Saturday, October 31, 2015

Life Reflects Art – and Vice Versa

Writing the Hengist series of books has been life changing. The concept of a modern-day warrior with medieval values came after spending a day stalking the incredible Kevin Hicks (that's him with the flaming arrow) round Warwick castle. Not my fault. When he shot 100 arrows through a piece of rope the size of a man’s head in five minutes, it woke up this warrior who’d been lying dormant within me for many decades (centuries?). That evening, as my friend Lyndsey and I treated our kids to a pub meal, the character Archer was born and by the time I went to bed that night, images of the alternate universe he came from were filling my head, along with the gorgeous girl he was sent over to our world to protect. Her ability to read people’s auras had caught the attention of a ruthless military scientist developing mind-control drugs. Phew, nothing trivial, then. Understandably (with 3 young children and a full-time day job), this project took seven years to complete – particularly when it got interrupted by another full length novel and a series of six teen novellas demanding to be written.

When I finished it, I loved these characters so much I wanted to spend more time with them, so I embarked on telling Archer’s story as a teenage boy when his phenomenal warrior powers were just developing. Sorry did I forget to mention that he can loose an arrow and it will hit the target, even if his eyes are closed? Or that he can work out all the angles and forces required to clear a pool table when he’s never even held a cue stick before? The man’s got a military computer for a brain. So, eighteen days later, Archer was written. By the end of that year (ok, so I took a year off from the day job), initial drafts for the next four books were completed. Although each book featured a different boy, their stories were so intertwined, I had to get to the end of the fifth book then go back and insert scenes signposting the connections between all the events. Only then could I start publishing.

Was the year away from the treadmill the life-changing thing? Yes and no. What I learned that year has become my way of life. During the eighteen days (yep, 18) spent writing Archer, I did virtually no research. Details about jousting, sword-fighting and creating a bow from a yew stave poured into my keyboard with barely a single click on wiki or any other internet resource – when did I have time? There were still meals to make and stuff like that. But when I started researching it to verify the accuracy and replace the techtechtech words with proper names like trammazone (a sword-fighting move) and toxophily (art of archery), I was astounded to find it was all true. The thing that resonated most was the Pagan festivals – these were so real, it was as though I remembered them from a former lifetime.

Never one to do things by halves (yep, I watched jousts, visited real bowmakers and joined sword-fighting forums, plaguing these poor guys to read my scenes and correct anything which didn’t sound real), I had to attend a real Samhain ceremony. Two actually; and after the incredible experience at the second one, I knew I’d come home. This was the life-changer, the way of life I’d unwittingly been following since I was a precocious seven-year-old who knew the names of trees and birds and insisted my mother re-used carrier bags.
So now, I'm a fully-fledged, card-carrying Pagan: living in harmony with nature and celebrating with the sun and moon. What’s not to like about a religion which has a cool party 21 times a year? And although I try to rein it in, I’m not above using the ’fluence for some green traffic lights when I’m in a hurry or to reserve me a parking spot when I reach my destination.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

The Simple Truth

I opened the folded letter, my twelve-year-old daughter watching my face for any information. The words I read took me aback. “To reduce pressure and stress anxiety, we recommend that you not ‘prep’ your child by saying s/he will be tested, but rather let your child know s/he is doing well in school and will be given an opportunity to complete some more challenging activities to help the school understand how to best meet his/her needs.” 

My daughter is currently entering the screening process to see if she can be moved into the “gifted and talented program” at school. Now, I don’t know about you, but if I were a kid and my parents informed me I had some “challenging activities” coming up, and then was greeted with a test, I wouldn’t be thrilled. Number one, I’d be stressing over what kind of activities I’d have to complete. Number two, it’s a test. I looked at my daughter and said, “You’re going to have some tests.”

She raised her eyebrows. “I know.” 

Her breathing remained normal, her pupils did not dilate, and I did not detect the smell of sweat. I must not have stressed her out too much with the awful truth. I plunged ahead. “It doesn’t matter how you do on them, right? They’ll just see where you’re at and, if you score high enough, they’ll move you up. If you don’t, they’ll keep you where you are.” 

“Yeah, that’s fine. I know that, too.” She may have rolled her eyes, but I was busy reading the extra pamphlet, and might have been mistaken.

“Okay. Hmm … it says here the ‘uniqueness of the gifted renders them particularly vulnerable and requires modifications in parenting, teaching and counseling in order to develop optimally.’” 

“What? I don’t need to be parented differently!” 

“Well, apparently I might have to start doing something differently if you pass the tests. Maybe I should be meaner and less honest. And do things like not tell you that you have tests coming up.” 

“Not ‘tests,’ Mom. ‘ Challenging activities.’” 

