World Building – Landscapes

Can a novel be inspired by landscapes? Usually, a story is derived from either plot or character. Locations mostly come into play when the story is specifically about them. Climbing Mount Everest or the siege of the Alamo, to name just a few, have specific locales as their driving force.

If you look at the picture below, can’t you just taste and smell and see the possibilities for a story? Who are the people who live there? What is a day like in this world? How deep do those buildings go into the ground? How did those cracks appear?

In my early twenties, I was introduced to a German painter named Hans Werner Sahm (if you google his name and click on “Images,” you can see most of his paintings.) His landscapes spoke to me on a very deep and personal level. It was as if the scenes stirred some ancient memory within me.

When I started my first novel, a fable called The Three Feathers, I had not thought about the paintings for a few years. But the subconscious is a fascinating thing and when I began drawing a map of the world that opened up before me, the images came back. Thanks to the internet, I suddenly had all of them at my fingertips.

From that point on, roughly around chapter 6 in the book, the plot was mostly motivated by the landscapes in the paintings. And because they somehow stir up stuff from the subconscious, the story that appeared also felt as if it rose from deep down somewhere. I was soon swept away in it.

Take the above image, for example. It became the inspiration for the Porte Des Lioness, an ancient gate into the mountain, the heroes had to find. From that scene a character appeared. His name is Broga, he’s a peeper frog who, despite his size, was the mighty guardian of the gate – the only one who could open it. This is a major plot point in the story and one that, without that image, would not have been there.

Once inside the mountain, another image served as the foundation for a good third of the story all the way to its fantastical climax: An ancient abandoned mining town deep underground. The light source never changed; the pillars were, as the legend states, carved by dragons.

I believe that for every writer there are triggers fueling the stories from a well beyond the rational mind. We all have different means to fuel our imagination. Landscapes is just one of them.  For me images like this one open the door to those hidden chambers inside – the ones where the stories come from.

 

Cheers,

Stefan

Through Darkness to Light – Writing the Hero's Journey

I see a massive pendulum suspended high above an ancient, vast landscape. One side of the image is bathed in light, the other lies in darkness. The pendulum swings from the darkness to the light and back in the opposite direction.

When we meet our hero, a young warrior, she is about to step onto the pendulum. At that moment it has swung from the light toward the darkness and is now half way across and closest to the ground, in the place where light and darkness meet in eternal twilight.

She looks back briefly, toward the light, and then turns to face the darkness ahead.

The pendulum will bring her into the depth of it and to a place where no light can ever enter. She must pass through this and reach the tipping point, the moment of suspended stillness where, for one single instant, it hovers in the place where there is nothing but the dark. From there her head turns and she can see, far in the distance, the light as it increases, slowly but with absolute certainty.

A lot of stories, I believe, entail that very same journey.

We meet the hero in the twilight, the space between darkness and light that is neither here nor there, where there is no real happiness but also only a relatively small amount of pain. From that point, we accompany her into the darkness and through it to the light at the end. And we don’t do that just once. We don’t just read one story. We read dozens, hundreds, thousands even.

Why is that?

I think it is ultimately our own story we are reading each time we open a book. We are not completely filled with joy (a.k.a. the light side), neither are we so depressed that we can’t even pick up a book (the darkness). We are, usually and in general, somewhere in between. The reason we jump onto the pendulum is that this state of twilight is no longer able to sustain us. We spend most of our lives in a no-mans-land. We know we need to change something but we also know that, in order to get to the light, we must first conquer the darkness.

In the metaphor of the pendulum, there is, for me, a moment where we could step off, where we realize we don’t need to be on this journey anymore. But the only place where we can do this is at the tipping point of the light side. That is the place where we are the closest to our true identity. At any other spot on the long journey, we are strangers in a strange land. We cannot stand the darkness and are, at the same time, fully accustomed to the twilight. And yet, something seems to call us home and into the light. That voice is small but persistent, like a steady feeling of dread, a longing we cannot explain, that pushes us to do something, anything,

to get back to where we came from.

