Tag Archives: The Art of Writing

Where I Get Some of My Ideas From

I write about a world that never was, inspired by a world that used to be.

This is footage from Roy Chapman Andrews’ Gobi Desert expeditions in the 1920s, for the American Museum of Natural History. This is Mongolia as it was then, but isn’t anymore.

God has wired into some of us a longing for places we cannot reach, either because they exist no more or because they never did exist. A fantasy writer taps into that. We know the past was real, because we used to live in it: but was it really? Things change. Sometimes they change too much. Places I used to know very well are so gone, so wiped out without a trace, that they might as well have been in Mongolia in 1926: or tucked away in Lintum Forest. Pick one.

Did I dream these places? Were they ever really real? Because I can’t find them anymore.

Oh, but God can. He most certainly can.

The Birth of a Book

Product Details

I’m often asked, “Where do your books come from?” Well, I could say “New Jersey,” but what they really want to know is how a book gets started.

I can’t answer that, because there are as many starts as there are books. But I can tell you how one of my books, The Thunder King (Bell Mountain No. 3) got started.

It started with an image that popped into my head, a small boy riding a Baluchitherium, the largest land mammal that ever existed. This was very vivid to me, and served as the germ of the story. How was I to get the boy onto the Baluchitherium, and why did I want him there in the first place? What were the two of them going to do, and how would they do it?

Next, a new character showed herself: an old woman living in the city of Obann, not doing much of anything until she becomes a vessel of prophecy. And next thing I knew, I imagined her standing in the rain, soaked to the skin, white hair blowing in the wind, and crying out, like Moses, “Now see the salvation of the Lord!”

When I put those two images together–the boy on the Baluchitherium, and the old woman in the storm–they became the ingredients of a climax for a new book. And all I had to do was figure out how to get there. So I had the ending of the story first, instead of the beginning. That was The Thunder King.

Even now, I find the hardest thing to do is to wait for God to send me something that I can work with. The weather’s getting nice and I’m eager to get started on a new book, but I’ve learned it doesn’t work that way. I can’t command it to happen. I can only wait–and I know by now that whatever I’m given, it’ll come as a surprise.

A Boost for My Books

The Palace (Bell Mountain Series #6) by [Duigon, Lee]

I’ve been re-reading my Bell Mountain books, trying to prepare myself for writing the next one. I have to read them, lest I forget some important detail.

So I’m in the middle of The Palace (No. 6 in the series), and I’ve just read the chapter, “The White Doe.” Please don’t think I’m boasting when I say this, but I think it’s among the best things I’ve ever written. It’s not boasting because I was moved when I read it and very much surprised that anything like it could have come from me. Give God the glory: I pray for His guidance as I write, and He gives it. It didn’t really come from me. I just wrote it down.

And this evening Patty discovered the Vintage Novels blog, and a wonderfully complimentary review of the first four books in my series. This is by Suzannah Rountree, a blogger in Australia, and she has my thanks. Let me see if I can link to her piece for you. Ah, here it is: http://www.vintagenovels.com/2017/04/the-bell-mountain-series-1-4-by-lee.html

If you haven’t read any of these, I hope Suzannah’s review will persuade you to give them a whirl. For more information (if you’re new to this blog), just go to the top of this page and click “Books.”

Writing Believable Fantasy

Image result for images of fantasy

If fantasy writers heeded the advice, “Write what you know,” we’d all be out of business. But it does raise a tricky question: How can you write believable stories about imaginary people living in an imaginary world? Which, of course, is just what a fantasy writer does.

People who don’t like fantasy usually say the reason they don’t like it is because it’s so full of rubbish. The rubbish is the stuff in the story that they can’t believe in. And speaking for myself, that would include needlessly complicated names, names that sound like popular pain relief products, and unbearably predictable stock characters–the invincible female warrior, the crusty but benign wizard, buxom tavern wenches, lusty barbarians, know-it-all elves… enough already!

And then there’s the fantasy which anyone can see is a thinly-veiled exercise in self-glorification, in which the writer’s personal stand-in is the hero and all the other characters are just thrown in to make him look good. This is even worse than know-it-all elves with names like Mylanta and Feenamint.

So how can anyone write a fantasy that the reader will be able to believe in as he’s reading it? (If he continues to believe in it after he’s done reading, that’s a problem beyond the scope of this little essay.)

Without writing a book about it, I think the fantasy writer needs to do something that good writers do no matter what kind of fiction they write.

Watch what people do and listen to what they say. And above all, be interested in them!

Character is the key. If your fictional characters act and think and speak and feel like real people, they will draw the reader into your imaginary world.

If they’re one or two-dimensional nothings, because the writer is always interested first and only in himself, and not in other people, your imaginary world will suck no matter what else you do with it, fill it with castles, monsters, and fantastic beings as you will.

It’s not just fantasy writers who have to pay attention to what other people are like, and try to do them justice, even if they’re fictional.

It’s all writers in all genres, all the time. The writer who can’t be bothered to look into another human heart, and feel at least some kinship with it, has nothing worthwhile to say.

