No Writer is an Island

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“Be careful. You don’t want your work to be derivative.”

I’m not part of the camp that says there’s no such thing as an original idea (there must be millions out there crawling around!) but it’s hard to pretend that ideas don’t come from other books, movies, games, and comics that have already been published. If you ask me, there’s nothing shameful about picking and digging through existing works for inspiration.

Drawing inspiration, of course, is very different from “paying homage to” or “borrowing ideas” or “lifting characters from.” There’s a work that is derivative and then there is a work that is unoriginal. Derivative, I would argue, is nothing to be ashamed of when done well! Can’t we say that most modern and post-modern fantasy is derivative of J.R.R. Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings/Middle Earth? And does that immediately devalue every fantasy novel, story, or game created since 1937?

I was given the above warning when workshopping a fantasy novel. I’ve spent countless hours world building for this piece and working hard to subvert traditional fantasy genre expectations and create races unlike those I’d read about before. When I was warned I might be too “derivative” I came to a realization: maybe that’s not such a bad thing. Some of the best told stories aren’t original ideas anyway.

Shakespeare’s Hamlet might be the best example of a derivative work that stepped out and away from its origins and paved a new path through the craft of writing and creation of memorable characters.

In no way do I or any respectable writer condone plagiarism or the taking of other writers’ ideas. BUT don’t let the fear of being labeled “derivative” scare you away from the ideas that move you the most.

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To Prologue or Not To Prologue

If you ask me, it’s not much of a question at all. As writers, we are all tempted to include still more information for the reader to take in and there are few simpler tools with which to do this than a prologue that shows a (usually) different perspective on the story than the body of the manuscript will.

It may come from the eyes of the villain, a scholar who’s discovered an ancient text, a minor character, a parent, or an unrelated narrator but, no matter what, its goal is to give the reader another peek behind the curtain of the world that the writer has built.

Unfortunately, these are rarely successful in modern Young Adult, Popular, or Literary Fiction. More often than not, the prologue jars or upsets the modern reader. She opens a book and begins to read a story and is dismayed, several pages later, to discover that she’s just turned the page to Chapter 1. How disoriented and confused she must be. I know more than a few avid readers who’ve felt a bit betrayed by a prologue and been put off the book because of it.

Be warned, fellow writers, that the prologue takes a lot of art to execute properly (if at all, and I continue to recommend not at all). There is no hard and fast rule set about prologues as far as I am concerned, but I think the most successful I have read are short, not so different from the book itself, and immediately engaging.

As with any First Five Pages, a prologue MUST have a hook. It should, if at possible, begin with one. It must make readers eager to continue reading the story. Perhaps the prologue asks a question that the book will answer. Maybe it opens with a mystery or some newspaper clippings that set up the murder or robbery case. There may be hints of a conspiracy brewing in the prologue, the results of which are made apparent in the book itself.

Whatever approach you choose, do so with care. Ask yourself, fellow writer, some important questions before you decide whether or not to include a prologue in your manuscript:

1. Does it grab the reader’s attention?
2. Does it include information that could not possibly have been included elsewhere in the manuscript?
3. Does it create too much distance between the reader and the story he came to read?
4. Is it even one word longer than it absolutely needs to be?

There are a fair few things that K.M. Weiland of Structuring Your Novel and I can be said to disagree on but prologues are not one of them. My final word, fellow writer, is this: unless you deem it absolutely necessary, skip writing a prologue.

