What Archaeology and Fiction Writing Have in Common

For anyone curious about why my two biggest interests are so “different” from one another…here’s why they’re not:

  1. All knowledge is useful knowledge. Taking interest in a wide variety of subjects gives you that much more material to work with when it comes to writing – you can get rich, specific detail and a broad spectrum of characters and settings just by being curious…and you never know what will pop up that might give you an idea. In archaeology, you never know what might come in handy, either. Obviously, you need a smattering of history and geology of the area you’re working in, but then there are things like being aware of what plant species are native, which were introduced and when and for what purpose (for example, Vinca minor – graveyard ivy – isn’t native to Kentucky, doesn’t spread much on its own, and was a common graveyard planting in the 19th century); things like the fact that tanneries used human urine as a chemical component of processing leather (and therefore might be located near a lavatory in a historic building); things like what parts of an animal have the highest caloric value…you get the idea. Anything might turn out to be useful.
  2. Everything is writing / Everything is archaeology.  This is kind of along the lines of the previous. Anything you know about, hear about, learn about, can potentially be applied to fiction writing, and the same goes for archaeology. When you think about it, since archaeology is essentially the study of the human past, then any human behavior, and any natural phenomenon or environment that humans have ever had a relationship to, well…that pretty much covers everything. When it comes to writing, everything you observe, think about, act upon, receive responses from, and interact with is story potential.
  3. Getting into a point of view. Unless you’re writing a fictionalized autobiography, fiction requires you to step out of your own worldview and into the worldview of somebody (or more than one somebody) else. Any branch of anthropology, including archaeology, requires the same thing…except you’re doing your best to step into the worldview of real people, living or dead (depending on what you’re working on).
  4. Beginning, Middle, and End (and sometimes Epilogue). Obviously, a story has to have a beginning, middle, and end – even if it’s a flash fiction story, something happens, something changes, someone’s mind opens or closes or shifts. In archaeology, we have Phase 1 projects (surveys, which might be done with ground penetrating radar or electromagnetometry or by walking the site or by shovel testing), Phase 2 projects (“Hey! We found stuff in Phase 1 and someone is willing to pay for us to find out more!!”) where you dig test units in areas that promise evidence of features or artifacts, and Phase 3 projects (when you excavate a site in detail). Not every site gets to Phase 2, and not all Phase 2 projects go on to a Phase 3. It depends on money, the site’s potential for adding to our knowledge of history/prehistory, and why the site was being excavated to begin with (Who funded it? Did they fund it voluntarily, or for compliance with the law before their development could move forward? How fast do they want the archaeologists out of their hair?) Or you could view the beginning, middle, and end of archaeology this way: Excavation, artifact processing, and report writing. Because those three steps happen on any project, at any level (unless you’re a lousy archaeologist). The epilogue, in that case, could be seen as public presentations, or in some cases the establishment of a historical center or local museum on site. 
  5. Drinking, Swearing, and Nerding Out. All three of these activities are near and dear to both archaeologists and writers. At least, 90% of all the archaeologists and writers I know. Preferably, do all three at the same time while in the company of other writers/archaeologists after a day of slaving away at the computer/with the trowel.
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Guest Post & Review

Head on over to Lisa’s Writopia to read Lisa Binion’s wonderful review of The Life and Death (but mostly the death) of Erica Flynn! The Life and Death (but mostly the death) of Erica Flynn: A Review

And while you’re there, check out my guest post/interview on Lisa’s blog: Mythology and the Character of Erica Flynn – Sara Marian Guest Post /Interview

Writing Process

I’ve been tagged!  Marian Allen posted about her writing process over at her blog, and tagged me to write about mine.  So here goes:

First off, the process is a little different for every project.  Of course, everything starts with an idea, whether it’s for a character, a storyline, a scenario, a pivotal scene, a setting, or a conflict.  Generally, I’ve got a ton of random ideas floating around in my head at any given moment.  While I’m doing other stuff, my brain is constantly fiddling around with these ideas and trying to connect them in interesting ways.  At some point (seems like it’s usually when I’m either in the shower or about to fall asleep), my brain succeeds in coming up with something cool for me, and I know it’s time to start putting stuff on paper.

Generally, I don’t do a whole lot of planning, per se, but I do make notes of the pieces as they come together.  If anything particularly complicated comes up, I’ll outline as much as I need to in order to keep things straight while I’m working on that section of the story.  If nothing complicated comes up, I generally just write in the direction I want things to go, let the characters take the lead, and see how things turn out.  If I get stuck, I might outline, I might cut a scene (I have a “scrap” file for anything I cut, in case I need it later), I might use a subplot point to push things forward, or, if all else fails, I just do something awful to the main character and force them to deal with it.  (That’s partly a good way to move things forward, partly a good way to ramp up the conflict, and partly a sadistic way for me to take out my frustration on my character for not cooperating).

