Okay, I’ve gotten my feet wet, written the opening scene for Bell Mountain No. 14. The working title is Behold!, but that could change. For the time being, I’m back in Lintum Forest with Helki the Rod, encountering a strange creature that wasn’t there before. The picture, somebody’s reconstruction of the dinosaur Ornitholestes, is a good approximation of what Helki saw.
Roald Amundsen, overeager to be the first to the South Pole (which of course he ultimately did), launched his trek some weeks too early and had to retreat back to his base, driven back by bad weather. They get a lot of that in Antarctica. I hope I haven’t repeated his mistake, embarking on a new book before I’m completely ready. But it takes time to write these, I have to work outside when I’m writing fiction, and I need to finish before the cold weather returns. Any prayers for my success will be appreciated.
What’s the secret of the Abnak girl, Qeqa, who claims to be allied with beings that only she can see? Will the new government in Obann City be able to cope with the challenges of a shaken world? Is there an evil empire in the distant west, across the sea, preparing to invade Obann?
This is what he saw–taller than a man, and able to kill a horse with one bite.
Heidi has asked for another excerpt from Bell Mountain, this one featuring one of her favorite characters, Helki the Rod, and one of those giant birds that has lately wandered into Obann. We pick up the scene on Page 197.
“Helki, too, spent the night on the plain; and Helki, too, saw a giant bird.
“It stalked right past him, and looked right at him, and opened its massive beak halfway, as if to warn him not to move. Helki stood his ground, returning the bird’s look. He thought that if he had to, he could break the bird’s leg with his staff. But he very much hoped he wouldn’t have to.
“The bird made no move in his direction. Whatever it was hunting, it wasn’t him. He watched until it strode out of sight.
“Only then did he become aware that he was trembling from head to toe. He threw his staff in the air and caught it, and yowled at the top of his lungs.
“‘Whee-aaaah!’ The whole night rang with it. ‘Lord God, you have outdone yourself!'”
“It wasn’t much of a prayer, but that was how Obst had taught him to pray and that was how he did it….”
Anyone can ask for an excerpt from any book in the Bell Mountain series. There are now 11 titles in print, and Book No. 12, His Mercy Endureth Forever, is being edited. Just make sure you give me the right page number and a brief description of what you’d like me to post as an excerpt.
When I first read J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings in high school–and I’m currently re-reading it, I don’t know how many times–it blew me away. I didn’t know it was possible to write such stories; but a couple of chapters into it, I knew I wanted to write fantasy. It took me over 40 years to come up with Bell Mountain.
A lot of people write fantasy, but according to any number of readers, few write it well. After Tim Wildmon interviewed me on his internet TV show, he turned to his assistant and shook his head. And said, “He made the whole thing up! Whew! I don’t know how you do that.”
Practice, man, practice…
People ask me why I have to sit outside to write it. Well, the phone doesn’t ring outside. I’ve got trees and sky, birds and squirrels, to keep me company. And I have to get myself into a world that doesn’t exist except in my imagination. I have to be able, in my mind, to see it and hear it and touch it. This takes a great deal of concentration, easily broken.
I have to relate to characters that I invented as if they were real. Although I’m inventing what they say and do, think and feel, I can’t just have them do anything I want. They have to behave as if they really live. Again, lots and lots of concentration. A character like Helki the Rod doesn’t just grow on trees. He has to say and do whatever he would say and do if he were real.
I have to see these landscapes, it has to be a movie in my mind. And I have to resist the temptation to load my story with elves and dwarves and wizards and all the other stock characters that burden so many other fantasies. No invincible female warriors, no crusty but benign old sages. Impossibly beautiful, know-it-all elves, uh-uh. Otherwise, next thing you know, all you’ve got is a pile of cliches.
It’s all very difficult, a constant challenge–but it’s the kind of work that I love best. The finished product has to be very different from everybody else’s finished product. I reach back into vanished worlds of the long-gone past and pluck out animals that most of my readers never heard of before. Creatures known to us only imperfectly, from bones and scientific speculations that may or may not be accurate.
