On good days, writing can feel like an intellectual release, an escape past the boundaries the writer sees in our media-saturated culture. But on bad days, the writer can feel he’s trapped in a prison of his own making. Nicholas Gagnier evokes both feelings beautfully in his poem today.
As my vignette yesterday suggested, this is a tough month for me, especially when I’m dealing with a lingering illness (contracted a severe ear ache last week, and it’s not going away). What helps get me through January is an appreciation of winter’s beauty, which Paul F. Lenzi captures in a haiku today.
[To show my appreciation of Tony Single’s delightful Six Word Stories on unbolt, I’m making a contribution to the genre]
January? January. January, January, January… January.
One last self-indulgent post about “The Chosen,” then I promise to move on.
When a story bounces around in your imagination for over three decades, you’re bound to develop several ideas about that story. And if you’re smart, you’ll write down at least some of those ideas. Somewhere in the dusty bins of my memorabilia, I have extensive material about “The Chosen” — character sketches, political and religious histories, plot summaries, even some maps and crude caricatures — that I considered digging up last month when I became inspired to start the project at last. But at the time, I was a few days from beginning a long journey, and I knew finding all that material could be a frustrating task. Made the decision to just go with my instincts, and find my notes later; I’m entirely satisfied with that decision.
Yet as I look ahead to that unspecified time when I pick up the story again, I realize I need that material. While I like what I did with the first two chapters, I fully realized while writing that I was leaving out a great amount of detail. Countries and cities are named and there’s an allusion to a budding colonial revolution, but there’s little backstory; there’s a reference to a religious schism, without any context; all the characters conveniently speak the same language. I decided not to address these problems when drafting the first two chapters, but going forward I realize these issues need to be resolved.
Part of the appeal of the high fantasy genre is the creation of fascinating new worlds — similar to ours, but engagingly different as well. When I read good fantasy, I feel like an explorer, discovering an alien land that I don’t want want to leave. It’s an experience evoked by the introduction to “Star Trek,” a classic of space fantasy:
To explore strange new worlds. To seek out new life and new civilizations. To boldly go where no one has gone before!
I want the reader to have that same experience when reading “The Chosen,” but that experience can only come through a meticulous attention to detail. Consider two classics of medieval fantasy, “Lord of the Rings” and “A Song of Ice and Fire” — the historical backstory in both epics is staggering. And the languages! Tolkein’s Elvish, Martin’s Dothraki, and yes, the Klingon of “Star Trek” — if authors can create an entire new language, how can their readers not think they’ve entered a new world?
So before I start chapter three, I need to dig up those old notes, and have a good deal of additional work to accomplish. There are lands to create! History to craft! Maps to draw! Languages to birth! And most important of all, characters to bring to life!
Yeah, I need to get busy before coming back to “The Chosen.” But I’m going to enjoy the work. And I’ve got a feeling that when I do get back to that story, what comes out is going to be pretty cool.
I’ve kept a journal for close to four decades. Nothing fancy, just a series of spiral-bound notebooks, which I’ve used for a number of purposes over the years. While drafting the first two chapters of “The Chosen,” I used it to make notes, generate ideas, craft and revise outlines — 25 pages of pre-writing exercises. All that work helped make the last three weeks as productive as they were fun.
When it comes to the craft of writing, I’m not a believer in rules. There’s very few things that I feel all writers must do; I keep a journal not to fulfill an obligation, but rather because the activity has demonstrably improved my writing. I’d certainly recommend experimenting with a journal to any writer, and see what happens. If it works for you, keep doing it, but if it proves to be an unproductive burden, then stop and try something else.
Journaling has done wonders for me, especially over the last few weeks. As I draft fiction on this blog, I’ll continue to rely on my spiral-bound notebooks to explore my ideas before clicking Publish.
Nineteen days ago, I started a new fiction project on this blog, with only one objective in mind. I was going to have fun — there would be characters, but I wasn’t going to fret over characterization; there would be a plot, but where it would lead I neither knew nor cared; there would most likely be themes, but I wasn’t concerned about what they meant. All I wanted to do was write, and enjoy the experience.
As I mentioned at the start, “The Chosen” is a story that’s been bouncing around in my imagination for over three decades, and finally getting it started has been enormously gratifying. I hadn’t expected to write that second chapter, but after completing the first there was no way I was going to stop. But as I reached the half-way point of chapter two, I knew that pressing on to a third chapter would be an effort. Mind you, I don’t mind the work; writing is the only job I’ve ever wanted to do. But I wasn’t going to make “The Chosen” another burden. So for now, I’m setting the project aside.
Not sure when I’ll get back to Crim, Archilochus, and their crew. Perhaps when I feel the need to have some fun again. One thing I know for certain, though, is that this tale isn’t over.
The stranger raised his arms, and turned slowly towards the guards. “Officers — ” the stranger’s voice was as calm as a still lake in the morning — “you have us at your mercy.”
The guard on the left removed the bolt from his crossbow, strapped his weapons onto his back, and came forward cautiously as the other guard kept his aim at the stranger. The guard searched the stranger, discarding the weaponry he found on the forest floor. Wolf remained on the ground, contemplating her next move; she could easily overpower the first guard, and liked her chances against the second. But now wasn’t time to act; wait for the first guard to attempt binding her, then strike.
Completing his search, the first guard spun the stranger around. “Hands behind your back.” The stranger complied slowly. “You and this damn woman have given us a lot of trouble these past few days,” the guard grumbled as he bound the stranger’s wrists, “but there’ll be no more of that.”
“Indeed.” Wolf saw the hint of a smile curl on the stranger’s lips. “Your prospects appear to be looking up.”