When writing short stories, I usually have a specific concept and/or conflict I want to explore, and the characters come about from thinking through what kinds of people that concept or conflict would involve.  Short stories also involve a lot of staring at the screen and cursing and fighting the urge to bang my head on a desk, because pacing and balancing enough/not too much conflict is brutal for me on a short story scale.  With a novel, I tend to have an easy time weaving plot and character together so that each drives the other forward in a way that’s unique to both those specific characters and that specific storyline.  Most of what makes that possible is establishing strong but flexible characters early on in the process – once I know what my characters’ first instincts would be, but also what they’re capable of doing that isn’t in line with their normal behavior, it’s easy to let them guide the action, but it’s also easy to throw in plot points that are beyond their control and have them respond in ways that are both true to the character and helpful in advancing the story.

How do I create strong characters that feel real enough to work with this way?  That’s a hard question, because the answers are vague and overly simplistic…  I could say, I make them up, and it would be true, but I’d sound like I was being snotty – even though I’m really not!  I could say, I try to look at them as people I’d have to figure out in real life, and that would be true, too, but it isn’t enough…it’s not just my attitude toward characters in general that makes a particular character really pop out in my imagination, or it would always be easy to do (and it isn’t, with 90% of all the characters that occur to me).  I could say, I come up with a character who has the right personality for the kind of story I want, and that’s definitely the case, but also not enough to flesh out a 3-dimensional character that a reader (or I) would be interested in knowing better.  For example, with The Life and Death (but mostly the death) of Erica Flynn, I knew from the beginning that it was going to be a book about someone determined to come back from a really cool afterlife in spite of all obstacles (I did have specific scenes in mind for the Underworld, the mini-climaxes, and the final outcome before I was even sure who the main character would be), and I knew it was a book about someone who needed to get back to their partner.  I thought it would be too cliche to have the husband be in the wrong (let’s face it, ladies, sometimes we’re jerks, too) and have to do all kinds of feats and action-hero stuff to get home to apologize to his wife, so I went with a female narrator.  I knew I wanted someone skeptical and funny to keep the book feeling modern and upbeat in spite of the focus on death.  I wanted to keep myself from exploring a billion possible plot lines in a really cool setting, so in order to stay focused I wanted (a) first person narration and (b) a single-minded narrator. In order for anyone to willingly go through everything Erica would have to go through just to apologize – to leave behind the security of being invulnerable and having all her needs met, and go back to being mortal and vulnerable – and for her to be up to the task, I knew she needed to be (a) tough as nails, (b) fiercely loyal, (c) stubborn, and (d) clever.  Now, this gives you, as a writer, a list of traits: skeptical, funny, single-minded, tough, loyal, stubborn, clever, and (given the need to apologize) probably impulsive.

A list of traits does not a character make. But you think about this character – this person – the way you might wonder about a new acquaintance.  You know this person is tough and stubborn, and you wonder why.  What have they had to deal with, or who did they admire and look up to who was that way?  This person is impulsive, and you know that’s caused them trouble already – how are they going to deal with situations where they have to restrain themselves (or should restrain themselves) and what will happen if they can’t?  She’s single-minded – does she miss things that you’d expect her to notice (given that she’s clever)?  See, questions like this start to fill in the character’s background, family and friend influences, regrets, potential for making things worse on themselves, and how their traits play off of one another or augment each other.  More like a real person, less like a list.  And the process is the same for secondary and cameo characters, although generally not as in-depth or detailed as for the main character(s).

That’s about as organized an explanation of my process as I can come up with!  Oh, and WRITE YOUR ROUGH DRAFT AS A WRITER, NOT AS AN EDITOR!  You can edit once you’ve got the story on paper (or screen)!

Catching Up With Fiction

So I’ve made it through another school year, and have over 250 pages of essays and notes to show for it.  As usual when I don’t have time to write fiction, I’ve been missing the process of putting together stories, settings, and characters – but they say a variety of types of writing is good practice.  I know for a fact that my expository writing has improved this semester, and connecting ideas and maintaining pacing  is important in either style.  Now that it’s summer, I’m so excited about the chance to get back to fiction that I can’t decide which project to work on!

Not that my summer is going to be much less busy than the school year…for the next few weeks, I’m doing book events, hopefully getting some editing work, and preparing for my archaeological field school.  Then I head off to Spain for 3 weeks to help excavate a Celtic Iron Age necropolis (stay tuned for updates on that!)  When I get back, I’ll (*fingers crossed!*) have a job waiting – plus more book events and independent research for my senior honors thesis for next year.  Not that I’m complaining, mind you!

Still, it’s high time to make time to write.  I’ve got a sequel for Erica Flynn to work on, a follow-up story to my steampunk/cyberpunk short story for 3 Fates Press’ anthology (Circuits & Steam) and a series of other interconnected post-apocalyptic short stories to go along with it,  and a prequel story to King Kong.  I feel like a kid in a candy store just thinking about all these projects!