Hellsgate, New Mexico: Haberdashery Part 2

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The Winslows set up their hat shop in a tiny building next to the general store. Their space on Freedom Street was small but sufficient and had two small rooms above it in which they lived. A month since their arrival in Hellsgate, they newlyweds prepared to open the doors of their business to the people of the town.
Charles set several of the hats (some quite practical for the working men of New Mexico and some highly ridiculous for fashionable ladies) on wooden dummy heads in front of the store, while Margaret Winslow sat inside and hummed to herself while stitching decorative flowers from fabric scraps.
After an hour, Charles tucked his hands in pockets and whistled. After two hours, he smoked his pipe a bit. After three hours, he sat inside the shop and sulked. When the fourth hour rolled in and no customers had presented themselves, he grumbled that he was going for a walk.
Mrs. Winslow was content to be alone. She had hats to make, ribbon to embroider, and her Bible to read. She could manage the store perfectly well, thank you. She busied herself with the small tasks of decorating some of the many straw hats she’d crafted and dyed the prior week. A flower here, a bit of ribbon there, a pin or a feather to finish it off — she was not a woman with idle hands.
“Pardon me,” a wisp of a voice fell on her ears.
When she looked up, a tall woman stood before her, looking highly out of place in her small shop and, she realized, out of place in a dusty, dirty desert town like Hellsgate. The figure was dressed all in pristine white (not cotton or linen, Mrs. Winslow noted, perhaps a fine chiffon like she had seen on fashionable gowns back east), her flowing gown fluttering in a breeze that did not seem to exist.
The woman wore a fine white scarf to cover her hair and had a sort of veil that obscured her face from just below her eyes. The little skin that did show was almost as pale as the fabric of her dress. The eyes that could be seen were so dark brown that she could have sworn they were black.
“Good day!” she beamed at her first customer.
Strange or no, if this woman wanted to make a purchase, who was Mrs. Winslow to discriminate against the dead or unholy? In this town, that sort of biased attitude could cost you good coin.
“I feel so empty,” the stranger whispered, her veil unmoving.
“I’m afraid we don’t sell any food here, ma’am but I have some lovely hats you might be interested in!”
Mrs. Winslow hopped up to her feet and scurried to a small table where several flower-adorned hats dwelled. She picked out one in pale pink and white and offered it to the woman. With gloved, bird-like hands, the woman took the hat from Mrs. Winslow and simply stared at it.
“Ah, here, allow me to help, if you will.”
With a firm yet gentle grip, she took the hat from the woman in white and, standing upon the tips of her toes, placed it delicately upon the woman’s head. Rushing over to her work table, she retrieved a small, polished looking glass and held it up for the woman.
The woman stared for some time, tilted her head slowly, and breathed, “I wish to go home, I think.”
She did not leave or even move so Mrs. Winslow thought perhaps the woman was only reflecting to herself aloud.
“Perhaps another hat,” she remarked, retrieving the pink one from the woman’s head.
This time she took a natural straw hat with a grand bow of white ribbon on one side. Perhaps the color would interest her customer, Mrs. Winslow thought to herself. It did seem to match her gown, after all.
“Here we are, madam,” she placed this hat atop the woman’s head and held the glass up again.
The woman tilted her head the other way and sighed, “So very cold and empty.”
“Ah, perhaps this was another bad match,” Mrs. Winslow nodded to herself and retrieved the hat from the tall woman. “Let me see if I can’t make something up to suit you. How do you feel about blue? Or green”?
She held up blank straw hats in each color and offered them to the woman, who did not move.
“I long to be warm,” she whispered into the air. Her dress fluttered about her with new vigor, Mrs. Winslow thought.
“Warm, hmm? I’m afraid I haven’t any red hats, madam.”
Eyeing her supplies, something like inspiration struck Mrs. Winslow. She fetched a hat so dark blue it had come out all but black and held it up, studying it from several angles.
“You have some time? I can just make this up for you in a moment.”
The woman exhaled, “I can never go home.”
“Ah, well, then I suppose you are in no hurry. Let me have a go, hmm?”
In a frenzy of creativity, Mrs Winslow’s hands seemed to fly on their own and snatch up details to add to the blank. Flowers of crimson cotton, ribbon of a dark forest green, and bits of green felt. The snipped and stitched and admired and pinned, her fingers a blur before her own eyes.
When she had finished, she stared at what was likely the most beautiful hat she had ever created. With a tiny grunt of effort, Mrs. Winslow stood tall and placed the hat on the woman’s covered head, then stepped back to look at her. The woman was a tall marble pillar with a garden of wild roses growing upon her head. The felt leaves she had cut, the blood red flowers strewn about, and the green ribbon that wove between them and trailed in loops below the brim — all of it came together in a perfect picture of savage loveliness.
“Well?” Mrs. Winslow presented the looking glass to the woman.
She tilted her head left. Then right. Then straightened up again, reaching out to Mrs. Winslow with a white-gloved hand. Mrs. Winslow reached back, palm open to receive whatever the the woman seemed to want to give to her. A sparkling bauble of gold dropped into her hand; a locket. Mrs. Winslow dared not open it but merely took it with a nod.
“I’d say that’s a fair trade, ma’am,” she tucked the necklace into her apron pocket and patted it, “Now do you suppose you are able to go home?”
The woman tilted her head slightly at Mrs. Winslow and whispered, “No. But I am less empty. Less cold. Thank you.”
With another strange breeze, the woman seemed to float from the shop (Mrs. Winslow hadn’t seen her move before, she realized) and move slowly down the dirt road toward Main Street. Perhaps she wanted to show off her new hat?
“Well,” Mrs. Winslow dusted off her apron, “there’s nothing a good hat cannot solve, I always say.”
She patted the pocket containing the strange woman’s necklace once more. She knew that she should never open it no matter what happened. She dreamed of it every night for the rest of her life.

