Writing What You Know: Setting Your Books at Home

Write What You Know. It’s one of the biggest — if not the biggest — piece of advice given to new writers. It has its flaws, of course. Unless you’re writing an autobiography, you can’t write something that is 100% based on what you know. Even if your main character has the same job as you, and lives in the same place, presumably there are some differences between your life and theirs? (I hope?)

It’s even harder when you’re writing speculative fiction (a broad church that includes everything from sci-fi to high fantasy to dystopian time travelling steampunk). But that’s where copious research and a vivid imagination come in handy. My most recently completed manuscript is the first one I’ve finished that isn’t an urban fantasy, and I set it in a fantasy equivalent of Ancient Greece. Despite my name, I don’t have a drop of Greek blood (Mum just liked the sound of Cassandra, to her Greek obstetrician’s horror). 

My search engine knows my research predilections so well that if I just type in an “A” it suggests “Ancient Greek” as the first two words of the search. Stalker.

However. I’ve released four urban fantasies, and “write what you know” is the reason that they are largely set in my home city of Canberra. In my mind, Melaina (from Lucid Dreaming) and Isla (from the Isla’s Inheritance trilogy) live in the same Canberra, too, not alternate versions of the same city. I love the idea of them running into each other at the mall and each not recognising the other for what they are.

Yes, I said Canberra. I’ll wait a second while you reel in shock. Go on — I won’t judge.

Canberra: the nation’s capital. Reviled across Australia as (allegedly) the soulless, out-of-touch political heart of the country. As Canberrans love to point out, though, almost all the politicians that live here for part of the year are FIFO workers from other parts of the country — so if they bring a deficit of soul and a tendency to replace their leaders every other Tuesday with them, whose fault is that? We didn’t vote for them! 😉

Canberra is, in some ways, an overgrown country town. The city sprawls over 812 square kilometers, but has a population density almost a fifth of Sydney’s, and just over a third of Melbourne’s. What that means is we have a lot more green spaces than either of them do: reserves running through suburbs; low mountains covered in walking trails and with lookouts perched on top; parks for the kids to play. It’s a great place to raise a family.

And the perfect place to set a story when your supernatural population likes green spaces.

The National Museum, from Mount Ainslie. How's the serenity? (Photo credit: Cassandra Page)

The National Museum, from Mount Ainslie. How’s the serenity? (Photo credit: Cassandra Page)

Werewolves and fairies would love it here. There are places with hardly any iron or steel, and green corridors a wolf or other shifter could sneak through. Vampires would have to be careful how they hunted given the lower numbers of humans to snack on, but depending on their appetites they’d do alright too. They could eat the politicians.

I admit that I wondered at first whether setting a supernatural tale here would somehow lack credibility, and whether I should instead pick Sydney or Melbourne, even though I’m less familiar with them. But then I thought, if Sookie Stackhouse can run into vampires in a tiny town like Bon Temps, why can’t Canberra have its own supernatural stories, that element of magic?

When I see the sunlight sparkling off the surface of Lake Burley Griffin on a crisp autumn afternoon, or the glittering lights of the city from Mount Ainslie at dusk, I think that magic is already there. All I’m doing is telling people about it.

So, here’s my advice, in no particular order:

  • Write what you know
  • Research what you don’t
  • Make up the fantastical bits
  • Set your books where the story demands they be set, even — or especially — if that’s not the trendy location
  • Just write

Cassandra Page is a speculative fiction writer whose young adult urban fantasy Isla’s Inheritance — the first book in the trilogy of the same name — is currently FREE. Get you some! #ShamelessPromotion

Cassandra Page

Karate, exercise and researching fight scenes

I am just about the least sporty person you’ll ever meet. In high school, I was the one that walked when I was meant to be running, the one who used to squeal and duck my head whenever a ball flew at my face. (In my defence, my depth perception and peripheral vision are poor, so it was a valid self-defence mechanism.)

Still, I used to walk everywhere, so I was quite fit … until I got a desk job. (As Scooby Doo would say: “Ruh roh!”) Since then, I’ve occasionally gone on exercise kicks, but usually they’ve ended when I’ve injured myself in one undignified way or another: torn Achilles tendon, sprained ankle, strained calf muscle.