Return from ConGlomeration

I spent the weekend blissfully away from the traffic associated with Thunder Over Louisville, at ConGlomeration Science Fiction & Fantasy Convention.  I’ve been going to conventions and writer’s workshops since I was fairly wee (9 years old on), but this is the first time I’ve attended such an event as a published novelist.  It’s been awesome to get to share my book with other people, but I have to say, there’s something about walking in to the Con scene with a book to show for myself that finally clicked a switch in my head that I’m a really real, for real, actual author, actually.  Maybe because writers at conventions and workshops were, aside from my mom and myself, the first people to take my writing seriously.  And I’ve been on panels before to talk about writing, even been a guest speaker for creative writing classes now and then, but having a stack of print books in front of me with my name on them  – that’s different.  And it feels great!

I was one speaker on a panel about Mythology & Folklore, which is a natural fit for The Life and Death (but mostly the death) of Erica Flynn, since (twisted, quantum-physics style) Greek Underworld mythology is a huge component of the book.  Since my follow-up Underworld novel will explore some Eastern mythology and folklore, it was fun to get to talk about some of that, too.  I also did a reading from Erica Flynn (Chapter 17: Bad God! No Biscuit! and Chapter 18: The Deadest Little Town This Side of the Styx).

Even with low attendance due to sharing the weekend and the city of Louisville with the largest fireworks show in the nation, I feel pretty good about this weekend’s book sales, the folks I met and talked to, and the shop talk with other authors, artists, and readers.  As always after these kinds of events, my brain feels chock-full of fresh ideas, excitement about my projects, and inspiration to take  on new projects and ideas.  Having brand-new books to read and love doesn’t hurt, either, and getting to spend time catching up with fellow 3 Fates Press authors T Lee Harris and Marian Allen (aka Mom) is always a blast

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This lady’s costume was awesome – but she was flamenco dancing so fast for her performance that every photo I took was blurred!

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http://www.thealleytheater.org/ – The Alley Theater crew performing “The Cliffnotes of Insanity” – The Princess Bride in 30 Minutes or Less! Hi-freaking-larious, the highlight of the convention!

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Steampunked Smartcar! ❤

Confessions of a Busy Writer

There is a sneaking worry that every writer who can’t afford to be a full-time Writer gets when other life pursuits take the front seat for an extended period of time….  Am I still a writer if I’m not writing?  Every once in a while, since I started back to school, this thought creeps into my head – even now that I have a publishing contract – and not updating my blog for months at a time is one result of that.

But my answer to this doubt is, Yes, I am still a writer, because I am still building up ideas and plots, and I will still put them together and down on paper.  Also, there is a part of my brain that is now hard-wired to store away odd bits of information from every source (classes included) for the construction of storylines and weird characters.  I’ve mentioned here before that I have plans for a follow-up to The Life and Death (But Mostly the Death) of Erica Flynn.  The ideas all clicked into place for the new novel while I was in my Introduction to Eastern Religions class.  Since, like Erica Flynn, my new main character will also experience death as a major turning point rather than an end, I’m sure the realities of death that I’ve learned about in my two courses on Skeletal Forensics (and at the lab looking over actual skeletons and burial records) are going to affect the way I portray death in the new novel.

The thing is, I think it’s expected of writers (and we writers do it to ourselves) to define themselves not only primarily, but almost exclusively as Writers (or authors, if we’re lucky!)  Or maybe it’s just me – because I know that my own satisfaction with myself as a person has consistently hinged on whether or not I was working on a book.  When I wasn’t writing, I felt bad about my life and myself, and when I was writing, I felt pretty positive and self-assured.  Writing is what I enjoy most and what I feel I’m best at, where I’m most in my element (possible exception:  tromping around the woods).  But in branching out and putting my life focus on other things (study, a career, opportunities related to study and career) I’m tremendously excited about the possibilities not only for my other pursuits, but also for the possibilities this opens up for my writing!  It has to be on the back burner for the moment, coming in third on my priorities after school and survival (yes, school comes before survival on my list,) but it’s going to be so much the better for all the new experiences I’ll have to draw from.

Enough spilling my guts.  Next blog:  Weird Stuff I’ve Learned at School.  Stay tuned!