We know we ultimately can’t stay in the twilight. We have to step onto the pendulum one day. That will be the day when our own hero’s journey begins.

 

Cheers,

Stefan

 

Stefan is an author living and working in New Paltz, New York. Check out his work here.

 

 

 

 

Purple Flowers – A Short Story

A while back I participated in a 1,000 word flash fiction contest with this story, over at the leighendarium. It reminded me of “Stand By Me” and a time in my childhood when my friends and I seemed to come up with a dare every single day. I hope you enjoy it. (Instead of reading it, you can also listen/watch it on youtube here).


Purple Flowers

 There were three of us. Kelly Myers, Jonah Appelbaum, and myself. Every day after school, we’d ride our bicycles down Louis Avenue, jumping the pot holes and screaming from the top of our lungs. We’d race each other on the steep part all the way down and across the train tracks into the Nature Sanctuary.

The park extends to the river, a downhill slope past a school of weeping willow trees, across the narrow stone bridge and through the barren meadow where small purple flowers would stick out from the hardened soil.

The challenge was to ride as fast as possible toward the edge — the spot where the steep cliff fell forty feet down into the water — and hit the breaks in the last possible moment. I lost each time, breaking too soon. Jonah usually came in second, leaving Kelly the winner with only a few feet of distance between his bike and the sharp edge.

We called it the line of no return. We had carved it out of the dirt and filled it with charcoal dust so it was visible against the sandy soil. It was a straight line parallel to the edge. To come to a safe stop, you had to have the brakes fully engaged before the line.

That day, Kelly hit the brakes when he was on top of the line, not before. When his front wheel crossed it and he still had not made any attempt to break, I knew he wouldn’t make it.

I was already at a standstill, the fine dust of the dried up dirt swirling around me, when he approached. I saw his face, the moment of panic when he realized he hit the brakes too late.

“Alex!” he cried out. Then he went over the edge. Actually, he let himself fall onto his side in an attempt to slow down his momentum. It probably did. But not enough.

I was frozen. He didn’t scream or anything. It was as if he simply left this world without saying goodbye. I remember thinking that he was a good swimmer, that he could probably make it to shore. But I knew that the fall would most likely kill him — the fall onto the large boulders that stick out of the water this time of year.

Our town is in a drought from May through August. During that time, the river loses four feet of its water. Sometimes five. Kelly could have survived in March. He could have survived in September. Not in June. Not today.

I heard the metallic clanking sound of the bike crashing onto the rocks below. I didn’t want to see him. I didn’t want to have the image of his broken body be the last thing I remember. Jonah, his face pale as the moon, was much more courageous. He let go of his bike and ran the few feet to the edge. Jonah lived next door to Kelly. They were like brothers. They fought and teased each other as only ten-year-old boys could. They loved each other too. They looked out for each other. They looked out for me.

I moved here only two years ago from Chicago. I’m smaller than most boys my age and had very thick glasses. I got teased a lot. I got pushed and intimidated and made fun of but when one of the other boys hit me, Kelly hit him back. That day I didn’t walk home alone after school. Kelly and Jonah walked next to me, one on each side. We were inseparable ever since, sometimes to the detriment of our teachers and our parents. We were trouble. We built a dam in the Shallow Creek that was so high, it flooded the nearby walkway making it impossible for pedestrians to cross.

We’d use the thin green plastic pipes you find in aquariums and turn them into spitball shooters. Armed with a bag of dried peas we’d declare war on some of our classmates, teachers, and unsuspected civilians. We’d sneak out of the house at night, meet up, and switch garden ornaments between houses, convinced that we had just pulled off the heist of the century. Kelly and Jonah said they were the muscle and I was the brains of the operation. I never had better friends.

“Kelly,” Jonah cried. He looked down toward the water.

I approached as if in trance. The afternoon sun sat golden on the surface of the river. I remember the ripples in the current, the sparks of light dancing on the surface, the quiet terror I felt when I moved closer to the edge, stretching out my hand as if to reach all the way down to the bottom and lifting my friend up and save him.