A Few More Writing Tips

Image result for images of bored reader

Spring is coming, and I want to be ready to start writing another book as soon as God gives me something to start with. To that end, I’ve just read The Throne and am now reading The Silver Trumpet, which I wrote last year–the tenth book of my Bell Mountain series. Whatever comes next, I left some matters in Trumpet which will need to be addressed.

By now I’ve had thirteen novels published, including my four horror novels from long ago, and I’ve picked up some tricks of the trade, learning them the old-fashioned way, by experience. I know some of you out there want to try your hands at writing novels, so here are a couple of tips.

*If whatever you happen to be writing seems tiresome to you, it will be tiresome to the reader, too. Trust me on that. If your fictional characters are getting all caught up in details, the reader will abandon them. Don’t devote a lot of space to things that aren’t interesting.

*Remember the rule of Chekhov’s Gun. The great playwright said that if there’s a gun hanging on the wall, sooner or later in the play, one of the characters will have to use it. Otherwise there’s no reason for it being there. (I learned about that, believe it or not, from studying chess: don’t line up your Rooks and Queen unless you mean to use them.)

*Don’t tell the reader a lot of things he doesn’t need to know. If a character walks into the story to say “Here are the gum boots that you ordered, madam,” then leaves and is seen and heard no more, you needn’t tell the reader anything about his kindergarten days. He’s done his job and you’re finished with him.

*I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating–don’t insult the reader by editorializing about the characters. If a character is a villain, you needn’t call him a villain. If he says and does villainous things, the reader won’t need you to tell him that this character’s a villain. I call this “the Lovable Sheepdog Rule,” after a wretched novel in which a certain sheepdog never appeared without the adjective “lovable.” This did not make the sheepdog lovable to me, the reader. It made me want to call the dog-catcher.

If you observe these rules in your own writing, you’ll run much less risk of creating something boring. Readers who are not part of a captive audience–say, a class of high school kids–have a very low boredom threshold. And a writer does well to remember that.

Work Wanted: Wizard/Sage/Ninny

Image result for images of funny wizard

I have a couple of fictional characters on hand who weren’t able to find jobs in any of my books. So I am advertising them here, for employment by any aspiring fantasy writers who may wish to give them work.

Gombo the Magnificent is a wizard whose magic mostly produces unintended, and unappreciated, consequences. His love potion grows hair on your furniture. His hex makes his enemies stronger. And don’t even think about asking him to cast a spell to make you lose weight. The last customer who tried that wound up with two left feet and a bottomless ashtray.

Dr. Fretorius, an unemployed sage, is the world’s foremost expert on the philosophical writings of Wing Chow Foon, who was executed by his emperor for turning his students into useless idiots. Dr. Fretorius became unemployed when this began happening to his students at the university. Obviously a fantasy character: in real life, he would have been promoted to department head.

Beetrice Blotter rebelled against her parents’ plan for her to follow in their footsteps as professional beekeepers and turned instead to keeping wasps. It’s actually rather dangerous to approach her property. Her pride and joy is a wasps’ nest the size of a medicine ball, inhabited by a multitude of the most aggressive wasps anyone has ever seen. Her inability to get her wasps to produce marketable honey has left her with an obsession to achieve this goal no matter what.

All three have expressed the desire to appear in a fantasy novel and a willingness to do it without being paid. So if you mean to write such a novel, and have an opening suitable for any of these three characters, please feel free to give them a chance to show what they can do.

A Peculiar Dream

(It’s driving me nuts, not being able to illustrate a post except with video!)

Much of my fiction writing is brewed up in dreams. I have a gift for vivid dreaming. But I had one last night that I’ll be hard put to find a practical use for.

I dreamt that Father Brown came to visit, and Patty and I decided to entertain him by taking him to our favorite place for observing turtles, frogs, and salamanders.  In real life this is a railroad cut converted to a kind of park, but in the dream it was much grander, with towering walls, winding streams, high stands of reeds, etc.

I went on ahead in our handy little rowboat while the others stayed to admire something. By and by I spied a turtle trap under the water, so I pulled it up on land to let the turtles out–a red-eared turtle, a painted turtle, and a really fine snapping turtle. “I’ve got to bring him back to Patty and Father Brown and show him off,” I thought: “he’s a real beauty!” And then I’d release him.

Well, the world-famous priest-detective was much impressed by the snapping turtle. Just as the turtle began to calm down, along came Father Brown’s bishop–in full bishop’s regalia, of course: dreams do things their own way–and started berating him for performing Mass for “just a bunch of turtles.” Father Brown had done no such thing, but none of us could get a word in edgewise–the bishop was hopping mad, and going on like gangbusters.

And then I woke up. Drat!

It was such a vivid dream, cobbled together out of familiar elements–a place I know now, a place I knew as a boy, characters from a TV show–cobbled together into something new and rich and strange. It’s similar to what I have to do when I write a fantasy novel. The elements are not new, but the combination is.

And, as we are made in God’s image, I can’t help wondering sometimes–what does God dream?