A Story in Emoticons

What happens after you finish writing a book (at least, if you’re me):

I DID IT!  =D

Um.  But now it’s OVER.  :  (  And I miss my characters.  :~*(  And I don’t know what to work on now.  {:/  Oh NO!  Am I going to be one of those writers that only writes one novel they’re happy with and then can’t follow up with anything good ever again???  {:E

No.  That’s not me.  I won’t let it be.  I’m going to sit down and write something else RIGHT NOW to prove that I’m not one of those writers.  :/  Um.  I don’t know what to write about, though.  I don’t like any of my other ideas because they’re not as polished as the ones I just wrote about.  {:/  But those ideas weren’t polished, either, until I finished writing and refining and editing the book!  I can do that again.  : )

…I don’t like these characters as much as my characters from my last book.  They aren’t cooperating with me like the old ones did.  }:(  $#&@ you, new characters!  $#%& you for not being the characters from my last novel!!  You aren’t as good!  >:#  *throw notebooks in the corner*  *ignore writing for a month or two*  *do other stuff until your writing gets jealous because you’re not paying it enough attention*

Oh!  I have an idea!  And I really like it!!  {=D  Shhh!  Don’t spook it!  Sneak up on it quietly.  ; )  *sneak, sneak, sneak*  …aaaand POUNCE!  Gotcha!  =D

A Brief Observation…

If you’re not inspired to write, there is nothing more likely to make you start living in a story world than spending a few months in a class where the teacher never stays on topic, especially if the tangents are wholly uninteresting and usually repetitions of previous tangents, and after the first month you still only have half a page of useful notes taken from the lectures.  So in spite of the fact that I’ve learned nothing in one of my classes (yet am paying to attend it), I’m grateful it has bored me into escapism, and therefore inspiration, and possibly a new novel.  I recommend, if you aren’t sufficiently into a project, that if you can’t take an absolutely terrible college course that you have to pass to graduate, you should find some other way to make yourself a captive audience long enough to space out and start really loving that story world.

Obviously, I’m not going to tell you which of my classes I’m talking about….I still have to pass the damn thing.

Writing Snippets

The shift in my schedule in the past two months has definitely shaken things up in my writing life.  Since I’d been in a rut for a month or two before I went back to school, I don’t actually mind that.  The down side to not having time every day to write is, I can’t do a daily word quota like I did with NaNoWriMo last November or, on a more reasonable schedule, like I did when I wrote Erica Flynn.  If I was already going on a long-term project, I honestly might be able to do my Erica Flynn quota of 250 words a day – I’d miss some days, but I know from that project that I tend to catch up and/or surpass my quota when it’s that low anyway.

But enough about the down side.  Only having time to write in snippets means that, when I do have a minute or when something occurs to me, I don’t question it.  I just write.  If I have sentences rattling around in my head that intrigue me, I don’t bother to wonder if they’re going to lead to anything or not, if they’ll be the best sentences to get across what I’m saying, if I’m aiming for a short story or a novel, if I should choose first or third person or male or female or whether I can figure out what this character does for a living (my least favorite decision about characters, by the way).  All that crap I piddle over when I have the leisure to do so goes out the window when I’m in the middle of a 14-hour stretch of school and work, and ten minutes between my jr. bacon cheeseburger and my next class is the only time I have to jot down my ideas.  Instead, I actually write, which means I’m actually exploring more ideas than I do when I have more time.  When I can sit down and think about what I want to write, I kill around 75% of what occurs to me before I’ve even explored its potential.  Now that I don’t have time to fully explore any ideas, I’m scribbling down about 50% of what pops into my head at random, and since I don’t have time to shut down what I don’t have time to write, the other 50% is still being processed while I go about my business.

Lesson one here is, self-censorship is an inspiration killer – give your ideas a chance!  Unless you’re in the middle of actively writing a novel, you should at least let your random ideas run around a little bit in the open air before you decide anything about them.  Lesson two is, you’re never too busy to be a writer.  You might be too busy to produce a polished, finished product at a given time in your life, but you’re never too busy to think like a writer, to watch and listen and pay attention to details and new information, to have ideas and to express those ideas as eloquently as time will allow.  Lesson three:  You can polish later.  You can put the pieces together later.  You can make it coherent later.  My hope is that by this summer, when leisure time goes up again, I’ll have let enough of my ideas run around in the sunshine that I’ll be itching to draft a novel out of some set of them, and I’ll have all summer to write the rough.  I’ll let you know how that works out.

Friday Exercise – WHAT Did You Just Say To Me?

Oh, misunderstandings!  You are the curse of the social animal.  Sometimes funny, sometimes tragic, from minor to life-changing, miscommunications happen all the time.  Write an exchange of dialogue in which 2 characters are completely missing what the other person is saying.

Maybe one is being completely straightforward and clear, and the other is assuming subliminal meanings or ulterior motives that aren’t there.  Maybe they’re both playing coy, but misunderstanding one another’s meaning because neither one is being clear.  Maybe one is taking what the other is saying the wrong way, or seeing a threat where none is intended.  Maybe one of them is flat hard of hearing, and literally can’t tell what in the world the other person is saying.  Maybe connotation is in the way – what’s offensive or insulting to one person isn’t always a bad thing at all to someone else.

There’s the prompt.  Now see where it takes you!