But this year I started karate, and, oh my glob, I love it — so much so that when I did strain my calf muscle back in August, I went to see a physiotherapist and then was back at classes two weeks later. There are lots of reasons I enjoy it, including the fact that I can meet (and sometimes perv at) new people and the fact that, as Suse blogged last year, exercise is a great form of stress relief.

But since AOR is a blog about books, here’s a bookish reason why I really love learning a martial art, and why you might consider it too.

Source: Shutterstock

Source: Shutterstock

Here are things I’ve been shown how to do recently at karate:

  • How to throw a punch or elbow strike for maximum impact
  • How to do various types of kicks
  • How to block someone else’s strike at me
  • How to fall correctly so I don’t knock myself out
  • How to get away if someone grabs my hair from behind
  • How to throw a man taller and stronger than me
  • How to throw someone off me when I’m on my back and they are kneeling over me (yes, like that)

I’m not saying that I could do all those things perfectly in a self-defence situation, because I’m only a wee orange belt … and frankly, I’m hoping I never have to find out. But I understand the theory and I know what it’s meant to look like when competent people do it properly (see, all that perving is for a good cause!). The “write what you know” mantra means life just got a little easier for me when I next sit down to write a fight scene.

Doing martial arts a couple of times a week obviously isn’t going to be for everyone. Another option would be a self-defence workshop, especially if you want to add a bit of extra realism to your protagonist’s attempts to flee the Big Bad. I’m hoping to get to one of those next year as well.

Something to think about, hai?

Cassandra Page is an urban fantasy writer who really doesn’t spend all that much time perving in class … especially if any of her senseis read this.

Cassandra Page

 

Writing prompts

As I blogged about a couple of months ago, I’m a big Pinterest user. I have almost 2000 pins, and Pinterest has started suggesting pins I might like based on my boards. I think it might also be based on what I’ve pinned recently, which can end up in a spiral of me pinning what they suggest, so they suggest more of it … but since most of that is either Doctor Who or Firefly, I don’t mind too much. 😉

Disclaimer: Loki belongs to the Marvel franchise and I make no claim to own him. Although, let's be honest, I would if I could.

Disclaimer: Loki belongs to the Marvel franchise and I do not claim to own him. Although, let’s be honest, I would if I could.

One of my boards is on writing. Originally it was just funny writing quotes, including motivational posters, although recently I’ve expanded the definition to include the occasional inspirational quote.

But most of what Pinterest suggests for this particular board are actually writing prompts, which got me to thinking about them. I haven’t used a writing prompt in over a decade — that is, unless you count an anthology that was calling for themed submissions earlier in the year, or the various blog hop stories I’ve taken part in. (Okay, maybe I have been using writing prompts!) Other than that, I don’t often write short fiction, and because I write so slowly, my list of things to do is at least twelve months long.

Yet those writing prompts are so, so tempting.

Benefits of using writing prompts include:

  • overcoming writers’ block — if you’re having trouble with a big project and are starting to lose faith, writing a short based on a writing prompt gives a quick outlet
  • continuing to practice your craft between bigger projects — such as if you’re planning your next WIP
  • giving you a chance to write something outside your comfort zone — such as a story in a new genre, to see whether you can
  • suggesting a plot idea you might not have otherwise considered — just the other day one of my tweeps was talking about how her newly released novel started as a short based on a writing prompt

Because of this, I have no doubt that if my muse starts to run dry, I’ll be turning to those Pinterest writing prompts for ideas.

Here are a handful of writing prompts, so you can see what I’m talking about. If you actually decide to write something based on one of these, please link back to us so everyone can check it out!

Writing prompt 1

Writing prompt 2

Writing prompt 3

Writing prompt 4

 

Have you ever written a short story or novel based on a writing prompt? Tell us about it in the comments!