Memory Lane: A Writer’s Roots

Image result for all about dinosaurs by roy chapman andrews

To be a writer, you have to be a reader first. And don’t stop reading, either.

The books that capture your imagination early in life will always be with you. What you want to read about will shape what you choose to write about.

All About Strange Beasts of the Past flicked my imagination switch. I was only seven years old when it came out, and nine or ten years old when I read it. Roy Chapman Andrews, the explorer who first found dinosaur eggs in the Gobi Desert of Mongolia, wrote several of these Allabout Books. His All About Dinosaurs I read over and over again until it fell apart. Strange Beasts I kept checking out of the library.

Andrews had a gift for making prehistoric worlds come alive. In practical terms, he used this gift whenever he had to schmooze J.P. Morgan into funding another expedition. When he wrote for children–well, as far as I was concerned, it was just like being there.

Everybody knows about dinosaurs, but I got really into prehistoric mammals, especially the gigantic hairy ones. Strange Beasts introduced me to creatures that have inhabited my dreams ever since; some of them now inhabit my own Bell Mountain books. Andrews’ “Beast of Baluchistan” appears in The Thunder King just in time to rescue the city of Obann from being sacked by the Heathen host. The saber-toothed cat, seen on the cover of Strange Beasts, features in the climax of The Last Banquet. The saber-tooth’s prey, the giant ground sloth, makes cameo appearances in several of my books. I haven’t yet found a place for the spectacular “Shovel-tusked Mastodon” of Strange Beasts, but I expect I will.

Books were a big deal in our house. My mother was a reader, and filled several large bookshelves with her favorites. I took after her in that department: I just could never get my fill of stories! History and science, in my view, also counted as stories.

But nothing could ever top the creatures I met in Roy Chapman Andrews’ books.

P.S.: Andrews was widely believed to have been the real-life model for Indiana Jones. To that I must say “Pshaw!” Andrews’ adventures were real.

P.P.S.: For some reason which I can’t remember, as a very young child, I formed the expectation that my Aunt Betty, a nun, would somehow provide me, someday, with my own woolly mammoth. Please don’t ask me to explain this. She did try–gave me a vaguely mammoth-shaped little furry something which, I am sorry to say, did not quite live up to my expectations. But she did try, and for that she gets full marks.

A Brilliant Stroke of the Pen–by Accident

Laurel and Hardy only pretended to be chuckleheads; but they did it so convincingly, they got rich.

Even so, the finest specimens of chuckleheadedness are only unearthed  by accident. And some of them are gems.

Just this morning I read an amazon.com Customer Review of my Bell Mountain–five stars, so I’m certainly not complaining–which featured a rare and valuable typo that has since been corrected. And please don’t think I’m making fun of the writer, because I know well that anyone can take a prat fall, big-time. You should see some of the whoppers my editors have saved me from committing to publication.

So this reviewer wrote of Bell Mountain as “the battle of goof vs. evil.”

Think about that!

Can goof actually defeat evil? You know something–I’m pretty sure it can. I’m pretty sure it has, all throughout history. How many fiendishly evil plans have been scuttled by pure incompetence?

This has the makings of a story. Maybe even a whole novel. Certainly a chapter, here and there. Most certainly, a chapter.

Inspiration comes when you least expect it, and from the least-expected direction, too. Don’t waste it when you’ve got it.

A Bold Literary Stroke

Image result for the worm ouroboros

(Note: I try to steer clear of “news” on Sunday, as a way of observing the Sabbath. And also as a way of hanging on to my sanity.)

In his epic fantasy, The Worm Ouroboros, E. R. Eddison wrote in a unique and probably inimitable literary style and wrapped up the story in a brilliant, unexpected stroke that takes one’s breath away.

The story opens with the lords of Demonland, on the planet Mercury, holding a sumptuous wingding at one of their highly decorative palaces. In the midst of the festivities, a servant announces a visitor: “Sire, it is an ambassador from Witchland and his train. He craveth present audience.”

The ambassador’s message is so flagrantly insulting that it starts a major war. After many heroic exertions, and coming within an inch of losing the war, the Demons finally win, conquering the Witches root and branch–total victory.

Gathered to celebrate their triumph, they play host to a princess who is a special favorite of the gods, and whom they rescued from the Witches during the war. She tells them she has the power to appeal to the gods on their behalf, that they shall now be rewarded by having their greatest wish granted.

Well, the Demons have a problem: having wiped out Witchland, there’s nothing left for them to do, and they’re bored–bored to the point of desperation. Voicing their discontent, they can’t quite bring themselves to say what it is they really wish for. But the princess knows.

And suddenly the servant barges into the throne room with an astonishing announcement: “Sire, it is an ambassador from Witchland and his train. He craveth present audience.”

Well, who saw that coming?

It was a touch that made the book immortal, and very few writers would dare to do the same.

For those of you who wish to become fantasy writers, there is a lesson here: when you’re tempted to stop–don’t! Crash through the wall and let your imagination have its way.

And never, never end a chapter with a sentence like, “And then nothing much happened for the next four chapters.”

There’s not much point in writing a fantasy novel if you’re not going to be bold.

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