“Kelly,” I whispered.

The bike lay broken on top of a huge boulder forty feet below. The front wheel was bent forward, the steering column snapped in half. The cards he had pinned onto the back wheel to make the bike sound like an airplane propeller, lay next to it.

I couldn’t breathe. Jonah said something. He yelled something, first down toward the water, then to me.

“…go!”

“What?” I said.

“Don’t let go!” he said. Not to me. He didn’t say it to me.

I saw Kelly’s hand first. It was holding on to a root that stuck out of the cliff wall a foot below the top. Then I saw his face. His smiling face.

“Holy shit!” I said. Then I yelled it. I shouted it. “Holly shit! Holy shit! HOLY SHIT!”

Jonah grabbed him by the arm, I held on to his wrist as we pulled him up. We fell on our backs.

“That was close,” Kellly said nonchalantly.

“You’re such an asshole,” Jonah said.

The clouds flew across the sky high above.

While My Guitar Gently Weeps

I taught myself to play the guitar in my mid teens with songs like House of the Rising Sun, Heart of Gold, Nights in White Satin, Stairway to Heaven, and such. My friends and I spent many a night around camp fires, strumming and singing while reading from crumpled up hand written song lyrics. Now almost 30 years later, I exchanged the guitar for the keyboard and I write.

I just finished a novel called Six String. It tells the story of a sixteen year old girl who runs away from an abusive home, with only her broken six string guitar on her back. The story grabbed me right from the start. The main character’s pain was so powerful and palpable, I found myself weeping numerous times while writing it.

There is one quote by Ernest Hemingway I always come back to. It goes something like this: “There is nothing to writing. All you have to do is sit in front of a type writer and bleed.”

I realized eventually that this quote can be translated into any art form. During my teenage years, I had tons of guitar idols, like Ritchie Blackmore, Angus Young, The Scorpions’ Michael Schenker and many others. I lost myself in Carlos Santana’s guitar solos as much as in Iron Maiden’s riffs. What all of them had in common for me was that I felt something when I listened. There was an emotion that was transferred from the player through the guitar to me, the listener.

I strive to do the same in my books. Learning the craft is hard work but once that’s done, I believe there’s another step to take to go beyond the average artist. In this sense, “there is nothing to playing the guitar. All you have to do is let it weep.”

 

In Space No One Can Hear You Scream

A while back, I participated in an online screenwriting workshop that was all about finding the essence of your work. It was brilliant in its simplicity and even though it took a while, I arrived at the conclusion that this is the most important piece of knowledge about writing I have gathered so far.

“What is the story about?”

My friend Nick Cole, great writer and excellent marketer, is very big on pitches, specifically on how to condense a story to four lines. If you read his books you’ll know why he believes so strongly that the pitch is important. It helps boil the story down to its fundamentals and by doing that, exposes the reason why people want to read it.

Boiling it down is also a great tool to conquer writer’s block. We all know the feeling of being stuck in the murky mud. Asking the question what the story is about will loosen up the rocks. Doing that allows us to dive deeper into it and find the hidden treasures that are buried there. Only if we as writers know what the story is about, and only if we are emotionally affected by it, will the reader get swept away.

Let’s go one step further: Capturing the emotional essence of a story in one single sentence will increase the chances of having our work read tremendously. Think back to Alien’s “In space no one can hear you scream” tagline. You don’t need to know anything else about the movie. Deep and utter terror lies in those eight words.

In order to find the essence of the story, there is another question that might have to be answered. What is the essence of the writer? What am I about? Why am I writing? What is it that burns deep inside my soul that needs to come out? The essence of the writer informs the essence of each story she writes. There is no other way.

Writing is deeply personal. We can always only write about ourselves – our fears and nightmares as well as our dreams. What do we stand for? What are we about? What is our essence? That is obviously a larger process and not done over a few weeks, months, or even years. But if we’re in this for the long run, why not ask the question early on and discover the answer through our writing?

Cheers,

Stefan

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