Nor can I do any of this without prayer. Lots and lots of prayer.
Which leaves me, when a book is finally done, figuratively gasping for breath and wondering, “Well, now what do I do???” But the Bell Mountain stories are a kind of history, and in history there’s always yet another chapter.
That was what my wife asked me yesterday: “Do you see it as you write it? And do you hear the dialogue?”
The answer to both is yes. As the story unfolds, it’s like a movie playing in my head. I’d like to get some background music playing with it, too, but I haven’t yet mastered that facet of the art.
If I don’t see it, I reckon the reader won’t see it, either. I had some help with the lake monster from The Temple, pictured above: it’s really just the Liopleurodon from Tim Haines’ Walking with Dinosaurs, and I emailed artist Kirk DouPonce with the applicable clip from the movie. But I had to add the lake, the cliffs of Kara Karram, and King Ryons’ army reacting to the unexpected intrusion. Nothing to go on there but my imagination.
Kirk uses live models to pose as story characters on my covers. Because he takes the trouble to read the books before he goes to work on them, he sometimes paints a character exactly as I imagine him or her to be. I don’t know how he does that.
I watch a lot of movies and read a lot of books because it helps me to harness my imagination. In my mind, the characters that populate the stories are as real as Kirk’s models. Sometimes I find myself casting movie and TV actors to portray them; and when that works, it works really well indeed. Wes Studi as Ysbott the Snake. John Nettles as Lord Chutt. And so on–it really works. And it gets me cranked up to imagine and describe things and people that I haven’t seen in any movie. I can even see and hear Helki the Rod–and I don’t know of any actor that can play him.
Patty’s last question, though, isn’t quite so easy to answer: “When you’re seeing and hearing all these things, how do you come back?”
But we don’t have to worry about that until I start having trouble coming back.
This has got to be the greatest prize I’ve ever offered. Win two weeks in Obann! Or more, if there’s any trouble bringing you back.
If you’ve ever had a hankering to get chased by birds as big as horses, or go boating among the lake monsters, or secretly prowl the network of ancient tunnels beneath the city–well, then, this is the vacation for you. Like, it’s got everything!
Oh! Yes, of course, some of you don’t know what I’m talking about. Easily remedied: just go to the top of the page and click “Books.” Everything in the world of Obann can be found in my books. In fact, that’s the only way you can get there.
I’m announcing this prize very early. Whoever posts Comment No. 15,000 on this blog will win it. That ought to take a few months. There’ll be plenty of time for new readers to come aboard and get a little taste of Obann. Plus cat videos, which have not yet been invented there.
If you’ve already won, if you’re already a regular visitor to Obann, well, tell your friends about it!
I envy the reader who will wind up exploring Lintum Forest with Helki the Rod as his guide, or sitting around an Abnak campfire to hear Prester Orth preach the Word of God. I wish I could enter, too, but it’s just not done, to enter one’s own contest.
As I wait for the go-ahead to start writing my next book–and I never know what the “Hi” sign is going to be, the Lord always surprises me–I found myself wondering which characters in my books are the most popular. I also got onto that subject by showing my wife Travis Rodgers’ essay on “Obst the Missionary” (http://travisrodg.com/obst-bell-mountain/)–the only one of my characters who’s ever been written about by someone else, outside of a book review.
If you ask me which are my favorite characters, I can only answer, “Whoever I happen to be writing about at the time.” I think it has to be that way, if I want to make the characters come alive for the reader.
But which characters really are the readers’ favorites? Which are yours?
My youngest readers seem to like Jack and Ellayne the best, and everybody loves Wytt, the little hairy creature with the sharp stick and no capacity for fear. The old rat under the Baroness’ back porch has his contingent of fans, as does Cavall, the king’s big dog.
I know someone who liked Lord Reesh, the arch-villain, best; and I’m sure Helki the Rod, the wild man of Lintum Forest, has his cheering section. As for the old Abnak sub-chief, Uduqu–my wife and my editor were both ready to scalp me when they thought I’d killed him off.