Cassandra Page is an urban fantasy writer whose Aussie fae trilogy is now complete. She thought you ought to know, even as she feels like a shill for pointing it out. #authorlife

Cassandra Page

Guest post: Finding inspiration in nature

With our regular contributors off on holiday, having babies, and sitting exams, we’ve got some fabulous guest posters lined up over the coming months. I’d like to extend a huge welcome to our first guest of the month, ST Bende. As well as writing about swoon worthy Norsk Gods, ST is an avid Disney fan and even has her own tiara! ~Stacey

Hei hei, y’all! I’m S.T. Bende, and I write upper young adult paranormal romances steeped in Norse mythology. My stories are modern day love and angst mashed up with ancient myth and legend. Writerly inspiration usually comes fairly easily, since I’m one of the lucky authors who isn’t working from scratch. Mythology writers, even modern mashup ones, get to borrow characters and situations from the Prose Edda — it’s kind of like the Viking bible. But on the rare occasion I can’t find inspiration in ye olde Norse text, I turn to the next best thing to get the words a’flowing: nature.

Without fail, I do my best writing after I spend some time in the woods. Or at the beach. Or even in the mountains! One of my hands down absolute favorite places in the world is a teensy tiny little town just a stone’s throw from Goonie Rock in northern Oregon. (Never say die! #Goonies) It’s just impossible to not be inspired with a front door view like this….

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… and a back door view like this. I mean, honestly. It’s just… perfect.

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I’m so in love with this particular spot that I cast the main character of my debut series, The Elsker Saga, as a small-town girl from one of the neighboring hamlets. And I gave the gods of my upcoming series, The Aere Saga, two earthly residences. One in this exact spot in northern Oregon, because it’s just so pretty . . .

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… and one here, in Humboldt County, California.

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The redwoods are absolutely magical, dontcha think?

What about you? Where do you feel most inspired? And what do you do with all of that creative energy? (If the answer is “bake cookies,” pretty please send them my way!! Mange takk!)

Before finding domestic bliss in suburbia, S.T. Bende lived in Manhattan Beach (became overly fond of Peet’s Coffee) and Europe… where she became overly fond of McVities cookies. Her love of Scandinavian culture and a very patient Norwegian teacher inspired the books of The Elsker Saga. She hopes her characters make you smile and that one day, pastries will be considered a health food.

Find S.T. on Twitter @stbende, her blog, or send her an e-mail. While you’re at it, introduce yourself to The Elsker Saga’s Norse God of Winter, @UllMyhr — when he’s not saving the cosmos from dark elves, he loves meeting new friends . . . especially the human kind.

Passive Writing: Spot it, kill it, bury it forever.

I usually try to steer away from giving writing advice here on AOR, but today I’m going to go against that. But be warned I’m not an editor, not a grammar expert, nor a writing expert. I’m merely a published author who once started off knowing nothing and over the years, through workshops, conferences, classes, and working with editors I’ve learned and grown my writing craft. So what I have to say today might not be for you…but then it might.

Recently, I’ve been involved in a few writing competitions and something I repeatedly saw popping up was passive writing. It’s something I struggled with in the past, so I thought you guys might like a few pointers I’ve learned along the way.

Switching a passive sentence to an active one is often as simple as deleting a single word or slightly changing the structure of your sentence.The difference in passive and active is all about the verb, its placement and other words around it. Passive voice uses other words with the verb which weakens it. The most common weakener I used to find in my writing was ‘to be’. The best way to help you understand this is through examples – so I’ll highlight the part of the sentence that makes it passive and follow with the active alternative.

P:This afternoon I will be coming to your house.

A: This afternoon I will come to your house.

P: A good time was had by Mary.

A: Mary had a good time.

Both the active and the passive versions of these sentences have the same meaning, but the active sounds better and is stronger writing.

If there are objects in the active voice, the object usually becomes the subject in the passive voice. (The note is the object is the following example.)
P: I was handed a note by my friend

A: My friend handed me a note.

In summary, in most sentences with an action verb, the subject performs the action denoted by the verb. If the subject is being acted upon – the sentence passive. In the active version of the same sentence the subject acts upon the verb. Here’s another example;

A: The fish swam in the tank.

The fish (subject) are swimming. (verb)

This sentence can be made passive by altering the structure.

P: The tank was swum in by the fish.

swimming (verb) are the fish (subject)

Here are a couple of key indicators of a passive sentence;

  • the object of the active sentence becomes the subject of the passive sentence
  • the finite form of the verb is changed (to be + past participle)
  • the subject of the active sentence becomes the object of the passive sentence (or is dropped)

Oh, and the other trick I’ve heard a few times…

If you can insert by zombies into the sentence and have it still make sense, it’s passive!