A snap from behind, then the second guard yelled. Wolf saw the guard’s crossbow fall to the ground, as the guard struggled against a man who had him in a chokehold from behind. At the same time, the stranger snapped his head back, striking and surprising his captor, and threw his right elbow behind him and bashing the guard in the temple. The first guard fell to his knees; in the moonlight, Wolf could finally see who the guard was struggling against — the Islander, from the party of pilgrims she had attempted to rob.
The Islander slipped a loop from a rope around the first guard’s right foot, and a moment later the guard was lifted upside-down into the air, the rope hanging from a sturdy branch, its other end now secured to a root by the Islander. Meanwhile, the stranger had the second guard pinned face-down on the ground; soon, he was also hanging upside-down, suspended by a similar rope snare.
The stranger nodded at the Islander, as the guards struggled awkwardly against their captivity. “Killing them would have been so much easier.”
“And also would have brought the entire colony down on our heads.” The Islander shook his head, then glared down at Wolf. “Expected you to run off again.”
Wolf frowned, then pointed up at the guards, grasping at their legs like trapped bats. “Seemed futile, given what’s happened so far.”
The Islander lowered an open hand, and helped Wolf to her feet. “I don’t blame you for not trusting us — ”
“That woman, you still travelling with her?” The Islander nodded in response to Wolf’s question. “She made me a deal last night. Tell her, I’m going to hold her to that deal.”
“You can tell her yourself.” The Islander looked behind and to her left, and nodded. Before Wolf could react, a large burlap sack descended on her, and she was promptly thrown to the ground. Her arms constrained by the sack, she kicked wildly — “What the hell are you doing?”
She heard the stranger’s smooth voice over her struggles — “Demonstrating how little we trust you.”
End Chapter Two
The stranger led her towards the exterior prison gate, where a guard sat on a chair on the other side. At the edge of the interior shadows, the stranger held up a silent hand, commanding Wolf to stop. The guard looked bored, but alert.
Suddenly, a noise from down the road — horses neighing loudly, the shouts of angry voices. The guard stood up from his chair, took two steps forward, then called out to his left, from where two men soon rushed forward. The noise grew in intensity; the guard put his hands on his hips, peeing towards the source of the noise, then with a disgusted growl began walking away.
The stranger waved Wolf forward, then opened the locked gate with the same ease he displayed when opening Wolf’s cell. As soon as she exited he closed the gate, without making a sound, and they both then slipped into the shadows of the courthouse.
Wolf was an experienced thief, and had no trouble moving silently in the dark; this stranger who had freed her, though, seemed even more adept than she. They passed a blacksmith’s forge as they approached the edge of the forest; Wolf glanced at the guards, confirmed they were still distracted, and with a swift motion reached for a hammer, then swung it hard against the back of the stranger’s head.
The stranger collapsed. Wolf dropped the hammer and began racing for the woods, as she heard a distant voice commanding her to stop. She raced forward, and a moment later was in the midst of tall trees. She was not familiar with this area, but all she needed now was to get as deep into the woods as possible, begin covering her tracks —
A weight collapsed on the back of her legs, and she fell forward onto the damp ground. She felt the weight lift off her legs, so she turned, looked up, and saw the stranger who had just freed her from the prison. He looked more amused than annoyed. “Your instinct for self-preservation is absurdly misguided.”
“Halt!” Wolf looked beyond the stranger, and saw two of the guards, both with crossbows, aimed at her and the stranger.
Soon after the New Frisarian had left the prison, Wolf pulled on the iron bars across the windows of her prison cell. There were three bars, each an inch in diameter, and she could tell they ran deep into the masonry both above and below the window. And even if the bars weren’t there, she would be able to crawl through the narrow opening only with great difficulty. The guards posted outside would certainly see her, if they didn’t hear her removing the bars. But she knew that chance was preferable to her imminent trial and execution, or another jail in New Frisaria.
She reached into her mouth, fingers poking into her upper lip, and a moment later she retrieved a needle she had concealed while being captured the day before. Small and thin, it was nonethless sharp and durable, a gift from a master thief who had been her reluctant mentor. In the hands of a skilled brigand like Wolf, the needle could slice a throat, pick a lock, or perform the task she required of it now — digging into the masonry around the window.
Wolf scratched fervently, stopping whenever she heard approaching noises either outside or inside. As darkness fell, she had burrowed into the masonry below the window, reaching the base of the bar on the right. There was much more digging to be done, but she knew she’d be able to squeeze out the window by daybreak. She began digging across to the middle bar.
“Why don’t you just pick the lock?”
Wolf froze at hearing the voice, and assumed one of the guards had caught her by surprise. She flipped the needle back into her lip as she turned, expecting to see the guard scowling outside her cell. But what she saw surprised her even more than the sudden voice.
The speaker was inside her cell, not outside. His height was that of a young teen, but his face was mature. His arms and feet were crossed, and his back was resting against the cell’s iron gate. He wore a thin coat of boiled leather, and a cap that covered the entire top of his head. He pointed a finger toward her — “You do know how to pick locks, right?”
Wolf nodded. “How’d you get in here?”
He seemed perturbed at her question. “I’m afraid that’s not a particularly interesting story, and it’s one we don’t have time for now. Let’s just say that getting myself out would be just as easy as getting in — but getting you out, that’s going to take some work.” He pushed himself from the bars, then opened the gate as if it had never been locked. He took one step into the corridor, then paused, and looked back into the cell.
Wolf had not moved, mesmerized by the appearance of this stranger. It was only when he called to her — “You do want to escape, yes?” — that she finally began to follow.