Hellsgate, New Mexico: Haberdashery Part 1

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Sometimes folks arrive in Hellsgate, not entirely sure why they came. Or how how they got there. Or when they left home, if they had even done so.

Margaret and Charles Winslow were one such pair. Newlyweds, they had been traveling to Chicago by rail. They were roused from their sleep by the conductor, who announced their arrival at the final stop. They would find their bags outside, he said, leading them from the train.

When the Winslows stepped outside, however, they found themselves face to face with cracked and peeling Jackson Saloon. The young couple turned to object at once that this was not Chicago but the conductor was gone. As was the train and any sign of the tracks.

“Well,” Margaret straightened her shoulders and stood tall, “one must make the best of circumstances. Let’s find lodgings and figure out how to sort this out.”

“Ever the optimist,” Charles grumbled, following his wife as she marched on The Jackson, he dragging their trunk along behind him. He could feel dozens of pairs of eyes upon him though he saw no one on the street on this late afternoon.

“Barman. Barman!” Margaret called out, waving as she crossed the table-laden floor of the saloon itself. A few shady characters occupied seats. Margaret would, at this point, find it strange that she could not remember them well enough to describe even one of them later.

A withered old black man, wiping out glasses with a questionable towel, stood behind the bar. He nodded slowly as Margaret approached.

“Sir,” she threw her shoulders back once more, “could you direct us to the train station? Somehow there’s been a mix up an we need to return to Chicago, Illinois.”

The barkeep narrowed his eyes for a moment before nodding at the woman once more. Recognition dawned on him as he chewed the words, “No train station in Hellsgate, ma’am.”

“Then how did-? But we… we arrived by rail! Just now. I swear on the Holy Book.”

“Oh, that’ll happen from time to time,” the barkeep nodded. “Best just accept it – you’re residents of Hellsgate now. May as well figure out some way to pass the time and make yourselves useful to the town.”

“Why that’s just silly. Don’t folks ever leave Hellsgate?”

“Sure. All the time. But never in ways you can come back from.”

Margaret swallowed hard. A woman of the Good Book, she understood very well what the dry old barkeep meant.

“I suppose we’ll need lodgings, then, my good sir.”

“First night’s on the house for new folk,” the barkeep spat in (Margaret hoped) a vessel behind the bar. “You can call me Shoeleather. Call if you need anything.”

Charles arrived at the bar, huffing and dusty from the haul. He dropped their things, only to have them swept away by two silent young men. He watched the trunks as they were carried upstairs to a room with a yellow door. The two boys didn’t reappear immediately, causing Charles a little distress.

“Shoeleather?” Margaret blinked in surprise. “What a dreadful nickname. I’ll have none of it. What did your mother call you?”

“Oh, much worse thing,” Shoeleather smiled a moderately-toothed grin at the Winslows, eventually sweeping his hand toward the stairs to their room.

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“I suppose I’ll have to contact the sheriff or whomever tomorrow and see what we ought to do about being stranded here,” Charles paced across their cramped room, wringing his small hands. “Oh, and I shall have to write to cousin Frederick about our delay. I hate to disappoint him.”

“Cousin Frederick can take his dull little shop and drop it into the ocean for all I care, Charles,” Margaret stood suddenly, stopping Charles mid-pace. “We will open our own harberdashery here in, hrmm, in Hellsgate.”

“But, wife of mine –“

“Don’t you ‘wife of mine’ me,” she scolded, “I will show this strange little town that there’s nothing a good hat cannot fix.”