“Oh, yeah.” I looked down at the papers in my hand. “Why would they think you can’t handle the truth about what you have to do in order to get into the program? Don’t they realize you’re smart enough to figure out you’re actually taking a test?”

I’m not a gifted person. I don’t know the answer to these kinds of things. I kind of figure sticking as close to the truth as possible allows for a real conversation where you can actually assess the stress level, vulnerability, and true desires of your children. Just like when you’re at the doctor’s and they’re getting a shot. You tell them it’s going to hurt at first, but then it’ll stop and they’ll be fine. You can’t lie about it; they’ll know the truth as soon as the needle slips into their skin. The concept goes along with when they’re young and you have to leave them: It’s better to look them in the eye so you can say “I love you; I’ll see you later,” than to sneak away in order to avoid a potential meltdown. All they learn from that move is you disappear when they’re not expecting it and, therefore, you’re not very trustworthy.  

What about teaching them that they are strong enough to handle whatever comes their way by being responsible for their own choices, actions, and behaviors? That sometimes they might succeed and other times they might not. That they need to respect who they are, faults and all, before anyone else can respect them. And that you love them. No matter what. To the moon and back. Basically, you know, giving them the opportunity to keep trusting you as a parent and themselves as intelligent individuals.

Her sly grin let me know she was pretty smart, regardless of untaken test results. “Maybe because I’d be particularly vulnerable, I wouldn’t be able to cope with tests anymore. I could only manage challenging activities.” 

She’d caught the irony of the program already setting limits through word-terms of partial truths. Meant to calm the nerves, the program is insinuating a gifted child is likely to be fragile and full of anxiety and may obsess over test-taking. I’m suggesting kids will learn to react to situations through the behavior of their parents. If I don’t spaz about a test, my daughter will never need to assume she can’t handle it. Just like if I don’t spew hate and racism and all the other shoddy “-isms” in our English language, she won’t have those traits ingrained in her. If I teach her to be open and loving towards all people regardless of religion, gender, color, etc., she’ll never put limitations on herself, on who she can be, and on what she can achieve.

“So, you’re okay if you pass and make it in?” 


“And you’re okay if you don’t score high enough?” 

“Yeah, totally.” 

“Alright, I’m signing the permission slip.” 

“I knew you would. What’s for dinner?”

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Is the truth really stranger than fiction?

I guess the answer to that question depends on what kind of fiction you read. For me, the answer has always been a resounding “No!” What in real life could possibly be weirder than vampires turned priests, or immortal demon hunters? Yes, my choice of reading material sets the bar pretty high on the strangeness meter.

Lately, though, I find myself rethinking my position.

When I’m writing a book, I spend an enormous amount of time doing research. I need details on everything from street names to historical figures to weather patterns to, well, everything. I’ll spend hours poring over articles, news clippings, videos, and pictures. Oh, and on a side note, I have no idea how authors were able to do all of that before the internet. Kudos to them.

That research often ends up taking me to places that I never knew existed and sometimes, if I’m really lucky, it will reshape my story into something I’d never imagined. It’s those times that have made me wonder if the truth really isn’t more interesting than fiction.

My research into the Grand Canyon uncovered some incredible things. Rogue’s storyline and setting needed to be rewritten a few times in order to incorporate those unbelievable findings. I’d never before questioned why most of the north side of the canyon is off limits to everyone. Nor had I wondered why so many of its rock formations had Egyptian names. A local newspaper article from more than a century ago gave me answers to questions I’d never even thought to ask.

And then there are the details I can’t get through the internet. Not because there isn’t enough information floating around out there, but because there’s just too much. That’s what I’ve been dealing with for Chaos, the book I’m writing now.

I have several characters in this story who are witches, and the only personal experience I have with that is the Halloween costume I once wore as a child. Somehow, I just knew that the green-faced, cackling old shrew with the pointy black hat wouldn’t work in my book. So I fired up my laptop.

Days later, I found myself bogged down with mountains of information. It seemed as though everyone had an opinion on what witchcraft was, what it entailed, and who could wield it. I was lost in a sea of contradictions with no yardstick by which to measure.

After visiting hundreds of websites, one kept drawing me back. I can’t explain why, but I somehow knew it would be the site to help me. Then, after hours of clicking from one page to the next, feeling like a second grader sitting in on a high school physics class, I gave up. I clicked the “contact” button and sent an email to whomever it was that ran the site, introducing myself and asking for help.

And this is how I met a real life witch. Not the curious college student who sits in circles chanting prayers to Mother Earth while updating her Facebook profile to say Wiccan, but an honest-to-goodness, born-and-raised, magic-wielding witch.

After weeks of emails and conversations, lessons and corrections, I’m now thoroughly convinced that the truth is most definitely stranger than fiction, no matter what your choice of reading material.