Anyhow, I’ve got lots and lots of characters in my Bell Mountain books, and I’m intensely curious to know how readers feel about them. Besides, this discussion will be a lot of fun if everybody takes part in it.
And somewhere in one of your comments may be the seed of the next book. I never know where that’s going to turn up.
In The Glass Bridge, a strange predator haunts the treetops on the slopes of Obann’s mountains. It stalks Helki, to no avail, but successfully preys on the hapless group that follows Ysbott.
This is the creature that I had in mind–Thylacoleo, “the marsupial lion” of Australia. Disregard the Darwinian blather and enjoy the video. Patty and I were up last last night, watching videos of some of the very cool beasts created by God, and scientists’ efforts to re-create them from their fossils.
Only thing is, the marsupial lion might not be quite extinct. There are always reports of sightings from assorted wild regions of Australia. It’s a big continent and thinly populated. Plenty of room in it to hide a few surprises.
I’ve always been fascinated by prehistoric animals, both dinosaurs and weird mammals, and I love bringing them into my books. The work of God’s hands is, for me, an inexhaustible source of inspiration.
One of the delights of writing fiction is, when you introduce a character, you really don’t know where he’s going to wind up.
Uduqu, the old Abnak sub-chief with a scar from a stone axe on his forehead, walked onto the stage early in Book No. 2, The Cellar Beneath the Cellar, and is still here, seven books later. He was just a walk-on, but soon began to fill a major role in the stories.
Once or twice the story put him in such peril that both my wife and my editor were convinced I’d killed him off–and were they mad at me for that! But I’ve come to have such an affection for this hard-fisted old man that I don’t see how I can carry on the tale without him.
He befriends King Ryons and comes to look on him as a kind of grandson. He discovers God and comes to love Him, always striving to know Him better. He rescues Helki from a charging army, and wins a giant’s sword as a trophy, becoming the king’s personal champion. And as his overworked legs begin to fail him, Uduqu discovers reading and writing–the very first Abnak ever to make a serious go of literacy.
He has been within sight of the great sea in the West, crossed the mountains in the East, and marched all the way out to the Thunder King’s fortress in Kara Karram. Along the way he fights a desperate duel that avoids a bloody battle and makes peace between enemies.
[Every now and then I remember the purpose of this blog is to get you interested in my books–so please feel free to click “Books” and look them over.]
If you ever want to write a fantasy novel–or any other kind of novel, for that matter–that’ll be sheer torture to read, be sure to make a thinly-disguised version of yourself the hero of the story.
Not that the reader is going to recognize you. But most readers can recognize pure poppycock when they see it. And few are so dense that they can’t detect irrelevant personal issues from the writer barging in between the reader and the story.
When you’re telling a story, butt out! I take it for granted that no one wants to read about me–not when they could be reading about Wytt or Helki. [You’ll have to read my books to get to know these characters.] Nor do they want to read my opinions on politics or the problems of this modern world that I’m supposed to be taking them away from.
To any writer, the same advice: Get out of the way! Don’t be like the jidrool who gets up and shambles around in front of the screen in the most exciting part of the movie.
If you want your readers to believe in your characters, you have to believe in them first. Don’t make them extensions of yourself or of the people in your lives. Think of them as real. Don’t try to control every little thing they say or think or do. Get so deeply into them that they start to say and do things you never expected.
Yes, I know–if it was easy, everyone would do it. A lot of published authors can’t do it. But you don’t even want to imagine the mountain of wasted paper produced by those would-be authors who don’t even try to keep themselves out of the story. That no one ever spent any money to publish their work goes without saying.
We are always being advised, “Write what you know.” But that’s no way to go about creating imaginative fiction.
Caveat: Let no one take this to mean I endorse the practice of lazily omitting to do research and just “intuiting”–that is, making up–false information about something for which real facts are easily available. For Pete’s sake, do not write about tribal customs of the Navaho unless you first read up on it: the ghost of Tony Hillerman will show the Navaho exactly where to find you.