped my formative years, and I couldn’t help but model the Legacy heroine after the blonde ass kicking vamp slayer. Although mine’s a redheaded succubus hybrid.

Always a twist.

Ironically I’m also a huge fan of Sabrina the Teenage Witch. (Very manly I know. Stop judging.) I first caught an episode when I was 7 years old and the image of a cheap animatronic black cat telling jokes mesmerized me forever. Years later I too invented a black talking cat named Amaymon. But instead of being a cursed warlock (who has no use in the show other than comedic relief) mine is a demon who has a penchant for frat boy level of partying and complete annihilation. Sometimes in the same night. Also he’s a pervert (of course). I did a character interview a few years ago. Check it out if you can handle it: http://cloeyk.blogspot.com/2013/02/ryan-attard.html

what else. . . Oh right, the martial arts. I use heavy Asian influences and mythologies, because of my love of that culture. My martial arts practice helped me understand concepts such as Yin and Yang and Chi – which in turn I have mutated into the magical system found in the Legacy books.

My muse is also a pot head. I know this because a) she always appears with a puff of smoke and b) she is always funny.

I have list upon list of one liners which I had written down when I first plotted the Legacy books. Over the years I’ve learnt to be a little smarter and divide them up into arcs or books – that way my choice is no more than 5 per arc. I suppose I am guilty of falling in love with lines that are funny but not applicable to the story. I once made the mistake of creating a scene just to put the joke in – which resulted in a giant clusterfuck and sent my entire book down the toilet. So here’s a lesson boys and girls – story first. Character traits, jokes, and other little stuff has to come second. Give the choice always do what’s best for your story, not just the scene. Big picture, people.

I suppose that’s my influence spectrum in a very tight nutshell. I tend to think of various ways to torture characters, like making them babysit a bunch of kids and fight a deranged teen on Halloween. (Now do you get why my muse is high?) This is the plot of Dread Night my Halloween special. Release schedule TBA on my blog.

Here’s the secret to making those muse visits regular – keep going at it. I am always writing, always thinking of new stories. Shannon A Thompson has a great post about highs and lows (https://shannonathompson.com/2013/10/12/one-of-my-lows-as-an-author/) and I couldn’t agree more. Lows after finishing a story are common (she does a better job at explaining it, using nice words and great literature as opposed to me, who tramples of the metaphorical flower bed, stumbling and cursing every ten seconds).

The most important part is not to let the lows get to you. That’s why I don’t believe in writer’s block. My muse is my bitch – she works for me. Sure, most days its an effort to get into it and gradually the flow gets better as you progress, but a true artist never stops just because they don’t feel like it, or just because they don’t know what to write. Here’s what I do when I don’t have the inkling to work: I look at my bank account. That always makes me crack my knuckles and work harder. Poverty is a great motivator.

I’ll leave y’all (Why do I say that? I’m not even American) with a quote from the author who inspired me to write: Jim Butcher.

“I don’t get Writer’s Block – I have a mortgage.”

Stay tuned and till next time,

Ryan (and his muse – who just left)

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