OR

If it sounds like yoda said it, it’s passive.

passive

Phew… you guys still with me? I know it’s dry, but I tried to keep it as simple as possible. I hope I didn’t lose you 🙂 If I missed anything feel free to post questions in the comments.

Laters!

_______

Stacey NashStacey Nash is the proud author of four published books, from which she hopes she eliminated all signs passive writing. To find out more about her books find her at www.stacey-nash.com, twitter or facebook.

 

Characters Showing Emotion

As writers one thing we are often told is show, don’t tell. I mostly agree with this, but I also think there are certain times when telling works well (gasp!). Read: There may be another blog post on this in the future.

However, today I’m going to focus on the showing side of things, and give you some (hopefully) helpful tips on how to show effectively, specifically when it comes to character emotions.

One thing I get frustrated with is when a narrator tells me how someone is looking.

“She looked scared.”

“He looked angry.”

“She looked tired.”

It’s all good an well that I’ve been told this—and I do like to think I have a good enough imagination to picture someone looking scared, angry, or tired—but I also like the narrator to show me how the character is feeling this way.

And here’s why …

There are many ways we feel emotion, and because writers consider our characters to be real people (yes, they are), the characters should feel emotions differently from one character to the next. The way the narrator shows us how their character feels is what sets them apart from each other, and makes them individuals. The character’s responses to emotional situations form a big part of their personality, and character development.

For example, you could have three characters fighting until the death, all of them looking scared, but they should all react to the situation differently.

One character might widen her eyes and flail her arms about, screaming. Another might tremble, and chew on the side of her thumb. And if you have a hero-centric male around, he might stand tall to protect his girlfriend, but back away slowly while big sweaty patches appear on his T-shirt.

The same goes for all the other emotions.

So, don’t tell your audience how your character is looking, show them how they’re reacting to their emotions and the situation. We can learn a lot about a character based on their emotional responses.

A great resource for how to show and communicate emotion is The Emotion Thesaurus. Do you have any others you like to use?

 

K. A. Last likes emotional reads. She is the YA author of Sacrifice, Fall For Me, Fight For Me, and Immagica. She drinks lots of tea, is obsessed with Buffy, and loves all things purple (it used to be pink). K. A. Last hangs out on Facebook or you can find her on twitter and Goodreads. She’s also been known to blog once in a while.

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Where do you get your ideas?

I’m sure if you asked a bunch of authors what the most popular question they’re asked in interviews is…it’d probably be this one. Where do your ideas come from?

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I’m really interested in how other people find their ideas. So there’s a poll at the bottom of the post for you to answer!

As for me, my ideas come from anywhere and everywhere. There are different types of ideas. Some are characters, or titles, or pieces of dialogue; settings and situations and moments and weird habits and scenes and objects. I have ideas all the time. Most of them I’ll never write about. Some of them I will. Only a very rare few of them will progress into a full novel.

If you’re not any good at thinking of ideas, I don’t think it really matters. When you get down to it, ideas aren’t that important. It’s the writing that’s important. Shiny New Idea Syndrome is a common affliction of mine – when you’re in a middle of a WIP and then, BAM, that’s a cool idea, I should write that instead…

Don’t fall into the trap! The Shiny Idea is a lie. It’s beautiful when it’s floating around in your head, but really? The idea you’re working on started out that way too. You’ve got to find a way to stay in love with what you’re working on.

I mean don’t get me wrong, ideas are wonderful. I just don’t think they’re the most important part of writing. You can have the best idea in the world and it still might be a terrible book (not you, whoever is reading this. You are wonderful).

I mean, one of the things in my “ideas” folder is “pencil case takes over the world.”

Sure, Past Emily. That’s a great idea.

Anyway, answer the poll below and tell me how you get your ideas! If none of them apply to you, choose the one that’s closest. Here I want you to choose the place you most often find inspiration/ideas. If you check “other,” let me know in comments what it is! I need ALL the ideas.

As for me? I get my ideas from Tumblr, hanging out washing, work, school, the shower, other books and conversations with friends. Thought you ought to know.